An interview with Ralph NaderMy friend Matt Funiciello recently conducted an interview with longtime activist and public citizen Ralph Nader, along with the journal Green Pages. Below is the interview published (with permission) in its entireity.
Matt Funiciello: Given your long history of extensive consumer research and analysis, you would probably be ill at ease giving any film a simple thumbs up or down but could I ask you to tell us what you thought about “An Unreasonable Man” (the new Nader documentary)?
Ralph Nader: I think its a very motivating film for people around the country of various ages who sometimes get discouraged about about not being able to make a difference and also those who have never heard of their ability to make a difference. So for both the semi-active occasional citizen, as well as the person who really doesn't view himself or herself as a citizen activist it should have some impact. I hope that a lot of kids and school children see it. Its not an advertisement. It has critical voices against what I and my associates have done so it keeps your interest.
MF: Steve Skrovan told me you've seen the film twice. Was it different the second time?
RN: I thought it was even better the second time.
MF: Some of the attacks on you in the film were simply scathing (Eric Alterman's and Todd Gitlin's come to mind). I suppose we could just write those guys off as professional Democrats, but how do you answer the attacks from ex-Raiders like Gene Karpinski? He is so obviously conflicted about your role as a spoiler and as a mentor to him. Are these attacks more uncomfortable to sit through when the person making them is, or was, a friend?
RN: Well, Gene Karpinski worked with us and then he went on to head the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups which are a coalition of state and student funded (and run) public interest groups. And he lobbies a great deal in congress for control of air pollution, water pollution, heavy environmental emphasis. So, his framework is, “How do I get something done in Congress?” His answer is, “Keep supporting the Democrats who are more enlightened on these issues than Republicans.” His framework is not thirty major subject areas from the Department of Defense to the federal reserve to the FDA where again and again both parties have gotten worse and the Democrats have slid along with the Republicans on a sea of corporate cash into their campaigns. So, to watch Gene in the film is very touching, obviously. He was torn. It was great cinema, but I only knew him during the campaign as an all out opponent. I never saw that he was at all perplexed or conflicted, so that was news to me.
MF: Sadly, Michael Moore wouldn't agree to be interviewed for the film. Do you have any idea why? I mean, I'm sure its really embarrassing for him to have to explain his amazing change of conscience between supporting you and the Greens in 2000 and turning tail on all of us in 2004. I really don't think that he's ever adequately explained his abandonment of the third party tent. Has he ever said to you, “Ralph, here's why I did it?”
RN: No. He's basically cut off all communications not just with me but with all his friends who he attributed tremendous support to at low periods in his life after he was relieved of his editorship of Mother Jones and came to Washington to work. So he hasn't called back his friends and he hasn't called me back and he won't respond at all. I think he's just decided that he's going to go all out for Hillary. He said to me once, “I have a thing for Hillary”. Those were his exact words. He's into Hollywood. He's into his movies. He's into promotion, putting out books and ... its as if he's written off that chapter of his life entirely and ... he's done that before, himself. He does write off chapters in his life that he finds are unpleasant or able of pointing out his self-contradiction.
MF: The new film deals to some degree with the belief amongst mainstream Democrats that you and third parties like ours are stealing voters from them. Your embrace and adoption of that “Spoiler” mantle has enraged many Democrats, as we see in the film, but I believe that the phenomenon has also had some success turning Greens against you as in the 2004 elections. What would you say to Greens conflicted over their own perceived role as “Spoilers”?
RN: Well, anyone who adheres to the “Spoiler” philosophy should not support a third party or lead a third party. The point of a third party is to start a “new politics”. We're going to move the agenda in the direction of the best interests of the people and their progeny and the environment and the world. If we start small ... thats the way great movements have always started. Very few movements suddenly, spontaneously, immediately come into fruition. Just look at our history. The women's right to vote movement, the anti-slavery movement, the worker decency movement, the farmer populist progressive movement, those took years and years to develop and if the people who decided to vote for those small parties in the 19th century instead had the same attitude that some liberals have today (of “spoilers”) they wouldn't have voted for the anti-slavery, or the woman's suffrage party or the labor party or the people's party. If we look back now ... aren't we glad that they did? Aren't we glad that they spurred on the two major parties and one or both of them came on board with some of these major issues and eventually ... its part of American life – a women's right to vote, the end of slavery. There's no politician in the two parties who would doubt those changes and oppose them now.
They have to develop a public philosophy. Either they go through life voting and supporting the “least worst” which has a corollary. Once you support the “least worst”, lets say John Kerry in 2004, you don't make any demands on John Kerry because you're so fretted about “the worst” winning that you don't want to upset John Kerry or expose him to any criticism from the progressive side. So, you lock yourself into a position where you're not only supporting the “least worst”, you're also signaling to John Kerry that he has your vote for nothing in return. For not any stronger stance on a wasteful military budget or Iraq or corporate tax reform or campaign finance reform etcetera. Its a very indentured status. Its important for the “least worsters” in our country to think about what attaches to a “least worst” position. The more “least worsters” there are, the more likely it is that both parties will get worse because there's one force that doesn't deal with that “least worst”, they pull on both parties, and thats the corporate interests. The corporate interests, twenty four seven, are pulling on both parties and millions of “least worsters” are giving (the Democrats, in this case) a free ride. Now, which way are the Democrats going to go? They're going to go with that which is pulling on them in one direction because no one is pulling them in the other direction.
MF: The “pie in the face” incident was very disturbing to watch for many Greens and it was included in this movie. How do you not become demoralized by such an incident?
RN: Two points on that part of the movie. Number one is that the guy who threw the pie later told people that he was a Green. Whether it was true or not, thats what he said. And the second is that the picture was unfairly slanted against me because what they didn't show is that right after the pie hit, I scraped off a huge amount and as he turned heel and headed for the exit, going past all kinds of people who could have tripped him, I threw probably a fourth of this mushy pie right back at him. Now you would think that they would have shown that, but they didn't. You can't edit a film that you have nothing to do with. Its really too bad they didn't show that.
MF: One of the really impressive features in the film was the footage of the Super Rally at Madison Square Garden. The media almost totally ignored these huge Green-Nader rallies all across the country. This is easily one of the most demonstrative representations of the press' absolute corporate allegiance. Sixteen thousand people paying twenty dollars apiece just to see you speak and the NY Times couldn't even be bothered to send a reporter! Obviously, the press is no longer free! What do we do?
RN: They (the press) look at the polls and they say that, “This is a two-party country, therefore, it is not important to cover these large rallies.” Thats what they look at. Actually, the Times did have a 700 word article but they buried it. What the Times ignored was a huge rally on Wall Street ... one of the biggest rallies ever. They didn't have a word on that. Thats right in their hometown, right in their backyard. It was a rather dramatic rally, very very substantive.
Green Pages: Many Greens will be celebrating Martin Luther King's 78th birthday, just a few days away. Many Americans are aware that much of HIS legacy has been abbreviated by the mainstream media, especially his opposition to the Vietnam War and his call for Democratic Socialism. This new film deals with YOUR legacy. How do you think you will be judged 50 years down the road? Does it matter to you?
RN: I just look to the future. You can't do things about the past. If you just wallow in your laurels from past years, you lose that laser beam focus on expanding the strength and depth of a just democracy and effecting the world with the same spirit in practice. Its amazing how uninterested I am in so-called wins and victories other than just to give people motivation.
GP: Speaking of the 2004 election, Alexander Cockburn wrote, “The Democrats spent the year wasting money and passion attacking Ralph Nader whose early predictions of his ultimate drawing power at the polls turned out to be on the money.” If you decide to run again in 2008, is there any reason to believe that the Democrats may stop making you, or the Greens, their enemy and embrace a different, perhaps more fruitful strategy?
RN: Um, No. Its amazing how little they learn from history! They didn't pick up the issues we were spreading all over the country in 2000 which would have easily won for Gore, by a bigger margin than he actually did win the election (which, I believe, he did). In 2004, Kerry started out right. He basically said, “I'm going to take away Nader's votes by taking away his issues,” which is exactly what I wanted him to do. Unfortunately, he then fell into the hands of his political consultants and a number of people who thought they could make a short term profit by starting 527's and offering their services by going after our ballot access and our petitioners. So, I think that its just part of this two-party “elected dictatorship” virus. They just cannot stand to have competition to a level where they don't want to respond to the competition, they want to remove it from the arena by removing us from one state ballot after another; Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and many other states.
MF: It seems obvious that it will be McCain versus Hillary in 2008. I won't come right out and ask if you're running again or seeking the Green Party's endorsement in 2008, but you have often said that you will run as long as no one else is making the need to do so irrelevant. Many Democrats say that they have Barack Obama or Denis Kucinich. Do you see anybody that is a legitimate, progressive, candidate? Is there somebody “out there” this time?
RN: Well, I don't see anybody in the Democratic party. Not because they're all the same in terms of candidates, but the party comes down hard on candidates like Kucinich and closes them out in March or April when the primaries have been decided and the press has declared which nominee is going to win. So, they don't go 'til November, number one. They lose the most intense time period of interest for the American people which is after Labor Day. Secondly, and most importantly, is that outside the two parties I don't see anybody coming to the forefront. They're all very comfortable in their lives, you know? Jim Hightower has a nice media empire, all power to him. Bill Moyers, who could raise, by my guess, at least 50 million, has huge support and name recognition and was the subject of a draft website a few months ago and he hasn't shown any interest in running. There's nobody. Just name the people you would call progressives in the country that are reasonably well known and ... they're not interested. Its a very arduous process to run. Huge. Not only during the campaign, not only at the election but it also takes a long time just to close down, with all the federal election commission regulations and rules and compliance reporting ... So, people just don't want to go through it. They don't want to go from Holiday Inn to some hostel, campgrounds, wherever. They don't want to go through the groveling process of trying to raise money.
MF: Well, they've watched you do it. It doesn't look like a whole lot of fun.
RN: Yeah, thats right. Nobody's coming. Now, I think that the people we're going to see in the future, maybe not in '08, are going to be billionaires who run as independent candidates. I mean, Bloomberg, if he runs in '08, is going to run as an independent, probably, and he can spend 300 million dollars and hardly feel it. He's got a wealth of 5 billion. You can see that's a little bit more than annual interest, but not all that much more. There are a huge number of billionaires being created every year now and some of them are fairly young and a very small number can be considered progressive. Like I say, why not? Perot did it. It was a stop/go campaign of rather bizarre dimensions and he got 19 million votes! Thats enough to get a billionaire to run just for that mark in history he or she would make. So, unfortunately, I think that the main threat to the two parties' dominance are going to be billionaires ... not anyone else. I mean, thats they way I see it, because I don't see millions of people taking a few hours of their week and locking arms with one another coast to coast to really build a new political movement. That doesn't mean you don't keep the flame alive, that doesn't mean that you don't organize or mobilize the hard core because thats the essence of any future growth but the fact is that the only time the press will take you seriously is when you show up in the polls and when you have a lot of money. If you have a lot of money, they'll immediately poll you. There are enough disaffected, alienated, people that they'll just say, “We want anybody but the two parties. We're going for this new candidate because he's got the (or she's got the) money.”
MF: Many Democrats seem to feel that Howard Dean having the DNC's chairmanship is going to make a difference this next election. Do you think that will have any effect at all on how the Democrats behave towards Greens and other real progressives this time around?
RN: No, I think he'll only make a difference in terms of the Democrats mobilizing in states which they have abandoned. He may make a difference in getting the vote out but on a policy basis, they've got him pretty much in chains. “They” meaning Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emmanuel, Harry Reid. I mean, they basically said to him, “Look, you're our representative. You're our agent. We're the principals. You work for us and we'll make the agenda.”
MF: I know many Greens who simply canceled their subscriptions to the Nation in 2004 when they demanded “Don't Run Ralph”. I think that most readers could have stomached an op-ed saying this but for the entire editorial staff to kowtow to the Democrats like that was truly frightening to behold. Are there any real progressive periodicals left or have they all sold out to the mainstream? Which ones might you currently recommend?
RN: What's interesting about the Nation, they really, in '04, they represented the politics of fear and ... they just freaked out. They had a full page editorial, “Ralph, Don't Run” they allowed me the same space responding to them. I did, in terms of their own history of 140 years or so of dissent and I recommend that people read that. I mean, “In These Times”, “Progressive”, they're all “least worsters”. They're all politics of fear - “Be practical. Don't make any demands, Don't condition your vote,” they counsel. There was a great progressive publication called the Oklahoma Observer and (their editor) was probably one of the most progressive journalists in America, and still is. He cut me out of his newspaper. He used to print my column. He never responded. He would never respond to my calls and letters. He printed a letter saying to the readers, “Why is the Oklahoma Observer printing my (Ralph Nader's) column?” So, HE was totally freaked out. His name's Frosty Troy. There's really only one publication left that I could really call progressive and thats the “Progressive Populist”. They have all kinds of articles and reprints of articles and they don't display the politics of fear.
GP: Greens already know that the so-called “new congress” is not going to be substantially different than the “old congress”. With Nancy Pelosi taking impeachment off the table on day one, what are your thoughts about this?
RN: Well, the only argument on her behalf is that if Bush and Cheney were impeached (and it would be a twofer if it ever happened), she would become the president, so she's in an awkward situation. But what she did was she put the kibosh on her chairmen, like Chairman John Conyers of the Judiciary Committee. She literally demanded that he write an op-ed, which he did last year in the Washington Post, saying “impeachment is off the table but I'd like to have a bi-partisan committee of inquiry.” Yeah, I'm sure the Republicans are lining up in front of his door trying to sign up for that preliminary tiptoe forward. She didn't HAVE to do that. Its interesting how a constitutional system decays. It was alive to impeach Nixon if he hadn't resigned just in time and it was invoked to impeach Clinton who was accused about lying under oath about sex but with the largest high crimes and misdemeanors in modern American history, if not all American history, by George Bush; everything from a criminally-initiated outlaw war based on lies and deception and wire-tapping without court approval and torture as a system of interrogation and deprivation of civil liberties and locking people up without charges and without lawyers indefinitely ... I mean you can just go on and on about impeachable offenses. The Democrats, who, with various degrees of intensity before '06, criticized Bush for all this ... then, they become in control of Congress and they take it off the table which means they also take off any kind of likely censure movement. What does that do? It basically institutionalizes a lower and lower bar for presidents to engage in outrageous behavior with impunity. I mean, they don't look at how these “passes” they give Bush are going to effect the future of politics in America. In that sense, the Democrats showed their true hand, didn't they?
MF: Seemingly, many in the Peace movement abandoned their goals and voted Democrat this election. Aside from their immediate betrayal (removing impeachment from the agenda), the Democrats almost seem to be helping the Republicans escalate their war by using the report of the Iraq Study Group. Was that report just another empty shell created to justify escalation or is there a case to be made that there's “meat on them bones” and its just being ignored?
RN: I think it was mixed. I mean, one, it had very good factual summaries of whats going on over there and that was not reported because they focused on the recommendations. The second is the process of some sort of structured withdrawal was recommended and thats good, although I would have a different approach as to the withdrawal. The third is they emphasize the need to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and thats a bold move in Washington these days. Baker's always been good on that which is why the pro-Israeli APAC so despise him. The fourth, where they really stubbed their toe, so to speak, not unexpectedly, is they argued for the privatization of the Iraq Oil Industry, which is a no-no in Iraq, completely. And they may have a different version of privatization than the corporate oil companies in this country, but they'd have a hard time convincing Iraqis that there's any difference. The indication was, it would be heavily under the influence of the U.S. Oil companies. So, in that sense, they didn't want to go after Bush too much because the report was intended to persuade Bush. You don't look to that report for any cogent, systemic criticism of George W Bush. They were not into the accountability frame of mind. That isn't what they saw they were asked to do. In a way, its almost a skeletal report with a few rips here and there because if you don't focus on the main culprits and the accountability, you're not going to draw the conclusions on domestic and constitutional policy and foreign policy and military policy that would come from that chapter on accountability.
MF: What would be your last words to Greens reading this all across the country?
RN: If you're a “least worster”, don't participate in a third party because then you're just a Trojan Horse.
MF: Thank you very much for your time, Ralph. You've been very generous.
RN: Thank you.