Last week I had the opportunity to interview three-time US presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Our conversation, which ranged from topics of consumer advocacy, collective bargaining, the media, and the election process, begins at the fourth paragraph below.
Beyond his political ambitions, Mr. Nader is a renowned consumer advocate whose 1965 report on car safety is largely credited with inspiring Congress to pass federal seat belt laws. Additionally, he founded Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) and the Center for Study of Responsive Law, where he now works alongside his “Nader’s Raiders”—a team of expert investigators, attorneys, and consumer advocates.
Since his last election, Nader has received scant media attention. To my surprise, though, he has been far from quiet in Washington, advocating for more legislation and creating more non-profit organizations than ever.
When I asked him what new initiatives he’s involved with, he replied, “Well we’re always busy. We were recently trying to pass a bill in response to the recent recalls with Toyota, but it got vetoed by the Republicans in Congress. We have also been working on financial regulation reform. So to answer your question, we at CSRL believe people need more choices and more voices. And in this era of corporate globalization, we need to remind people that some things are not for sale. Government should not be for sale. Basic education should not be for sale. Democracy around the world is on the verge of a huge breakthrough, and now its time to subordinate corporatism to the sovereignty of the people here in the United States. Look how little energy it took to sound the national alarm in Wisconsin!”
Knowing that Nader is not known for optimism, I pointed out that “the overall political climate of the US right now, at least in the media, is a tendency for liberals to compromise both in Town Halls and in the White House. What about the watered-down Obama budget, or the growing resistance to liberal institutions in the Midwest?”
“The Republicans are just better fighters than the Democrats,” Nader, the Independent, responded. “Unlike Republicans, Democrats often flounder in their victories and lose lasting impact. Governor Scott Walker won his election on a tea-party platform sponsored by the Koch Brothers and driven by mass media, and now that he is there he plans to exercise his power.” (This statement that Walker ran on a tea-party platform is actually inaccurate. In reality, Walker ran on a moderate platform and beat out a self-described tea-party candidate in the Republican Primary). Nader continued, “You’ll notice that when you hear conservatives talking about the hot issues, their arguments are generally either factually inaccurate or extremely vague moral or ethical stances.”
“Scott Walker has been defending the ban on collective bargaining on the grounds that collective bargaining punishes the most efficient workers,” I added. “He also says that it is necessary to reduce the deficit in a struggling economy. How would you respond to that?”
“Collective bargaining exists,” said Nader, “so that if somebody messes up they go to their union and file a complaint, and based on their argument they evaluate the complaint to raise standards or wages. Nothing about that punishes an efficient worker. On the contrary, the most productive workforce in American history were the car manufacturers in the 50’s who were supported by the largest unions in the country. Walker is just using the deficit as a so-called ‘useful’ crisis which he hopes will gain momentum in order to fight other democratic institutions associated with unions, such as health care reform. The truth is that Wisconsin’s total deficit isn’t actually that bad. Even if the crisis were real, we should not be taking money away from unions first. What about the corporations and special interests to whom the Wisconsin taxpayers gave over $140 million last year? Which one should go first?”
The actual budget deficit in Wisconsin is $137 million, and is by no means an outlier when compared to other states. Contrary to popular belief, Wisconsin’s public sector is among the 10 leanest in the country. The idea that the Wisconsin deficit is due to a ballooning public sector with a byzantine bureaucracy is a myth.
“The decision of the Democrats to flee the state,” I suggested, “while passionate and successful in the short term, is not a long term solution. As a specialist in legal matters, what do you think is the best way to win back collective bargaining in the long run? Is anything Scott Walker doing illegal? What about threatening to cut 12,000 jobs if the protesters don’t stand down, isn’t that essentially blackmail?”
“Governor Walker isn’t doing anything illegal,” Nader said with cold confidence. “The best thing we can do is elect him out of office in two years. In the long run, what we can focus on is teaching students and advocates better civic skills. Even up there at Dartmouth, they teach you how to maximize efficiency and profits, and to do many other wonderful arts and sciences, but they don’t teach you how to defend your rights, organize a protest, and subordinate the corporations to the sovereignty of the people.”
Though I had told myself to refrain from questioning him about his presidential campaign, I couldn’t help but ask, “Many people, both Democrats and Republicans, claim that you were the reason why Bush was elected to 8 years in office. How do you justify your presidential campaign in 2000?”
“This is an absurd idea. The American people have the freedom to vote for whomever they want, and the suggestion that I should not run for president goes directly against the constitutional right for my supporters to vote for whoever you want.”
Finally, as I had the impression that Mr. Nader was extraordinarily well informed, I asked him where he reads his news.
“You know, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian. They tend to cover everything, and after a while you get used to cutting through all the fat. One publication that I recommend especially for the liberal-minded is an online publication called ‘Progressive Populist.’ It really has a lot of great ammunition for people like you, with columns by really eloquent people like Amy Goodman from Democracy Now.”
I thanked Mr. Nader for his time and he immediately asked me for my address so that he could send me a box full of books, magazines, and other resources. If there is one thing If there is one thing I learned about Ralph Nader from this interview, beyond that he has an unapologetic yet benevolent attitude towards politics, it is that the man certainly does his homework.