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The Prescient Candidate Reflects An Interview with Ralph Nader
An Interview with Ralph Nader
by MERLIN CHOWKWANYUN

Ralph Nader ran as an independent candidate in 2004 for US President. Unlike both John Kerry and George W. Bush, Nader unequivocally opposed the US invasion of Iraq. During his candidacy, Nader embraced single-payer health care and tackled numerous issues ignored by the two major parties’ candidates, including the proliferation of the racist prison-industrial complex, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and increasing concentration of corporate power. If the Democrats continued to adopt "Bush-lite" policies, argued Nader, they might well lose the election by alienating their traditional base.

Nader’s run earned harsh scorn from Democrats and many of his former supporters in 2000, such as Medea Benjamin, Norman Solomon, and Jeff Cohen. Yet in light of emerging post-election commentary partially attributing the Democrats’ loss to the party’s tepid economic policies, many of Nader’s campaign arguments now seem utterly prophetic in hindsight. In a recent article blasting John Kerry’s hasty election concession, Harper’s Magazine publisher Rick MacArthur expressed regret over not voting for Nader.

This is one of Nader’s first in-depth interviews since the election. In it, he offers his insights on the election outcome and the future of American politics.

MERLIN CHOWKWANYUN: Ralph, let’s do a little dissection of the pundit analysis of the election. One overriding narrative that has developed is this idea that "moral values" — it’s not really clear what exactly that encompasses — were so important to so many voters that no matter what Kerry could have done, might have done, it wouldn’t have mattered, so strong was the mobilization that Karl Rove engineered for these so-called "red-state voters." Do you buy this media narrative?

Ralph Nader: No, not at all. You know, if 75,000 votes switched in Ohio, people would be asking how Karl Rove messed up the election. It wasn’t that Kerry should have won against Bush, it’s that he should have landslided Bush. This is a President with a terrible record, complete indifference, lack of care for American workers, patients, consumers, environment, a tax system that the biggest oligarch couldn’t have dreamed up better, the illegal war and quagmire in Iraq, and just on and on. And Kerry never took advantage of it. In fact, it’s hard to remember in the last year whether Kerry laid a glove on Bush.

Bush’s trips were his own. His falls were his own. His exposures adverse to him were his own — Richard Clarke leaving the White House and criticizing him in a book, and Bob Woodward getting some damaging quotes and other things, but it wasn’t Kerry. Kerry did not put him on the defensive. Instead, Bush taunted Kerry during the debates, during the campaign. The Vietnam Swift Boat [Veterans for Truth] knocked out a month of Kerry’s campaign in August, put him on the defense, so that he really blew the election.

MC: There are many critics who feel that had Kerry embraced more Nader-type positions, he might have actually alienated more voters. They claim that the country has gone more conservative. Do you reject that?

RN: Yes, of course. This all comes from the vacuum that the Democrats have created by taking key corporate-worker-economic issues off the table like living wage, or universal health care, or crackdown on corporate crime, fraud, and abuse, or the use of middle-class tax dollars for corporate subsidies, handouts, giveaways. Once you create that vacuum, then the so-called "social issues," the issues that deal with religion, affirmative action, abortion, and immigration — all the hot-button issues take central positions. And of course, the Republicans know how to manipulate that, and cater to people’s prejudices.

But you had 47 million workers in this country who make between $5.15 minimum wage up to $10. If they knew that the Democrats and John Kerry were really serious about a living wage, I don’t think they’d worry too much about some of these other issues by comparison. But that has been the historic failure of the Democrats for at least 25 years. They’ve taken these issues that used to win elections for them — standing up for workers, standing up for Social Security in an unequivocal manner, standing up for middle-class progressive tax system, and so forth — and they blew it. They’ve been losing and losing, increasingly at the local, state, and national level, to the worst Republicans in the last 100 years, and they still do not analyze their failures. They do not look in the mirror. They don’t say that the central issue in politics is the contrast between corporate power and the power of ordinary people and who’s going to prevail.

MC: I want to turn the discussion right now to a very in-depth dissection of the Democratic Party, but first I want to ask you, as someone who, since the 1960s, has interacted with many congresspeople, legislators, Presidential administrations, what do you think accounts for that turn you described within the Democratic Party, that betrayal of many Great Society and New Deal-type programs?

RN: Corporate money in campaigns. In 1979-80, Congressman Tony Coelho, who headed the House of Representatives’ Campaign Finance Committee for the Democrats, said that they could raise as much money as the Republicans in the business community. It was all downhill after that. They did raise a lot of money, and they sold their conscience. They sold their agenda, and they basically destroyed their predominance in Congress and in many state legislatures as a result. It’s an amazing case study of 25 years of how money can corrupt a political party and lead to its losses — and still the party will not do anything different year after year.

One of the reasons I ran is because I didn’t trust the Democrats to even know how to get the Bush people out of the White House. They’ve been losing and losing. They lost to Gingrich in the Congress. They lost major governorships and state legislatures. And then they turn around and say to the liberals, the Democratic apparatchiks say: "Just trust us. We’re going to beat Bush this time, even though we’re not going to do anything different. We’re not going to have a different agenda. We’re not going to make a deliberate effort to register 9 million African-American voters, 90% of whom would vote for the Democrats, especially in the swing states, who would be decisive." It was a disaster for the Democrats.

MC: I want to ask you about the internal mechanics of the Democratic Party. There seems to be a real divide between the rank-and-file and Party leaders. Many news commentators noted that at the Democratic National Convention, 80-90% of the delegates were anti-war, yet there was a decidedly pro-war candidate up on stage giving the nomination acceptance speech. As a lot of people may not be familiar with them, can you talk about the Democratic Leadership Council and what kind of power they wield?

RN: The Democratic Party at the national level is very centrally controlled. Central to that core domination is the Democratic Leadership Council, which has as many of its founding figures people like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Breaux, Joe Lieberman. They have been very corporate-oriented. When we talk about the corporate Democrats, we’re talking about the Democratic Leadership Council, which is basically saying, "Don’t upset business at all. Be very friendly to business. Turn your back on the corporate crime wave that’s looted tens of trillions of dollars from pension holders, small investors, and workers Enron-style. Keep raising money from them, and keep talking about education, and generalities."

Well, one of the things it led to, of course, was the marginalization of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which got progressively weaker because status inside the party was how much money you could raise, and the corporate Democrats could always raise much more money than the progressive Democrats. It was the rotting of a political party, and someday, some scholar is going to chronicle it in great detail. But it’s a perfect case study of the need for public funding of public campaigns.

MC: I wanted to talk also about the Democratic Party’s intimidation of yours and Peter Camejo’s campaign. Can you briefly recap that?

RN: Well, first of all they spent millions of dollars and hired Republican, corporate law firms, including Ken Starr’s old law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, to unleash a huge assault on our ballot access rights. And they filed 21 phony lawsuits, and we had to defend them, and we won most of the state Supreme Court decisions, but they harassed and intimidated our signature gatherers. They did all the things that are described by the phrase "dirty tricks," and succeeded in getting us off some very important ballots. They even tried to get us off Texas, of all states, Bush country. They didn’t want us bogged down in Texas going after Bush, I guess. They got us off Illinois and Pennsylvania. They got us off Massachusetts, and Ohio, and Oregon, and Arizona, and in other ways less visible, they sabotaged our ballot access signature gathering in other states, so half of the country could not vote for us. In other words, what the Democrats were saying was: "We don’t want to debate with Nader-Camejo. We don’t want to argue, debate, challenge in the old traditional way. No, no. We want to make sure they’re not on the ballot so that millions of voters don’t have a chance to vote for them."

That’s what we call political bigotry, constitutional crimes, violation of our civil liberties. We have it all documented. Congressman John Conyers has just had an unofficial hearing in the House of Representatives with a packed hearing room on the shenanigans that occurred in Ohio. There were some expressions by members of the House, such as Jerry Nadler from New York, that there needs to be a national law for national elections. This idea of having 50 different state laws widely varying with one another — like 300 signatures to get on the Presidential line in Tennessee, but 100,000 for an independent Presidential candidate in nearby North Carolina — is crazy. In its totality, it amounts to a massive exclusionary structure against third parties and independent candidates who historically have been the source of regenerating American politics, and who would give more voices and choices to the American people, who in poll after poll, say they want more voices and choices, even if they may vote Democrat or Republican. They want more voices and choices on the ballot, and more voices and choices on the Presidential debates, but the two parties have it locked up. It’s like a two-party electoral dictatorship.

MC: What happened to Dennis Kucinich during his campaign, I think, is very illustrative of what happens to people within the Democratic Party who choose to challenge that centralized apparatus you discussed. Can you talk about intimidation of people within the Democratic Party who attempt to reform it, and the broader question of whether reform within the Democratic Party is possible or desirable now?

RN: Well, it’s desirable, but I don’t think it’s very possible. There are no signs of any real insurgency here. A very modest one in the form of Howard Dean was squelched when the Washington Democrats pounced on him, and Dennis, of course, didn’t even get that far. He was told in no uncertain terms that he’d have to support Kerry, and although he campaigned until the Democratic National Convention, he did raise his arm with Kerry. None of Kucinich’s proposals, such as an assault on poverty, found their way into the Democratic Party platform. Every one he proposed was turned down, so he got nothing for his efforts at being a loyal Democrat in the primary for almost two years, and he had his head handed to him. That’s how they treat their progressive wing.

MC: Do you find some hope in the emergence of some figures like Eliot Spitzer, for example, who has in the opinion of many observers been implementing many effective crackdowns on the corporate crime that you yourself have chronicled very extensively in the past few years?

RN: Yes, he’s outshone the other state Attorney Generals and the Justice Department and the SEC. It just shows you what a few lawyers can do. All that going after Wall Street, and all the brokerage firms, and insurance brokers, he does with about 70 lawyers in his white-collar crime section of the state Attorney General’s office. On the other hand, he hasn’t been able to try a case. He doesn’t have the resources for a prolonged case against these giant corporate law firms. The corporations know they can settle out with him for a fraction of what they stole, and get their wrists slapped, get an adverse public relations experience, but he is doing more than anyone else.

Now the question is when he runs for governor, broadens out, let’s see what he does on other issues of corporate power. He had a relatively easy number of whistleblowers giving him the low-down on these corporate crooks, so it was pretty easy black-and-white stuff to go after. Let’s see what he would do out of Albany in terms of gubernatorial policies to shift the power from corporations more to consumers, to people who are ill, to shield them from the HMO rapacities and the giant health insurance companies, as well as dealing with things like corporate prisons and reforming our criminal injustice system in New York state at least, and of course, getting workers a better deal.

MC: I want to ask you about the Democrats’ behavior in the immediate weeks following the election. What is your reaction to their appointment of Harry Reid as Senate Minority Leader and their stance towards the Attorney General nomination by Bush of Alberto Gonzales?

RN: Well, I think Harry Reid, in some respects, is going to be stronger than Tom Daschle. I think he’s going to be a straight-out defender of Social Security — no if’s, and’s, and but’s, it’s a solvent system until 2052, and with very minor variations can be good for another century, as Paul Krugman, Professor of Economics at Princeton, pointed out recently, writing in the New York Times. He’s still a work-in-progress. He may surprise people in a good way. He has a hard core of steel to him, and we’ll see what happens. I think there’s too little known about them now to see how to react to Supreme Court nominees or other nominees by the Bush Administration.

MC: Does the Gonzales nomination disturb you, given his stances on torture and whether the United States was complying with the Geneva Conventions and other international humanitarian law?

RN: Of course. He was utterly too cavalier about international law, about the Geneva Conventions, which he deprecated as if they were quaint, and perhaps he’s learned a lesson in that respect because there have been too many reports now about what’s been going on in Guantanamo, even by the FBI and CIA, which were reports worried about the way the prisoners there were treated. They were never charged with anything. I think it was only a few months ago that the first two prisoners were even charged with anything out of the hundreds that are there, and they’ve been there for almost three years. He should be subjected to very tough questioning at the Senate confirmation hearing.

MC: Can you talk about the recount in Ohio and the Democratic Party’s rather tepid support of it?

RN: I’ve always thought there were always a lot of shenanigans before, during, and after Nov. 2 because you had the perfect environment for it. You had a Republican governor. You had a Republican Secretary of State, who was very partisan, who’s like Katherine Harris in 2000 in Tallahassee, Florida. You had a Republican legislature, and they knew it was going to be a swing state, if not the swing state. The stakes were high. There’s other evidence that before the election, Kenneth Blackwell, the Secretary of State, was working overtime to try to undermine the minority vote, dealing with voter registration, etc. The ambience, the atmosphere was all there, and the Democrats should have been much more alerted to it. But the ways these laws are written, unless you’re seen really with some crude stuff on election day or post-election, you get away with what you did before election day to depress the vote and to minimize the number of voting machines in minority or heavily Democratic areas, which is what was done in Ohio.

However, there is increasing information coming to the forefront. There’s litigation, very good lawyers demanding a recount. There will be a recount. But the results will not be in before the electors meet in mid-December and elect a President. It will still be in the courts.

MC: I want to end our conversation with a discussion of the future. We’ve talked about the Democratic Party and the hurdles to change within it, some of which seem insurmountable to many. I want to ask about your relationship to the Green Party. I know your running mate, Peter Camejo, discussed forming a new caucus within the Green Party. The Green Party did not endorse the Nader-Camejo candidacy. What’s your relationship with the Green Party, and what do you see as their future role for progressives?

RN: Well, I wish them luck. They have a very good platform. They went from 2.8 million votes to about a 106,000 from 2000 to 2004, so they have their work cut out for them. I think their biggest future is at the local level where they can actually win races. In 2001, 2002, they won 25% of the local races like City Council or Board of Education. But they don’t have anywhere near the number of candidates. They had about 500 this year. There are 2.5 million elective offices at the local level, so they have a ways to go.

But my view of the future of politics and the need to make the biggest issue excessive corporate power that’s destroying civic values, commercializing our elections, our government, our educational systems, our childhood, our genetic inheritance, our food, media, those are all described in terms of their impact on the daily lives of people in my new book The New Fight: Declare Your Independence and Fill the Democracy Gap. If people are interested in where I think the country’s heading and the coming populist revolt against giant business that increasingly has no allegiance to our country or our communities other than to control or abandon them globally as they see fit, just pick up the book, or get it in the library. You’ll find that it gives a whole new perspective about corporate power that will liberate a lot of people’s minds that have been overwhelmed for so many years by very subtle and not-so-subtle corporate ads and corporate propaganda like the attack on our civil justice system, persuading people with all kinds of false statements that wrongfully injured people are too litigious, which is ridiculous. Less than 10% of wrongfully injured people even file a claim, much less go to a lawyer. We have to open our eyes and stop growing up corporate from our young days to the present day. No democracy can survive the convergence and takeover of government power by economic power. Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it very crisply in a message to Congress in 1938, asking for an investigation of concentrated corporate power, when he said: "When our government is taken over by economic power, that’s fascism." That’s the exact word he used: fascism.

MC: Does the locus of activity for an upcoming insurgency against this consolidation of corporate power involve the creation of a new political party, or will most of the activity actually occur outside the electoral arena?

RN: I hope it occurs in both arenas. If you look at our site, votenader.org, which is still up, you’ll see a lot of proposals, one called the "Agenda Inquiry for the Common Good" that I sent to Kerry and Bush last October, 2003, and many other similar proposals where we can strengthen our democracy and put the people back in charge.

MC: What’s next on your plate in the coming months? I wanted to briefly ask you also what your relationship is like with people such as Jeff Cohen or Medea Benjamin, who among some other self-described "progressives," signed a letter against your candidacy in the so-called swing states.

RN: I think they have an apology to make to the Nader-Camejo campaign. It wasn’t just their opposition. They spread lies. They endorsed lies about our being bankrolled by the Republicans. It was completely false. A hundred times more Republican money from donors went into the Democratic coffers. That’s what I do not forgive them for. I think that involves Michael Moore, and Norman Solomon, and Jeff Cohen, and Medea Benjamin especially, as well as a number of others. If they want to open communications, they need to preface it by apology. It’s one thing opposing us even though we had the agenda they believed in — that’s ridiculous enough — but what’s unforgivable was to lend their credibility to those lies that the Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee disseminated all over the country to cover up their own dirty tricks against our right to be on the ballot.

Right now, what we’re doing is winding down the campaign. The Democrats’ assault cost us a million dollars, so we’re in debt, and we’re trying to invite people to help reduce the debt on votenader.org, so we can ramp up on the anti-war issue and on the corporate crime enforcement issue and much other work that needs to be done in a mobilized way from the grassroots all the way to Washington.

MC: Ralph Nader, I want to thank you for this interview.

RN: Thank you again, and thank Counterpunch.


MERLIN CHOWKWANYUN is a student at Columbia University. He can be reached at mc2028@columbia.edu

Portions of this interview aired earlier on WBAR 87.9 FM NYC (www.wbar.org), and minor edits were made for clarity.