HAROLD MEYERSON: What's different about America and the American political economy now from what it was when you wrote Unsafe at Any Speed? How has the balance of power shifted in the last 35 years?
RALPH NADER: First of all, the context for civic activity was different. There was a civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam drives, environmentalism, women's rights, and that provided a real backdrop for the official decision makers to become more sensitive to the concerns of people, instead of succumbing totally to the demands of corporations. Today, there's more money from corporations in politics. I think, in the '60s, money from business interests outpaced money from labor interests by about 3-to-1. It's now 11-to-1. There are 9,000 political-action committees now, compared to about 400 in 1974. The composition of the Congress consequently has changed, so we don't have chairmen of key committees entertaining legislation that would make corporations more accountable and give people better health-and-safety standards.
The corruption of money is so massive, and then there's the concentration of the media on sensational, trivial, celebrity-status [stories], on depraved behavior, sex, violence, addiction -- all of that is massively greater now. If people saw the evening news in 1967, and they saw it today, they just couldn't believe the difference. The evening news was news then. You could quibble on who got covered and who didn't, but they didn't have lifestyle stories and huge time slots devoted to Tonya Harding, Lewinsky, O.J. Simpson, all that.
So combine a huge, beefed-up corporate-lobby presence in Washington, a massive avalanche of money changing the composition of Congress, the White House and the courts, with the lack of any broad-based street protests (with a few exceptions), the weakening of the labor movement vis-à-vis corporate power, the vast expansion of PR, and the corporate ownership of the media -- General Electric and NBC, say -- you put all that together and you see a shutdown coming. It's a basic shutdown of much of the civil society in Washington, and people can't get anything done anymore. There are more groups then ever before, achieving less.
MEYERSON: And is your campaign intended, if not to break this cycle, at least to bend it as much as you can?
NADER: We've got to try to break it, because the government has been hijacked to a degree beyond anything we've seen in the last 70 years. It's been hijacked by corporate power, the multinationals mostly. They have their own people in the government. They run their own people, they appoint their own people, they get corporate lawyers to agree to become judges. And when that happens, you no longer have a countervailing force called government arrayed against excesses of what Jefferson called the moneyed interest. Instead, you have this convergence, almost a phalanx, of business controlling government and turning it against its own people.
That's when you have to start going back to the people to generate new political energies. And a political party is one vehicle for that.
MEYERSON: On the one hand, the process you've been describing has specifically affected the Democratic Party. On the other hand, there still remain the Paul Wellstones and the David Boniors [congressional progressives]. How do you view the Democratic Party, given that complexity?
NADER: It's overwhelmingly a party of [conservative] Blue-Dog Democrats and frightened liberals like [New York Senator] Chuck Schumer, and slews of people like them. You have Wellstone here and Bonior there, but they're such a tiny minority, they can almost be called party tokens. So there's nothing much left of the Democratic Party. There's [Los Angeles Congressman] Henry Waxman, but [Massachusetts Congressman] Ed Markey's pretty much made his peace with the corporate establishment. And he was one of the last holdouts.
On corporate-welfare issues, the worse party by far is the Democrats. They're innovative, creative, blatant, brazen. They're the ones who got the Pentagon to subsidize the mergers between defense companies.
MEYERSON: Is that because the Democrats need to think creatively about how to get corporate money, whereas the Republicans don't?
NADER: They don't have any ideology left, except expedient surrender to the corporate interests in order to deny [their contributions] to the Republicans.
MEYERSON: Well, let me pose the Democratic Party question in a little sharper way. Does it make a difference if the next House is led by, effectively, [Republican Whip] Tom DeLay, or by [House Democratic leader Richard] Gephardt and Bonior?
NADER: Yeah, it makes a difference. Not in anything affirmative. In the sense that it relieves us of time we don't have to expend to fight bad things that the Democrats would not initiate, like tort reform. But they wouldn't initiate anything. The difference in the House is the difference between a party that doesn't do anything against injustice and a party that tries to generate more injustice. Not much of a choice.