L.A.Weekly executive editor Harold Meyerson interviewed Ralph Nader shortly before the start of the Green Party Convention.
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.
Between Bush and Gore, there's an even thinner difference. Because if the House goes Democratic, you have Gephardt and Bonior, who are a little bit more traditional liberal Democrats. Gore is mush. He doesn't know who he is other than a finger to the wind — and the [center-right] Democratic Leadership Conference and [its president] Al From and the corporate lobbies are the wind. He's betrayed more of his past written positions than any politician in modern American history. Just look at his book, Earth in the Balance, out in a new reprint. The author now can be called Gore out of balance.
MEYERSON: You've been a leading figure for the movement that gathered in Seattle, particularly in defining a larger vision as to what kind of globalization that movement should seek. What sort of things do you look toward when you think about an alternative global order?
NADER: Let me begin in terms of Gore and Bush. Their idea of a global order is competing to set up a missile defense. They're competing to expand the military when there's no longer any Soviet Union. Historically, we demobilize after our enemies are vanquished or go away. Not this time. So they're talking about a $300 billion military budget.
MEYERSON: Are you going to make an issue out of this anti-missile system?
NADER: Yeah, that's almost beyond satire. You have the mainstream physics society, composed of physicists, some of whom are longtime consultants to the Defense Department, coming out and saying it's not going to work. Besides which, why do we suddenly assume that countries are willing to commit suicide by launching missiles against us, when for 35 years we didn't assume that with the Soviet Union or China?
But as to globalization — it's got to be given an adjective. What we're dealing with now is corporate globalization. A corporate-driven military policy to sell more and more weapons to the Pentagon and then have the U.S. government subsidize the residual sales of similar weapons privately to other countries. Corporate globalization is the way the issue should be joined.
The question is, what do we mean to the rest of the world? What do we mean in terms of global infectious diseases? That should be a pillar of our foreign policy. It isn't. What do we mean in terms of stimulating democracy? It's all rhetoric, we don't do that. We do far more propping up of authoritarian, oligarchic, dictatorial regimes than stimulating any democracy. When are we going to really take the lead on the environment? We're the biggest polluter in the aggregate. We are subsidizing fossil fuels and nuclear and not making it a major global policy to promote renewable solar and efficiency programs.
And we're not very good on waging peace. We spend untold billions preparing to wage war, but you don't see a Department of Peace. That means we're weak on preventive diplomacy and preventive defense. So we're always stumbling into crises, and having to make instant decisions that are difficult — and having to send our own troops. We don't have well-trained, standby, multilateral peacekeeping forces. So we get into NATO [interventions] and all kinds of U.S.-dominated situations which tend to backfire.
MEYERSON: So would you favor the United Nations' having a greater capacity for intervention for the kinds of violence that have occurred, say, in parts of Africa?
NADER: Yeah. I don't think as a world we can just sit around and watch half a million Rwandan men, women and children get slaughtered.
MEYERSON: What kinds of agreements would you like to see as part of an alternative model of globalization?
NADER: Currently, we are one of 137 nations that belong to the WTO [World Trade Organization]. Each one of those nations has the right to give six months' notice for withdrawal. We ought to withdraw and renegotiate trade agreements that pull standards up rather than down. Today, when products in international trade are produced by child labor, we can't ban them from being imported here — although we can't buy products made in this country by child labor, because it's illegal. We're bound to let them in from other countries, though, because under the WTO agreement, we can't restrict imports based on how they are produced, except for prison labor. The subordination of labor, environmental and consumer issues to the supremacy of international trade — that's the mandate of NAFTA and GATT and all other pending agreements. So we need to have trade agreements that stick to trade, and then have parallel environmental, labor and consumer treaties.
MEYERSON: Do you talk about fossil fuels and such when you meet with people from the United Auto Workers [UAW] and the Teamsters [the two major unions that have not endorsed Al Gore]? Or mainly issues of corporate power?
NADER: Well, the corporate-power issue comes in the form of their shrinking membership, and being challenged by Mexican truckers at 7 bucks a day, and the UAW losing the auto industry to Mexico and Brazil and elsewhere. That's much the biggest thing on their minds. They've got to realize that the technologies have to change, that you can't go with the internal-combustion engine. And if the technologies don't change when their companies are making record profits, when are they going to change? This is another sign of how powerful and concentrated corporate power is over public policy. Usually, when the industry is in recession, you can't strengthen regulations. Now you can't strengthen regulations when they're reporting sustained record profits year after year.
Clinton and Gore have not proposed any fuel-efficiency standards. Who would have ever dreamed that? And as a result, our motor-vehicle fuel-efficiency average standard is now down to the level of 1980. It's been going down every year.
MEYERSON: A huge issue in both L.A. and New York these days is police practices. The federal government is proposing to bring a civil rights lawsuit against the LAPD. Is this the kind of issue that you may be addressing in the course of the campaign?
NADER: When you get down to really local issues, you have to know the local facts. However, there are certain general standards for police. The first is whether they do a good job protecting the community, and in so doing, respect the legal and civil rights of people. The second is, what's the review process? Just as the Pentagon is subjected to civilian authority, police departments have to be subjected to civilian authority. Police often have a very tight bond with one another, because they often are frightened when they go into certain areas, they lose some of their buddies — and they can't be expected to impartially hold themselves accountable. So there need to be civilian review boards.
The federal government just asked the states to establish special prosecutor units for police who end up killing innocent people, because there's such a closed society among the police and prosecutors. And you really have to upgrade the training. In the military, it's when there's a lack of training that you get those kinds of out-of-control situations.
There are other issues not often spoken about. For instance, there are 500 people in this country who are killed each year by hot pursuits — the vast majority of which are not necessary, especially with modern technology and communication systems and helicopters. The police look at a teenager in a car who gives them the finger, and he speeds off, and then they speed off, and then a family sitting at a red light gets rear-ended and killed. That's the result of bad training. And in California, the police are almost immune from tort suits.
MEYERSON: Among people I know on the left, they have no doubt that you are programmatically superior to Gore — that's not the issue. The one issue I hear coming up perhaps more than any other is fear of what Bush would do to the Supreme Court. There's no sense that Gore's appointments would be anything great, but there seems to be a gang of five justices right now on the court who are bent on chipping away at the 14th Amendment and bringing back states' rights. What's your response to that particular source of nervousness?
NADER: The Democrats managed to let the extreme wing of the Republican Party take over Congress. So now, when Supreme Court nominations come before the Senate, the Senate [Republicans] have a veto. Whatever differences there might be in the Supreme Court nominations of a Gore and a Bush are dramatically narrowed by the likes of [conservative Senate Judiciary Committee Chair] Orrin Hatch. And so we're likely to end up with people like [Clinton Supreme Court appointee] Stephen Breyer. Who's pretty pro-corporate and anti-regulatory, as he showed in an opinion three weeks ago.
MEYERSON: I agree that Breyer ain't no Brandeis, but by the same token, neither is he a Rehnquist or a Scalia, and these guys seem bent on bringing back a level of states' rights which you and I thought was long gone and buried.
NADER: Well, some of that is very good. In 1986, Rehnquist dissented against the decision that destroyed the whole citizen-utility-board movement. It was a case out of California where the state Public Utilities Commission required one of the power companies to put an insert in its bills, at no expense to itself, inviting people to join TURN [a citizen watchdog group over utility rates and practices]. Rehnquist said that was a proper regulatory move and the federal government had no business overturning it. It was overturned — with Thurgood Marshall on the side of overturning it.
MEYERSON: So sometimes states' rights works.
NADER: Don't we want states' rights in the torts system? We have people in Congress who want to federalize the common law of torts, make it controlled by PAC-greased senators and legislators who never see a client, the people in court, the way the judges and juries do. There's a federal pre-emption in banking: I think that's bad. Federal pre-emption in controlling the transportation of radioactive waste, instead of dual jurisdiction.
MEYERSON: The theory being the states would obviously be more zealous about that.
NADER: Right. It was the federal government that got us into the WTO, which is a real pre-emption of local, state and federal sovereignty, to Geneva, Switzerland.
People aren't thinking when they have a knee-jerk response to the Supreme Court [issue]. First of all, they're never going to repeal Roe vs. Wade, because it would destroy the Republican Party. Nobody knows that better than the Republicans. Second, there's never been a retrenchment in civil rights since the Dred Scott decision. These things are not going to be pulled back — and if they are, it would probably be the greatest source of a revival in civic action in our generation.
The other thing that's important is: Who nominated Warren, Brennan, Stevens, Blackmun and Souter [all liberal or moderate justices appointed by Republican presidents]? And who nominated “Whizzer” White [a center-right lunkhead appointed by John Kennedy]?
You don't perpetuate a political system that's rotten on dozens of major global issues just because of this kind of thing with the Supreme Court. I mean, there are all kinds of very important issues. And what's happening is that liberal Democrats are settling for less and less every four years, because the less and less is a tiny bit more than the Republican less and less, and every four years both get worse. They're forgiven that error of judgment once or twice. But three times? Four times? Five times?
They [the liberals with hesitations about voting for Nader] are not thinking tactically. There are very few Green Party candidates: There's Medea Benjamin [running] for the Senate [in California]. There are only 16 Green Party candidates for the House of Representatives. So where are these millions of votes [brought to the polls to vote for Nader] going to go in the House races? To the Democrats. That's why it was clear from my meeting with Gephardt a few weeks ago that he's not displeased with this candidacy. [He's looking at] a few close congressional-district races. A few thousand votes here and there, and he's the speaker. That's pretty important, and they [the hesitant liberals] are not thinking that way.
Also, it all depends on what state they're in. If they're in Texas, they don't have to make the kind of calculation that they would in Michigan, where the Bush-Gore contest is close. They can say: Look, we want this Green Party to cross the 5 percent threshold [of eligibility for federal campaign funds in the next election], because then it's going to be a real hammer on the Democrats. It's going to pull them in the right direction, where now the corporate lobbies and DLC's [Democratic Leadership Council] are pulling them in the other direction. In Texas, they can say, I'm going to vote for Nader because Gore is out of it in Texas, he doesn't have a chance.
MEYERSON: On today's electoral map, you can probably do that in all but about 15 states.
NADER: Right, and that's what we've got to try to get across to people, because they're generalizing as if there were no Electoral College and it's all just one pot of votes.
MEYERSON: A piece in the last American Prospect made the point that the German SDP [Germany's dominant center-left party] has been moving steadily to the center despite whatever leftward pressure the Greens have put on it.
NADER: First, you've heard of the nuclear-power decision [the SDP-headed government's recent agreement to begin dismantling Germany's nuclear-energy program]? Second, that argument can be true in a non-winner-take-all system; [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroder's SDP would be more immune to that kind of pressure because of their proportional-representation system. But in a winner-take-all system like ours, where two parties dominate, the Greens could cost the Democrats the entire shebang — later, in future years.