An Interview with Ralph Nader

The writer and longtime activist hasn’t given up on the power of the electorate just yet.


Consumer advocate and political activist Ralph Nader has become oddly bipartisan. Mention his name to a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and they’re liable to slam him for strangling free enterprise with too much red tape and slapping Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Mention him to progressives and they’re likely to snarl that he’s the guy who gave us George W. Bush.

Nader has addressed the latter charge a number of times. Electoral shenanigans in Florida, a controversial Supreme Court ruling, and Al Gore’s refusal to adopt any significant Green Party initiatives were, in Nader’s mind at any rate, the real reasons we got the pleasure of Bush 43 for eight years. Most of my liberal friends don’t buy it, though.

The Atlantic magazine named Nader one of the most influential figures in American history. His advocacy helped to create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC), and the National Highway Transportation Administration (NHSTA).

When I had the chance to interview him recently on his book-signing tour promoting Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than You Think, I decided to avoid the Bush/Gore history and focus more on what we do next. Sorry, liberal friends. Time to move on.

Here’s the very first line of your new book: "When I was a student at Princeton University, I learned from anthropology studies that the concentration of power in the hands of the few is common to all cultures, societies, nations, tribes, cities, towns, and villages." Is this inevitable? Are we always going to have a 1 percent equivalent?

I think so, unless there's a dramatic effort to enlist the other 1 percent to be civically active and represent majority opinion. That's why I say that Occupy Wall Street talks about the 1 percent, the 99 percent. But, it's my reading of history that if 1 percent of the people, say in congressional districts, organize around major issues on their members of Congress and they represent majority opinion like raising the minimum wage, like corporate tax reform, like cracking down on corporate crime and fraud against consumers, they would prevail. And we're talking, in terms of numbers, about a couple thousand people in each congressional district, which is less than 1 percent, raising $200 to $400 each and spending 200 to 300 hours of time each year focusing entirely on their agenda that they want through Congress, and on two senators, one representative.

You write about our lack of a social safety net compared to Western Europe. In many cases, they have greater access to childcare, eldercare, and other services. Is one of the results that Americans have less energy, as it were, for pursuits like this?

That's very true. We work longer hours than any Western country and Japan on average. And now with the computer age, they take their work home, for which they don't get paid often. So, between raising children, commuting 60, 30 miles or whatever, people are drained. And the whole idea of coming back from a factory in Winston, Connecticut, my hometown, and washing up and having supper and going to a town meeting four or five blocks away doesn't happen anymore. So, we really have to take that into account.

That's why in addition to people being overwhelmed because they have to take care of elderly parents and they don't have caregivers the way they have in the Netherlands or Scandinavia and they have to pay for expensive daycare, and daycare is provided in a lot of Western countries, they also have to worry about their retirement, they don't have paid vacations, and Western countries have four to seven weeks paid vacation. When you put that all together, that's when you've got to say, look, the best a lot of these people are going to do beside voting intelligently is to be the public opinion support of the 1 percent in their community who are really engaged.

And people have hobbies, okay? And they spend a lot of time on hobbies. That's where I got my figures on how many hours and how much they raise. The average hobby is 200 to 500 hours a year and $200 to $500 a year that people spend on their major hobby. And if they have a Congress-watchdog-club hobby, they can have dramatic change. I think they would be stunned by how fast change can occur. That's why we've taken so long to inch towards full Medicare for all, and we still don't have it. It's because there's no organization, no people out there to hold the senators' and representatives' feet to the fire.

I interviewed Professor Robert McChesney earlier this year (People Get Ready: The Fight against a Jobless Economy, and a Citizenless Democracy), and we spoke about the relative ignorance of history exhibited by young people today. I mentioned a video I’d recently seen of students on college campuses being interviewed about who won World War II, who was in the Civil War, which president had to resign, and the amount of ignorance was startling. I asked McChesney if this was a sign that kids today just don’t care. He disagreed. He said he understood why a lot of those people, not just teenagers and people in their twenties, would watch something like “Real Housewives of Hollywood,” because they are discouraged that they can't make much of a difference in the political realm, so rather than be frustrated, they just kind of ignore it. I wonder what your take on that is.

 That requires a judgment; I don't think they even go that far. They've grown up corporate, they've looked at tens of thousands of corporate ads that show them the corporate view of society, that it's all just a marketplace. And it never occurs to them that they should have an estimate of themselves as active citizens. They don't even know where town hall is. They don't know anything about how their community is run — how the roads get paved, who collects the taxes, what's the budget like?

I think what's happening is that the cellphone has become a weapon of mass distraction, and if Marx was alive today, he would not say religion was the opioid of the people, he'd say the cellphone is the opioid of the people. The studies show that 10-, 11-, 9-year-olds are spending seven hours or more a day just looking at screens. Computer screens, television screens, and their cellphone screens. We don't ask what does that do to their brain. What does that do to their mind?

Apropos of what you just said, I spoke at Harvard Law School about a year ago. One of the first things I said to the law students, who are among the best, was, "You are factually unprepared to enter law school," and I spelled it out in terms of what they don't know about corporate power, for example. What's happened is that even the ones that are more attentive to current events, they don't retain facts and build on them because they know they can get them instantly.

 I was speaking at a high school in Connecticut recently, and we went to lunch. A half a dozen students pre-selected themselves as wanting to talk more. I said, "Do you know your two senators?" No. "Do you know your governor?" No. "Do you know of anybody on the Supreme Court?" No. I concluded that one of the reasons, and these were the more engaged students, is they think they can get anything on the internet, so why bother? They can get any speech on the internet, so why go to an auditorium where there's a live speaker, so they don't show up anymore unless they have to in class.

The great extracurricular education that college students used to get in terms of movements, civil rights, anti-war, environment consumer, they can't catch hold on campus because nobody shows up.

You make the interesting point in the book that the paradox is that with so much information out there, so much good information that spells out a lot of these problems has become white noise. There’s just so much out there that the brain almost tunes out.

But it's the wrong kind of information. We live in an information age that's full of misinformation. All kinds of myths and exaggerations and false statements that circulate with high levels of believability by gullible people or people who are not on their guard.

Trump is a demonstration of that. For example, they think Obama wasn't born in the U.S., they think climate change is a hoax, and we're talking millions of people. But people ought to realize that bits of information — if they don't bind together and move on a continuum to knowledge, then to judgment, then to wisdom — are lost. There's no context, there's no meaning. That's why I say that in a world of internet information, people are more fact-deprived than ever.

You mentioned Trump. Was someone like him inevitable given the climate we're in?

Not quite as bad and extreme and empty-minded as him, but the more elections are turned into entertainment, the more they are vulnerable to circus barkers. And he became the chief circus barker. The more politics is reduced to slogans, the more someone comes along who's a master at branding in the marketplace and tries to bottle things.

That's why he's manipulated the press. He labels Crooked Hillary, Lying Ted, Little Marco, and they are repeated by the press constantly and they do the work for him, and the Democrats have never developed a moniker for him; I suggested he should be Cheating Donald. What does he understand? He understands if you connect with someone's temperament and prejudice with three, four words, you've got them hooked if they're not willing to think any further.

You criticize the presidential debates. What’s the problem with them?

The problems can be summarized in one sentence. The presidential debates are funded by corporations, they are exclusionary to any challenges to the two major parties, they're controlled by the major parties, Republican, Democrat, who choose the format, the frequency of debate, who's going to ask the questions, and there's too few of them. Only three of them.

There should be cities all over the country or regions where they invite presidential candidates to their own debates in their own little county region. Who doesn't want a presidential debate to come to their community? Everybody does. There's no division. You have the chamber of commerce, the labor unions, the service clubs, the schools, everybody. Yet the expectation level of the public is so low they don't even think to have a role and they simply become spectators at three hulked-up debates [which] aren't really debates; [they are] really parallel interviews which are gained by the candidates using the same answers often that they use on the hustings.

Here's where the information revolution doesn't kick in. The information about the history of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is not an official body despite its name, it's a private corporation created by the Republican and Democrat parties to get rid of the League of Women Voters in 1987, which is to supervise these debates. That's all available on the internet. You can find out everything on the internet in great detail, including which companies, AT&T, Anheuser Busch, Ford Motor Company, fund these debates. Okay, all this information is available, it's free, it's at fingerprint control, and day after day the press doesn't relay that information. Day after day, the public is not aware of that information, so you have Lester Holt, who was a moderator at the first debate, describe the Commission of Presidential Debates as "a non-partisan, nonprofit organization."

What do you mean non-partisan? It's completely bi-partisan, Republican and Democrat. They haven't let anybody on regardless of national polls who wanted me on and Pat Buchanan on since Ross Perot got on in 1992, and they never let him on in 1996 even though he got 19 million votes. That's how exclusionary it is.

That's another example. It doesn't matter what's out there in the internet, it doesn't matter that this world history and all these facts, if it isn't disseminated, if it isn't received, if it isn't caught in context, it doesn't shape the future. It's not going to have — it cannot reflect the old saying, "Information is the currency of democracy."

Your reader has just finished your book. They put it down on their nightstand. What would you like them to do next?

First thing is to recognize that the most powerful instrument that we have as Americans in our country for change is the Congress; 535 people put their shoes on every day like you and I, they desperately want to get re-elected, they raise a lot of money from 1,500 or so corporations who get their way with the majority of the members of Congress, but these corporations have no vote. We're the ones who have the vote. If we organize Congress watchdog groups the way there are bird-watcher groups, we could have a tremendous effect.

Because contrary to the polarization of our society that the media keeps selling us, actually on many major issues it's not polarized at all. There's a huge left-right consensus even now on raising the minimum wage; even now on full Medicare for all; even now on cracking down on corporate crime; law and order; even now on building infrastructure and public works and not bloating an empire abroad that's just creating more and more enemies for us at huge cost in lives and tax dollars. And there is a huge left-right consensus against crony capitalism. The bailout of Wall Street, corporate welfare, and there's a huge left-right consensus for civil liberties and amending the Patriot Act. They don't want government snooping on them.

So you see, the rulers for 200 years have succeeded in dividing rule so they say to the left-right, you're against each other on reproductive rights, on school prayer, on gun control, etc., but there's no force that says, “Yeah, but you're on the same side left-right on all these very important things that can make our country such a better place to live for our children and grandchildren.”

I would say that a laser-beam focus on Congress as developed in my book becomes a formal summons where the citizenry summon the senators and representatives to their own town meetings with their own agendas, and give the senators and representatives ample time to do their homework on the various reforms that the town meeting is going to address. Wouldn't that be fun?

Michael Causey is a past president of Washington Independent Writers.

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