Since the 1965 publication of his landmark book Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader has been synonymous with consumer rights. His campaigns have led to mandating air bags in new cars and toughening the Freedom of Information Act, among other victories. With these successes have come setbacks, too, such as losing allies in Washington for his stubborn attacks on Congress. It was only a matter of time, then, before Nader got into politics himself — first with an independent run for president in 1992, and now with a second try, as the Green Party’s candidate of choice in several states.
Q: People describe you variously as a consumer advocate, an anti-business zealot, and a hero. How do you describe yourself?
A: As a full-time citizen. We all know that as private citizens we have to take care of our families and personal well-being. But, if we live in a democracy, we also have to be public citizens. We have to work on problems of the community — making our government responsive, making the economy more beneficial to more people.
Q: A lot of people say they don’t have time for public work.
A: It’s just redefining work in terms of what you want to do with your life. Sooner or later, the more defined civic work is, the more it can become a paying occupation. Two hundred years ago, there weren’t many people working in public health eradicating diseases or dealing with sanitation. After some medical findings and some good volunteer work, we now have tens of thousands of people who work in the public health area.
Q: How do you feel about the Republican platform on health care, NAFTA, tort reform?
A: A lot of middle-class people are going to realize the main thrust of the Gingrich/Dole political agenda is downsizing the middle class and cooperating with the multinational corporate strategy of minimizing costs — while their profits, their executive compensations, and their stock prices are reaching record highs.
Q: The only other presidential contender who has addressed these issues is Pat Buchanan. What do you think of him?
A: I think he’s learned a lot in the last few years about corporate power, especially in the context of the NAFTA and GATT fights. He saw a lot of closed factories and unemployed workers when he was campaigning in 1992, and he’s basically saying, “Look, if a community doesn’t look out for itself, if it allows its wealth to be exported, then who’s going to look out for it?” And so, he’s called a nativist or a nationalist, but he’s beginning to have a more thorough conservative critique of radical corporatism. And if he can split the genuine conservatives from the corporatists who masquerade as conservatives, he’ll be making quite a contribution to American politics. There is nothing conservative about big corporations.
Q: What about Clinton?
A: I think his best nickname is George Ronald Clinton. In terms of international affairs, he is no different from his predecessors. They all succumbed to multinational corporations on GATT and NAFTA. We’re looking here at the ultimate Democrat/Republican president, a hybrid of the convergence of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Q: Is that why you have allowed the California Green Party to put your name on the primary presidential ballot?
A: Well, that was part of it. I think it is quite clear Clinton was telling progressives they have nowhere to go politically. We need new political energies. Historically, the two parties have always been nudged into better directions by third and fourth parties, but right now we have a two-party convergence — one might call it a collaboration or a conspiracy — against the broader political wishes of the American people. The difference between the two parties continually narrows and moves toward being indentured to big business.
Q: Your candidacy has enough support to divide the Democratic vote in California, helping Bob Dole win the presidency. How do you reconcile that role?
A: It is intolerable to be confronted every four years with the choice between the bad and the worse. If your goal is to help develop a progressive political movement with a much broader agenda, then you can’t suddenly become a tactician for a few months and say, “Well, we’re going to abandon this long-range progressive movement development because of what may happen in November.”
Whether Clinton loses or gains votes because of the Green Party is very substantially up to him. The more he adopts a broad pro-democracy agenda, putting the tools of democratic power in the hands of voters, taxpayers, workers, consumers, and shareholders, the more votes he is going to get because he’s going to have a broader base and he’s going to be more clearly defined against his principal opponent, Bob Dole.
And, finally, when I ran on a similar platform as a noncandidate write-in in New Hampshire in 1992, the write-in votes came in 52 percent Republican, 48 percent Democrat.
Q: You are known for your 16-hour days and seven-day-a-week work ethic. Has it been worth it? Do you regret never having married and not having started a family?
A: This work is very personal — it is my personal life. If you love your work, you don’t divide life into impersonal work and personal enjoyment. Of course, you can’t have it all. I don’t believe in being an absentee father, so I had to choose.
Q: Tell us about your childhood. You were a big Yankees fan. What thrilled you about baseball?
A: It was about the only professional game you could listen to. Football was around but not very visible, and basketball was almost invisible. You heard these games on the radio and then you went down to the sandlot and you played the same game and you could mimic the great players. My boyhood hero was Lou Gehrig because he represented stamina — 2,130 games consecutively played. It wasn’t only his stamina, it was his demeanor. He was a great player and he was modest, overshadowed by the more flamboyant Babe Ruth, and it never affected his work. He was a model of self-control.
Q: How does your celebrity affect you?
A: In our type of society, you need to be better known in order to be able to communicate with more people. In the last 20 years, the major national media has not focused on citizen advocates. If you look at black leadership, for example, Jesse Jackson is really the last well-known black leader. Most evening news focuses on crime in the cities and not on up-and-coming black leaders who need to be better known so others can emulate, or support, or join them.
Q: Are you saying that if the current atmosphere had existed back in the ’60s when you were getting started, you might not have achieved what you have?
A: That’s quite correct. For better or for worse, our democracy rests on the vitality of our media. I wish we had a democracy where we didn’t have to rely on commercial media, where we had the people’s media… our own media that doesn’t rely on advertising pressures to censor stories that might offend auto dealers, or drug companies, or banks.
Most people don’t even know they own the public airwaves. They don’t have a sense of commonwealth ownership. Workers own $4 trillion of pension funds as workers, and yet insurance companies and banks control the investments. Unless more people realize they have legal ownership of huge resources — communication, natural resources, capital resources — and work to control these resources, they aren’t going to develop the democratic power to improve this country.
Q: How do you encourage people to become leaders?
A: Well, start small. Keep thinking about how to have greater sway. And always be strategic and imaginative and don’t get complacent, and things begin to happen even without media attention.
Civic action is not for the fainthearted or the short-distance runner. But you have to realize that out there in the ether, there is usually a strategy. Once you stretch your imagination, then you will exceed the estimate of your own personal significance in a civic context. How far you go depends sometimes on luck. Historical timing is very critical, as well as your own personal resources and imagination.
Q: People need to be Lou Gehrigs?
A: [Laughs] Yes. They force the opportunity to come to them.
Wesley J. Smith is a lawyer and co-author with Ralph Nader of the upcoming No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America.