Longtime consumer advocate and lawyer Ralph Nader is best known for his 2000 presidential campaign on the Green Party ticket. His strong showing of 2.74 percent of the vote in that race prompted many Democrats to brand him as a spoiler who enabled George W. Bush’s victory — a label that’s been difficult to shake. Once known as “Saint Ralph,” a hero in liberal circles for his dogged persistence and commitment to principle in challenging corporate power, Nader is today shunned by many of his former allies and supporters.
During the last 45 years, Nader and the men and women he nurtured and inspired have spawned a vast network of progressive watchdog organizations that advocate for causes as diverse as environmental justice, disability rights, auto safety and financial reform. A native of Connecticut and the child of Lebanese Maronite immigrants, Nader currently works in Washington at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, which he founded in 1968. He publishes weekly commentary on his website, which in May was compiled into the book Told You So: The Big Book of Weekly Columns.
While some fault Nader’s strategic acumen, his moral compass never wavers. At 79, Nader is as earnest and plain spoken as always. He recently spoke to In These Times.
In an article titled “The Rise of the New New Left,” Peter Beinart argues that Bill de Blasio’s victory in the Democratic mayoral primary in New York City — and the pushback against the potential nomination of Larry Summers to chair the Fed — represent a shift away from Clinton-era Third Way politics toward a more social democratic politics. What do you think of his premise that younger voters are more in line with a left-wing vision of the state, and that emerging voices in the Democratic Party are emblematic of that vision?
Peter is like a lot of progressive people, clutching at straws. De Blasio’s speeches are much more progressive than his behavior as Public Advocate. So it’s a hope.
The same is true for the anti-Summers campaign. That was an easy one. First of all, there’s another candidate who’s very appealing — Janet Yellen. And second, everybody knew that Obama doesn’t like nomination fights. So it was pretty easy for a few Democratic senators on the Banking Committee to signal to Obama that he’s gonna have a fight. I like the outcome, but I don’t think it a harbinger.
The real test is being failed. In California you have a liberal Democrat as governor and two-thirds of the legislature is Democratic and it’s a disaster. We can’t get anything through. Big money has corrupted Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, it’s corrupted Assembly Speaker John Pérez. Jerry Brown doesn’t like to play LBJ, he doesn’t like to push stuff through, twist arms. He’s laid back. You couldn’t have a more progressive state than California, a Democratic state legislature that is two-thirds veto proof, and they can’t get anything through.
Jerry Brown just signed a law authorizing a $10 minimum wage.
But that has not caught up with the 1968 minimum wage.
And organized labor’s hardly lifting a finger, except SEIU and UFCW funding these small demonstrations in front of McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, which is good. But where’s [AFL-CIO President Richard] Trumka? Where’s the mighty AFL-CIO that can pump in $40 million in ads for Democratic candidates?
You can’t stand up for the people who clean up after us, take care of our ailing kids and grandparents, who harvest our food, and you’re talking about a progressive resurgence?
What do you make of the counterargument that you have a Republican Congress that’s not going to budge?
You can win the election on this issue. You gotta fight for it. You overwhelm the Republicans. You use it to beat them in 2014. So you got organized labor — wimps. You’ve got the Democrats — wimps, as a whole. You’ve got virtually the liberal press making excuses.
I was at the Rayburn Building, years ago, and a guy comes running up to me with a whole bunch of papers and he says, “Mr. Nader, Mr. Nader, I want you to help me get rid of Jim Wright, the speaker.” So I looked at him and I said, “Mr. Gingrich, you’re a junior member of the House. You want to dump the majority party speaker?” And he said, “Yeah.” And a few years later he took over the House of Representatives and defeated Wright’s successor Tom Foley. Did Gingrich sit on his goddamn ass worrying about the powerful Democratic majority?
How on earth is someone able to even get elected to Congress when you have the Citizens United decision and have to spend a million dollars to even stand a shot?
You may not win, but you send a message that is very discomforting. First, Democratic politicians hate primaries. It disrupts their routine — their weekends. Second, they’re always afraid some dirt will come out and a lucky star will hit a primary challenger. And third, it fortifies them when they go back after they’ve defeated the challenger to say to Nancy Pelosi, “I’ve got to strike out on my own, Nancy. I can’t afford losing this seat.” But if they don’t get challenged at all, she has an iron grip on them. They can’t opt out.
Thirteen years after 2000, you’re reviled among the Democratic establishment. Why?
It would happen to anybody who challenged the Democratic Party. Because when push comes to shove, the vast majority of liberals and progressives will allow a ring to be put in their nose and pulled anywhere the Democratic Party tells them. “You’ve got nowhere to go,” they say. “We’re the least of the worst.”
What will be Obama’s legacy?
He’s extended his predecessor’s maturation of corporate power. Wall Street collapses the economy and it ends up stronger. That didn’t happen in the 1930s. They ended up weaker. So he’s no FDR, let me tell you. And he’s no LBJ. He hasn’t gone after corporate welfare subsidies. Military budget? Bloated as ever. Obamacare? It’s going to collapse of its own complexity — its main contribution will be to set the stage for singlepayer because there will be no illusions.
Consumer protection? Terrible. Drug regulation? Food regulation? Auto regulation? Never talks about it. His Justice Department is totally understaffed — it’s pathetic — to deal with the corporate crime wave, the economic crime wave and the anti-environmental crime wave.
And then his last legacy is one the Democrats cannot deny. He is the most egocentric presidential campaigner in modern times. He doesn’t campaign with the Democrats in the House and Senate the way Clinton did. He loses the House in 2010. And he loses the House again in 2012. He rarely campaigns with anyone. What did he get? He got John Boehner and Eric Cantor. He got gridlock. He got government shutdown. He got debt-limit intimidations, and all the rest of it that distracts America from paying attention to the real problems of the country — crumbling public works, a healthcare system that’s brutal and broken, an inadequate number of jobs, low pay, the flight of industry and jobs to repressive regimes abroad, a grotesque tax system.
What do you make of the optimism coming out of the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, in regards to new alliances among progressive groups?
The test is, number one, will Trumka provide resources for full-time organizers to make this new alliance work? Because if he doesn’t, nothing’s going to happen. So I didn’t see that. The second thing he’s got to demonstrate is — what’s the agenda? He came out with no agenda, not even a minimum wage agenda, not even campaign finance reform. So it’s nothing but an exciting time in L.A. It doesn’t have to reform the world. It could be an agenda to cut back on the military budget and put the money back into job-producing public works — maintenance repair and renovation, bridges, public buildings, schools, clinics, libraries, highways, mass transit. They didn’t even come up with that. All the groups would have agreed on that.
I’ve talked to some old labor hands who say they’ve seen this before. This is a way to make the convention a little bit more exciting. Although I would like to see it happen.