Ralph Nader’s new book, a slender volume called Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think, is really two brief books, or perhaps two long essays. The first is a lament about the ways that private interests monopolize American society and destroy the common good. The second speaks to his title — exploring the ways in which we can overcome such interests.
The ways that corporations use their elected stooges to channel public goods for their own gain are legion. Nader runs though some of the most offensive. He is especially upset that publicly-owned airwaves have been nearly lost as a tool for pushing back against reigning ideologies. For example, when Ronald Reagan rescinded the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, he unleashed a floodgate of profit-motivated content. That doctrine, usually more an ideal than an enforced policy, required broadcasters to provide at least two viewpoints on issues relevant to the community. After the repeal, “plutocrats pursuing profit through commercial media have felt … no obligation to provide views that point anywhere beyond their advertisers’ products,” Nader writes.
Of course, the selloff of public assets with no payoff to the public isn’t limited to invisible resources. The General Mining Act of 1872, for example, stipulates that a company can stake claims on federal land for just a few dollars per acre, Nader notes. Under the law, the Canadian company now known as Barrick Gold Corporation paid less than $10,000 for land expected to be worth more than $10 billion. The mining industry, which invests heavily in political campaigns, has killed every effort to reform the law.
Speaking of politics, Nader writes that half the money raised in this year’s presidential campaign comes from fewer than 400 families. He says: “The wealthy few invest heavily in shaping laws that strive to place unlimited private property and corporate expansion above and beyond all else, including the lives of people … the capacity of society to function as a democracy, and the stability of the living biosphere itself.”
And so it goes. Nader is often described as a consumer advocate, which is true but barely begins to capture what he’s up to. He’s more in the vein of a prophet decrying the many sins of corporations in particular and of society in general, before pointing the way toward salvation in the non-monetary values that we hold in common.
That sounds abstract and precious. Nader doesn’t intend it that way. The second half of his book is dedicated to the idea that breaking through power is actually “easier than we think” and that there are proven ways to create a healthy and vibrant democracy.
Nader’s thesis is that one percent of the people, passionate about a cause and organized enough to get the political system’s attention, can push through a stunning amount of reform.
“Consider major changes in U.S. history,” Nader writes. “Was there ever more than one percent of the American population actively pressing for abolition of slavery prior to the Civil War, for guaranteeing women the right to vote, or for advancing the right of workers to organize unions? Very unlikely.”
He offers an agenda for reform, including higher taxes on pollution, addictive products, corporate crime and Wall Street speculation, empowering people to sue corporations and the government, auditing the Department of Defense budget and creating a level playing field for local businesses by reversing “the unfair advantages that global corporations have lobbied into law.”
Nader also offers his ideas for the organizational framework it would take to push these reforms.
If each (Congressional) district had about 4,000 committed activists, each volunteering about 200 hours each year, they could establish an office dedicated to pursuing their goals, hire a small staff and establish a relationship with their representatives. These offices would, in turn, be connected to one another across the nation and would “learn from one another’s stories, ideas, proposals, and strategies,” he writes.
Nader’s vision is ambitious — critics would say utopian — but it is true that several thousand highly-mobilized, organized people in each Congressional district would make a dramatic difference. Other voices are calling for something similar. More controversially, Nader believes that the notion of the United States as a deeply polarized society is just another tool of the corporate oligarchs to keep us from embracing our power.
“It is precisely because people want the same basic things in life, with obvious variations, that the ruling powers have driven their divide-and-rule strategies throughout history,” he writes. The things we hold in common include a desire for clean elections, fair pay for honest work, healthy food and safe water, affordable medicine and healthcare, clean air, reasonable taxes and efficient government.
Since 2000, Nader’s frustration with the two-party system’s inability to honor these common goals has driven him to flirt with, or actually mount, third-party presidential bids. In the process, he has angered many Democrats and progressives. He’s been blamed for being a narcissist and helping to elect George W. Bush in 2000 — a charge that he roundly rejects. And he hasn’t done the campaign of Hillary Clinton any favors. Last year, he called her “a corporatist and a militarist” and “a menace.”
Nader’s belief that we should cultivate a left/right alliance to pursue common goals has also opened him up to criticism. In 2004, when he appeared at a conference in New Hampshire with the leader of a group called the New Alliance Party, a writer for The Nation called it an “ultrasectarian cult-racket,” asked why Nader would be “in bed” with the group and speculated that his “eerie isolation” might be causing him to lose his political judgment.
But a dozen years later, Nader, now 82, seems anything but isolated. Breaking Through Power was released in coordination with a four-day conference of the same name, held in late September, where there were sessions devoted to such topics as shareholder activism, statehood for Washington, D.C., public banking and building community through bartering.
Nader’s quest for cross-ideological alliances, like the brevity of his book and his third-party efforts, seems like more a symptom of impatience with the pace of progress than evidence of faltering judgment. One has to admire that Nader is still pressing forward, still cautiously hopeful — even after so many decades in the arena. Things may seem grim but the numbers and the evidence are on our side, he’s saying. We know the problems. We know what needs to be done. Here’s an action plan. It’s time to stop talking and get to work.