An interview with

Ralph Nader

by David Barsamian

The Progressive magazine, April 2000


Get et something on this guy.... Get him out of our hair.... Shut him up." These were the directions General Motors gave to a private detective hired to snoop on Ralph Nader. In 1965, Nader incurred GM's wrath with his best-selling book 'Unsafe at Any Speed', which exposed the company's poor auto safety record and its notorious Corvair car. But GM did not "get him." Instead, it had to pay Nader a large sum in an invasion of privacy suit. Nader used that money to seed his first public interest organization. Since bursting onto the national scene in the mid-1960s, he has maintained his crusade to correct the misdeeds and abuses of the corporate sector and the political system.

Nader is a catalytic converter who has sparked such organizations as Public Citizen, Public Interest Research Group, the Center for Auto Safety, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, as well as magazines such as Multinational Monitor. He was influential in the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. He helped create the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and four years later the Freedom of Information Act. His health and safety efforts have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. In recent years, he has been in the forefront of the struggles around NAFTA and the WTO. That the term "corporate welfare" is in the public discourse may be attributed to Nader's insistent references to it.

His Spartan-like habits are legendary. And he expects everyone around him to be as hardworking as he. It is sometimes tough to match the efforts of the tall Arab American from the small town of Winsted, Connecticut, but working for Nader has been a training ground for two generations of activists, progressive lawyers, and muckraking journalists.

In 1996, he was the Green Party's Presidential candidate. He did little campaigning and managed to get on the ballot in only twenty-two states. He received only 0.7 percent of the vote. This year, he is again a candidate. According to one staffer, Nader's goal is to help build the Green Party. If Nader gets at least 5 percent of the national vote, the Green Party would qualify for millions of dollars in federal election funding in the 2004 Presidential election.

A favorite Nader metaphor is the acorn and the oak: Mighty accomplishments have modest beginnings.

I've been interviewing Nader throughout the 1990s, and he is a regular on my Alternative Radio series. I talked with him by phone in late February just a few days after he announced his candidacy and a few days before his sixty-sixth birthday.

Question: The last time you ran, you didn't seem to give it your all. Are you more into it this time?

Ralph Nader: In 1996, I started getting letters from environmental groups and others in various states asking, would I put my name on the ballot of the Green Party? I said, I'm willing to do that, but I don't want to indicate in any way that I'm going to run, raise money, or campaign. I said, I will do media interviews, etc., and I fulfilled that promise. They knew right from the beginning that I was just standing in for the Green Party.

Now it's different. Now I'm running. It's a serious campaign to build the Green Party to significant status and to increase the likelihood that we'll have a national discussion on corporate power abuses and winner-take-all political rules. We're going to raise $5 million. We're going to go for matching funds. We have a very good web site at We're going to have some very good people in place, very energetic, very committed. We hope to have a staff of thirty in Washington and around the country. The first order of business is to get on the ballot in these difficult states like Michigan, Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

So in 1996, I stood. In the year 2000, I'm running.

The question of this campaign is, to every citizen, do you want to be more powerful? Are you tired of being pushed around? Are you tired of being entertained into trivial pursuits? Are you tired of having your children exploited by corporate hucksters? Are you tired of having the promise of America being held back by the greed and power of a few dominating the many? It's not going to be, support me and I will do this and that. It's, do you really want to be more powerful in your role as taxpayers against corporate welfare, as workers to organize trade unions, as consumers to advance the health, safety, and economic rights of ordinary people, and as voter citizens to be able to build the most important instrument for justice ever devised, a strong democracy? Do you want to be stronger? That's the question. If you do, you'll join this campaign.

Q: In your 1996 campaign, you insisted on focusing on the abuses of corporate power. You made a comment to William Safire of The New York Times that stung a lot of people. You said you weren't interested in "gonadal politics." Is this year going to be any different?

Nader: First of all, the concentration of the campaign will be on building democracy and opposing the concentration of corporate power and wealth over our government, marketplace, workplace, environment, childhood, and educational institutions. Secondly, I didn't mean that comment in any pejorative way. If you look it up in any Oxford dictionary, the word "gonadal" means that which begets. I could have used the phrase "sexual politics." I guess it would have been more understandable. But no one goes back longer in terms of fighting for civil rights and civil liberties. My first article, for example, was on American Indians and their plight on the reservations. I fought against the restrictions on women being prohibited from civil juries way back before some of the more prominent issues of homosexual rights and abortion came onto the political scene.

The Green Party has an excellent position on all these issues. They have people who are far more experienced in these areas than I am, and they will be speaking out on these issues as well. I feel most comfortable speaking out specifically on issues I've worked on.

Q: I understand that, but you're going to face questions on other issues like Roe v. Wade. If Bush is elected because of votes going toward the Greens, he'll appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe u Wade.

Nader: There are massive numbers of important issues that the two parties are blocking, such as significant arms control, control of devastating environmental contamination, heading off a rampaging genetic engineering industry, not to mention poverty, avoidable disease, illiteracy, collapsing infrastructure, corporate welfare, distortions of public budgets, etc. So while we all have our major issue or two, we have to keep in mind that there's a lot else at stake in trying to replace the present corrupt political system.

Having said that, I don't think that Roe u Wade will ever be overturned. I think the Republicans will destroy their party if they push this to the limit. They're already very, very cautious about not taking a hard stand the way Pat Buchanan has, for example. The reason why they're doing that is because they know they're going to lose a lot of votes if they do.

Q: People will also want to know your views on sanctions against Iraq, on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, on Chechnya, on Kosovo. You've got to be prepared to answer those questions.

Nader: They'll be answered in terms of frameworks. Once you get into more and more detail, the focus is completely diffused. The press will focus on the questions that are in the news. If Chechnya is in the news, they'll want to focus on that. We should ask ourselves, what kind of popular participation is there in foreign and military policy in this country? Very little indeed. We want to develop the frameworks. For example, do we want to pursue a vigorous policy of waging peace and put the resources into it from our national budget in the same way that we pursue the policy of building ever-new weapons systems? Corporations are very much involved in a lot of these foreign policy and military policy issues

Q: I know you want to focus on that which you know and do best, and that is corporate power. Nevertheless, it wouldn't take more than a couple of minutes to state your views, for example, on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. I don't know what your position is on it.

Nader: Of course I'm for it. Arms control is extremely important, yes.

Q: These are the kinds of things your campaign will need to flesh out.

Nader: That is not off my experience screen. I'm quite aware of how the arms race is driven by corporate demands for contracts, whether it's General Dynamics or Lockheed Martin. They drive it through Congress. They drive it by hiring Pentagon officials in the Washington military industrial complex, as Eisenhower phrased it.

Q: This is not a completely black-and-white issue. For example, U.S. corporations are dying to get into Cuba and Iran. Ideology is keeping them out. What are your views on that-on Cuba?

Nader: How are they dying to get in? They were dying to get in Iraq and sell Saddam Hussein military weapons before 1990. They want to get into other countries to sell arms. I don't think that's a good way to get in. What do they want to sell Cuba?

Q: Casinos and hotels.

Nader: Of course. Casinos, hotels, and junk products, and junk food. They'll try to undermine Cuba's organic agriculture expansion and its more self-reliant health system and get people into dependency through all kinds of pharmaceuticals. They're trying to export their model of economic expansion that is destructive of the environment and of self-reliant communities.

Q: I'd like you to address the fear that the Greens will act as spoilers and help elect a worse alternative.

Nader: The political system is dominated by the two parties, two subsidiaries of business money, which carve up districts where each one of them is dominant and not competitive with the other. These two parties have generated such a spoiled system, it's impossible to spoil them in any third party manner. You can only purge them, displace them, or at the least discipline them to remind them that they're supposed to represent people, not big corporations.

So the spoilers are the two-party duopoly, really one corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup. If you want to have politics regenerated, you have to give small seeds a chance to sprout.

We have a winner-take-all political system that discourages small parties and independent candidates from trying to start a new direction or a new movement. That's why we need a debate on proportional representation, which I think can be quite practically applied relatively soon at some municipal jurisdictions and then we can work up from there.

You've got about seventy-five House districts in 1998 that did not have an opposing major party candidate, even on the ballot, against the incumbent, whether Republican or Democrat. I think the Greens can begin picking those vacuums, not only at the Congressional level, but also at the state and local levels. I don't think enough has been known and publicized about how many one-party districts there are in the U.S., where the other opposing party has forfeited the trust of the public in participating in at least a two-party competition process, never mind that the two parties are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. I think those are real openings for Greens.

Q: For years, the lesser-of-two-evils argument has been advanced as a reason to vote for either the Democrat or the Republican. Peace activist Dave Dellinger calls that the "evil of two lessers."

Nader: Most people are not interested in being told, you've got two choices: Go vote for the least worst, or stay home. They want more choices. If they want to buy a car, they don't want to have to choose from just two cars. If they want to buy a house, they don't want to be told, You've got to buy one of these two houses in this city. They want choices.

They also, judging by the reactions in my audiences, are overwhelmingly supportive of a binding None-of-the-Above law. So if you don't like who's on the ballot, you can go down and vote for None of the Above in your voting precinct. If None of the Above wins more votes than any of the other candidates, it cancels that particular election, sends the candidates packing, and orders a new election and new candidates within thirty or forty-five days.

Q: What else are your audiences responding to?

Nader: The whole issue of corporate globalization, the corporate model of economic development, the autocratic systems of governance embedded in the WTO, which subvert our legitimate local, state, and national sovereignties and imperil our existing health and safety laws. The mandate of the WTO is trade uber alles. Trade subordinates all our consumer, environmental, health, safety, and workplace standards.

Today, it isn't just that a majority of workers are making less, inflation-adjusted, than they made in 1979, despite record macro-prosperity whose gains are being siphoned off by the top few percent of the wealthiest people. It's not just that. It's that they're having to put more and more time in, 163 hours more a year compared to twenty years ago. And they're having to spend money on things that they didn't have to spend money on thirty or forty years ago because of more commutes, more cars per family, more auto insurance policies, more fast food restaurants instead of eating at home, more time away from the kids. When you have to buy $70 Nintendo games and bring the commercial entertainment into the home, that's a form of a pay cut. One reason people think they're so hard-pressed is they're having to spend more on things that they didn't have to spend money on years ago, before this corporate, mall-dominated, suburban-sprawl-dominated political economy got established.

All these issues are going to be part of this campaign.

Q: The Green Party national convention is going to be held in Denver on the weekend of June 23. In 1996, Winona LaDuke ran as your Vice Presidential running mate. Have you talked to her about possibly running again?

Nader: I have, and she's committed to running again. I'm absolutely delighted. I urge that everyone read her new book called All Our Relations, which describes the ravages of corporations and government activity on the reservations of our first natives. This is a beautifully written book published by South End Press.

Q: Few people know of your Arab heritage. Your parents were born in Lebanon. You rarely mention this. I was wondering how that background, growing up with that heritage, influenced you.

Nader: It was a very civically responsible upbringing. My parents said to the children, "The other side of freedom is civic responsibility." So we were always encouraged to participate and try to improve our community and not be passive onlookers or bystanders. Our parents would take us to town meetings in my hometown, which were often pretty robust displays of discussion between the citizenry and the selectmen and mayor. I think it was also a time when children had some solitude. They weren't glued to video games and television thirty or forty hours a week. We played in the backyard instead of sitting on a couch gaining weight, getting out of shape, munching potato chips, and watching some violent cartoon show.

Q: What about the heritage of Arab culture?

Nader: We grew up learning the language-the proverbs were always a part of encouragement, admonition in the household. It was a very nurturing type of cultural upbringing.

Q: I have a sense that you're sometimes shy of using your prestige and position to advance a progressive agenda.

Nader: You're probably right. I really don't like to brag about our past achievements, although they are, over thirty-five or forty years, quite significant, and I think they improved the health and safety of the country and showed what individual citizens can do and exposed a lot of corporate and government abuses. But I always look forward. I never achieve anywhere near what I'd like to achieve.

It is important to remind people, though, especially young people who are demoralized and disengaged, that we've had some great victories, whether it was getting the coal mine health and safety laws through in the late 1960s or the environmental and consumer protection laws.

All these started with a very small number of people who built up a public constituency and developed what Judge Learned Hand called the "essential public sentiments" in behalf of needed changes. Now it's becoming more and more difficult to do that, as corporations have taken over the government and turned it almost actively against its own people, either blocking access to participation or by impeding the consumer, environmental, labor, small taxpayer, and clean-money reform efforts.

I always like Cicero's definition of freedom-to show you how little has changed in terms of wise insights in this world. This was a little over 2,000 years ago. He said, "Freedom is participation in power."

I also recall Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis's statement. He said, back a little over sixty years ago, "We can have democracy, or we can have the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both." That's really the touchstone of this campaign.


David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. His most recent interview for The Progressive was with Noam Chomsky in the September 1999 issue.

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