Ralph Nader ran for president four times, but most people only remember when he ran against Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. As the Green Party nominee Nader got nearly 3 million votes, 97,421 of them in Florida — a pivotal state where, after a contentious recount and a Supreme Court decision, Bush beat Gore by 537 votes. Democrats excoriated Nader, calling him a spoiler. He lost many friends. Even Public Citizen, the advocacy group he founded in 1971, distanced itself from him. Nader has no regrets about running and has remained steadfast in his belief that democracy requires multiparty elections: it is not good enough to have people cast votes for the candidate they find less distasteful than the other one.
Before that election, Nader was among the most trusted people in the U.S. To some he was known as Saint Ralph. A ubiquitous consumer advocate, he’d gained a reputation for being a vigilant citizen. His coworkers remember the copious amount of mail that poured into his D.C. office: letters from fans and admirers; desperate pleas for help. Someone sent the driveshaft from a car, asking if it was defective; someone else sent a box of dry ice containing one of his lungs. Deemed cancerous, it had been surgically removed, and the man wondered if the operation had been necessary.
Nader remembers his childhood fondly. “I was very lucky,” he says, “with my parents.” Immigrants from Lebanon, they raised four children in the mill town of Winsted, Connecticut. Nader’s mother, Rose, was a civic gadfly who once convinced Senator Prescott Bush to build a dam so the town wouldn’t keep flooding. His father, Nathra, ran a restaurant and bakery, where he presided over political debates with his customers; Nader worked there when he wasn’t at the library. At fourteen he was reading copies of the Congressional Record. Rose once asked her son Ralph if he loved his country, and when he said yes, she told him to work hard to make it even more lovable. The Naders frequently attended Winsted’s boisterous town meetings, where locals aired their grievances. In retrospect it seems inevitable that all four Nader children would grow up to become advocates for the greater good.
A shy, bookish student, Nader knew early on that he wanted to be a lawyer — specifically the kind who helped the downtrodden. At Princeton he studied Far East politics and four languages and sent feisty letters to the school paper, some of which concerned the dead birds he kept finding around campus: he blamed the school’s use of the pesticide DDT. When the paper didn’t publish his letters, he carried a dead bird to the editor’s office and gave it to him; the editor’s naive response was that the university’s scientists would never allow the use of DDT if it were unsafe.
After graduating, Nader hitchhiked across the country, picked apricots in California with migrant workers, and served food to tourists in Yosemite. Then he headed to law school at Harvard. He disapproved of the school’s emphasis on corporate law and sometimes skipped classes to explore issues that interested him: the exploitation of migrant workers, the plight of Native Americans, the need for third parties in U.S. elections. In his final year at Harvard he plunged into the subject that would make him famous: the ways in which automakers knowingly cut corners on safety features in their cars, causing millions of unnecessary fatalities. He published an essay about it in the Harvard Law Record titled “The American Automobile: Designed for Death?”
In 1964, after passing the bar, traveling around the world, and serving as a cook in the Army, Nader took a job in D.C. with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the assistant labor secretary. One year later, in November 1965, he published Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. The exposé of the automobile industry was packed with information about easily fixed design flaws: loose seats, poor brakes, weak frames, hazardous glove boxes (he’d witnessed an accident in which a little girl’s head had been severed by a glove-box door), steering columns that could impale drivers. The book became a best seller; Nader testified before Congress; auto-safety bills were signed into law; and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was established. Thanks to Nader we have seat belts and air bags, vehicles that don’t flip over because of suspension defects, engines that won’t explode in a crash. He was featured on the cover of Time in 1969 under the headline “The Consumer Revolt.”
It’s estimated that at least 3.5 million lives were saved between 1966 and 2014 because of Nader’s campaign against dangerous automobiles, and many more lives were saved or improved by his other investigations. He and the idealistic people who worked with him, called “Nader’s Raiders,” helped provide us with clean air and water; less-toxic foods; nutritional labels; cigarette warning labels; protective X-ray aprons; workplace-safety laws; toys that don’t choke kids; and medical devices that don’t electrocute patients. Nader is the country’s safety inspector, keeping an eye on the leaking roof, the cracked pipes, the seep of sewage into our daily lives.
A tall, solitary man with no wife or children (and apparently no car, cellphone, or romantic partners), Nader has founded more than fifty public-interest groups and watchdog agencies. Now eighty-five, he still resembles the somber, youthful David who battled Detroit’s mighty Goliath with a slingshot made of hard facts. Though Nader has never been a fan of computers or electronic gadgets, he does maintain an active Twitter feed (@RalphNader) and podcast (The Ralph Nader Radio Hour) dedicated to dastardly deeds committed by powerful people. His most recent books are To the Ramparts and the novel How the Rats Re-Formed the Congress. He recently called out the major airlines for unsafe practices and political favors — and a few days later, in a sad irony, his twenty-four-year-old grandniece, Samya Stumo, was killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash caused by design flaws in the Boeing 737 MAX 8.
Underneath his serious demeanor, Nader is said to love humor, which perhaps explains his four appearances (including a stint as host) on Saturday Night Live. In one skit he inspected blow-up sex dolls; in another his own personal air bag failed to detonate when he was hugged. He’s a good straight man. Once there are no more injustices, Nader says, the ultimate purpose of life is laughter.
Nader wants us to realize our own power and to understand that a few determined citizens can change almost anything. These words he wrote in 1972 still feel relevant today: “Let it not be said by a future, forlorn generation that we wasted and lost our great potential because our despair was so deep we didn’t even try, or because each of us thought someone else was worrying about our problems.”
Barsamian: What’s your take on what’s going on in the country?
Nader: There’s a relentless increase in corporate control of our elections, of government, and of democratic institutions. I would say this is the high point of corporate control in a mature corporate state. The media are concentrated in a few hands. We have an uncontrollable military-industrial complex. Corporations are controlling people’s money through credit cards, debit cards, and online payment systems. Corporations have so much control in Washington, D.C., and state capitals that they can turn the government against its own people. And now they’re getting their favorites appointed to the courts.
Corporations strategically plan our lives. They plan the food we eat: junk food and junk drink, leading to huge obesity rates among children. They market directly to children, circumventing parental authority. They’re certainly trying to strategically plan our elections, our government policies, and our public budgets to produce more F-35s and nuclear weapons and fewer public works and public facilities. They don’t have to have a conspiracy to do this. If they had a conspiracy, it would mean there was some resistance that they had to conspire against.
Corporations are strategically planning a lot of our military and foreign policy. They’re strategically planning our education system. They’re commercializing education. They want all children to be computer-literate but not civics-literate.
And election campaigns are commercialized. That’s why even some of the best candidates rarely use phrases like “corporate welfare,” “corporate crime,” “corporate domination,” or “corporate control,” even though back in 2000 Business Week polled the American people and found that more than 70 percent of them thought corporations had too much control over people’s lives. People know who’s running the show, but they haven’t organized to take advantage of the huge asset called the Constitution, which starts with “We the people,” not “We the corporation” or “We the Congress.” We have all kinds of support on both the Left and the Right for Medicare for All, living wages, and cracking down on corporate crime. This idea of red state versus blue state doesn’t quite hold up when you go down to where people live, work, and raise their children. They want clean air; they want clean water; they want adequate health care; they want good public schools and public transportation.
Every major advance for justice in our country took no more than 1 percent of adults — around 2.5 million people — with public opinion behind them, mobilizing to change government policy. If you’ve got 2.5 million people, you can recover our country, recover our government, recover our hopes and dreams. Is that too much to ask, 1 percent?
Barsamian: The novelist Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
Nader: This isn’t really capitalism as we used to know it. My father and mother had a restaurant. That’s capitalism. What’s taken over now is big corporate capitalism. Corporations tie up small businesses in franchise agreements. The little guys are disadvantaged because the big guys get more tax breaks. Corporate capitalism is literally destroying traditional, small-scale capitalism.
Barsamian: The big corporations that we once knew — U.S. Steel, General Motors, Sears, Westinghouse — have been replaced by Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon. How are they different from their predecessors?
Nader: They’re quite ingenious and innovative. As someone once said about Facebook: when you, the customer, get something for free, watch out, because you have become the product. And Facebook’s product is all that personal information you give it, which can go anywhere in the world, not just to aboveboard advertisers but to very nefarious users. The question is: Why have we done this? Why don’t we charge Facebook for our personal information? Because we’re not organized. And Facebook is organized to the teeth. They know our weak points. They know how to put us in touch with one another through gossip and text messages and photographs. They know how to get to us at the most emotional, personal level without our realizing that we’re allowing them in. Facebook’s apologist-in-chief, Mark Zuckerberg, apologizes every day before breakfast and then keeps doing what he just said he’s not going to do anymore.
Barsamian: The country feels more divided than ever. How do we overcome sectarian differences?
Nader: Appeal to people’s sense of fair play and justice. When you do that, suddenly the red state/blue state divide disappears. When I talk to conservatives in Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia, guess what? They get hurt, too, when there are dangerous cars and toxic air pollution. They get ripped off by the credit-card companies and insurance companies and banks. Focus on these issues that hurt people directly, and suddenly you have an unbeatable political coalition of conservative and liberal people who want a safe environment. You have conservative and liberal taxpayers who don’t want their taxes to subsidize big business and Wall Street. You have conservative and liberal voters locking arms.
Do you know that some of the biggest legal victories against corporations are won in the most conservative areas of the country? They are won in Texas or Alabama, not Massachusetts or New York. Why? Because people resent the way they’re being treated. And when they’re in that jury box, they give the plaintiffs an adequate award, plus punitive damages.
We have to defeat this divide-and-rule strategy, which goes back thousands of years. That’s how the few control the many. Yes, there are divisions over reproductive rights and gun control, but many policies that would transform this country get combined Left-Right support. If you get Left-Right support on Medicare for All and organize that support in every congressional district, it’s unstoppable. You will see the Congress turn around like that. Because when politicians see power they can’t beat or co-opt, they are very opportunistic. They want to stay in office.
Barsamian: There is this wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant grandstanding by the Trump administration.
Nader: Immigrants, you know, are often anxious about whether they’re going to succeed when they come here, so they tend to be entrepreneurial and hardworking. They have built a lot of our economy and invented a lot of our products and led in many professions. Trump has hyped up his immigration policy with lies, saying immigrants are criminals and rapists. You get Fox News and others reporting this again and again, and combine that with all the tweets that Trump puts out, and you can create an issue out of nothing.
There are obviously border-security issues. It’s not like you can have open borders. The Wall Street Journal really likes open borders, by the way, because they want wages to be driven down. But you can have compassionate borders. You can let people in for a period of time to do work that most Americans don’t want to do. But if we raised the minimum wage, if we didn’t historically support vicious dictators in Central America, we would have less of an undocumented-immigration problem. When their governments are brutalizing them, what do you think people are going to do? They’re going to flee to save their families. Who wouldn’t?
Barsamian: Your parents were immigrants from Lebanon. What were their circumstances?
Nader: My father came here at the age of nineteen, because there weren’t any jobs in Lebanon and he wanted to support his family, his siblings, and his mother. His father had passed away after immigrating to Brazil. It was about economic opportunity for my father. My mother was a teacher. My father ran a restaurant where the atmosphere was like a town meeting every day. One customer said, “At Nader’s for a nickel you got a cup of coffee and ten minutes of politics.” Sometimes people sitting at the counter chided my father for his outspoken views and warned him he would lose business by talking so controversially. He would tell them that when he’d sailed past the Statue of Liberty, he’d taken it seriously.
Barsamian: I have a somewhat similar background. My parents fled the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. They met in Beirut in an arranged marriage and came to New York. My father opened a grocery store and worked long hours. We lived upstairs in a tenement, and the grocery store was downstairs.
Nader: Trump wants to admit only skilled immigrants, like doctors, engineers, and computer scientists. If that policy had been in place in our parents’ era, where would you and I have been? Where would tens of millions of Americans have been? Even Trump wouldn’t be here. His grandfather, who came from Germany, wasn’t exactly skilled. But, then, hypocrisy is in Donald Trump’s DNA, right?
This idea of red state versus blue state doesn’t quite hold up when you go down to where people live, work, and raise their children. They want clean air; they want clean water; they want adequate health care; they want good public schools and public transportation.
Barsamian: Trump is a pretty easy target. It’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel.
Nader: Except he gets away with everything.
Barsamian: So far. Ninety percent of Republicans still support him.
Nader: Ninety percent of Republicans is less than 25 percent of voters.
Barsamian: But how do you account for even that support?
Nader: It’s called the Democratic Party. It’s called Hillary Clinton. So many people who voted for Trump hated Clinton. When you don’t see an alternative, you go with the guy who speaks to your prejudices. I once asked a Trump voter, “Why are you voting for Trump? You’re intelligent.” He said, “First, he looks like us.” Remember Trump’s final slogan before he was elected? He said to voters, “This is our last chance.” His base knew what he meant. Second, this guy I spoke to told me that all politicians lie, and he liked Trump because Trump lies optimistically: everything is rosy; the economy is terrific; we’re going to make a deal with North Korea; we’re going to make America great again.
Remember, Trump was not elected by a majority of the vote. He was selected by the Electoral College. Hillary Clinton, for all her foibles — Hawk Hillary, Wall Street Hillary — beat him by almost 3 million votes. We have to get rid of this crazy, antiquated system where you can come in second running for president, as George W. Bush did to Al Gore in 2000 by half a million votes, and you still become president.
Barsamian: Do you think those corporations you were describing earlier feel good about Trump’s global economic policies and tariffs?
Nader: They’re nervous. So far he’s done things they like. He’s cut corporate taxes. He’s cut taxes for the rich. So they like that. Deregulation — they like that, too, even though most regulations are so out of date they have hardly any bite to them. They love the huge expansion of the military budget. Trump gave the Pentagon $80 billion it wasn’t even asking for, which delighted Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics.
So they like him so far. But he is unpredictable, and they don’t like unpredictable politicians. They don’t want to get into a war that will mess up the stock market and the banking system. They’re worried about his instability, and they’re worried about the warmongers around Trump, like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Barsamian: One focus for the Republicans in 2016 was the Supreme Court. To the religious Right, in particular, it was a critical issue.
Nader: Of course, because once you get a nominee confirmed by the Senate, he or she is on the court for life. It’s very hard to impeach a Supreme Court justice, and they have enormous power. What we have now is such a razor-edge system. If John Kerry had gotten about a hundred thousand more votes in Ohio in 2004, he would have won the election and made two nominations to the Supreme Court. If the Democrats had won just two more Senate seats in 2016, we wouldn’t have Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.
This is where we’re at. The Democratic Party cannot defend our nation against the most corrupt, ignorant, Wall Street–indentured, warmongering, corporatist, pro-corporate-welfare, antiworker, anticonsumer, anti-environmentalist Republican Party since it was created in 1854.
So when you go after Trump and the Republicans, ask yourself who put them in office. The Democrats don’t allow competitive third parties and candidates to get on the ballot. They don’t let them participate in presidential debates, and they harass them with frivolous lawsuits, as they did to my campaign in 2004.
Barsamian: Would you favor term limits for Supreme Court justices?
Nader: Yes, I favor twelve years and out. That’s enough. In fact, the appointment system has resulted in such corporatist judges that the court has repeatedly voted 5-4 to entrench the corporate state. The justices think corporations are people and have privileges and immunities real people don’t. I don’t think that would be the case if Supreme Court justices were elected.
Ask a tough question, will you?
Barsamian: Gerrymandering [the practice of redrawing legislative districts to favor one political party — Ed.].
Nader: Gerrymandering is basically a system in which the politicians pick the voters instead of the people picking the politicians. Democrats hate gerrymandering when Republicans control more state legislatures, and Republicans hate gerrymandering when the shoe is on the other foot. So who is responsible? I blame both parties.
Having said that, the Republicans control the majority of state legislatures and governorships, so they can gerrymander more. To combat this, the Democrats have to get a lot more people out to vote. There are more than 100 million people over the age of eighteen who didn’t vote in 2016. And Democratic issues poll much better than Republican issues. The Democrats are for a higher minimum wage, and the Republicans are against a minimum wage on principle, never mind how much it is.
The way to get rid of gerrymandering is to do what California and Iowa have done: create a nonpartisan civil-service commission to carve out voting districts so legislators don’t cherry-pick Republican and Democratic voters. It’s up to the Supreme Court, and they’re getting a little closer to declaring raw, brazen gerrymandering unconstitutional.
Barsamian: Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have a book out called How Democracies Die. They write, “We tend to think of democracies [as] dying at the hands of men with guns. But there is another way to break a democracy. . . . At the hands not of generals but of elected leaders.” They go on to say that Trump’s election was a step toward authoritarianism, but the erosion began long before Trump, and the problems will outlast him.
Nader: First, those Harvard professors don’t go far enough. They say it starts with elected officials, but the drip, drip erosion of democracy starts with the people who don’t vote or don’t cast an informed vote; the people who sneer at “politics” as if it were a dirty word. If those Americans think politics is dirty, why are they so surprised when they get dirty politics? We’re the ones who give the senators and representatives our sovereign power, which they turn around and sell to Wall Street to use against us. It’s like that quote from the comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” People today might say that’s blaming the victim, but let me tell you something: Americans who don’t vote, who don’t attend town meetings, who can’t be bothered to go to rallies for causes they believe in, who can’t be bothered to ask their children what they learned in school today — every time these people say, “I can’t be bothered,” they contribute to the drip, drip, drip erosion of our democratic society.
Why do 90 percent of eligible voters turn out in Australia? Because in Australia voting is a civic duty. [Failure to vote in a federal election in Australia is punishable with a twenty-dollar fine.] In the U.S. Constitution we have many rights but only one duty, jury duty, and that’s easily evaded.
Instead we get voter suppression. There is no other Western country that works so hard to block people from voting and to block serious third-party and independent candidates from getting on the ballot. And the two are connected. You can’t have a meaningful vote without meaningful differences among candidates.
Democracy means nothing if you can’t challenge the two entrenched parties. State ballot-access laws are horrifically difficult to surmount: short deadlines, huge numbers of names on petitions, petitions arbitrarily invalidated. People grow up thinking they have only two choices, Republican or Democrat — and they teach this, by the way, in elementary school. One mother from North Dakota told me her nine-year-old wanted to vote for me in the class election, but my picture wasn’t in Scholastic magazine.
We’ve got to change the voting laws. We need a universal voting requirement and easy access to the ballot. It is harder to get on the ballot in North Carolina than in eight European countries.
Barsamian: I thought you were going to say North Korea. [Laughter.]
There is a whiff of fascism in the air. I use that term with care, because sometimes it’s invoked promiscuously. But Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.”
Nader: That was in a message to Congress in 1938 before World War II. And that’s what fascism is: the merger of big business and government, so that big business not only has power over the private economy but uses the power of government to entrench itself. This usually brings violations of civil liberties, suppression of free speech, manipulation of elections to a point where they shouldn’t even be called elections, and the concentration of wealth, income, and power in the hands of the few.
Barsamian: Would you include Trump’s relentless attacks on the media and journalists as a warning sign of fascism?
Nader: Yes, of course. Fascism attacks any potential challenge from society. It attacks minorities who don’t go along, which is what Hitler did, obviously. The fascist corporate state can brook no budding challenge. It can’t allow challengers to get a foot in the door.
Barsamian: Individual journalists have been called out by the president, putting them in danger.
Nader: If the Mueller investigation subpoenas Trump and he creates a constitutional crisis, I predict he will incite the people at his rallies to physically attack and injure reporters, and Trump will be sued for incitement to violence. Though presidents are above the law when it comes to military and foreign policy, they cannot escape criminal law. For example, Trump could give the country’s wealth away to the big banks and get away with it, but if he goes out and robs a bank in person, he will be prosecuted. The same was true for Bill Clinton, who lied under oath and was stripped of his right to practice law in Arkansas and was impeached by the House but acquitted in the Senate.
Barsamian: Where do you see the Mueller investigation going? Do you think there will be indictments coming down?
Nader: Yes, because Mueller’s strategy is to build a slam-dunk case against Trump for obstruction of justice, and to do that, he needs to have convictions. Once he gets a number of convictions at the lower level, then he could go after Trump for obstruction of justice — which was, by the way, what brought Nixon down: obstructing justice in the investigation of the Watergate break-in.
Barsamian: But not the secret bombing of Cambodia.
Nader: That’s where presidents are above the law. They are judge, jury, executioner, and cover-upper. And all recent presidents, Democrat and Republican, have expanded that authority all over the world and gotten away with it.
Barsamian: Is the focus on Russian meddling in our elections a distraction or something concrete?
Nader: It is concrete, but, first of all, we’ve not only meddled in other countries’ elections for more than sixty years; we’ve overthrown democratically elected leaders from Iran to Guatemala. And it’s still going on. Meddling in elections is part of our foreign policy. Look what we did in Honduras and Ukraine under Obama. We meddle, but we don’t like it that the Russians are meddling — and they did meddle. I don’t know whether it changed many votes, but they got into social media; they tried to scare people with propaganda; they favored one side over another. I think they wanted Trump because Hillary Clinton was very aggressive against Russia.
Barsamian: To change the topic, in August 1964 fourteen thousand retirees went to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to lobby for passage of Medicare. Within months that bill was signed, actually in the presence of Harry Truman, because he had tried and failed to pass a national health-insurance plan in the late 1940s, when he was president. What can we learn about that successful struggle?
Nader: As I always say, it’s easier than we think. If 2.5 million people each gave three hundred volunteer hours a year, across every congressional district, we would have full Medicare for All in two years or less. Why? Because the majority of people want it. They don’t like our health-care system. They don’t like the high prices of drugs these days. They don’t want to be arbitrarily denied coverage even when they have health insurance. Too many people have internalized this sense of powerlessness that also makes them comfortable. They make excuses for themselves so they can spend more time watching TV.
I don’t want to be too harsh, because I know a lot of people have two jobs, or are single moms, or have to take care of ailing parents. They often can’t break away and go to a town meeting. But I was part of the disability-rights movement years ago, and we had seriously disabled people who got on the phone and pressured their legislators. And if they can do it, almost everyone should be able to do it.
I look for a million people to surround Congress — while it’s in session, not on a weekend — and demand full Medicare for All, a more efficient system with free choice of doctors and hospitals and better outcomes and more lives saved. Right now when the members of Congress, all 535 of them, look around, all they see are drug-company lobbyists and hospital-chain lobbyists with their checkbooks out.
The drip, drip erosion of democracy starts with the people who don’t vote or don’t cast an informed vote; the people who sneer at “politics” as if it were a dirty word. If those Americans think politics is dirty, why are they so surprised when they get dirty politics?
Barsamian: Maybe we can take inspiration from what happened in the tiny, landlocked Republic of Armenia in April and May of 2018, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets, closed down government ministries, and nonviolently overthrew an entrenched, corrupt oligarchy that had been in power for decades. It was barely reported here in the U.S.
Nader: You make a good point. We hear plenty about war on the news but little about peace. How about the incredible breakthrough between the neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea? The forty-one-year-old prime minister of Ethiopia, a marvelous progressive, has basically said to the dictatorship of Eritrea, “Enough bloodshed over desert land. Enough. We’re going to have peace.” And the population just rose in applause. Where is that reported? Colman McCarthy, who works successfully to get peace studies taught in high schools and colleges, says there are a lot of examples over the last hundred years where waging peace has worked, but 99 percent of the news coverage is of war.
Barsamian: Journalist Edward R. Murrow famously said: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”
Nader: With apologies to the wolves. They very rarely attack humans.
Barsamian: Let’s talk about other history lessons that are applicable today.
Nader: Knowledge of history is critical for life in the present. If you don’t know U.S. history, you don’t know about the farmers’ revolt in the late 1800s, which created the People’s Party and produced a lot of wonderful things we benefit from, such as the eight-hour workday and the popular election of U.S. senators.
Civics has been downgraded in school. Children don’t learn how to use the tools of democracy. They aren’t given civic experience in the community under adult supervision. They just are told, “Sit down, look at the computer, and develop computer skills.” We’re going to lose a generation. The older generation has to take hold here instead of letting go. Just because the young know more about technology doesn’t mean the parents don’t have a responsibility to provide parental wisdom and discipline.
History is taught at home, not just at school. When I came home from school for lunch, my mother narrated historic sagas. And in the afternoon my father would ask, “What did you learn today?” I might say, “We learned that Columbus discovered America.” And he would say, “Columbus? Sit down, son. Columbus invaded America for gold and killed the people who were here.” And these parental lessons are never forgotten.
Barsamian: I was also thinking of how the robber barons of the late nineteenth century led to the Progressive Era in the early twentieth.
Nader: There are a lot of examples. When I went after the auto industry, I learned a lot from Eugene Debs [founder of the Socialist Party of America]. I learned how he talked, how he motivated people, how he let you know that he was never going to sell out. And I read the great muckrakers when I was twelve or thirteen years old. One ear was cocked to radio station WINS, listening to a New York Yankees game, and both eyes were reading Ida Tarbell on Standard Oil or Upton Sinclair on the meat industry. I was excited beyond belief, because justice excited me. If you don’t have the fire in your belly for justice, it doesn’t matter what you study or where, at Princeton or Smith or Harvard or Morehouse College. I met engineers who knew more about auto safety than I did, but they didn’t have the fire in their belly; they just had the knowledge. And I had lost a lot of friends in traffic accidents. Right now young people have one-sixth the probability of being killed in a traffic accident than when I was in high school. And many who weren’t killed were disabled. In those days they wouldn’t allow disabled kids in schools. They weren’t going to lift a wheelchair up the steps. They weren’t going to fix the sidewalks all over this country for wheelchairs and install elevators in two- and three-story buildings. But thanks to the disability-rights movement, it’s happened. As they say, the blasphemy of the past can become the commonplace of the future.
Barsamian: What’s that quote from Daniel Webster that you’re fond of?
Nader: Webster was a senator from Massachusetts and also a lawyer for the National Bank. He once said, “Justice is the great work of man on earth.” I’ve changed it to “Justice is the great work of human beings on earth.” But it is true. Without justice there’s no freedom. Erich Fromm, the psychologist from Yale, defined freedom as having two parts: freedom from oppression, arbitrary authority, dictatorship, and harassment; and freedom to be civically involved in the shaping of local, state, national, and international policy — to be a citizen, to have a voice.
The rascals in charge of our plutocracy like to talk about freedom from big-government bureaucracy — but they love big government when it gives them bailouts, subsidies, legal monopolies, and so on.
Our law schools are a big contributor to the decline of democracy. They give priority to the corporate-law courses, because that’s where the big money is, and neglect people’s-law courses. When I took a landlord-tenant class at Harvard Law School, we hardly got to the tenant. There’s no money in representing tenants. The money is in representing landlords. Labor law was far down in the pecking order. Criminal law was all about street crime and domestic crime, never corporate crime.
Barsamian: What do you think of recent arguments about free speech on campuses and students refusing to allow certain public figures to speak at events?
Nader: The campuses have really changed. They were among the first responders on the environment, women’s rights, civil rights. Now they have conflicts over politically correct speech. People used to be invited to speak before large auditoriums full of rapt students ready to sign petitions. Those days are over. I really mean over. Done.
Barsamian: So you don’t believe that students are politically aware?
Nader: You can’t even look them in the eye. They walk through campus looking at their cellphones. They know less and less about history. I talk to students today whose priority is the environment, and they’ve never heard of Barry Commoner, arguably the most prominent scientist on the environment in the twentieth century. They are factually deprived, in part because they think they can access any fact at their fingertips anytime, anywhere. So why would they want to know the names of the Supreme Court justices, or the name of their governor, or the name of their member of Congress? The main way to get a rise out of students today is with verbal slurs about gender and race.
Barsamian: But hasn’t Trump’s election made students more aware of what’s going on in politics?
Nader: Maybe, but if you ask them, “What bad things has Trump done?” the answer is about his misogyny, bigotry, lies, fabrications, egomania, and the border wall. All this provided camouflage to cover how his deregulators have devastated law enforcement for deadly, widespread corporate abuses.
Barsamian: There’s this idea that no one who has anything close to Trump’s ideology should be allowed to speak on campus.
Nader: When I was in college, the right wing were the censors, and the liberals were the defenders of free speech. Now it’s both the Right and the Left who are the censors.
Barsamian: What do you think about some of these activist movements that have developed in the last few years — Black Lives Matter, 350.org, #MeToo?
Nader: Not enough elderly people in them. Some retirees are ailing and can’t get about, but there are plenty who can. Retirement communities could be incubators for peaceful revolution. Their residents have a lot of leisure time. Remember the Gray Panthers? They were started by Maggie Kuhn, a social worker for the Presbyterian Church. After she was mandatorily retired in her sixties, she was outraged. She stood up and mobilized older people all over the country. She said, “Try to do at least one outrageous thing a day.” And, lo and behold, she was catapulted to The Tonight Show.
I think we ought to rouse the elderly. They have wisdom, experience, historical knowledge. They shouldn’t be marginalized just because they don’t have the latest Silicon Valley technology — though some of them can use technology pretty well. These are people who have time, they have perspective, and I think they are concerned about what effect they will have on their descendants.
Barsamian: Along that line, what we are doing now to the earth is going to have an enormous impact on future generations in terms of climate change and economic and social devastation.
Nader: Yes, and that can motivate young people, too, especially on campuses. I don’t like the term “climate change.” It’s climate disruption; it’s climate violence. That’s the way we should talk about it. Why do we so often use the words of our adversaries? The corporations don’t want us to say, “The corporate sector.” It’s the “private sector.” They don’t want us to say, “Taxpayer handouts to big business.” It’s “incentives.” It’s never the “estate tax”; it’s the “death tax.”
Conservatives like to talk about “austerity,” but what does that mean? It means giving taxpayer dollars to nuclear submarines or the next ten military adventures overseas instead of renovating our schools and building clinics and improving our public transit and highways and bridges and courthouses. The language we use is very important.
Barsamian: It’s always “corporate leaders” but “union bosses.”
Nader: Yes. Liberals are very bad at coining phrases. They don’t even use “corporate crime.” They let it be “white-collar crime,” which brings to mind some employee embezzling from the bank. The big corporate crime is Wells Fargo embezzling from the American people, creating fictitious accounts without even letting its customers know about it. No corporate prosecution yet, by the way, of Wells Fargo.
Barsamian: A lot of the climate disruption movement is powered by young people who are concerned about what’s happening to the earth. In The New York Times Magazine Nathaniel Rich writes that by 2030 “the number of people affected by floods worldwide is expected to triple.” He ends by saying that “by the turn of the next century global sea levels will have risen from one to four feet, potentially turning hundreds of millions of people into refugees.” I get kind of numb reading that. It’s a litany of catastrophes.
Nader: Climate violence is spreading viruses, bacteria, infections. Malaria may reemerge in southern parts of the U.S. So it isn’t just floods and fires. It’s pandemics and epidemics.
While you were quoting Rich, I was thinking, What would be Donald Trump’s response? I think he would tell his grown children, “Quick, start a cruise line through the Arctic from England to Japan.” These climate deniers have commercial motives, you know. It’s not just that they do not believe the science.
Barsamian: Third-century BCE Confucian scholar Hsün-Tzu said, “The nature of man is such that he is born with a fondness for profit. If he indulges this fondness, it will move him into wrangling and strife, and all sense of courtesy and humility will disappear.”
Nader: The frailties — and the virtues and the strengths — of human beings were recognized millennia ago. Why are people still studying Greek tragedies, Greek plays, Aristophanes, Euripides? Why do they read Shakespeare? We need to relish the wisdom of the ancients. Another Chinese philosopher, in the fourteenth century, said, “To know and not to do is not to know.” Our society has solutions on the shelf that are not being applied to problems on the ground. We know what to do about climate disruption; we know what to do about housing; we know what to do about living wage; we know how to open access to the courtrooms; we know what to do about fair taxation; we know what to do about full Medicare for All. But we don’t do it.
Barsamian: One of the signature New Deal pieces of legislation was Social Security, established in 1935. There has been a lot of fearmongering about whether there will be enough money there for most of us when we retire. Where does Social Security stand today?
Nader: First of all, it’s vulnerable to the Republican Party’s platform of social insecurity. They want to privatize Social Security, which means they want to put it in the stock market, where it goes up and down or crashes.
Second, as long as the economy grows 2 percent, 2.5 percent, 3 percent, there’s enough reserve to keep fully paying Social Security. If economic growth sinks below that, and we don’t have enough young people in the workforce due to automation, Social Security’s reserve is going to go down, and maybe in ten, twenty, thirty years it’s going to be in the red. Not that you won’t get Social Security, but you will get less of it. And we have to be careful about that.
The Republicans in Congress passed, with Democratic complicity, a provision that the U.S. government could reduce its annual deficit by borrowing from the Social Security reserve and leaving a Treasury-bond IOU in its place. So instead of trillions of dollars in reserve, it could be nothing but an IOU from Uncle Sam.
Barsamian: Social Security used to be untouchable in American politics.
Nader: Not anymore. Republicans are trying to pit the younger generation against the older generation, saying, “Look at these elderly Americans. They get all this social welfare and money, and all you get is student-loan debt.” That is true. But older people aren’t to blame. They paid into the system. It’s Wall Street that tanked the economy and unemployed so many and drained the public treasury with corporate bailouts so that there couldn’t be tuition-free higher education or lower-interest student loans.
Barsamian: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is leading a younger progressive movement in Congress that has already started to draw criticism from older, incumbent Democrats. Do you think this is a healthy dismantling of dated ideologies, or are these younger legislators shooting themselves and their party in the foot?
Nader: The corporate Democrats who’ve run the party in Congress, led by Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, barely stumbled into a victory in 2018. We can’t rely on them to resuscitate and expand our democratic society and respond to the needs of the American people. But it’s going to be tough for these newcomers to replace them, because Pelosi knows far better how to control her rebellious Democrats than she knows how to control corporate power.
Ocasio-Cortez has got to work her base, because her opponents are going to go after her. If she becomes embarrassing to the corporate Democrats, I can see them challenging her and others in the freshman class.
Barsamian: Do you think the Green New Deal [a proposed plan to address climate change and economic inequality] can work?
Nader: It’s a good vision. It’s good for consumers, good for workers, good for posterity, and good for the planet. So I’m glad someone put it down on paper. It’s being attacked, as you know, and there were some mishaps. Early on, her office said it would guarantee economic security for people who are “unable or unwilling to work,” and no one edited out the “unwilling.” It’s a big step forward, however. And they can start campaigning on the details and getting congressional hearings.
Barsamian: There was recently a story about how 7 million Americans are three months behind on their car payments, and another about how household debt is at a record high in the U.S. Yet we’re told the economy is doing just fine. Is this another Trump smoke screen? Are we heading for a collapse or recession?
Nader: The signs are all there, but what administrations do is choose their economic yardsticks carefully. Whoever controls the yardsticks controls the discussion and the agenda. Trump will point out that the stock market is up, we have record corporate profits, unemployment is down, although there’s a lot of underemployment. If you work part time — the average of which is twenty-one hours a week — you’re considered employed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Yet wages are fairly stagnant. Consumer debt is at an all-time high. Student debt is at an all-time high. And the budget deficit is climbing faster and faster. How could things be great when so much debt is at record levels and not abating?
Barsamian: What about points of resistance? What opportunities do you see?
Nader: A lot of them. Ordinary people, for starters. Look at what the Tea Party did in 2009: Members of the right-wing grassroots organization showed up at town meetings where senators and representatives were used to seeing 90 percent of the seats empty. The Tea Party filled the seats. They talked back. Legislators in both parties returned to D.C. terrified because they’d had to face maybe a hundred out of their seven hundred thousand constituents. That changed the political dialogue. Instead of being proactive, the Left was now reacting to the Tea Party and right-wing Republicans. So people shouldn’t minimize what can be accomplished by just a few people showing up at town meetings and personally confronting their senators and representatives. I think a petition of five hundred names in some states can get a senator to come in person to the people’s town meeting, even fewer names for a member of the House.
The colleges and universities are another point of resistance. Ask yourself: Other than the streets, where were the civil-rights and environmental and women’s-rights movements incubated? College auditoriums. They were at Wesleyan, at Berkeley, at the University of Chicago, at Columbia. Why? Because usually the venues are free, and you had students and faculty there to fill the seats.
We have to reawaken. I know every time I say this, people tell me the students are rallying, but not enough of them come out. I’m avaricious when it comes to student turnout. I want 2 percent of them, representing the majority opinion of students. Then you will see the media start paying attention to them. Of course, marches, rallies, sit-ins — it all matters. It toughens people. It creates solidarity. That’s why it’s important to know the history of unions, co-op organizers, and civil-rights fighters. When you realize there are a lot of people who came before you, you don’t feel alone. You’re standing on their shoulders even though they’re no longer around.
You know William Sloane Coffin, the chaplain from Yale and the great civil-rights leader? He was arrested many times in the South under some pretty brutish circumstances. He was giving his last speech at Riverside Church, and he looked out at the audience and said to them, “Imagine our forebears. Imagine their courage. Imagine they are saying to you from the past, ‘Finish the job. Finish the job of justice.’ ”
For an earlier interview of Ralph Nader by David Barsamian — “It’s Easier than We Think: Ralph Nader on How We Can Change Society” [December 2016] — click here.