Interview

On the Road Again

Ralph Nader brought his latest project, the Democracy Rising Tour, to Austin in mid-January. On his first return to town since the 2000 presidential tour, Nader once again filled the 7,000 seat Toney Burger center to capacity. This time the theme was “revitalizing the grassroots,” and the emphasis was on encouraging local progressive groups to network with each other. The entryway and rear of the hall were crowded with tables set up by dozens of local organizations, from Campus Greens, the new, fast-growing Green Party student organizing drive, to local campaign finance initiatives. Lefty singer-songwriters Jackson Browne and Patti Smith are accompanying Nader on the tour. Nader’s new book, Crashing the Party, describes his experience as a dark horse candidate taking on both the Democratic establishment and the Republicans, and the backlash he has felt from liberals who felt he betrayed their cause by helping to elect George W. Bush. A decidedly unrepentant Nader met with a handful of journalists for an hour-long interview before the event.

ON THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY

They’re fossils. They’re not even on the page. You’re dealing with the contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats, and they don’t give any leeway to the progressive wing. You know when [Senator Russ] Feingold (D-WI) voted against the Patriot bill? He gets a call from Ashcroft–you know he supported Ashcroft. So Ashcroft says, “I understand your objections to this and if there are any areas that we can come to a negotiation and alleviate some of your concerns, I’ll be happy to meet.” [Feingold] goes to [Sen. Majority Leader Tom] Daschle (D-SD), and Daschle says, “No.” He can’t even get any amendments proposed. That’s how bad these guys are. You wonder why [Sens.] Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), Pat Leahy (D-VT), and Paul Wellstone (D-MN) all voted for the bill–it’s Dashle. He put the screws on ’em. “You’re not going to take on the President this time, it’s political suicide.” You just give up civil liberties–wait until the fine print of that law plays out.

We’ve forgotten the importance of going back to the grassroots. I mean, why should anything change in Washington? If you don’t have money to buy ’em and rent ’em, and if the merits don’t count any more the way they did in the sixties and seventies like auto safety and so on, what is there for progressive groups in Washington? It’s the rumble from the people. Once they hear the rumble from the people they get scared.

ON POST 9-11 PROFITEERING

Here’s what’s going on. What Septem-ber 11 unleashed were three nefarious forces. Number one is the autocratic ideologues, the John Ashcroft kind. Give up our civil liberties for security, never mind what Benjamin Franklin said: “Those who give up their freedom for security deserve neither.” Just give it up. They’re making huge headway. Big time. The second is the commercial militarists and that’s these guys: Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin. They’re going for all these expanded weapons systems. And the third are what we’re all here about–the corporate welfare demanders, the corporate welfare freeloaders, blaming everything on 9-11 and going to Congress for more tax loopholes and subsidies, handouts, giveaways, bailouts –you can hardly keep up with the categories and limited liability. The chemical industry wants a Price Anderson Act [limiting their liability] like the nuclear industry has. That’s what is going on. What September 11 has generated–the greatest damage to our country–is by our own hand. What’s coming out of Washington is beyond the wildest dreams of the terrorists because all kinds of budgets are being diverted from needs and necessities. One of the targets of the terrorists is to weaken our economy and they’re doing that. The wasteful defense spending is way beyond anyone’s dreams of avarice in the military-industrial complex. It just shows you how totally vulnerable we are… When Bush proposed 48 billion [in additional Defense spending] I was aghast. That’s really a staggering increase for a world without the Soviet Union or a hostile China. What they’re doing is, they’ve got this huge budget of waste and bureaucracy and if they want to do something new, they don’t reduce the waste and bureaucracy and use that money. They just pile it on more. It’s like a landfill.


ON MEDIA POST 9-11

Rumsfeld knows what the score is; I was at Princeton with him. Rumsfeld said the other day we’re not using our tax dollars wisely, referring to the military budget. You think any reporter would say, “Whoa! You want to answer a few follow-up questions, Secretary Rums-feld?” No, it’s like water off a duck’s back. It’s unbelievable.

You know how it is when you try to talk after September 11 about the causes [of terrorism]? “Don’t talk about causes. Just go after them.” Right? Well, about a month ago, six weeks ago, Rumsfeld and Colin Powell independently said that poverty, destitution, illiteracy, disease, and dictatorships in these countries provide a fertile breeding ground–that’s the way they put it–to tolerate this kind of terrorism. Do you think the Washington press corps would say, “Whoa! Can we have a press conference on this?”

You watch the media in Washington since September 11 and you really understand what state-controlled television was all about in the Soviet Union. You really understand what Pravda was all about in the Soviet Union when you watch Brit Hume and all these guys, the hawks. They say things like, “Only three aircraft carriers, Mr. Secretary?” Questions like that. Fox News is now state-controlled television. It’s performance. The worst hawks in Washington and New York, in the press and in the government–Cheney, [Deputy Defense Minister Paul] Wolfowitz, [New Republic columnist Charles] Krauthammer, Brit Hume, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Joe Lieberman, on and on–have one thing in common: They’ve never worn a uniform. It’s really quite interesting. If there’s any note of caution, it’s by guys who were in real wars. They happen to think it’s messy.

ON SCANDAL AND REFORM

That’s why the local and state press is so important, because what emboldens these forces in Washington is that they know that the members of Congress are not hearing from anybody back home other than: “Go! Go ! Go!” There’s such a sense of antenna in these Congressional offices. The minute they see a turn–an editorial here, a march there, calls coming in, letters–they magnify. They think it’s bigger. They get one letter, it’s like a hundred people really feel that way. That’s why the local action is important. The same with Enron. They’ve got their finger to the wind. If they don’t feel that they’re getting calls and demands and outrage, they’ll just finish off the investigations and do nothing. Remember, Watergate produced two out of 33 reforms that Senator Ervin and Senator Weicker proposed at the end of their hearing. And S&Ls, the banking laws are weaker [than they were before the S&L scandal]. So you see two massive scandals, massively covered. Nothing happened. That’s what I’m focusing on. Every scandal has about four stages. One is documenting the wrongdoing, the second is documenting the harm from the wrongdoing, the third is documenting the prosecution and the enforcement, and the fourth is the reforms. That’s what we’re focusing on, because they’re going to slide away. You could see that already in The Wall Street Journal, which noted that this [Enron] is “a bad apple.” And the Arthur Andersen guy, you see, is a bad business model. Remember that one? So, the rationalizations are already coming in.

ON THE AFL-CIO

What you have to learn about the unions is they’re shrinking. They know what the writing on the wall is, there’s no lack of reality in what they see. They still can’t heavily mobilize. Even though they’ve got huge treasuries because they haven’t been striking lately. They’ve got a lot of money. UAW’s got a huge amount of money in its treasury because the strike fund hasn’t been depleted. If I were the AFL-CIO I would have huge numbers of organizers trained. You know what the main occupational hazard is in Washington at the union headquarters? It’s getting caught at the hallway at quarter to five. Now are they better than [former AFL-CIO directors] Kirkland and Donahue? Yeah, they’ve moved from a D to a C-. The bureaucracy has an inertia all of itself, even if they want to break through.

The one thing about labor is they can’t get themselves to form new groups when they see old groups performing the clerical stuff: run the union, dues, do the negotiation, and sign the contract. They can’t form new groups to do the frontier stuff because it will be seen as a threat to them. Now, corporations can do that. They’ll either buy a new group the way Microsoft does or they’ll have an R&D group out on the West Coast and they’ll give it some autonomy. Because they know they can’t ever grow organically from the bureaucracy.

ON THE “SPOILER” THEORY OF 2000

Well, let’s take it on two planes. One is the Greens got the Democrats in the Senate, so they can stop any [legislation] they want. It’s irrefutable: Washington State. Maria Cantwell wins by 2,300 votes. There’s no Green candidate on the ticket for the Senate. I got 103,000 votes. Most of the spillover took her to victory. She recognizes that and in a meeting I had with Senator Harry Reed (D-NV), he did, too. That took the Senate to 50/50, and set the stage for [Senator] Jeffords [to leave the Republican party].

They haven’t gotten the message yet. The only people who have gotten the message are [Reps.] Cynthia McKinley (D-GA), Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), and a couple of others. Basically they’re telling the Democrats, “You’re going to continue to lose progressive votes if you allow the Democratic Leadership Council to run the show.” And they haven’t gotten the message yet. Why? Because they got more votes than Bush and they’re still right up there neck and neck in the Congressional elections. So, the only time these guys get messages is when they lose. And they thought they were robbed rather than they lost.

The Democrats who know what was going on, the real consultants, don’t blame me at all. Stan Greenberg, the pollster, did exit polls and our votes went this way–25 percent would have voted for Bush, 38 for Gore, and the rest wouldn’t have voted. That’s not that big of a margin. Once you start the “what if’s,” you say, “What if you weren’t in the race, it would have turned Florida to Gore.” Yeah, but what if Tennessee, what if Arkansas, what if the sabotage by the Democratic leaders in South Florida, the mayor? And so forth: What if there was only one Gore for three debates instead of three different Gores for three debates?

That’s why I go back to Washington State. You want to play the what-if? OK. This is a really big what-if.

The whole thing is presumptuous and arrogant, like the country belongs to two parties. Shut up and stay away. Of course, that’s one of the first questions you get on TV when you’re booked–all this is described in the book, including Gloria Steinem, Jesse Jackson, and all their friends, liberals, who went out in the last month going after the Greens. The question is, “Are you now repentant?” I mean, just think of the arrogance behind that. I said to a [radio talk show] caller, what would you have me do? Long pause. Because the only answer is, “Not run.” And when you say “Not run,” the argument’s over–the country belongs to two parties. They either say “Don’t run” or that I should have dropped out. Like [I should have really run] to try to diminish the political cynicism of the country, going after Gore and Lieberman and Clinton and Bush and Cheney, and then two weeks before [the elections] say, “Well, folks, all you people who worked your head off for our campaign and everything, I’m dropping off, to give it to Gore and Lieberman.” This is the insanity of this kind of myopia. These guys will settle for anything. They should register for the Republican party and be authentic. They’re hopeless. When you give them an opportunity and they basically diminish you, there’s nothing left. You can’t do anything with them.

ON THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BUSH AND GORE

No one asks, “Are they different enough?” Unless you have clones, politically, you’re always going to have some differences. The rhetorical differences will be bigger than the real differences. They both sold the country and the elections and the democracy to the highest bidders. That’s all I need to know. But you want to talk about similarities, would Gore have been different after September 11? If anything, he would have been more belligerent. He wanted a bigger military budget than Bush. The same Federal Reserve–they reappoint Greenspan. The same corporate welfare. The same charade on consumer protection, lack of enforcement on corporate crime. The Justice Department attorneys told us that when Clinton was president, in terms of litigation, enforcement, affirmative action, and police violence, the Clinton administration was worse than Reagan-Bush. Only in terms of housing discrimination were they better. [According to former New York Times columnist] Tony Lewis and [Village Voice columnist] Nat Hentoff, the worst civil liberties record in 50 years is Clinton-Gore. “Abysmal” is the word they use. And these are hard-core Democrats, Hentoff and Lewis. When do these guys flunk? To the frightened liberals, there is no “flunk.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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