Back in 1972, sitting with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on The Mike Douglas Show, Ralph Nader was asked if he'd ever consider running for president of the United States. He answered no, he'd much rather do the work of a "professional citizen." For years before and after that point, his work as a consumer advocate and a champion of the citizenry earned him as many accolades and sympathetic "Nader Raiders" as it did corporate enemies. He stormed Capitol Hill and came back down each time with another small or big victory for the people, from seatbelts to airbags to warning labels on cigarettes and children's toys. He was begrudgingly beloved, on the cover of countless magazines, even lampooning himself to great acclaim on Saturday Night Live.
By 2000, his reputation had changed. After decades of protecting people from injustice and corporate crime, he finally figured that the only way to get things done was to work from the inside. He announced his bid for the presidency, running on the Green Party ticket. After every last heartbroken Democrat was finished staring at Florida, they stared at Nader and tagged him as the spoiler, the one who lost it all for Al Gore. (Some even blame him for the war in Iraq, figuring that if Gore had won, we'd never have gone there.) Nader shrugged it off and ran again in 2004. With his poll numbers much lower this time, John Kerry was largely credited with his own loss, though Nader still wasn't entirely forgiven.
Now, in 2008, Nader is running again as an Independent party candidate. He's been successfully blacked out by the media, locked out from debates, and driven to having a conversation with the likes of Cardozo the Parrot and posting it on YouTube. Anything for a bit of press. Last week, Nader sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss Barack Obama, John McCain, the politics of avoidance, hockey moms, spoiling elections, Conan O'Brien, and something called "anal flutter."
The A.V. Club: You must always get asked "Why run when you can't win?" Is it safe to assume that you're not running to win, but to increase the viability of third-party candidates in the future?
Ralph Nader: Well, that's the role. In this rigged, two-party system, third parties almost never win a national election. It's obvious what our function is in this constricted oligarchy of two corporate-indentured parties—to push hitherto taboo issues onto the public stage, to build for a future, to get a young generation in, keep the progressive agenda alive, push the two parties a little bit on this issue and that. Unlike the 19th century, when it was easier to get on the ballots, it's much harder now. If you want to see how hard it is, just go to ballot-access.org. They show how they block us. And the only way to reach tens of millions of people is these so-called debates. We don't have a chance on the debates, because the debates are owned and controlled by the two parties. The 60th seed at Wimbledon gets a chance at Center Court. The 60th seed in the NCAA gets a chance to go to the Final Four. But the third seed [in presidential politics] is shut out. Because we're shut out of the debates, even though we're registering 4 to 8 percent in the polls, depending on the state, we don't get a chance to have a chance to be heard. So three-quarters of the people don't even know we're running.
AVC: You famously pronounced in 1972 on The Mike Douglas Show that the system was corrupt and the only way to affect change was to be a "professional citizen." Is there such a thing as a professional citizen anymore? What role do they have in the climate of 2008?
RN: Well, first of all, the corporations have become our government. They're not just influential. Department by department, you name it, they put their people in high government positions, they have 10,000 PACs and 35,000 lobbyists, so there's no more opening to be heard, and that's why we decided in 2000 to go into the elective arena. Otherwise, the only alternative is to go to Monterey and watch the whales. You just can't get anything done. You can't get hearings, you can't get legislation, you can't get responses by the regulatory agencies—you can't get anything done. I'm a realist. I don't work harder and harder to get less and less.
There comes a breaking point when you've got to do something to shake up the system, even though it's a rigged two-party elected dictatorship. Unlike Western democracies that have multi-party systems, stronger trade unions, co-ops, and so on. That's why in Western Europe, out of the rubble of World War II, they demanded and got universal health care, decent pensions, a living wage, paid four-week vacations, paid family and maternity leave, free university tuition, decent public transit. We don't have any of that now, 63 years later, even though in 1945 we were the mightiest power in the world.† The two parties have had 63 years, and they haven't got the job done in whole or in part, compared to Western Europe, which started out in rubble. So, that's why we're running. Among other reasons. A lot of people die because they don't have health care and health insurance, for instance. The National Academy Of Science puts it at 18,000 dead Americans per year because they can't afford health insurance. That's six 9/11s.
AVC: Some have argued that the fallout from the 2000 elections has damaged your other causes, devaluing the Nader "brand." Have you been able to recover your broader agenda from the animosity aimed at you since then?
RN: No, because the liberals refuse to require the Democratic Party to look in the mirror and ask why they've become so good at electing so many bad Republicans, and losing so many elections that they should have stampeded over the worst Republicans in the Republican Party's history. [Laughs.] There are respectable scholars who say our participation in the race got Gore more votes, because it brought out more Gore voters near the end, pushed Gore to take more populist positions that Lieberman didn't want to, but he'd go up in the polls when he did. See, 25 percent of our votes in 2000 would've voted for Bush, about 40 percent would have voted for Gore, and the rest would have stayed home. But we're not second-class citizens. Why do we get the spoiler label? It's the two parties that have spoiled our government, our elections, the hopes and dreams of millions of people as they sold the government to the corporations for campaign contributions. So they're the ones who are the spoilers.
AVC: You mentioned back in 2004 when Kerry lost that he should have had a landslide victory. Using that same logic, it should be even more of a landslide victory for Barack Obama this year. Why is this election still so close?
RN: They're in the process of blowing it again. It's the same political consultants. They say, "Look, you've got the liberal vote. You can take them for granted; you don't have to cater to them. The progressive liberals, they've got nowhere to go. So, you've got to slice 3, 4, 5 percent on your right side, and you've got to raise a lot of money from corporate interests." Which Obama has far more than McCain, by the way. Then they start blurring and flip-flopping. So people say, "Look, if I'm gonna vote for a hawk, I'll go for the real thing." [Laughs.] Not some guy who suddenly says we've got to double our soldiers in Afghanistan and keep 50,000 in Iraq with military bases and still call it a withdrawal, like Obama did. They're heading for it again. If they'd only take our issues away from us, they might do some good things. You'd see how if they did, they would attain greater respect and support and flexibility to say the truth more than once in a while.
AVC: By your own admission, the Bush administration is one of the worst in recent memory. Going by what you've said in the past about how the lesser of two evils is still evil, do you see McCain and Obama as indistinguishable? If you agree that McCain would be an extension of Bush's policy, wouldn't Obama be at least a smidgen less evil? And isn't that reason enough to vote for him?
RN: Let's accept your premise. Here's my response. The lesser of two evils, or the least of the worst, is not good enough for the American people anymore. They've both gone down below the flunk bar. When you consider Democrats today compared to Democrats in the '60s—ha! Democrats today are overwhelmed with what might be called, indelicately, anal flutter.
AVC: Anal flutter? That's a new one.
RN: In other words, they have no political fortitude. They're always trying to engage in protective imitation of the Republicans—"More soldiers in Iraq" or "I'm John Kerry and I'm ready for duty." [Adopts tough-guy voice.] "We wouldn't have pulled out of Fallujah!" he says to Bush in the first debate. So, after the election, Bush blew Fallujah apart. Obama swings back and forth—hope, change, hope, change—like a metronome, inducing hypnosis. And McCain is the candidate of perpetual war and omnipresent military bases.
AVC: Not anymore. McCain's all about change now too.
RN: See how it's part of the blur? Because Obama's change is so vague, and not distinct in the minds of the voters after a year and a half, [McCain] will neutralize him. I mean, this business of blurring is fantastic. They both are playing the politics of avoidance. They avoid all the issues on corporate power, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, so on and so forth. They avoid all those. That's the politics of avoidance. All the major issues that are so much on people's minds—health care, living wage, public works, jobs—they avoid. The other thing they're into is politics of identification. "Well, I'm just one of the guys," says Joe Biden. Eat a cheeseburger, drink a beer. Sarah Palin, she's got five kids, she's a hockey mom, her son's going off to Iraq, she's an NRA member, she used to get up at 3 a.m. and go moose hunting with her daddy! It's politics of proletariat identification and the politics of corporate power avoidance. And if you print that, my friend, you'll be the first journalist in America to do so.
AVC: The election of 1984 seemed to be your turning point. Up until the election between Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan, it seemed like you felt Democrats were still slightly better, or better enough to support. Was it Reagan who really changed all that by making Democrats want to become more like him? Is that Reagan's true legacy: morphing the two parties into one?
RN: Yeah. He's the ultimate Teflon. He's got another female Reagan coming around the corner—Sarah Palin, watch out. All the symbols are there. I used to call Reagan "a cruel man with a smile." No matter what he did against workers, the environment, and kids… I mean, what politician would get away with the following? Are you ready for this? Listen to this. At a Chamber of Commerce meeting when he was Governor [of California], he was asked, "Governor Reagan, what do you think of the emerging African nations?" Here's what his answer was, grinning. [Fairly credible Reagan impersonation.] "Well, when these guys have you to lunch, they really have you to lunch." Okay? Somebody asked him about homeless people. "Well, some people like to camp outdoors." Someone asked him about hunger in America. "Well, some people like to be on a diet." This is unbelievable, isn't it? He got away with it. He tricked the press by inducing them to always underestimate him, so anything he did was a plus in the minds of the press. If he strung three sentences together, impromptu, "Wow! We thought he could only do it with a teleprompter." That was his technique. He allowed the press to underestimate him, and he always went above a little bit, and they let him go. That's the politics that is now being elaborated. Nobody's quite up to his skill, but Sarah Palin will. She gets away with "The pipeline that I have developed through Canada was God's will." She said something else was God's will…
AVC: The war in Iraq.
RN: It was God's will! And she's getting away with it. Watch out. America might be witnessing the emergence of another Eva Peron.
AVC: It's funny to think that you were once considered George McGovern's "Hail Mary pass" for vice-presidential consideration in '72 when his running mate Thomas Eagleton dropped out. Now, they're saying the same thing about Sarah Palin, that she's McCain's "Hail Mary." Do you think they vetted her as much as they said they did, or were they just taking a wild risk?
RN: It didn't matter. They knew what she did. Once they had the symbols… Look at the symbols. Five kids, Down syndrome, delivered the baby, husband, proud union guy, oil industry, sled champion—that's a real big thing, you know, the whole sports thing on the mainland, in the bottom 48. That's real macho, right? That's John Wayne stuff. Then you've got: she's an NRA member, she hunts, she fishes, she took on the oil companies, increased the production tax, rebated $1,200 to every citizen in Alaska, 80 percent approval, just another hockey mom, and her son found a way to Iraq. Who cares what she did with the Director Of Public Safety, or her daughter is pregnant, premarital, and she'd line-item-veto housing opportunities for pregnant teenagers? It doesn't matter. What the press is not catching on to here is, she is now building an immunity of Reagan proportions. It was the most brilliant pick. It doesn't matter if she stumbles, she'll just get sympathy. "Oh, you're beating up on a woman!" I wouldn't want to be Joe Biden in that debate.
AVC: What is your reaction when you watch both candidates today talk about oil and gas prices, the environment and green technology, universal health care, corporate crime, corporate welfare—issues that you've been trying to shine a light on for decades?
RN: That is our impact. Our impact is rhetorical. That is, they're saying things which nobody believes they're ever going to do. Except, you know, offshore drilling. But no one believes they're ever going to do this—cover everybody with health insurance… I mean, Obama's living wage is that by 2011, he'll go to $9.50 an hour. That's less, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1968. Thank you very much. Productivity per worker has doubled in real terms since 1968, and he's gonna give them $9.50 instead of 10 dollars, which would have brought him back to parity with 1968. And he won't even do that. So lip service is the first step to reform. So thanks for small favors, guys.
AVC: Do you feel any sympathy toward Obama's campaign either from its historical perspective, or his seeming attempts to elevate the discussion to actual issues?
RN: No. The sympathy I have is that he's blowing it. He doesn't know how to respond to anything. Look how he responded to the lipstick. This is trivia. This is another low point in the absurdity of public dialogue. What he should have said was, "Instead of concentrating on lipstick and what I said—which John McCain has said and Hillary Clinton has said and others have said—why don't we concentrate on 58,000 American workers who die from work-related diseases or trauma every year? Or 100,000 people who die from medical negligence in hospitals? Who weeps for them? Who blows 'Taps' for them? Huh? Why doesn't John McCain talk about that and put it into his ad budget?" See, what you've got to do is, you've got to change the subject. Each time you do it, in the context of trivia, you get press! Because they're all waiting for your response, right? But he doesn't know how to do that.†
AVC: At one point this year, you were quoted as saying that Obama was avoiding poverty issues and trying to "talk white" and pandering to "white guilt." Do you stand by that statement?
RN: Of course! What I said was, he talks white to the white corporate powers. Ninety-seven percent of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 are white men, and what they do radiates all the way down into poor areas and cities around our country. Like predatory lending and misallocation of municipal services. These guys get municipal service, poor areas don't. So they run the economy into the ground, and who suffers the most? The poor pay more and they die earlier. But you know, that's what got news, as you say. It's considered politically on the edge. You do a real, comprehensive critique on Obama, and it gets no news. He'll lose votes because of the race issue, and he'll win votes because of the guilt issue. He's not doing well. He's being run now by his consultants, which is suicidal, because they run these guys like Obama and McCain into the ground day after day after day. They don't have time to think. So they just follow the orders of their political consultants. And McCain, like all Republicans, has a very clear dichotomy, and he keeps repeating it. He doesn't have that many subtleties. You know the rest.
AVC: What's this about you being interviewed by a parrot?
RN: Well, I've also responded to an invitation by Triumph [the Insult Comic Dog] and will be on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. In the theatre of the absurd that is presidential politics, one is entitled to cast aside a serious, vibrant, practical set of reforms and redirections for the American people and our impact in the world, and engage the mordant, overbearing, obscene, disgusting Triumph. It was quite a back-and-forth. So bad that the comic emerged from under the table, in his T-shirt, drenched with sweat. And of course, he's going to edit it to his advantage. [Laughs.] Furthermore, to extend the theatre of the absurd, I was granted an interview in Salt Lake City with an Amazonian parrot. The parrot is named Cardozo after the [Supreme Court] justice. The parrot is owned by the former mayor of Salt Lake City, the progressive Rocky Anderson. I thought the parrot was quite responsive. I said to the parrot, "Cardozo, what would you say right now to George W. Bush?" [Imitating a parrot.] "Goodbye! Goodbye!" [Laughs.]
AVC: It's November 5, 2008. What realistically, would be the best-case scenario for you?
RN: That we mobilized a lot of people, young and older, and got them running for local and state election. Or energized citizen groups whose causes and various localities we championed as we go through the country. That we kept the progressive agenda alive. That we set standards for presidential campaigning, like not taking commercial money and focusing on subject matter of great importance to the public. And building for the future. In '08 or '09, maybe we can get Congressional citizen lobbies in each Congressional district to get some of these issues through, like single-payer [health care] and a living wage.
AVC: Who do you predict will be sitting in the Oval Office next January?
RN: [Laughs.] I don't know. It doesn't look good for Obama right now, but you never can tell.