Ralph Nader: "The left is seized by fear and the right is driven by brass"

Salon exclusive: Talking Rand Paul, Hillary, Fox News and the dream of left-right alliances with an iconic activist

Published May 2, 2014 11:44AM (EDT)

Ralph Nader      (AP/Evan Vucci)
Ralph Nader (AP/Evan Vucci)

Say what you will about Ralph Nader -- and most of you probably have -- the man is tireless and persistent.

Now 80, Nader has a new book with the triumphant title of "Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State." And even if you're not convinced that alliance is emerging, let alone unstoppable, Nader beats on, a relentless, articulate and sometimes very lonely critic of big business, media mediocrity and politicians who put corporate interests ahead of the public interest. Which means most of them.

You can thank Nader for most every consumer or environmental regulation from the 1960s onward -- name it, and it was probably proposed or designed by one of his grass-roots organizations, or pushed into reality by an activist he trained or inspired. And at a time when his legacy was safe, he put it all on the line with four third-party campaigns for president, trying to create a grass-roots alternative and to thrust important issues into the debate. He was usually just as critical of the Democratic candidate as he was the Republican, forever alienating himself from some allies who still blame him (unfairly, I'd argue, but you might disagree) for helping elect George W. Bush in 2000.

When we sat down with Nader last week, in New York, we kept the conversation forward-looking. His book argues that progressives and libertarians, that liberals and conservatives, can make common cause on close to two dozen issues, ranging from corporate welfare, civil liberties and the drug war, to ending American militarism overseas and more closely examining the defense budget.

He suggests that it's a powerful corporate state -- politicians of both parties in the pocket of big business, and a media that's both in the service of the corporate agenda and otherwise confused by triviality -- which unnecessarily divides would-be allies and perpetuates its own power. About most of that, he's probably right. On some of the details -- the nature of today's right, the importance of social issues -- we had an open-minded debate.

I admire the optimism of a book called "Unstoppable," designed to argue for a coming left-right alliance to overthrow the corporate state. And I’m not one of the naysayers or the obstructionists or sissies, as you call them, standing in the way.

But as I look at the state of American politics, I see a decade-long plan on behalf of big business and the wealthy GOP elites to take over statehouses nationwide, leading to a 2010 census and the gerrymandering of the House so severe it's in Republican lockdown until 2020. I see the installation of right-wing judges who have demolished campaign finance laws. And then groups like ALEC that introduce right-wing legislation designed to gut laws and regulations you and I feel passionate about, with the judges in line to rubber-stamp the horrible bills. You look at what the Supreme Court has done in the last month on campaign finance. Or a Republican Party enthralled by its know-nothing, anti-science wing.

So to me it almost feels the other way around: That the victory of the corporate state over democracy is nearly complete. Where does your optimism come from? How does that square with my more pessimistic vision?

Well, you’ve introduced multilayer documentation of the corporatist wedge to control, distract and otherwise split the left and the right on the corporate issues. The corporate issues obviously are the forms of corporate non-taxation, the right forms of government expenditure, the military-industrial complex and all the things that the corporations want to control the political state, and turn it into a corporate state.

On the other hand, even the Republicans who are the beneficiaries of all the money, once you put them on the record on certain issues, they diverge from the corporatist agenda. For example, they can’t stand bailouts. Their leaders are corporatist; John Boehner, for example, is a corporatist. Mitch McConnell is a corporatist. So you don’t see the true voting patterns there would be if there was an organized effort, as you see in the book, one example after another -- the NSA vote in the House is one. Over 22 state legislatures have in effect overturned the Kellogg decision on eminent domain in New London with Pfizer. That was impossible without a left-right coalition, and you see how fast it moved. The near overturn of the FCC expansion of media concentration -- overwhelmingly left-right in the House, and the Senate was ready to do it, but the corporatists derailed it and delayed it, and the fever of convergence dissipated.

That’s why I was very specific in the book. I had 25 areas where we could have agreement and convergence, and those aren’t all the areas, either. What you see is an interesting eruption against the corporate state, and the power of the corporate lobbyists, from time to time, without almost any organization.

You know, the example of the Clinch River breeder nuclear reactor; that was considered an impossible project to stop. It had everything going for it, including General Electric, Westinghouse, the powerful Sen. Howard Baker -- and it lost resoundingly in the Senate. We beat it with a left-right coalition in 1983.

So, your multilayer analysis is very, very there -- of corporatism. That’s the main obstacle to a major political realignment in our country. Because as you know, once the left-right tastes victory in one area, they get to know each other. Then they strategize, they meet, and then they’ll go into another area. There are plenty of areas now that are ripe for something like this, because the corporate state has become so extreme. It has blown out of the water any pretense of conservatism; it’s just destroyed any pretense of conservatism as an ally.

But where do you see the actual allies, though?  I look at a Republican Party that feels very different than the one I remember from 1983. It certainly has the John Boehner, Mitch McConnell corporatist wing, but there’s also the Paul Ryan/Marco Rubio new face of right-wing conservative faux-wonkery; the Rand Paul libertarian right; the Ted Cruz Tea Party, mad-as-hell right; the Louis Gohmert, Michele Bachmann raging id right. Those are the dominant wings of today's right to me, where most of the people and voters are -- and I don't see a lot of people within those factions who seem eager to build left-right coalitions or partner with progressives.

You’ve introduced another layer -- which is careerism, presidential candidates like Rubio and Cruz, they’re on their own agenda. They’re trying to become well-known, if idiosyncratic, candidates for 2016. They have to raise a lot of commercial money and so they’re not part of this equation of left-right convergence.

It’s hard to imagine this happening while leaving leaders like that out.

Well, if you talk to Ted Cruz, and say what do you think about taxpayer-funded stadiums, he would be negative on it -- but he’s not going to make that an issue. So you’re dealing with a multilayer wedge of corporatists, that in a whole variety of ways, they will turn authentic conservatives into impostors because they have ambitions to become a presidential candidate, or they want to rise in the hierarchy of the House and Senate.

But they also influence and control large blocs of conservatives you’d need for convergence.

Yes, they do. So our job is to bring these issues to the fore and to the vote, just like the NSA. The NSA vote defied the leadership of both the Democrats and Republican in the House. They defied Pelosi and they defied Boehner, who were trying to block it. There was another one that came to the floor where Boehner and Pelosi did block it. It was Walter Jones and Dennis Kucinich saying that if the executive went to war without congressional authorization, that’s an impeachable offense; they kiboshed it.

So where does the motive force come from? Public opinion. The public opinion is out there; they can’t deny it on these issues. It’s just that the links have to be put in place and that’s why I wrote the book. And we’re going to have a conference to move it into a more deliberative process. We’re going to have a conference on this in Washington, D.C., on May 27. Hopefully the first of a number of regional aggregations, together.

But it is true, the multilayer you describe is the cap on this cauldron that is waiting to erupt.

So how does that cauldron erupt? That’s a mighty big cap, and as you write in the book:  “There is a sophisticated strategy of divide and rule put forward by the governing, monetized elite who watch it work like magic to distract the voters along with the mainstream media both during and between elections into seeing the world divided into two irreconcilable camps.”

There are two ways. One is spontaneous eruption; the NSA vote is an example. The Supreme Court Kelo decision (eminent domain) -- that wasn’t planned, but it provoked. So first you have the provocation opportunity. Second, you sever the plausibility of the corporatist, which is falsely rooted in conservative doctrine from Adam Smith forward. You can see that. And on our side, we don’t have these kinds of icons, on the liberal/progressive side. So we don’t understand how important it is for corporatists to have their plausibility built in Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Adam Smith and so on. Once you take that apart, they lose their moorings, because the asset of the corporatist is to appear conservative. So that’s the second. And the third is straight-out organization, like Bruce Fine, up on the Hill all the time trying to get right-left coalitions on military intelligence shenanigans and wars of aggression. So those are the ways you have to go.

You think conservatives will really change their mind if they come to understand what Hayek and von Mises were really arguing? In the book, you talk about meeting a man in the 1980s, and you try to explain to him what Ronald Reagan actually believed, and how he actually governed.


And you walk him through the deficits, and the spending, and he’s surprised to learn all this. Then at the end you ask if he has changed his mind, he says no – “Reagan forever!” is what he says.

(laughs) That’s right.

So whether it’s Von Mises or Hayek or Ayn Rand or Reagan -- I’m just not sure the right crumbles even if their icons are debunked.

I try to be very honest in the book. I did not sugarcoat the obstacles. Now, he is “Reagan forever,” but he is also forever against Wall Street bailouts. So he’s attached to the personality and aura of Reagan, but on contemporary issues this man is going to be a potential converger.

But is he? I think all of us who have tried to talk sense into a Fox News-watching relative understands your exact frustration with the “Reagan forever” man. I don’t think I’ve ever changed any minds. You write about this as well, how politics and identity can turn into stubbornness: “The worldviews have been bundled into starkly contrary images that come out of our educational, literary, economic and political systems” -- and people don’t necessarily want that identity shaken.


Your challenge is to drive a wedge into people for whom a political identity, or the news network they watch, or the wingnut radio host they listen to is very much who they are.

That’s a good point, and the approach to that one is to bring it down the abstraction ladder. They desperately want to identify with either Republicans or Democrats -- I call them hereditary voters -- or figures like Rush Limbaugh. But how are they identifying – it’s basically on a higher level of generalization and ideology.  Push-button words, too, like “deregulation,” “taxes,” “socialism.” But you bring them down the abstraction ladder to issues that confront them as human beings and it becomes different. The GM scandal, for example, is not dividing right/left. In fact, we see the questioning now in the House and Senate, it was both the senator from New Hampshire and the senator from Missouri; Republican and Democrat.

I first noticed this working in my dad’s restaurant. When you went down to where people lived, they wanted all the same things, right? So it was a different type of dialogue. When the local Democratic boss came in, and the Republican boss (laughs), it was amazing how it went up to these clashes of so-called principles, buzzwords and so on.

And always keep in mind the polls are amazing – there is still a majority for single payer, full Medicare for all. Everybody in, nobody out, free choice of a doctor and hospital.

Seventy percent would even back the minimum wage increase …

Even 80 percent in some polls. But it’s not translating because of Boehner, because of McConnell, because of the cowardly Democrats dialing for the same commercial dollars.

But it’s also not translating because folks like Rand Paul or Marco Rubio who don’t necessarily believe in the idea of a minimum wage at all.

That’s right.

Or Dennis Ross, the congressman from Florida who had a constituent stand up at a town hall who worked in a local Arby’s. She was looking for an increase in the minimum wage and he told her it would be wrong. That making employers pay more would not be right.

That’s an area of disagreement. I mean, they are still very raw and they’re rubbed raw by the corporatists like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart and so on.

But these are the Tea Party and libertarian folks you think we can work with!

Libertarians don’t like minimum wage, period.

No. So where are we going to find that kind of common ground?

You go right to the polls. You go to the people who don’t care about what libertarians think, although they are conservative. They want a living wage for their family. Wal-Mart workers, for example.

But we have the support in the polls. Seventy percent – 80 percent, you said. The president says he wants to raise the minimum wage. And we don’t have it.

We don’t have it; it hasn’t translated politically yet. But guess where it’s translating politically? States and cities, all over now, are putting bills in and it’s just going to increase and increase. Almost half the states have a higher minimum wage than the federal government. And the cities are moving on their own.

And what are the corporatists doing? They just got the Oklahoma Legislature and governor, their boys, to rule that Oklahoma City cannot raise its minimum wage. Only the state can. They’re preempting. Now this preemption is very provocative to people. It gets people really mad when people in relatively conservative neighborhoods say you can’t make that decision. They make it in Santa Fe, they make it in San Jose -- but you can’t make it in Oklahoma City. Now you need existing forces to rub those raw nerves on the other side, on the side of convergence. That’s what’s missing. That’s what this book is trying to help provoke.

Why do you think the left is so ineffective in pushing Obama in that direction or in pushing the other corporate Democrats in their direction, when the right seems much more effective – even if much of it is Astroturfed or funded by billionaires -- at energizing the base on their issues, and pushing their politicians to act? 

What do you mean when you say “the left”? Are you talking about the liberal intelligentsia?

Yes, but also activists. It’s almost impossible, for example, to imagine a liberal Tea Party. You don’t see progressive activists mounting challenges to Democratic incumbents, corporate Democrats, from the left.

Why did E.J. Dionne take so many years to do a minimum wage article, for example? All right. The left is seized by fear and the right is driven by brass. That’s what it is. The right doesn’t give a damn. They’re bulldozing their way through. The left is desperately afraid; they’ll give the Democrats so much corporatist leeway because the Republicans are worse. And of course, that will always be the case, right? So the left will never pull, the left won’t pull on the Democrats threatening to go to a third party of independent -- or even laying conditions down before they quickly jump on the bandwagon in April. They basically concede. I keep telling them, “Why don’t you wait until Election Day? Why do you signal you’re caving in in April and May?”

So they are totally frightened by the fear of the Republicans and so they become least-worst voters and lose all their bargaining power. And the minute Obama sees a least-worst voter, he knows they have nowhere to go. They’re not going Green, they’re not going Republican, so why should he give them the time of day?

What do you say to a “least-worst” voter, though, who says "I’m a gay man who wants to get married," or "I’m a woman who wants to be sure I have reproductive rights," I can’t take the risk of President Rand Paul. Ralph Nader can call me a least-worst voter, but these social issues are real-world concerns and affect me every day.  And I’m not taking the risk.

OK, I’ll give them that. But why not condition the others?

The most manipulated voter is a single-issue voter. If a voter tells a candidate, all I care about is abortion, the candidate controls that person by giving them that issue, OK? By agreeing with that issue. Voters get more powerful when they have half a dozen or a dozen demands. Then you see the antennae of a politician starts – there’s a little cognitive dissonance here; they have to broaden out. And that’s why I fought the single-issue people.

The single-issue people are guinea pigs for the Democratic Party. They give them what they want. They take the stands they want, and the single-issue voters could care less about criminal wars of aggression, empire, corporate welfare, bailing out Wall Street, corporate crime, mishandling consumers, all of that. Healthcare. They’re not savvy in the sense of making themselves more wanted. They sell out too easy for their issue.  I don’t mean sell out for money. They sell out too easy for their issue.

However, you go back to the polls -- which is sort of the yeast for moving operationally. I mean, the reason why minimum wage now is moving operationally in Congress is the polls -- because they now know that a lot of conservatives are part of the 70 or 80 percent. The reason why state legislatures are now moving on juvenile justice reform and they’re passing laws in state after state -- left-right alliance. It would never happen without left-right alliance. Now people are talking about the drug war and reducing sentences; you’ve got “right on crime” led by Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist as well as the regular long-term progressives on this issue. So you can see, this is what the corporatists fear the most -- because they know that a left-right alliance is unstoppable.

Do you think the right is interested in that kind of alliance when it feels like the lesson of the Obama years has been that they will obstruct and obstruct and stop and slow down and just try to thwart everything, while waiting for a president whose instinct is compromise, to come to them.

Yes. The heights of control are controlled by corporatist right-wingers, who see their bread buttered by catering to Wall Street rather than Main Street, even though they’ll talk about Main Street.

But it’s also Ted Cruz saying no, and Rand Paul filibustering. It’s not only the corporate wing. In some ways, it was a corporate Republican like Boehner who wanted to make a deal with Obama, a grand bargain on entitlements and taxes, and it was the right who said no way. 

He had 40 mad dogs. You see, it works the other way too. The problem is that a lot of the issues that are listed in this book I never put on the table. Electorally they’re not put on the table, and legislatively they’re not put on the table.

The atmosphere just isn’t too poisonous for this kind of convergence? I think about Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy working together back in the 1980s on education issues. Orrin Hatch seems too liberal for a lot of Republicans in Utah these days. Start working across the aisle and Limbaugh calls you a RINO, and the fundraising letters go out against you, and here comes the Club for Growth or Tea Party challenger. It’s a lonely road for somebody who wants to go down that path – as I think you’ve experienced.

These guys are struggling for position. Right now, McConnell and Boehner want to control the Congress and they’ll do anything for corporations and PACs to get that done; that’s just another layer. But they’re presiding over a lot of people who have "convergence" in their DNA, you see? For example, there’s huge animosity in Congress to Wall Street. First, because it’s against Main Street. Second, because it wrecked the economy, and most seriously because of the bailout and the way Goldman Sachs throws its weight around on Capitol Hill, like a shakedown.  But it never comes to a vote. We used to rate members on consumer and environmental issues, now there are hardly any votes to rate. Look, the genius of corporatism is it controls the heights. It controls the gates and it controls the gatekeepers.

So given the media and given the electoral realities, how would we start organizing this?

The media has got a major role here because they almost never cover anything that isn’t spoken about by the corporatist heights, like McConnell. They’ll talk about the Koch brothers because Reid  attacks them every other day. But look how long it took for the New Yorker to have that article on the Koch brothers. I mean, they must have thought they lived in a paradise of influence-pedaling anonymously. Now the beauty of this concept is there are so many areas, and if 80 percent are blocked from being put on the table, there are always issues that pop up. As I say, they pop up spontaneously like the GM thing, or they pop up at the state level, or they pop up at the local level.

We need candidates who represent convergence. You can see Rand Paul -- who would ever dream he would be considered for president, right? However, where is he getting his prominence and his credibility now? Convergence. He goes to Berkeley, he talks about the prisons, he talks about wars of aggression, about empire.

But it’s that faux libertarianism he’s pushing, really more of a ruinous individualism. That’s an easy sell in an anti-government time.

That’s how Ron Paul broke through. He broke through on the drug wars, for example. Except now he is opening up new fronts for himself.  The national security state, butting in other people’s business abroad. I don’t know where else he’s going to evolve. He doesn’t like corporate welfare, however he lets it go through Kentucky.

That’s why I boil it down to five most convergent areas. The Patriot Act. You see, the pressure not to do anything? It comes from the top. If they ever allowed a vote on the Patriot Act, it would be gone in Congress. A free roaming vote in defiance of the leadership? OK, the Patriot Act, corporate welfare bailouts, all the way to stadiums. That’s huge convergence. That’s why they never want a referendum, they want to ram it through.

Three, is empire and the bloated military budget. You had the caucus between Ron Paul and Barney Frank -- that actually had staff. They actually had full-time staff on that. It never got the publicity it deserved, but you see, the military-industrial complex commanded the heights, so Pelosi wasn’t that interested. There are too many contracts, too many congressional districts.

Four, law and order crackdown on corporate crime. They want to put the corporate crooks in jail, starting with Wall Street.

And five is the trade agreements. Here’s a nice wrinkle on the trade agreements. The main desire to get rid of those trade agreements by the right is sovereignty. There are no other treaties or agreements that have taken so much local, state and national sovereignty. These trade agreements are transnational forms of autocratic government. For the progressive side, it’s jobs.  They come at it for different reasons, but they have the same conclusion. We almost beat them, by the way, with convergence under Clinton. And this is important, there is tremendous operating convergence between corporate conservatives and corporate liberals. Bill Clinton with trade. Bill Clinton with the so-called welfare reform. Bill Clinton with the telecommunications bill. Bill Clinton, the agribusiness bill.

What about education? That also seems like an issue where you have some Tea Party activist on the right, and also some angry parents and teachers on the left, who are going after Common Core. Is that an issue you have paid much attention to?

I think the main opportunity there is civic education. Civic history, more hands on in the community, under adult supervision, if only to keep kids off the streets and get them out of trouble. That’s one motivation. The other motivation is, we better darn well train our young to take their responsible role in a democratic society. And right now, they don’t even know where town hall is.

How much of the Tea Party and Republican opposition to the president do you think is the result of white male anger on racial issues, on their unsettlement and frustration with demographic changes in America, and having a black man in the White House?

You know, the Tea party is hard to generalize. Who are the Tea Partyers? The more authentic ones were basically small business, independent entrepreneurs who were really angry. I sent them a questionnaire in the first year they erupted, and said, "Let’s see if you’re a real Tea Partyer." So I gave them 10 questions and it went out on a website. And the questions really reflect some of this book, like what is your position on corporate subsidies? What is your position on trade? What’s your position on wars overseas?

Then what happened was, because it got so much media, the corporatist Republicans, the extreme ones, put the label on themselves and they took advantage of it. So the Tea Party, willingly or unwillingly, leaped into the political electoral arena -- unlike Occupy Wall Street, which is now history, I mean, there are still things going on, but Occupy has lost its label, and a lot of everything is labeling.

So what is the Tea Party? Is it Dick Armey and his group in Washington, D.C.? Is the Tea Party the authentic one that really battles against eminent domain, taking private property and then giving it to private corporate property?

By the Tea Party I mean the angry Fox News, mad-as-hell voter who is probably in many ways aligned with Republicans against his own economic interests, but is feeling a generalized anger and frustration at Washington. The angry white Southern male voter. Is that anger racial?

I think part of it is racial. Part of it is racial. Part of it is constant propaganda seizing them like “big government is going to take over one-sixth of the economy” through healthcare, you know, that sort of thing -- but don’t touch my Medicare. So part of it is almost allowing themselves to become flotsam and jetsam on the seas of a sort of fevered right-wing Fox corporatism. Fox is nothing if it’s not corporatist, forget about the conservative.

Are you following the case of this rancher, Cliven Bundy, out in Nevada at all? (Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to Bundy’s comments about slavery, when Rand Paul and others were still supporting him.)


What do you make of it?

Well, they’re getting bargain basement prices. If these grazing lands were owned privately, they’d be paying 10 times as much. But this is an example: They’re in their own bubble. All they do is talk to each other. "This is our land; this is state land; this is not the fed’s land; we want it." And the Bureau of Land Management has let it slip away, year after year, in arrears. They don’t pay. They fake how many grazing cattle or whatever they have. It’s a terrible situation.

And Rand Paul essentially backs him: His response was to say it’s the Endangered Species Act that is the problem, not Cliven Bundy.

Well, you know, he has that vein to him.

So if the 2016 election comes down to Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton. I know you’re not a particular admirer of Sen. Clinton. And there are some issues where you do have common cause with Rand Paul …

It won’t be Rand Paul. It will be Jeb Bush. And the danger is a libertarian party with Rand Paul, if he breaks. The danger now to the Republicans is split.

Could you support Rand Paul?

No. No.

I don’t vote on an individual. I talk on the subject matter.

But on a handful of these subjects – the Patriot Act, the drug war, some of the corporate welfare -- he’s probably closer to your thoughts …

No, he’s terrible on federal regulation, health and safety, the environment. I mean, that’s a rather big area. And also, by the way, he’s very bad in personal relations. Very bad.

So how does convergence work on a presidential level, where essentially you do have to make this kind of call – to examine the candidates, and make a judgment call on the one individual you trust most?

It will only work if it’s forced onto the table. The minute it’s forced onto the table, it has to be discussed, it will be reported, there will be polls on it. The big challenge is: How do you get corporate crime, how do you get corporate welfare, how do you get the Patriot Act on the table -- if the candidates don’t want it on the table?

So we need massive electoral reform?

Yes, you need billionaires. At the present time, it’s not going to happen with third parties on $200,000 presidential budgets.

So someone has to buy the system back?

Yeah. You know, I sent a letter out to 20 billionaires. So the idea is simply to get a three- or four-way race and start loosening it up, so the ditto heads of the press get cognitive dissonance themselves, a little bit, right?

A benevolent despot?

Because they are so tediously driven covering the same thing every day, the same three-minute speech; the same arched brow at the right time by the spouse -- they’re looking for gaffes, so it becomes a gaffe type of campaign.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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