Ralph Nader knows how you feel about the 2000 election and the presidency of George W. Bush, all these years later. He would like you know that none of that was his fault.
Toward the end of a Salon Talks interview last week with the legendary consumer advocate and democracy gadfly — who is now 84 years old, but quotes dates, names, laws, vote totals and page numbers without hesitation — I asked Nader the inevitable question about 2000, which he may have heard 2,000 times by now. You know, I told him, that many people still blame you for how that election turned out, and everything that happened afterwards.
He chuckled, or perhaps cackled. Nader is an amusing, upbeat guy in person, which you don’t necessarily expect from someone obsessed with the fine-grained details of consumer safety regulation and democratic reforms. “Yeah, everybody but Al Gore,” he said.
Gore lost to Bush in that fateful election, Nader says, for what he calls “the following sine qua non reasons.” (He hasn’t practiced law for quite a while, but must have been the kind of lawyer you hate seeing on the other side.)
He lost because they stole it from him in Florida and blocked him 5-4, in Scalia's Supreme Court, from an ongoing Florida Supreme Court recount. It would have come out in his favor. He also knows he lost his home state of Tennessee, which is really not often done. He was a senator and a representative [from that state]. He lost for a lot of other reasons: He didn't come out authentic during the debates. Everybody thought he was going to totally plow George W. Bush under, but each time he came out, you didn't know which Al Gore you would get. ... In one debate, he and George Bush agreed over 23 times during the debate: "I agree with him!" He didn't run a very good campaign.
Now, I believe everyone has a right to run for election in this country. I don't think any of my critics would keep me from doing that. The real problem is that they're looking for scapegoats. The Green Party is an easy scapegoat because I got 97,000 votes [in Florida], and there were 537 votes, before the recount, that separated Bush and Gore. But what they don't point out is that 300,000 Democrats in Florida voted for George W. Bush. Or that the Secretary of State and Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, who was the governor, engaged in a lot of shenanigans, including disqualifying people whose name sounded like ex-felons -- thousands of them, not just a few crazy ballots.
So there were a lot of sine qua nons, and what I tell people is, “You're giving the Green Party delusions of grandeur.” They are responsible for the Electoral College, which put [the decisive result] in Florida, because Gore won the popular vote nationwide. They're responsible for the 5-4 Scalia Supreme Court. They are responsible for 300,000 Democrats in Florida voting for George W. Bush. They're responsible for Tennessee. And how about sunspots? Why don't you add sunspots, right?
Nader also insists that he pointed the Gore campaign toward “majoritarian issues,” such single-payer health care and raising the minimum wage, that could have created a clear separation between the parties in an election when many voters viewed the two major candidates — a pair of white Southern men from dynastic families with Ivy League pedigrees — as nearly indistinguishable. At the time, of course, the Democratic Party was firmly in the grip of the economic and social ideology we now know as “neoliberalism,” and it went nowhere near those issues or any of the others on Nader’s list.
We can debate endlessly whether those were the only possible politics for the time, and whether Nader’s destabilizing presence in the 2000 race played a decisive role, but we don’t get to back up the simulation and run it again to find out. Furthermore, if all of that sounds strangely familiar, it should.
Nader and I did not discuss this directly, but he clearly recognizes that the bizarre outcome of the 2000 election set the stage in various ways for the even more bizarre outcome of the 2016 election. (Here’s a strange signal from the universe: Nader’s vote total in 2000 was about 2.9 million, virtually identical to Hillary Clinton’s national popular-vote margin over Donald Trump in 2016.) In both cases, any number of marginal factors could have altered the outcome; in both cases, it served the institutional interests of the Democratic Party to blame a tiny number of left-wing defectors.
To a significant extent, Nader’s post-2000 career — including his non-Green Party presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008 — has been devoted to an extended argument that he was right to do what he did, right about the weakness and corruption of the Democratic Party, and right to try to rattle the American people into seizing control of their supposed democracy. His new book, a piecemeal collection of essays and letters written over the last four or five years, makes this explicit right in the unwieldy title: “To the Ramparts: How Bush and Obama Paved the Way for the Trump Presidency, and Why It Isn’t Too Late to Reverse Course.”
Nader possesses the unusual quality of at once seeming behind the times and out of his depth — he has never been comfortable discussing such key progressive issues as racial justice, gender equality or sexual orientation — and also appearing well ahead of his contemporaries. He betrays a certain irritation with the Bernie Sanders phenomenon in his book, and it’s no wonder: Nader may reasonably feel that he was Bernie long before Bernie was Bernie.
While Nader is often portrayed as a hapless idealist, perhaps because his own forays into electoral politics have been quixotic failures, in conversation he comes off as sharply and even ruthlessly analytical. His mid-1960s campaigns against the auto industry, in which a small crew of activists, lawyers and engineers shamed Congress and the Big Three automakers into all sorts of safety reforms they originally resisted, were masterfully calculated — and by a conservative estimate, saved many millions of lives. Nader’s principal criticism of the 2016 Sanders campaign is that he thinks Bernie played too nice, and could have won the Democratic nomination if he’d consistently attacked Hillary Clinton over the email scandal, the Clinton Foundation and her cozy relationship with Wall Street.
In our conversation, Nader was more gracious about Sanders, saying that the Vermont senator had made a "great contribution" by proving that an inspiring politician "could raise $240 million in small contributions averaging 27 bucks. Do you think the Democratic Party, entrenched in the Democratic National Committee, the old guard, would have learned that? They're still dialing for Goldman Sachs, they're still dialing for Walmart, they're still dialing for Amazon." Nader predicted that 18 Democrats may run for president in 2020, and warns that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren need to get out of each other's way if they don't want to cede the nomination to an old-guard candidate like Joe Biden.
If Nader-haters want to depict him as an embittered saboteur, perhaps a less sociopathic version of Julian Assange, who may have some cryptic affection for Donald Trump — well, they can go ahead and do that, because the ammunition is just sitting there. But I think a fairer way to describe Ralph Nader’s problem is that he keeps on hoping or believing that American citizens will embrace the responsibilities of democracy and take control of their own destiny, while the two political parties he despises (one only slightly less than the other) long ago accepted that they won’t, and that the path to power involves telling people the right kind of bedtime story at the right time.
Nonetheless there are many reasons to listen to Ralph Nader, who has been right more often than wrong — and that’s true even if you believe he made a catastrophically bad decision to campaign in swing states in the fall of 2000. He’s right that both political parties and both preceding presidents have collaborated in creating the fiasco of Donald Trump’s America. He’s right that the political and economic playing field has been tilted so far toward corporations and the rich that most Americans now accept that as normal, and that that will surely kill off what remains of democracy if it is not reversed.
I think Nader is probably right, or partly right, that the intense political and ideological division of our time is to some extent illusory, and that when it comes to the kitchen-table issues of ordinary life Americans are not as far apart as they appear to be. Our current climate of division has served those in power and fueled the political parties and media corporations, even if none of them quite foresaw the rise of a demagogic leader who would feed on that division like a big orange parasite.
Nader was also right that there was an appetite for a populist, progressive insurgency on the American left, even if his attempt to lead it was much too early and much too ambitious. Arguably he merely inherited that tradition from Dennis Kucinich and Jesse Jackson and Eugene McCarthy and other noble failures of the left-liberal past, and now the mantle has been picked up by a wave of younger Democrats who are understandably reluctant to identify Nader as their godfather or role model.
Whether you see Nader as a prophet without honor or a vainglorious failure, here are the facts: Few living Americans are responsible for saving so many lives; few living Americans have spoken truth to power so consistently and for so long. No other living Americans have done both.
These are excerpts from my conversation with Ralph Nader, edited for clarity. The full video interview is embedded below.
In your book -- and even in the title -- you argue that both of the previous presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, helped pave the way to this current national calamity. How so?
Yeah, and it includes Bill Clinton. It's both what these three presidents did and didn't do that Trump took advantage of. For example, Clinton, in his personal peccadilloes and his sexual relationships -- there is Trump, right? When the norms broke under Clinton and he was rewarded politically, Trump said, "Hey, I can do this thing, I can run for president.” There used to be a time if someone was divorced, they wouldn't run for president.
Then along came George W. Bush, blasting out everywhere: Wars of aggression and special forces and drones and blowing up people all over the world, never mind international law, the Constitution, federal statutes, the Geneva Convention. Trump said, "I can do the same." And then there’s trade. The Democrats abandoned the American worker on these corporate-managed trade agreements like NAFTA, and who seized on it?
Trump, took away the trade issue and got a lot of blue-collar workers in their hollowed-out communities to support him. Those are just three, but the most incredible one is taxes. The Democrats never had a popular tax alternative and so there was a vacuum. And so with his lies and his mischaracterizations Trump pushes this tax bill through as if it's the greatest thing since ice tea, when it was a huge giveaway to the big corporations and the super-rich. So that's an example of how they enabled him -- but underneath it all, it's that the people are not engaged, citizens are not engaged.
Right, well that’s pretty much your running theme. But your antidote to despair is this theory you have that it only takes one percent of the population to change things.
Yeah, well when Occupy Wall Street was in the news, they talked about the one percent as the richest and most powerful people, controlling the rest of us, the 99 percent.
It occurred to me in studying American history that it's never taken more than one percent, sometimes far less, of engaged people, working a few hundred hours a year and connected to one another, to change our country. As long as they represented or they could expand public opinion, right?
You go all the way from the women’s suffrage movement to the labor-populist progressive movement, Medicare and Social Security -- all of that, including the modern consumer movement, the environmental movement, the civil rights movement. It never took more than two million people, at the most, just putting in as much time as they could. Pushing their members of Congress and getting into the press, demonstrating marches – it takes as much time as an ordinary American hobby takes.
The civil rights movement was the most mass movement of all those. But it never had more than two million people putting in an average of 10 hours a week. Never. You need three ingredients: You need that one percent or less, and you need them to be determined, knowledgeable and accurate. The second is that they represent public opinion. There's a lot of left-right support for a living wage, for full Medicare for All, for stopping corporate crime against medical patients, consumers, rental tenants and so on. And then the third thing is to take all of that energy and knowledge and say, "Whoa, who's going to make the decision?" Congress, Congress, Congress. You turn Congress around. That’s only 535 men and women. They put their shoes on like you and I do, Andrew.
You’ve said consistently over the years that the divisions between left and right are not as important as people think.
That's right. Over 2,000 years, the ruling groups have learned to divide and rule, that's how they prevail. They try to divide people on ethnicity, religion, class, geography, you name it. They're geniuses of it. That's what gets all the media. So we have reproductive rights, school prayer, the flag and so on. My point is that when you go down the abstraction ladder, as the semanticists have taught us, to where people live, work and raise their family, a lot of this red-blue, conservative-liberal stuff disappears. Because they're all human beings, they want safe schools and safe streets. They want clean water, clean air, clean food, health care, fair taxation, all of that.
They want a voice, and so I wrote this book, “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.” I had 24 areas of convergence and they're not challengeable, the polls show it, common sense shows it. There's even a convergence now on getting bills from state legislatures for criminal justice reform. The right wants to save money on fewer prisoners and the left views it as more humane and just, and by the way they're teaching each other their priorities, in terms of saving money and humanitarian purposes. Yet you can't get on the media on this, it's amazing. You can't get on NPR or PBS, never mind the commercial media.
Do you think that by focusing on political division and dysfunction, the media makes it worse, or at least entrenches it in people’s consciousness?
Yeah, because what does demoralization of the citizenry mean? It means that most of them get cynical and withdraw. Now, some people get cynical and then they go forward, but that's not the norm. The norm is “I'm not into politics, a pox on all your houses.” So we're likely to have the November election where 120 million people stay home who are eligible, who are 18 years and above. One hundred and twenty million people are basically saying, "We're dropping out of democracy." It is a devastating effect.
I'm not just saying, "Oh, the press should report good news." But it's not just good news -- it's when the many triumph over the powerful few. When power is held accountable and is replaced with justice, that's what is missing. There’s something sick about the priorities here.
Earlier we were talking about our mutual friend Bill Curry, the former White House counsel under Bill Clinton, who has written about that specific period in the 1980s and ‘90s when the Democratic Party started to take big donations from Wall Street, from big corporations and from super-PACs. Do you think he’s right? Did that transform the party?
Very much so. it started in 1979 with Congressman Tony Coelho, who became head of the House campaign committee. He said, "Look, why are we letting all these companies fund the Republicans, all these PACs? We can do the same." That was the beginning of the end. You could see the decline of interest in consumer protection, labor protection, a lot of lip service on environment but letting the coal industry or the nuclear industry do so much of what they want. The corporate welfare state -- going soft on corporate crime and keeping enforcement budgets down. Everybody knows money has influence and when you really spell it out, you see how insidious it is. They even offer these guys in Congress jobs. They say, "Whenever you retire or you don't make it in the next election, we're here for you."
That's a tremendous contemporary event that had a huge impact on members of Congress. But take the election coming up: They talk about a blue wave. The Democrats could blow it again. They blew it in 2010, '12, '14, and '16, against the worst Republican Party that Kafka could ever imagine. Cruel, vicious, ignorant, Wall Street-indentured, warmongering, anti-labor, anti-woman, anti-consumer, anti-children -- these are their votes in Congress. Why aren't the Democrats landsliding them? They've lost the state legislatures, the majority of state governors, the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court and the executive branch. Because they're still dialing for dollars and that's the most important thing.
That's when you see it: "How are you doing against the Republicans?" "Well, we've actually got more money in the kitty. We're doing very well." "No, no, no -- how are you doing in the race for a just America, right?"
Here's a perfect example: They've got about a month to make minimum wage elevation a big, authentic election issue, and they’ve almost done nothing in the Congress for the last six years. They put a bill in and forgot about it. Well, they are in the minority. That doesn't mean they can't raise havoc in the Congress and throw the Republicans against the wall. There are a lot of Republican workers who are making very low wages in Walmart and elsewhere. I'm saying to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer: Get a huge number of Democrats from Congress on the steps of the Capitol and pledge to the American people that they are going to get a minimum living wage of $15 an hour. And then put that in the ads, instead of those insipid ads that pay 15 percent to their loser political consultants.