Robert Kuttner: I am sympathetic to much of your diagnosis of the dependence of both parties on corporations. But I am skeptical about what you can really accomplish tactically. Historically, what have American third parties accomplished in the past, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Ralph Nader: Well, in the past, third parties have marched early and consistently with social justice movements before either major party came on. Whether it was the antislavery drive or women's right to vote, the trade union movement or the populist-progressive farmers movement, third parties in effect politicized the initiative and told the major parties that they either had to respond or they were going to lose part of their margin to the other major party. So if we can build a Green Party that goes over 5 percent, the Democratic Party won't be the same again--because it will have to take into consideration losing, because of that margin, to the opposing major party. And, in the volatile political circumstances in which we find ourselves now in this country, it's harder to get to 5 percent than it is to get to 10 percent once you get to 5 percent. Today, when you go up to Capitol Hill or go to the White House and you ask them to do the right thing, they tell you basically you've got nowhere to go; whatever they do, you have to accept. We're going to see what that attitude is after the Green Party gets over 5 percent or more in the coming election.
RK: What are the major issues that you think the Democrats have defaulted on, where you think you have some resonance with disaffected voters?
RN: Well, they're no longer the party of the working family, as FDR used to call the Democratic Party. They make no mention of strengthening the labor laws--it's quite remarkable; it's not even on their screen. We're down to less than 10 percent of workers unionized in the private sector, the lowest in 60 years. They're reaping the benefits of organized labor's grass-roots effort, telephones, and money, but they're not expanding organized labor.
And obviously, of course, they're the biggest promoters among the two parties of corporate welfare; they're far in excess of the Republicans, who have some modest ideological restraints on it. The Democrats have actually increased subsidies to the auto companies during a period of record profit, and the subsidies to the defense manufacturers for mergers via the Pentagon.
The Democrats have also been surprisingly bad on consumer health and safety. Agencies such as OSHA [the Occupational Safety & Health Administration], the auto safety agency, and the Food and Drug Administration are as bad as or worse than they were under Reagan or Bush. And who has expanded the number of death penalty provisions in federal laws? Bill Clinton. Who has trampled enormously on civil liberties, as Tony Lewis in The New York Times has pointed out in many articles? Bill Clinton. Who wants to eliminate the national debt entirely by the year 2013? Al Gore. I don't know any major corporation that wants to eliminate its debt. You see, the Democrats are actually outflanking Republicans to the right.
RK: The recent history of third parties isn't too encouraging. You have to go back really to the People's Party, the populists of the late nineteenth century, to find an example of a third party that seriously influenced one or, in this case, both of the major parties. Both the Teddy Roosevelt Republicans and the Wilson Democrats partly took from the populist agenda. Robert LaFollette's Progressives and Norman Thomas's Socialists perhaps influenced FDR. And to some extent, Ross Perot pushed the balanced budget agenda on both parties. So what do you see as the best-case scenario for your influence on progressivism?
RN: Well, I think, first of all, any third party has an uphill fight because of the winner-take-all political system and other ballot access hurdles. Having said that, however, there's a huge withdrawal from politics due to disgust, not just apathy. And there is a large reservoir of voters to tap into for a third party, as Perot showed in 1992. These aren't just Democratic voters. They're independents; they're even conservatives, nonvoters, young voters. And also, the local organizing for a national political party is almost ceded to a new party because the Republicans and Democrats don't even have storefronts--all they think of is television and telephones. I think we'll be a strong lever on the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party already has lost about half the country from the get-go. And if they start losing another quarter of the country, such as California--because the Greens are going to take 10-15 percent away--that's really the end of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party cannot sustain itself at a really shrunken level, or it will just implode. Some people talk about a rapprochement, where the progressive third party melds into the Democratic Party and influences it to become a more progressive party--the New Party often has that viewpoint. I'm not looking that far ahead. But I suspect that the Democratic Party can't internally reform itself; it is so indentured to a whole variety of corporate interests, and the merry-go-round between types like [Gore Campaign Chairman] Tony Coehlo, who go from politics into business, back into politics, that it can't regenerate itself. And basically, it's defining itself by the Republican Party.
What's interesting is to get the explanation from inside the Democratic Party. When the party wins over the Republicans, the explanation is that we became more like them and took Republican issues. When they lose to the Republican Party, the explanation is they weren't enough like the Republicans and didn't take enough Republican issues. That means the dynamic is all toward the right part of the arena, and we want the Democratic Party to say they lose or win because they haven't adopted enough progressive issues or they have adopted enough progressive issues. So, in a sense, we're challenging the Democratic Party to contend with our Green Party issues in the political arena. Gore can become a tremendous advocate for enforcement against corporate crime. He can say we're going to get rid of all these subsidies for businesses. He can say we're going to pull out of WTO [World Trade Organization] and NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and renegotiate trade agreements.
RK: So you would be happy if the Democrats put the Greens out of business by becoming a more progressive party?
RN: No, I wouldn't. I'm just saying it's their option. It's an opportunity for them to do so because it's going to cost them more and more votes if they don't do it. Right now, it doesn't cost them any votes. They're telling us we've got nowhere to go, and people should either stay home or vote for the least of the worst--and every four years, both the Republicans and the Democrats get worse.
RK: What do you see the labor movement doing, given its alliance with the Democratic Party?
RN: It's just amazing, absolutely amazing. Here Gore knows he cannot win without the AFL-CIO, yet they don't ask him to broaden his labor agenda, not to mention the international trade agreements. So this is an extremely weak position for the AFL-CIO to put itself in. But they don't realize that they have a negotiating power with Al Gore that they're not using. In fact, Al Gore is using them; he's telling them he's for fair trade, then he's going to the White House and supporting permanent trade relations with the communist regime of China.
RK: Well, let's talk about the WTO. The critics of the trade system--the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF--have a somewhat easier time explaining what's wrong with the current regime than coming up with a set of institutions and principles upon which to build a different regime that would make it possible to reconcile global commerce with political democracy, and a managed as opposed to a laissez-faire form of capitalism. So, if you were elected president, what set of institutions and what set of ground rules do you imagine for regulating global commerce?
RN: We have to distinguish what is being done for speculative purposes--what is being done to bail out the extensive arms of Citigroup, Bank of America, and others in Korea and other places around the world--from what is best for the people. I can see a very shrunken role for the IMF and the World Bank... . The World Bank can do most of its good work in the area of fighting global infectious diseases, and something in terms of education, and pushing local institutions, you know, trying to facilitate cooperatives and so on, institution-building that way.
I would have labor treaties that have teeth, consumer protection treaties, and food and environmental treaties. I think if we put it all in one big trade treaty, the economic imperative is going to always dominate, just because the corporations are always there. I think that's the problem with the WTO, that they basically have turned progress on its head in countries such as ours, where we've progressed by subordinating the commercial to the human rights, labor rights, and environmental rights imperatives. And the WTO reverses that. The WTO basically says, to coin a phrase, "Everything is for sale." Our democracy is for sale, our access to the courts is for sale, our universities are for sale, our environment is for sale, and, most assuredly, our workplace rights are for sale under the WTO.
Now I agree, there have to be some agreements dealing with tariff barriers and other issues that really interfere with authentic comparative advantage. And by that, I don't mean dictatorially repressed costs such as in China or Indonesia, where global corporations go in the name of free trade, but there's no free trade because the workers can't organize and there's no market-determined cost. It's all dictatorial, repressed costs. This needs to be made more clear to the likes of [New York Times columnists] Tom Friedman and Paul Krugman.
RK: When I think of Ralph Nader, I think of a lot of things, but I don't think of a foreign policy expert. What would a Nader foreign policy look like if you were elected president?
RN: One, we would engage in as vigorous an effort to wage peace as we are in engaging to prepare for war.
RK: What does that mean?
RN: That means that we basically engage in a lot of preventive diplomacy, a lot of preventive defense. Preventive diplomacy would have dealt with situations like Indonesia, instead of the Kissinger diplomacy that led to East Timor and a lot of other travails there. The same with Vietnam. We seem to always side with the dictators and the oligarchs and never with the peasants and the workers.
What's really amazing is that any discussion of foreign policy is usually about current hot spots, instead of asking, how did we get into this situation in the first place? What could we have done to avoid it? For example, how many years did we prop up the dictatorship of the former Belgian Congo? Now look how it's all falling apart over there, right? Well, we had no preventive diplomacy, no preventive defense. It's always, who's in charge, and, go out and support them as long as they're anticommunist.
Why do we have a missile defense system that the physicists have just told us is not going to work, even if we wanted to put it into place--assuming it was needed. Is that preventive defense? Is that preventive diplomacy? Don't we need to go on the affirmative and expand the export of democratic processes, of appropriate technology like solar energy, encouraging the world to move into a utilization of natural resources that redefines productivity and efficiency?
Then there's the nonmaterial aspect of it all. How much we can, for example, rescue the languages of indigenous peoples, try to rescue a lot of the culture that's becoming lost to them as commercialism and Western corporatism define their culture.
RK: How do you see the dynamics of a race with both a third-party candidate and a fourth-party candidate? Do you see you and Buchanan having your own debates?
RN: Well, we may join together in putting more and more pressure on the Democratic and Republican debate commission, which is their private toy to exclude competition from third-party candidates and to be lubricated by tobacco, beer, auto, and other money. This is an incredible situation where the presidential debate in St. Louis is being funded by a beer company, by 630,000 proud Anheuser-Busch dollars, and the only thing left is for Gore and Bush to wear an Anheuser-Busch cap and drink beer on the set. So we're going to put pressure on. Over 50 percent in a poll of the people want me and Buchanan in a debate. That's just for starters. If it goes up to 75-80, maybe there'll be an editorial initiative around the country, and maybe they'll relent. But if they don't relent, there's nothing keeping someone like CNN or some other big media from sponsoring debates the two big guys can't ignore.
RK: So it could be you debating Buchanan one on one and inviting the other two in, and Bush and Gore can participate or not?
RN: I don't think it's very interesting just to have me and Buchanan debate. Maybe we could have a little theater, where we have the look-alikes for Bush and Gore, like on Conan O'Brien's show, you know? But I don't like a political system where everything pivots on whether you're in the debates. Doesn't that show you how shallow our democracy is? It works, though. Perot went from 7 percent to 20 percent. But what we have to move for is a deep democracy and a strong democracy that doesn't tolerate this nonsense.
RK: What happened last time? You didn't really run a campaign.
RN: I didn't intend to run in 1996. I got a letter in November of 1995 from David Brower and about 50 other environmental and other people from California asking if I would put my name on. Then I started getting more and more, and I said, well, you know, there's not going to be any progressive presence in this campaign, so I said OK, but I wasn't going to campaign--I wasn't going to raise money. In other words, I did it because no one else did it.
RK: How is it different this time?
RN: This time I'm running a serious, deliberate campaign. We're going to put 30 full-time organizers in the field, we're going to raise $5 million, we're going for matching funds--which takes $5,000 minimum in each of 20 states, in denominations of $250 or less. The key is we're running with citizen groups on the ground. I'm going into 50 states. We've got parading, we've got op-eds, we're going in every area, like mountain-top removal in West Virginia, we're with the people fighting the coal companies. The homeless shelter controversy in Atlanta, where the business district wants to squeeze out the shelters--they don't want the homeless visible. We're with the homeless there. Fighting the Fenway Park, the new Fenway Park boondoggle concept, we're there. Incinerator fighting in Ohio.
What I'm trying to say is, what we're trying to do is come from the civic movement, a la Jefferson, into the political arena, and then we take the political movement and connect it with the civic movement. And that way, you don't forget where you're coming from, and you're really an authentic movement, however small it starts. There's never been an oak tree that didn't start as an acorn.
RK: So every vote that Al Gore loses to you is Gore's to lose?
RN: Exactly. And I think Bush is going to lose some votes too. Because in '96 Dick Morris said I took four Republican votes for every six Democrat ones, not counting Independents. I have no problem speaking to conservative people about the fact that they're losing control, like all other American citizens, over everything that matters to them. They don't like corporate welfare, they don't like corruption of money and politics. These aren't corporatists; these are, you know--people call themselves conservatives. They don't like to be ripped off when you get down to the basic areas of health care denial and auto rip-offs and insurance rip-offs, and they don't like their kids to be exploited by corporate commercialism. That's a real nerve point with them. And there are a lot of other issues like that. Now, obviously, their remedies are different; they don't want anything regulated in many instances.
RK: Do you think you can beat Pat Buchanan on those issues? Do you have a better story of what ails America than Buchanan does?
RN: Yeah, I think I have a longer history of knowing how corporations exploit people. But he's got statements that are surprising. He wants to cut the military budget, I'm told, significantly. And he's beginning to pick up some of William Bennett's stuff on the commercial exploitation of kids. But he's still a long way from being able to say we've got to have strong health and safety standards in environment... .
RK: On Meet the Press the other day, Tim Russert pressed you on whether you would really be upset, or happy, or not particularly concerned, if the effect of your candidacy were to throw the election to Bush. And you basically came back and said that the Democrats have become such a shadow of themselves that this didn't trouble you. Could you say a little more about that?
RN: Well, I used the phrase, "They need a cold shower for at least four years." You know, when the soil is depleted, the farmers leave it alone for a while. And the Democrats really do need a cold shower; otherwise, we'll really have a Republi-Crat regime: one party, a corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup. To anybody who says, "Are you worried about Gore?" I say, "VoteNader.com is our Web site." ¤