Issue September 17, 2008

EDITOR’S NOTE: A conversation with Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is an Independent presidential candidate, consumer advocate with a considerable record of good (seat belts, EPA, food labels, workplace safety regulations), advocate for the overlooked and the easiest man to hate in Democratic politics. I spoke with him Monday evening, in advance of his appearance at U of L’s Floyd Theatre, this Friday at 6 p.m.

LEO: You’ve made your name advocating consumer protection. What are the great consumer crises of our time? 

Ralph Nader: Right now, the healthcare problem. Quality problems, affordability, accessibility, all rolled into one. It’s the worst situation in the Western world. One of the reasons the World Health Organization ranked the U.S. 39th in the world, and that was not because we don’t have great centers of medical research, it’s because tens of millions of people are not covered, and 18,000 die every year, according to the Academy of Sciences, because they can’t afford health insurance. 

The second is the credit card debt rackets. There’s really no freedom of contract. You sign on the dotted line, you’ve got all the fine print, and in the student loan area it’s terrible. Until recently — Congress passed some reforms — you could be saddled with these loans for 30 or 40 years, they just roll it over and they do interest on interest, and if you happen to be down and out, Sallie Mae will provide you with no mercy. For regular credit card holders, there’s too many penalties, overcharges, they trick you into all kinds of ways where you may want to pay on time but you don’t because they make more money when you don’t pay on time. 

LEO: Do you think government intervention is—

RN: Yeah, there’s got to be regulation. All this comes from taking the federal cop off the corporate-fraud-and-crime beat. That’s what happened with this deregulatory mania that swept Washington in the last 25, 30 years. That’s what led to these guys on Wall Street going crazy with speculation and risk-taking and excessive compensation for executives and lack of disclosure. Now look at the mess the country’s in. And the guys who profited most got away with it. 

LEO: You called it, right? 

RN: Yeah, I called the banking crisis, I called the S&L (securities and loans) crisis. 

LEO: Why aren’t people listening? 

RN: You don’t get credit in this kind of media society for being right. Being able to predict Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the fact that FDIC is running out of money — we kept telling them 10 years ago, you’ve got to assess the banks when times are good because when times are bad you’re going to run out. 

LEO: It seems like the corporate insulation and general irresponsibility has been pretty transcendent from the top to the bottom. 

RN: This is a corporate crime wave for the ages. Whether it’s the corporate crimes in Iraq with the contractors; (banks) being bailed out for their corporate criminal action by Washington; the cheating of taxpayers by ripping off Medicare. It’s just totally, totally more massive than anything that has come before. It’s the breakdown of law and order. 

LEO: This really has become one of the most odorous presidential campaign seasons in recent memory. Both campaigns of the major parties seem to be focused right now on tearing each other down and either establishing or maintaining power. How do we get back to the issues? 

RN: Nothing stops a whole coalition of citizen groups. Let’s say Kentucky was a swing state, and the two majors had to go there three times. You take a list — the Urban League, neighborhood groups, the NAACP, ACLU, children’s groups, health groups, women’s groups, consumer groups, community groups — and they all get on a letterhead and they basically say, “It’s time for us to put our agenda on your table. When you come in, we’ve reserved an auditorium, and people are going to come and we’re going to have an interaction with you, and it’s not going to be sound bites. So prepare.”

If these major candidates think they can lose an election nationwide by screwing up 2 percent or 3 percent of the vote in one swing state — which has been known to happen, right? — they will suddenly relinquish their unilateral power to limit shape and advance their agenda to the people. There’s nobody to stop these groups from doing this, to shift the power from the presidential candidates to the people. 

LEO: But then you get to this idea that people, probably too many, look at voting as a practical matter. Maybe Obama’s their candidate because he’s closer to the ideal, but they don’t think they can get the ideal. Do you think we’ve lowered our expectations too far? 

RN: Exactly. That’s the problem. Low expectations the politicians know how to oblige, because you don’t hold them up to higher standards. If you hold them up to higher standards they couldn’t meet you’d be more angry, you’d look for other candidates. But if you’re cynical and you don’t expect anything because they’re going to do whatever they want to do anyway, then you lose power over them, and you lose the ability to support alternative candidates. 

It starts with small communities linked. Now it’s easier to link than ever. So you can use the Internet’s strengths without succumbing to the Internet’s weaknesses, which are excessive trivial information flow by the hour and gossip. 

Marx said religion was the opiate of the people. Today, the Internet is the opiate of the people. 

LEO: In 2000 when you were running for president, you had a movement. With what happened with Bush v. Gore and everything, the media scapegoated you and you were kind of caricatured. Where do you find the inspiration to keep running for office, and why do you keep running for this office? 

RN: Well, because I screen that out and strive to advance justice as I see it, with people who are hurting — being underpaid, overcharged, disrespected, excluded, harmed in their workplace, denied healthcare. When your charge comes from those millions of people out there, and there are millions of them, you’re not bothered by this. 

Now, it does obstruct you and you can’t get on the national media. The three networks have given us 10 seconds (since the announcement of Nader’s campaign Feb. 24). 

LEO: Do you think you could be more effective as an advocate? 

RN: Well no, that’s why I went into electoral politics, because the corporations really took over Washington twenty-something years ago and shut it down for us, shut it down for a lot of citizen groups, even conservatives. When you can’t improve your country in Washington — as I did for many years — you’ve got to do something else.