Newsmaker: Ralph Nader
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JIM LEHRER: And to a Newsmaker interview with Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for President of the United States. He won the nomination last weekend in Denver, Colorado, and it marks the second time he has run as the Green Party nominee. In ’96, he finished with 1 percent of the national vote.
He is best known as a consumer activist, author, and lawyer. He was born in Winsted, Connecticut; he is 66 years old. He holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton University, a law degree from Harvard University, and he lives in Washington, D.C.
And welcome, Ralph Nader.
RALPH NADER, Presidential Candidate, Green Party: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Why are you running for president again?
RALPH NADER: Because the civil society is being closed down, the source of most social justice progress in our country, by the concentration of corporate power over our government, over our workplace, over our environment, over many institutions that should not be subordinated to global corporate power. And the press is full of documentation of that in terms of campaign cash and in terms of influence peddling, in terms of enormous pressure against working families in this country, against forming trade unions, in terms of huge corporate welfare subsidies. You know, it just goes on and on. And we have a choice in this country. Either the people are going to be sovereign or big business is going to be sovereign.
JIM LEHRER: And you as President can change this?
RALPH NADER: I think as President, with a broad civic mobilization, which would be required, we can begin to give people in their roles as voters, consumers, taxpayers and workers, more power to produce a deliberative democracy. We’ve had ten years of economic growth and that growth is not diminishing the problems of health care, retirement, child poverty, lack of public transit, consumer exploitation. It’s really quite interesting. A majority of the workers are falling behind. After ten years of economic growth, they’re making less in inflation-adjusted dollars than they made 20-25 years ago and they are working harder and longer according to the Department of Labor. Perhaps the worst example is that we’re at 20% child poverty, the highest in the western world, and in California it’s 25% child poverty when in 1980 it was 15% child poverty.
JIM LEHRER: Is there an overall philosophy that would guide you as President, that would correct all the things you just enumerated, or is it a specific this bill, that bill, appointment or whatever?
RALPH NADER: It’s an overall philosophy. And that is a strong democracy that does not tolerate these injustices. It does not allow the few to reap the benefits from the many to keep the many from having their just rewards. It doesn’t allow the few to decide for the many. And we have long experience in Washington — year after year — in how to strengthen our democracy whether it’s campaign finance reform, or whether it’s access to the regulatory agent agencies in the court. That’s really what’s key. The great thing about a democracy is that when it’s deep and broad, it brings the best out of more people than any other system. And what we have now is a concentration of power and wealth, which is antagonistic to a democratic society.
JIM LEHRER: You said what we have now. Do you look back on the history of the United States and say “ha, that’s what we want back.” That was a time when all… when the country really did run the correct way, in your opinion?
RALPH NADER: Well, there are ups and downs. Obviously the slavery period was counteracted by the antislavery movement, women got the right to vote, workers got the right to form trade unions. They built the middle class. As they say, they gave us our weekend, they gave us benefits. The farmers’ popular progressive movement against the banks and railroad companies that leavened power more; it gave people a chance to have more voice. So I think we have to look back at our history and say why is it every time concentrated power got too much and social justice movements opposed them, and the dominant business community opposed a social justice movement and finally lost, America was better as a result. Everybody benefited, including the businesses because democracy tends to expand markets. I think Jim Hightower’s father really put it best.
JIM LEHRER: He’s the former Texas agriculture commissioner.
RALPH NADER: Right. and he told his son Jim, in Texas. He said, “you know, Jim, when everybody does better, everybody does better.”
JIM LEHRER: Now, is it a new society you want to create? I want to make sure I understand you here. Is it a whole new American society you want to create, or is it a throwback to a prior time when it really worked?
RALPH NADER: Well, it’s establishing old-fashioned ethics and standards. I think our civil service has been stereotyped terribly as a bunch of worthless bureaucrats. There are a lot of intelligent people in the Civil Service, yet they’re not allowed to take their conscience to work and apply their ethics. So I think that the cardinal principles are pretty much in the Golden Rule. They’re pretty much you know, real established traditions. We go after corporations, we’re telling them don’t cheat people, don’t corrupt politicians; don’t pollute people’s health and safety. Give people an opportunity; don’t smash your competitors illegally. Don’t abuse your workers. How modern are these? These are old-fashioned standards of decency, but they have to be put forward with a strong democratic political force. That’s the key.
JIM LEHRER: Why are you Ralph Nader? Why are you qualified to be President of the United States?
RALPH NADER: Well, I’ve been a full time citizen for 40 years. I think the auto industry knows what I can do in terms of safer cars. We’ve tried to represent environmental/consumer interests. We’re almost experts at how to make government and corporations accountable, if they only give us a chance, and they’ll all be better off as a result. I think also I think I have a talent in getting people to have a higher estimate of their own significance, whether they’re civil servants, whether they’re in the business community, whether they’re labor, whether at universities. I think we’re suppressing a lot of talent in this country by excessive concentration of power.
JIM LEHRER: How would you do that? Give me a specific of how you as President of the United States would raise people to their… raise their expectations and raise their spirits and all the things you just said?
RALPH NADER: First of all, I would get rid of the obstacles. Campaign finance reform means that your votes should not be stifled by cash register politics. A lot of problems will move towards solution if we can get the boulders called political action committees and private money and get public elections financed publicly. Second, I think I’d issue a proclamation for a deep democracy. I think what I would say to the American people…
JIM LEHRER: A deep democracy?
RALPH NADER: Right. I would say to the American people is “it’s our responsibility as your representatives in government to facilitate your political and civic energies.” One can make a constitutional case for that — and to give you an example, you know how these politicians always talk about the information age and connecting with the Internet? Well, it just so happens every member of Congress has a Web site, but I don’t know one that puts their voting record on in understandable, retrievable fashion. So, there’s an example of technological capability with old-fashioned reluctance to publicize your voting record. I know there are three of them send it to you, like Christopher Shays — and this is what we’re going to ask the presidential candidates, Bush and Gore, to join together and make some benefits to the campaign be such as get your voting record on your Web site members of Congress so people will be more likely to understand what you’re doing and participate.
JIM LEHRER: As a practical matter, do you believe have you the experience and the background to run the vast bureaucracy, the vast agencies and bureaus and departments of the United States government?
RALPH NADER: Well, I don’t know anybody who studied more of them… I don’t know anybody who has sued more of them. I don’t know anybody who’s gotten more plain envelopes from more civil servants — I don’t know anybody who has participated for over three decades in the process. In fact, I think we’ve created some of the safety agencies like the Auto Safety Agency.
JIM LEHRER: No question that you can do that?
RALPH NADER: No question. It is time I think for a citizen President.
JIM LEHRER: What about in the area of foreign affairs. How would you rate your qualifications and background there?
RALPH NADER: Well, I started out majoring in international affairs studying languages like Russian and Chinese. My major was far eastern politics and economics and history. I’ve written for publications like the Christian Science Monitor and old National Observer and other publications. I’ve interviewed political leaders. I think I have a sufficient familiarity to know that our government should side with the peasants and workers for a change instead of funding, arming, subsidizing and propping up dictatorships and oligarchs. The Soviet Union demised ten years ago. There’s no excuse for that anymore.
JIM LEHRER: Some people have suggested that the most important issue outside domestic issues in this Presidential election campaign should be how would you, a candidate for President of the United States, and I’ll ask you this question — how would you decide when to use this great military force that we have in the United States of America?
RALPH NADER: Well, first of all would I set a priority of waging peace. You know, we spend huge numbers of personnel and money in preparing for war. That’s what the Defense Department does, as an arms control segment. But we’re not waging peace with rigorous energy, mediation, anticipating conflicts abroad, finding out when two egos collide and cost thousands of young men’s lives liker Eritrea and Ethiopia, which could have been prevented. Preventive diplomacy and preventive defense are not just slogans. Their state of minds so abhors the use of needless violence between human beings that the pressure is on to prevent it and to prevent it and to prevent it. It is important to have a lean defense; a wasteful defense is a weak defense. And we have got to learn from history. That’s the one thing we’re not learning enough from — mistakes from the past, successes from the past.
JIM LEHRER: But if somebody is listening to you right now and says okay, I want to know one thing from you, Ralph Nader, and that is when would you send my young people, our young people into harm’s way? And when would you not? What criteria would you use for deciding that?
RALPH NADER: Well, let’s use the usual phrase: When our essential security interests and the safety of the American people is at stake.
JIM LEHRER: Does that mean we would have to be on the verge of an invasion of an outside force or, or is it that restrictive?
RALPH NADER: No. That’s what preventive diplomacy and preventive defense means. For example, looking backwards there were ways to have deterred the Japanese; there are ways to signal to the Germans. Historians have shown that. We have just got to be more rigorously attuned to that. If we abhor the use of violence, except as a last resort of self-defense, we will be seriously focused on how to deter it and how to prevent it. And, by the way, global infectious disease is a weapon of mass destruction, malaria, tuberculosis, mass poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. So, let’s have different attentions to different styles of violence that need to be prevented.
JIM LEHRER: Some domestic things. What would you do about taxes?
RALPH NADER: I’d really put meat in the process of progressive taxation. The richer people are, the more the percentage you pay. After all, it’s their influence that rigged the system to get them that rich to begin with. And, second, we should tax things we don’t like. We should tax stock market speculation. We should tax pollution. We should tax activities that we don’t like, like sprawl, in order to get a better planning system and better zoning system. And we should lighten the taxes on things we do like, like honest labor, like food. It’s really interesting. In some places in this country, you go and you pay taxes on food and on books, but you don’t stay taxes on what you buy on the Internet. Even though the small businesses in this country are the ones that support the charity and fiber of the community. It’s really not fair. The other thing is to get rid of corporate welfare, the subsidies, the giveaways which are hundreds of billions of dollars a year from the stadium in your community while your schools and clinics crumble — all the way to the subsidies for pharmaceutical companies and giant agri business. You see, these are hidden surpluses. When you talk about what the press reports, hundreds of billions of dollars of HMO billing abuses and fraud and corporate subsidies, et cetera, these are hidden surpluses that belong to the people and can be redirected to solve the public problems that individual initiative cannot solve like public transit, like affordable housing for people who can’t afford it. It’s about time we… it’s about time we express our enormous wealth in this country for the benefit of all.
JIM LEHRER: What about health care? Would you favor a government-financed, a government across-the-board health care system?
RALPH NADER: Half of it now is government financed: Medicare, Medicaid, federal, state and local health plans, for example. The rest is when you have a single payer plan, which covers everybody in accessible health care, you save $100 billion in billing fraud and abuse, that’s the estimate the General Accounting Office — you save enormous administrative costs, maybe 12 cents on the dollar. All these savings, hidden surpluses can cover the uninsured. And you also have better data collection for more preventive health strategies. It’s not just financing health care. It’s health care we should talk — nutrition, exercise…
JIM LEHRER: The government… you favor a system similar to Canada, or Britain?
RALPH NADER: Similar to Canada with improvements and basically public funding, private delivery, consumer power oversight. We’re going to put this all on our Web site votenader.com pretty soon along with any other information people are looking for.
JIM LEHRER: Finally a political question. How will you measure success in this campaign? What is it you want to accomplish where you can say hey this is what I wanted to do?
RALPH NADER: The minimum measure is a significant progressive third party that brings thousands of people, many young people into progressive political activity for future leadership, brings many hundreds of local state and national candidates by the Green Party, and says to the two parties, we’re coming, and we’re growing, and if you don’t shape up, you’re going to shrink down because the people are mobilizing and they’re fed up and they’re not going to take it anymore.
JIM LEHRER: Ralph Nader, thank you very much.