Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader

The author and consumer advocate discusses the progressive’s response to the conservative agenda of the Trump administration.

A consumer advocate, political activist and lawyer, Ralph Nader has been cited by The Atlantic as one of the 100 most influential figures in American history. He first made headlines in 1965 with his book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which led to congressional hearings and passage of car safety legislation. He went on to build a national network of citizen groups that have had a significant impact in such areas as energy and healthcare. Nader has written several books including Breaking Through Power where Nader explains how the nation can—and must—be democratically managed by communities guided by the U.S. Constitution, not by big businesses and the wealthy few. Nader is also a four-time candidate for President of the U.S.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Ralph Nader. With everything else that has been in the news of late, GOP lawmakers have been busy over the last couple of weeks in part trying to unravel consumer protections, including the EPA, Dodd-Frank financial reform, Obamacare and others.

Ralph Nader has had a longtime rallying cry, “There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.” We will talk, then, with the progressive leader and consummate consumer advocate about how people can fight for their values and win actual gains.

We’re glad that you’ve joined us. A conversation with Ralph Nader coming up right now.

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Tavis: This is the week federal lawmakers return home from D.C. for their recess and traditionally for town hall meetings. Several of those have been disrupted as protesters have shown up en masse of late. That is one strategy that Ralph Nader has advocated in his latest text. It’s called “Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think”.

He has a lot of other thoughts and suggestions on resisting in the Trump era. No surprise there. Always our great delight to have on this program and, for the first time in a long time, actually in Los Angeles. In green Los Angeles, as he said [laugh].

Ralph Nader: Yes [laugh].

Tavis: The rain has made it a little greener around here. Good to have you back on the program.

Nader: Thank you, man.

Tavis: Let me start with — I follow you, of course, in all your writings and in your work and you have taken to calling Donald Trump the for profit president, the for profit president. Tell me why.

Nader: Well, first of all, he can’t separate his business interests from his duties in the presidency and he’s using his presidency to enrich himself. They just doubled the initiation dues at Mar-a-Lago to $200,000, among other things. But that is a sideshow compared to what’s really going on. While the media is distracted with Trump’s braggadocios, falsifications, personal accusations, etc., the playbook is clear.

He has invited big business to completely take over the U.S. government. So it’s a government of big business by big business for big business like never before in American history. The corporatists, militarists and racists are pouring into Washington in his nominees and the ideology.

And what’s interesting, Tavis, is he wants to recreate in Washington the kind of libertine anything-goes corporate capitalism that he represented when he was in business, the gambling business and other enterprises.

For example, he wants to reshape the Labor Department to be against labor. He wants to get rid of or reshape the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that deals with fraud on consumers, credit card, mortgage. He wants to get rid of that.

He wants to develop a massive military budget and cut taxes for corporations. In other words, he’s betraying the very people who sent him there under the guise that he’s going to revise the trade agreements and so on.

So what I see is a real showdown finally. It’s like the ultimate showdown between whether our government is going to be Wall Street dominant, militaristically dominant, racist dominant, or the resistance is going to result in not only the defeat of this brazen effort, but also the ushering of a new government that responds to peoples’ necessities.

Tavis: When you say, Ralph Nader, that Donald Trump has betrayed the people who sent him there, I hear your point loud and clear. Two questions. One, do they see that yet? And if they don’t see that yet, where will the tipping point be? When will he cross the line where even they will say, “This is not exactly what I had in mind”?

Nader: They’re already saying, “Give him a chance. It’s too early” because they see bad signs. You know, Goldman Sachs is in charge of the White House. He campaigned against Goldman Sachs, right? It’s amazing. He’s doing the opposite of what he promised.

The first call will come when he blocks the minimum wage increase in cities and towns around the country. As you know, the minimum wage is going up, but federally it’s frozen at $7.25, which means 30 million workers, many of them Trump voters, are making less today in inflation-adjusted wages than workers made in 1968. Okay, that’s number one.

The second, if he tries to get rid of Obamacare and he’s not going to replace it with full Medicare for all — the Republicans in the Congress won’t let him do that — that’s going to strip a lot of people and produce huge agony and human interest stories for the media. It’s already starting in terms of the fear.

The third is when he starts deporting the kind of immigrants, the workers who clean up after us, who take care of our ailing grandparents, who harvest our food, who do all the work without which the society would freeze, no matter how plutocratic it is, that’s going to be another trip wire.

So I see all the resistance. I must say, it exceeds my expectations, the marches, the rallies. The key thing that I wished for in this book, “Breaking Through Power”, is that this energy in the streets and elsewhere focus on 535 men and women, the Senators and Representatives.

That is where the showdown has to start. That’s where we know their names. That’s where they have to go back and face the people. And if they try to have telephone town meetings, they’re already saying out there, “No way! You don’t have a town meeting, Senator? We’ll have a town meeting ourselves and you better come!”

Now that focus on the Senators and Representatives is the beginning of the resistance. It’s not just mass rallies where the energy goes into the ether on a weekend. It’s called “in personam” lobby which is what the most successful lobbies do in our country.

You ever see the NRA or APAC do mass rallies? Are you kidding? They focus on the Senator and Representative. They know everything, their staff, who their doctor is, accountant, who they play golf with, what their weakness is, how much money they want for their campaign. So this is the beginning and I’m really very, very pleased with the way it’s started.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not — and I hear your point loud and clear and you’re absolutely right about that. I’m glad you raised it and said it the way you did because you don’t see the NRA holding rallies. You don’t see APAC — you’re right. They work behind the scenes and that’s where it gets done.

I think our mutual friend, the great Judge Damon Keith in Detroit, once said that democracies die behind closed doors. I love that line. Democracies die behind closed doors. You can go in the street all day long and that’s legitimate. But where the democracy gets killed off is in those closed-door meetings, so I take your point.

Nader: That’s right.

Tavis: I guess the question, though, is — and you know democracy better than anybody I know, as well as anybody, its fits and starts as well. If gerrymandering cannot ever be addressed, what difference does it ultimately make?

Because unlike the lobbyists, we’re not trying to buy them off. The lobbyists are trying to buy them off, we’re trying to hold them accountable. But how do you hold them accountable so long as gerrymandering to my mind is the number one issue that we face in restructuring Congress?

Nader: Gerrymandering is the shift of 10% to 15% of the vote from the gerrymandered incumbent Senator or Representative and being defeated. Once the wave starts, it’s going to be a left-right wave on a lot of these things.

I mean, conservative workers bleed like liberal workers, you know. They get denied healthcare, they get ripped off in the marketplace, they get minimum wage, their pensions are savaged by Wall Street.

So once it becomes a left-right move — and I can see it already. You can see Trump voters mixing against these pipelines, for example, against eminent domain. Once that starts, it doesn’t matter. It’ll be just a wave and a sweep.

There’s only one danger that can stop this from going on, and this is the big American showdown for the 21st century as to who’s going to run this government? We the people with the hired hands getting orders in Congress from the people, or big business? And that is a major stateless terrorist attack. And then everything is off the table, right?

It’s all hysteria. Trump is in his, you know, prime ability to crowd out everything. That’s the main thing. We have to keep our cool and realize that 5,000 people a week die in hospitals from mishaps, hospital-induced infections, bad diagnoses, and so forth, according to Johns-Hopkins. 5,000 people. It’s never talked about.

A quarter of a million Americans a year, and that’s the bottom rock figure according to the Johns-Hopkins physicians. So this whole terrorist thing is an attempt to concentrate power in the hands of the few, empower the  military industrial complex, and distract attention from key necessities of the American people.

Tavis: There have been many, many movies made in this town where you sit today, L.A., Hollywood, as you well know. Many movies made where that plot line was the story, that somebody in power started a war specifically to distract people from what was going on.

Nader: “Wag the Dog”.

Tavis: “Wag the Dog”, exactly. I am not going to accuse Donald Trump of being about the business of trying to start a war to further distract us and to gain more power for himself. I’m not going to go that far, but what I am going to say — and I’m not the first to say it — is that the policies that he’s advancing and the rhetoric that he is spewing and the moves that he is making clearly play into the hands of those who want to do America harm.

So to your point, if the only thing that can stop this movement, this wave, from taking place is a terrorist attack on our soil, I got money to say that’s coming sooner than later, sadly.

Nader: Well, you can see he’s talking about it, isn’t he?

Tavis: Yeah. That’s my point.

Nader: National Security, we have a lot of enemies abroad…

Tavis: But he’s not just talking about it. He’s inviting it is my point.

Nader: Yes.

Tavis: Wittingly or unwittingly, he’s inviting that.

Nader: It depends on his level of provocation.

Tavis: Right.

Nader: Now he’s putting tough, shall we say, warmongering people in charge and these guys want to pick a fight with Russia, Iran and the rest of it. Who knows what? But what they’re not banking on — you see, the people have been asleep for so long.

They’ve been discouraged for so long that, over a period of 20 or 30 years being anesthetized by a defaulting Democratic Party indentured to the same commercial interests, they’re drunk with their own power.

They’re coming to Washington drunk with their own power, which means they’re going to overstep. They’re already stumbling. They’re going to overstep their power and it’s going to boomerang. And don’t underestimate the power of the courts. He’s attacking the courts indiscriminately, which means the Republican judges aren’t going to like that, not just the Democrat judges.

Don’t underestimate the campuses coming alive again the way they did against the War in Vietnam and for civil rights so decisively. We’ve got a lot of people power ready to rise up and it never takes more than 1%, Tavis.

I point out in this book that every major social justice movement in the United States, including the mass civil rights movement, never involved more than 1% of the people. And some of it, like environment going after the auto companies, a handful of people.

But there are two criteria. One, they have to know what they’re talking about and, second, they have to reflect public opinion. And there are major areas of change in this country the Conservatives and Liberals agree on.

They agree on civil liberties, they agree on criminal justice reform, they agree on minimum wage increase, they agree on breaking up the big banks that are too big to fail, they agree on protecting pensions. And a lot of them agree on a bloated military budget and the waste and corruption that’s involved there.

And they also are like 85% against corporate welfare, which the right wing calls crony capitalism. When you have that kind of budding consensus and convergence, you give it a cutting edge, you give it a media face, unstoppable politically on Congress, unstoppable.

Tavis: Your comment about 1% of the people is all it really takes. It reminds me of a conversation — I’ve had many over the years, but one conversation I had with Coretta Scott King, the widow, of course, of Dr. King.

She’d tell me all the time, “Tavis, I don’t know where all these people were when Martin was marching, but every time I go somewhere, people are always telling me I marched with your husband, I marched with your husband.

These negroes are lying because there were just not that many people in the street marching with Martin every time. But everywhere I go, people tell me I marched with your husband. Somebody’s lying here.” But I digress. That story kind of…

Nader: That’s like people saying they voted for me [laugh].

Tavis: Exactly [laugh].

Nader: I must have met everybody out there.

Tavis: Yeah, I voted for you, Mr. Nader. So I’m glad you went there because that’s where I wanted to go next. Don’t jump out of your seat until I get my question out because I know you got a response to this. There are people now who are still mad at Bernie Sanders because they think he inflicted some damage on Hillary Clinton that she could not recover from in time to defeat Donald Trump.

And there are people who are still mad at you all these years later and blame Al Gore’s defeat and George W. Bush’s ultimate victory on Ralph Nader. What do you say in defense of yourself, in defense of Bernie Sanders?

Nader: First of all, Al Gore doesn’t agree with them. He knows why he lost [laugh] and he said as much. Not only didn’t he get his home state of Tennessee — alone would have put him in the White House — but it was stolen from him 100 ways in Florida from Tallahassee to the judicial coups d’état, 5 to 4 decision in the Supreme Court, that blocked the State of Florida Supreme Court recount. You imagine? The U.S. Supreme Court?

So here’s my view on this. If we all have the right to run for election on any electoral post, then we’re all trying to get votes from one another, then we’re either all spoilers or none of us are spoilers. Because the word spoiler is a politically bigoted word that’s specially reserved for third party independent challenges. It’s as if the two major parties owning the voters get lost, right?

Yet, historically, Tavis, it’s the third party that put abolition to slavery on the deck in 1840, the Liberty Party. Women’s right to vote, labor, farmer, professional, all these reforms, 40-hour week, progressive taxation, social security, Medicare, all of these were foreshadowed by tiny parties that never won a national election.

So those are very valuable viewpoints and energies to protect instead of controlling the political process with two parties, increasingly, one corporate party with two heads with different appearances, you know, different makeup.

Military industrial complex the same. Wall Street pretty much the same. Again and again, money brings the two parties, Republicans and Democrats, closer and closer together so they deny people voices and choices, and half of the people stay home and don’t vote.

Tavis: I want to get your thoughts, Ralph Nader, on the state of the union movement in this country. Now the union movement raised its back just a few days ago and, to their credit, did some things to help defeat Mr. Trump’s initial nominee to be Labor Secretary.

Nader: Thank goodness.

Tavis: Exactly. So they showed up for that. But by and large, you know, many of us are just concerned if not disappointed in the state of the union movement in this country. What say you about it?

Nader: Well, first of all, it’s down to about 12.5% of the workers are unionized. In the private sector, it’s 6.5%. It’s the lowest in 70 or 80 years, right? It is moribund. It’s been moribund by automation taking jobs, by corporate-managed trade agreements, shifting jobs to China and other oppressive regimes, and by the internal corruption of more than a few labor unions, not all by any means.

But they don’t have a retirement age. They don’t have a farm club. They don’t have young people coming in. You talk to 1,000 students at a public university. You say how many of you want to go into the labor movement? Where? Oh, yeah, yeah. One guy, you know, in the back. So that’s a bad sign when it can’t recruit the young.

Having said that, Tavis, the whole minimum wage movement started with SCIU, the retail union, putting a few million bucks in with about 50,000 to 60,000 people picketing here and there. Burger King, McDonalds, Walmart, fewer than a number of people in New Britain, Connecticut, right? Put this issue on the map four years ago.

So it shows you how essential the unions movement is if it has the right energy. And it didn’t have the right energy or the right strategy in Wisconsin and they lost the state to Governor Walker smashing the public employee unions, busting up pensions and running the state into the ground.

Why? Because the AFL-CIO in Wisconsin invited Barack Obama and Joe Biden to come and address — remember those big rallies in Madison?

There was one coming with 100,000 people and they invited Joe Biden who couldn’t wait to come. Scranton, Pennsylvania Joe, right? Okay? He asked for permission in the White House and they denied him, and they paid the price in November of last year.

So the key is that the labor unions headed by the AFL-CIO and Richard Trumka, former coal miner, lawyer, always waits for the White House for the cue. I remember I was sitting in his office once and I said, “Make a big thing on the minimum wage”, you know, because Obama promised a higher minimum wage in the 2008 campaign.

And he stands up and he points out through the window of the White House. He said, “Why should I start this? He has to start it first.” Hey, that’s not the early history of the labor movement, waiting for a politician to give him the cue, the go signal? So it’s very sad because so goes America as goes the union movement, and it’s sinking.

Tavis: And your friend, Lori Wallach, was on this program not too long ago, and she made the point — since you were referencing the defeat that Democrats took in November because they miscalculated this issue — she made the point recently on this program that it wasn’t just a miscalculation, that the White House had higher-ups in the Obama administration going to places like Wisconsin still pushing for that TPP in the midst of the campaign.

Nader: That’s right.

Tavis: And it was clear. I mean, Hillary had done a 180 on it, but they were still doing their own independent push for that, and that came back to bite them in the you-know-what.

Nader: That’s right. President Obama saw it as part of his legacy. Actually, the Democrats pushed all of them much more than the Republicans. They pushed NAFTA through under Clinton. They pushed World Trade Organization Trade Agreement through under Clinton. And the TPP was even worse. It’s called NAFTA on steroids.

But this whole resistance, they see the rumble. They’re beginning to hear the rumble from the people in Washington. You know, Nixon signed into law bills that we pushed through Congress in the late 60s and 70s. Consumer bill, environmental bills, air, water, pollution bills and so on. He hated them.

He signed them with a flourish. Why? Because he heard the rumble from the people coming out of the 1960s. That’s why I wrote this little book. It’s designed for short attention spans. “Breaking Through Power”, a 140-page paperback.

This, I hope, is the book of the resistance because it gives a lot of examples where a few people changed the whole country. And that is very important for the morale of people because once they march and they hit a wall, they can get discouraged and withdraw, which is deadly.

Tavis: We talk about that on this program what I call resistance fatigue. You don’t want people to engage in resistance fatigue. But since you made a couple of parallels, a couple of comparisons between the movement then in the 60s and the movement that we are starting to see grow and expand today, you talk about the parallels.

Do you see any differences? Are there any major differences between then and all those consumer protections you were pushing through then and the moment that we find ourselves in right now?

Nader: Well, a little bit more on economics now. It’s what Martin Luther King wanted to shift to, yeah. And, obviously, there are problems. What we foresee is weakening the civil rights enforcement. We see a go signal for more private prisons. We see a go signal for more unaccountable police violence. And we see deportation of perhaps a lot of immigrants who shouldn’t be deported.

But it’s now you can see the economics of it. Health insurance is coming up, minimum wage is coming up. The antipathy to these corporate-managed job-killing trade agreements is on the table. Now I think if they strengthen the economic base and emphasize civil liberties as well as civil rights, they’re going to get a left-right coalition, conservative liberals.

I already see it around the country, Tavis. There was a big rally in West Virginia on the pipeline, big by West Virginia standards. And there they were, conservative people and liberal people, who never were on the same side before.

Tavis: As you well know because you’ve been at this a long time, Ralph, to when you have to field the right team, you can’t win if you ain’t got the right team on the field.

Nader: That’s right.

Tavis: Do the Democrats in Washington have the right people on the field?

Nader: No. In 2018, Congressional elections, they got to recruit the right people because you can’t beat the entrenched Republicans with people who sound like Republicans. I mean, you heard the debates in 2012 and 14 on the radio. You don’t know who’s the Republican and who’s the Democrat for maybe 20 or 30 minutes until they identify themselves.

The other thing that’s very important, the political commentator, Bill Curry, who’s really brilliantly insightful. He was the counselor to Bill Clinton and turned against the Clintons. He said the Democrats had the most deficient transition of all. Nancy Pelosi to Nancy Pelosi. Four-time loser to the worst Republican Party in  history.

I can make that case. If you compare the cruel, ignorant, vicious, corporate, militaristic warmongering Republican Party today with Senator Robert Taft, Mr. Conservative in the 1950s in the U.S. Senate, it’s like night and day. And they can’t landslide the worst Republican Party in history.

Not only that, they lose to it in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and she gets re-voted in as a the Minority Leader of the House. Now in other words, when there’s no penalty to losing, you’re not going to self-renew the party.

Tavis: Ralph Nader never wanted to hold his tongue, and I love that about him. The book is called “Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think”. And for those who are interested in resisting, I highly recommend it. Mr. Nader, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Nader: Thank you very much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: February 22, 2017 at 2:19 pm