Srinivas Rao, Ben Adler, and Graham Webster

Wednesday April 4, 2007

If any American of the past 50 years can be called a professional citizen, it’s the famous–and infamous–Ralph Nader. Since the 1960’s, Nader has led the charge against environmental degradation, consumer manipulation, and all the dangers of a country dominated by large corporations. Flanked by hundreds of Nader’s Raiders, Nader successfully lobbied for the consumer protections that Americans now take for granted–without his activism, we would most likely not have the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s workplace protections, the EPA’s environmental reforms, the Freedom of Information Act, and much more.

Being the man responsible for seat belts is an understandably hard act to follow–yet, sure enough, Ralph found a way to expand upon his legacy. “He made the cars we drive safer,” explains The Atlantic Monthly. “Thirty years later, he made George W. Bush the president.” Running on the Green Party ticket in 2000, Nader was supported by many prominent liberals, but scorned for potentially throwing the election to Bush by others. Sure enough, after Nader gained tens of thousands of votes in Florida–the deciding state that Bush carried by approximately five hundred votes–and exit polls demonstrated that Nader’s supporters would have been more likely to support Gore than Bush had Nader not been on the ballot, Nader came to be widely seen as a spoiler, even by many of his former supporters. 2004 saw another Nader candidacy followed with another, harsher, liberal backlash–and 2008 will most likely see a similar outcome if Nader chooses to run again.

For now, though, Nader is in the public eye again in a different role: movie star. Steven Skrovan and Henriette Mantel’s new documentary An Unreasonable Man takes a comprehensive look at Nader and questions whether he can really be blamed for the Bush presidency. Nader also continues his prolific career as an author with 2007’s The Seventeen Traditions, looking at the lessons his parents taught him and what young people everywhere could learn from them. Love him or hate him, no one denies that Ralph Nader has had a profound effect on the last half-century of American politics. He spoke with Campus Progress about his continuing fight against corporate globalization, his potential as a presidential candidate in 2008, and his opinion on what students can do to carry the torch of consumer activism.

Campus Progress: What are the most important consumer advocacy issues today and what can young people do to advocate for consumer rights?

Ralph Nader: You can define consumer advocacy in terms of the marketplace and public services–government services including police, fire, building codes, and a whole variety of social services. Today, students are really overwhelmed with their own personal problems–their own student loans, questions on whether they are going to get health insurance when they graduate, and whether their jobs are going to be outsourced, even if they are white collar jobs. So they have to develop a public philosophy and segregate a certain amount of time for their citizen responsibilities. If they do that, then that is the allocation of time that moves into developing their citizen skills, which they don’t learn in school. Whether they are specific skills, like how to use the Freedom of Information Act, how to build a coalition, or they are personality skills like how not to be discouraged, how to be resilient, how to share the credit when you are involved in the struggle, locally and nationally with your friends and collaborators.

So the first step students should take is to insist that they have a civics course in their curriculum. If they can’t get it in their curriculum, they should do it outside the classroom. They need to have these civic skills, and a good way to do it is through internships, fellowships, and working with local action groups.

Substantively we have health insurance, universal health insurance the key issue. Losing control of people’s money through credit cards and all the kinds of financial controls, penalties, late payments, and all that is another big one. The third one is compulsory consumption of pollution and toxins, where you have no choice but to absorb these involuntarily. Fourth is to have enough to spend, which means dealing with poverty and the living wage in the country. The fifth would be some of the newer technologies that students are on the cutting edge of–genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

How do you think the consumer activism movement can fit into international trade and international policies?

Well, corporate globalization is really the fundamental issue pertaining to what you are asking about, and what we’ve done is become a signatory nation, along with 140 others, to the WTO and, with Canada and Mexico, to NAFTA. And that is a bypass of our democratic process. It is a layering over of an autocratic, transnational system of government, which subordinates worker and environmental consumer standards and issues to the imperatives of commercial, international trade. And that, of course, is a reversal of the way we have progressed in our country, where every time we move forward, whether by abolishing slavery, ending child labor, or environmental issues, we’ve said to corporations, “Your commercial priorities are going to be subordinated to adjusting to these higher standards of health, safety, and human rights.”

The corporate globalization in these trade agreements reverses that, and subordinates human rights to commercial supremacy. Everything follows from that; you get more advanced countries pulling down toward lower levels of third world countries by virtue of shipping whole industries to communist dictatorships or fascist dictatorships in the third world where costs are not determined by market factors, they are determined by dictatorships and oligarchs, labor costs for example. It is anything but free trade; you cannot have free trade with a dictatorship or oligarchy.

What you’re seeing here is proposals to advance health and safety in our country are put in the legislature and then they get a message from the U.S. Trade Representative or the State Department saying, “This violates WTO.” “This labeling act for food violates WTO, this advanced auto safety violates WTO.” And these trade agreements have the force of federal law when we sign onto them.

In your book, The Seventeen Traditions, you talk a lot about how the corporate culture is encroaching on the ability of families to just raise their children in they way they want.

24 hours a day, the commercial merchants are direct marketing to children as young as three years old, undermining parental authority. Parents are more and more absent because they are commuting and have two jobs for their children, so their children are sitting ducks. And the marketing divisions of these companies acknowledge that; they know more about these kids when they are alone and what their peer group does than their parents do.

And what are they selling these kids? Violent programming, where violence is the solution to problems in life–even though the good guys win, it’s still violence. Second, junk food and junk drinks, predisposing them to obesity and diabetes. Military toys for boys at age 5, cosmetics for girls at age 7, overmedication from age 2. This is before they even reach 10 or 11, where the addictive industries move in–alcohol, drugs, tobacco, etc. So corporations increasingly, in terms of time, penetration, and arranging their products and services, are raising our children in this country.

Given all the damage that has been done by the Bush administration, and, concurrently, seeing Al Gore speak out against the Iraq war and global warming, do you regret running in 2000, and do you regret saying that there wasn’t a dimes worth of difference between the two?

You shouldn’t even ask that question in that way, because what you’re saying is–unless you’ve asked Bush that question or other major parties–you’re implying that there is a second class citizenship that pertains to small party candidates. I know you don’t think that way, but you are inheriting–

Well actually I do, because we have a winner-take-all election system, we don’t have parliamentary representation. And I wonder why, instead of running for president, you didn’t militate for instant run off voting or other changes that would make third parties more viable options.

We have done that, but the Democrats have no interest in that at all. Before I did it, it was done by others in the national interest. But you know enough about American history that I don’t think you would have urged people who voted for the Liberty anti-slavery party to vote for the Whigs instead of the Democrats. Or the women’s suffrage party for the Republicans instead of the Democrats.

Certainly I can see that you have the right to run, but would you concede that nonetheless it may have been wiser not to, and therefore, will you run in 2008?

It’s always wise to follow your conscience. And second, and most importantly, you’re following prey to the gap after Election Day and then making your arithmetic. But the key is the dynamic before Election Day–how did I affect the Gore campaign? By pushing him to the left, he was making populist statements which raised his polls.

Not to mention that Gore did win the election; he believes it, I believe it, a lot of people believe it. It was stolen from him in a whole myriad of ways that were documented before, during, and after Election Day in Florida, from Tallahassee to the partisan 5-4 Supreme Court decision. You would think that most people would go after the thieves, try to get political reform, giving felons who have served their time the right to vote, counting the votes accurately so that Katherine Harris, Jeb Bush, and all the rest of them couldn’t have done it as they did it again in a slightly different way in Ohio. You don’t deny voters for third party candidates the right to vote for them by doing what the Democrats did, which was get us off the ballot through all kind of phony lawsuits and harassment in 2004 for which they will pay dearly in future years.

So you are planning on running again.

No, I didn’t say that. There are other ways to make them pay dearly. It’s too early to say.

If you would like to elaborate on that or anything else you plan on working on in the near future, we would love to hear about it.

Well we’re into starting a lot of new groups–the forest of democracy needs more trees. What we need now in the student area is much more formal and dynamic organizations. I’ve never in 40 years seen a desolate wasteland like on college campuses. Especially with the absence of a draft in the middle of this Iraq quagmire, there’s almost no activity to speak of–some of them will go the marches, but it’s nothing like it should be. If there was a draft, if you’re part of the risk, you’re more likely to be apart of the solution. But a professional army is one that elicits excessive awe, because millions of people have never been in the army. If you’ve been in the army you’re not awed at the military. But now we’ve have more than three decades of a professional army, mostly of low income whites, blacks, and Hispanics, and it is very easy to manipulate public opinion in terms of getting us into war when you have that. Because then it becomes, “don’t support Bush, support the troops.” And Bush wraps the troops around himself.

But getting back to the campus: the lack of civic motivation, the debts that the students come out with, the little toy called a computer which seems to fascinate college students excessively, and the overwhelming inundation of cell phone chatter and text messaging is replacing any opportunity for reflection, digestion, and reaction. Just imagine, your generation is spending minimally 50 hours a week looking at screens, computer screens, television screens, video game screens. What does that do to the brain, in a physiological sense? That is what we have to face up to.

You’ve got to watch out that your diagnosis of an apathetic generation isn’t so brilliant that it doesn’t lead to prescription. You’ve seen that a lot, when people’s diagnosis are so on point that they almost seem to be satisfied with the diagnosis and they don’t move to the prescription. So the real question is: how go you get a million college students out of 16 million socially indignant enough to act? I stand up in front of students and one of the first questions I ask them is: what makes you angry? And you know what makes them angry? It isn’t massive world poverty, it isn’t the Iraq War, it isn’t corporate control of their lives and their government and their elections. You know what makes them angry? Gender slurs, racial slurs, ethnic slurs. Words, that’s what makes them most angry on college campuses. Now they have to really rethink that; first of all, why are they most angry at words instead of deeds? Behind all of these slurs is a pattern of discrimination, depravation. And second, where is their horizon? They are supposed to be engaged in intellectual exploration for four years, not a trade school, not learning widgets, entries, accounting, balance sheets, and computer bytes.

That is the challenge you have to have, to move to prescription in some way. Read Saul Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals, it’s only the best book written in the 20th century on organizing people. So read it, get it off Amazon, and you’ll see his technique was to go to the perceived injustice of the people you want to organize. You don’t try to graft another injustice or try to persuade them, you go the perceived injustice and then you work out of that. So what are the perceived injustices of college students? Well, one of them is student loans, and that is a huge racket with Sallie Mae and that should be a raging issue on campus. Because Sallie Mae is corporate socialism personified–they make the profit, any loses are made up by Uncle Sam, and they are vastly overcharging. When you get out of school, you are risk averse to civic activity. That’s why in the 60’s, where there were very little loans after schools, they were much more risk-attentive and risk assuming.