Ralph Nader, a Winsted native and longtime Connecticut resident, may have influenced more liberal legislation and regulations than any man in the 20th century. Following his 2000 campaign for the White House, many Democrats not only blame him for siphoning votes away from Al Gore in Florida and electing George W. Bush, but they’ve used his third-party campaign as a cautionary tale to keep disillusioned party members from starting a Tea Party of their own.
Here, in a lightly edited and condensed conversation with Connecticut Mirror Publisher Dave Daley, Nader talks about Hillary Clinton’s record and the state of the progressive left.
Have you read Tom Frank’s book “Listen, Liberal.” I’d be interested in what you make of his argument that it’s the Democrats who have also walked away from workers, from fighting for wages and broadening opportunity – and that by becoming a party for a new professional class, they too are complicit in creating the conditions for Donald Trump.
Oh, yes. Cover to cover. The Democratic party rose to power under Franklin Delano Roosevelt with blue-collar workers and unions. Starting in the ’60’s, they started losing touch with blue-collar workers, and along came the social issues which began to cause blue-collar workers to veer off — abortion issues and gun control, race, school prayer. The general cultural eruption in the ’60’s offended a lot of blue-collar ethnic families. Then when the Democrats started taking the economic issues off the table as they started to dial for the same commercial dollars as the Republicans, that created a vacuum.
More and more, elections pivoted around social issues, and less and less around the economic issues. The Democrats embraced Frank’s professional class — which was further removed from blue-collar workers, and that provided a further gap. Then the corporate-managed trade agreements began hollowing out communities; empty factories created by the Democrats as well as the Republicans who supported these deals.
Blue-collar workers felt that they were being abandoned. They were. I would say that again and again. Blue-collar workers were abandoned. White-collar workers didn’t think their jobs could be exported. Now they are having second thoughts on that in the Internet computerized age when even legal work is being exported to India.
So explain why that is. If you have one party driven by the professional class, and the other by Wall Street and social conservatives – is 2016 simply what happens when both parties either ignore issues like the minimum wage or trade deals, or give lip service to them in election years? Why do you think it is so hard for the working-class to get a political voice in either major party? Is it as simple as money?
This is where money really kicks in. I mean, we were very early on minimum-wage advocacy in Washington, and opposition to NAFTA and WTO, so we could see it coming. In early 2014 when – finally — the Democrats introduced the $10.10 minimum wage with Senator Harkin and Congressman Miller, the question was “When is Hillary going to support it?” She was trying to figure out how to support a higher minimum wage, and not alienate her Wall Street supporters. Now remember, she comes from being on the board of Walmart, where she didn’t speak up at all on low wages. She spoke up on having a woman or two on the board, but not low wages; that was her background.
We started sending her multiple signature letters from children’s groups, and women’s groups, and anti-poverty groups beseeching her to at least sign on to Harkin and Miller’s bill. She finally did in late April 2014. It’s only $10.10! So it is money, it’s definitely money. When it comes to trade — that’s the biggest money pot apart from tort reform that you could tap into. I mean, look at all the companies that want to quit the country, and go to low-wage Mexico and China, and get away with all kinds of things we can’t get away with here, and still maintain their market here by shipping back, so it is money.
In 2012, I was down on Capitol Hill pushing the Democrats to introduce the minimum wage bill. They kept delaying in the House, so I finally called this guy who’s the chief of staff for George Miller. Could never get George Miller. These progressive members of Congress would not return calls to us — including Bernie Sanders, by the way — other than Paul Wellstone. They just wouldn’t return calls. They didn’t want to be pushed further than they were willing to go on progressive matters.
Has that changed at all this year, when progressives appeared to have more grass-roots energy?
No. Not at all.
So I’m telling this chief of staff, “What are you waiting for?” The polls, the history, FDR was a signature reform, in the ’30’s the labor unions are not going to object, and this was in July. What are you waiting for? You’re losing momentum. The election is in November! He just erupted on the phone. He said, “You just don’t understand that John Boehner will give us nothing.” I said, “Really?” I said, “How does that argue against dropping the bill in the hopper?”
Do you see the defeatism? The cowardice? That’s what we had to deal with. It’s like pushing paper. You can’t deal with the Democrats like that. I mean this is not a hugely turbulent issue, right? Raising the minimum wage. The country’s wildly in favor of it. But that’s how totally impregnated they were with the defeatist, passive, surrendering attitude. “John Boehner will give us nothing.”
So you’re calling the Democrats two things – lazy, and addicted to Wall Street cash.
It’s all about gerrymandered seats, no primary opponent, and getting gobs of money from the same sources as the Republicans.
[Ohio congresswoman] Marcy Kaptur tells me this: “You know the Democratic Caucus. We walk in talking money. We talk money during the caucus meetings, not policy, and we walk out with our monetary quotas. That’s all we do.” So there you are, right there. I thought that was the best example ever. They don’t think they can get votes by contrasting themselves on significant issues, cracking down on corporate crime, fighting for stronger labor laws and the minimum wage and Medicare for all. They said it’s easier just to try to raise money, and pursue their safe seats. It really comes down a lot to the gerrymandering issues: That is not just politicians picking their voters. That’s politicians having such security that they can afford to offend their voters.
It’s political laziness. It’s “why exercise when you can get through the day without it?” It’s so easy just to float in like Ed Markey does, and others in one district after another. To do otherwise is to court controversy. You’re going to be criticized by the Chamber of Commerce back home. Some of your big donors are going to call you and say, “Ed, hey, come on.”
On the other side, there’s no organized pressure from back home. Zero. The auto dealers are organized, the insurance agents are organized, the realtors are organized, but on these major re-directions, this almost zero pressure on these Democrats, zero.
What would that pressure look like? Is it a Tea Party of the left?
First, it would be to fill up the town meetings in August the way the Tea Party did. The second would be to start demanding that they come to their own town meetings. People like workers get together, and say, look, you’re coming through here, Congresswoman Esty, or whoever. We want to have a sit down with you. Picketing their local office. I mean, simple stuff. Look what it took to make minimum wage a major issue. It took three or four groups like ours. Then SEIU put several million in. Then they started demonstrating and picketing Walmart, McDonald’s, Burger King, and then the press started picking it up. Then they did it again. My estimate is fewer than the number of people who live in Connecticut plus a few think-tanks pulled this off.
That’s all. It started in cities, and then in states. It hasn’t reached Congress yet, but look at the impact from the tiny effort that 70,000 people at the most, who spent a few hours picketing, or demonstrating. Local governments and the states started moving. The Congress didn’t move because it was run by two hardliners, McConnell and Boehner, of course, but what if four times that? What’s the big deal, right? What if four times did that? What if they started doing it in Paul Ryan’s district, right?
That’s why I say it’s easier than we think. When anything good happens, we never ask how much did it take, what did it take in people, money, hours? It’s embarrassing how little it takes. Look at the gay/lesbian marriage turnaround, right? When you really get down to it, it was never more than 100,000 people fighting and organizing, but what happened was they changed public sentiment. The same with minimum wage. As long as you have growing public sentiment, and the polls are showing bigger and bigger support then you have people on the ground, then you have full-time advocates of putting out reports, et cetera, and you start getting media — that’s the formula. You only have 535 human beings up there in Congress to convince, with all their frailties, for heaven’s sake.
You have been watching the Clintons for decades. Where do you think Hillary’s heart and mind is on these questions? Is she closer to the progressive she wants people to believe she is, the progressive who gets things done? Or is she closer to the Wall Street folks who funded the Democratic Leadership Committee and those who pushed the party to the right during the 1990s?
She’s still Wall Street and war. Wall Street and the military-industrial complex. She decided a long time ago she was never going to be accused of being soft on war because she was a woman, and they moved from Arkansas to New York precisely to be part of the Wall Street power and money crowd. So she’s still Wall Street, more Wall Street, more war.
That’s what the campaign button against Hillary should be. Nice picture of her in the middle. “More war, more Wall Street,” on the top and on the bottom. All this is just a show. She’s very good with single moms and kids, women’s rights, the glass ceiling. But as Thomas Frank shows, the Clintons were devastating on women and single moms with their welfare reform, mass incarceration, and so on and so forth in the ’90’s.
It’s all a matter of sugarcoating. She sugarcoats a lot, but at her core, it’s Wall Street, warmongering. She gave that decisive speech at Annapolis, the Naval Academy, when she was secretary of state called “Pivot to Asia.” Like it was the U.S. role is to provoke China! It’s unbelievable. They’re bolstering Japanese militarism that’s on the rise, and they’re doing everything they can to go back to the early 20th century, here we go again, pivot to Asia. What if the Chinese had a policy called pivot to North America? What if the Chinese sent its ships to the Caribbean? It starts a new arms race, you see. They have to have a major new enemy, and they’re on their way to having Russia and China all over again.
There was such fervor for change this year within both parties. How would you suggest progressives keep the pressure on a likely President Clinton?
The Bernie Sanders constituency. He’s got to do a massive civic mobilization after Labor Day. Start with a big rally on the Mall in Washington. The result from this mobilization would be that his voters would turn out for the Democrats more than they are now because they know that he’s going to be with them after the election — and they’re going to be a major pressure, far bigger than the Tea Party on the Republican side. It’s not a wish, the Sanders forces exist.
But it can dissipate rather quickly if he doesn’t hold it together, and he can’t hold it together by saying, “Follow me behind Hillary.” He’s got to hold it together by saying follow me behind our agenda that you turned out for in the millions. It’s so obvious, isn’t it, the strategy?
Do you think he will?
He hasn’t announced anything, so it’s not happening.
Does he ever call you?
Is he avoiding you because of 2000?
Yes, he views me like I’m tainted, like I’m the reason for the Democrats losing, and he’s not going to be any part of another Nader-caused loss. As if the evidence isn’t overwhelming that the Democrats allowed the Republicans to steal the election in all kinds of ways. They forget about the 300,000 Democrats who voted for Bush. It’s funny how they forget about the thousands of votes Pat Buchanan got.
Can’t imagine putting Joe Lieberman on the ticket helped with many liberal Democrats, either.
That was a big mistake.
Do you think that the Democrats have intentionally twisted what happened in 2000 and tried to pin the blame on you – rather than Gore losing Tennessee, or not deploying Bill Clinton, or his weak debate performances – into a cautionary tale designed to keep progressives in line and defend themselves against third-party challenges?
It’s more decadent than that. First and foremost, it’s old-fashioned scapegoating. They couldn’t defeat this bumbling governor from Texas who couldn’t put a paragraph together, who had a terrible record on children, on the environment, on crony capitalism, on corporate domination over labor, on Medicaid. He had a terrible record, and they couldn’t defeat him, so they didn’t anticipate — which they should have — all the stuff on misidentifying ex-felons in Florida in the thousands.
People with the same names weren’t allowed to vote because they had the same names as ex-felons. They knew that. They knew that Katherine Harris had hired a consulting firm to do that. They knew about the butterfly ballot, which did them in. In fact, the Democratic chairs of the southern Florida counties approved it in draft form when the Republicans passed it by them for approval. They knew all that. They knew they were in trouble in Tennessee. They knew you don’t keep Clinton out of Arkansas. Terrible debates.
This is old-fashioned scapegoating. So who do you blame? You don’t blame the Electoral College when Gore won by over 500,000 votes. You don’t blame the loss of Tennessee. You don’t blame the loss of Arkansas. Any one of which, by the way, could have won the election. You don’t blame everything that went on in Florida. You don’t blame their failed campaign, and their lack of fight once the election was over. You don’t blame any of that. You blame Nader and the Green Party. I mean, the absurdity camouflages the scapegoating.
But 16 years later, it does seem like an intentional plan: When the establishment faces a challenge, pull out Nader as a warning. Do you think they have created a storyline about your campaign that gets trotted out every four years to make the left rally around whichever centrist gets the nomination?
Exactly. It’s the Democratic Party’s special entitlement. They own the votes.
Is there a strategy for getting around that which you might suggest to future third-party candidates? How would you suggest progressives approach their vote?
Yeah, there’s a very simple way to break that. You reverse it. It’s like, they’re saying a vote for Stein is a vote for Trump, and you say a vote for Hillary is a vote for Trump because you’re not voting for Stein.
I was on CNN, and they started out with an intro of two minutes where they did the spoiler thing on me, and they had me quoted saying, “Well, I really think Gore cost me the election, so I did have a chance,” I said. You know why I said that? Because we all have an equal right to run for election. That means we have an equal right to try to get votes from one another.
That means we’re either all spoilers of one another, or none of us are spoilers because third parties shouldn’t be treated as second party citizens. For example, if Warren Buffett votes, and down the street a cleaning lady votes, nobody says that Buffett’s vote is more important than the cleaning lady’s vote, right?
Every vote is equal in terms of impact. Every vote is equal. Well, we have to have that attitude for multi-party candidates, so the way around it is just to keep building third parties, making demands on the Democrats, and challenging them. I didn’t get any press on this, but I would challenge the Democrats in ’04 and ’08 on minimum wage. “You don’t want to adopt a stronger minimum wage? How come? Isn’t that your heritage going back to FDR again?” If the press reported all that it would be more pressure, more leverage to pull the Democratic Party to a position where they tell each other either we have to shape up, or we’re going to be shipped out.
You just published a book about the possibility of left-right alliances on all kinds of issues trying to work around a two-party duopoly. Where do you think the likelihood of that kind of alliance stands after an election as contentious as this, after the this election has incited such divisiveness?
It’s an alliance without coordination. It’s, basically, a parallel track type of thing as public opinion builds up. The left-right thing starts with public opinion. How many people support a higher minimum wage? Well, 75% or more. Well, that means that’s a left-right issue. You can’t have 75% without having a lot of conservative workers agreeing with the liberals.
None of this is going to happen without organizers, without unions trying to make it happen. The bigger trouble is that the left has to get over its yuck factor.
Its yuck factor?
With Grover Norquist, and these others, you know, they’re against abortion, and disgusting, and Grover Norquist is against unions. Yeah, but you take it one issue at a time, and pretty soon you’re undermining Grover Norquist by his own people back home, especially, on labor issues. That’s the way I would do it. I think that’s what’s going to defeat TPP.
But the media helps keep the left and the right in their silos. Divide and rule is good for business. It’s good for ratings. It’s more exciting – and it serves the ruling groups beautifully, as it has for 2,000 years. And the worse the Republicans get, the worse the Democrats feel they’re able to become. It gives them elbow room while they dial for the same dollars.