It’s been an interesting couple of yearsfor left-wing populist movements, from Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter to Bernie Sanders’ insurgent run for president. Driven by widening inequality and fanned by social media, some have already brought about real changes — like the fight for a $15 minimum wage across the country — while others have quietly faded away. Few people have a longer-term perspective on what it takes to have an impact than public-interest crusader and political maverick Ralph Nader, who, over the span of five decades, has leveraged the courts, the media, and the electoral system to win hefty gains for consumers and the environment. A five-time candidate for president, he’s sitting this election out, working the channels through his role with the Center for Study of Responsive Law, the research and advocacy organization he founded in 1968. The center is housed at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., where we met in a grand, bookshelf-lined conference room and talked politics, elections, and organizing for change as the late-afternoon sun slanted through tall windows.
Let’s start out with Bernie Sanders. Despite your similarity on issues, he’s running as a Democrat, rather than a third-party candidate, like you did. How do you think that’s influenced the race?
I don’t think it influenced him at all in terms of content. I think the difference is that he’s inside the Democratic Party, playing by the rules — but he’s getting frozen out by the establishment Democrats, which is remarkably similar. The Congressional Black Caucus turned against him; they turned against me. The members of Congress of the Democratic Party overwhelmingly are against him, which is pretty amazing, since he obviously represents a large segment of Democratic voters and independent voters. And it’s not just that. It’s the Democratic National Committee, the way they rig the debates. It was so obvious that they were favoring Hillary Clinton.
He had great opportunities in the debates to really rebut her, and he blew it — whether he didn’t want to be seen as coming on too strong or he didn’t think about it in the moment. When she was asked to release the Goldman Sachs transcripts for the third or fourth time, and she went through the same thing, saying, “I’ll release it when others release it,” all he could have said was: “Well, Secretary Clinton, that’s not exactly leadership. You’re not setting an example. You’re a follower.” A rebuttal, delivered quietly, can be devastating.
So after it’s over I’ll make that point to them — say: “See, you didn’t want to return my calls. You didn’t want me to appear with you. You didn’t want to take any of my advice.”
So you tried to make these points to him?
Oh, yeah. I haven’t had a return call in 15 years, and I’m not the only one. He’s been a lone ranger. And he’s gotten a long way without our advice. People even now can’t get through to his staff. These are people who are on his side, who write articles for Salon and so on. They just can’t get through. There comes a time when you do need to return calls. You may have gone as far as you can on your own.
Do you think he’s had any impact on her positions?
He’s gotten her to mimic him, in less-than-believable language, but she’s talking minimum wage; she’s saying, “I’m going to go to Wall Street and I’m going to nail them.” She’s talking that way because that’s the technique the Clintons use. They blur you rhetorically, and then they go back to business as usual. Nobody believes her on Wall Street.
The Clintons have gotten a long way on rhetoric — very clever rhetoric to African Americans, for example. When at the debates someone asked, “Do you have any blind spots when it comes to race?” it was just masterful, the way she handled it. And he handled it the way someone would in 1970, using words like ghetto. We are a culture extremely vulnerable to rhetoric. Look how far Donald Trump has gotten.
Now that you mention it, Trump is a fascinating phenomenon. What does his popularity tell you about the electorate and what they want?
Well, and you see this when you walk past construction sites and you talk with white male workers, they feel they have been verbally repressed. It’s hard for someone your age to understand what I’m about to say. They like to stand on a corner and whistle at a pretty lady. They like to flirt. But they can’t do that anymore. Multiply that across the continuum. You can’t say this about that, and you can’t say that about this. And the employer tells you to hush. And perhaps your spouse tells you to hush, and your kids tell you to hush. So they have a whole language that they inherited — ethnic words like Polack. A lot of these people grew up on ethnic jokes, which are totally taboo now. Do you know, Lydia, there are no ethnic-joke books in bookstores anymore?
There used to be?
All the time. There were Negro-joke books, Jewish-joke books, Polish-joke books, Italian-joke books. They used ethnic jokes to reduce tension in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s. And they’d laugh at each other’s jokes and hurl another one. But it still flows through ethnic America, you know. There are hundreds of things that people would like to say. So here’s this guy — he doubles down on them, he blows their minds. So that’s the first way he got their attention.
Do you think Trump has a point about political correctness? That we’ve gotten too uptight?
Oh, yeah. You see it on campuses — what is it called, trigger warnings? It’s gotten absurd. I mean, you repress people, you engage in anger, and what you do is turn people into skins that are blistered by moonbeams. Young men now are far too sensitive because they’ve never been in a draft. They’ve never had a sergeant say, “Hit the ground and do 50 push-ups and I don’t care if there’s mud there.”
Another thing: Trump is extremely clever with the use of language. Short sentences, no prepositional phrases, immediately understood. And he is a father figure. “Don’t worry, I’ll give you the jobs, take care of the terrorists.” And when he stumbles, he reverses. He said he didn’t want higher wages, and then he reversed himself within a week, said: “Look, I can change my mind. Don’t worry. The wall. Who’s going to pay for it? Mexico. I heard they might not pay for it. You know what? The wall just got 10 feet higher.” There’s a certain skill in that.
And the third thing is, he’s a hybrid. I call him a Rep-Dem. He’s got Social Security, Medicare, he’s probably got a hidden single-payer guy, because he’s been around Canada, Western Europe, understands how it works, talks to business people, they don’t have to pay premiums, all of that. And then he’s big on public works. So that reassures even white, male conservatives and others that he’s not going to be a crazed conservative like Senator Ted Cruz and the rest of them.
And having said that — and this is really important — if you’re a billionaire, you can create a third party, because there’s a huge slice of the electorate that doesn’t like either party. A lot of them don’t vote, or they vote least-worst. But they like someone who can’t be bought. Sanders can’t be bought. He’s proven he doesn’t have to go to Park Avenue for fat-cat fundraisers—and that’s a great breakthrough, by the way. The Democrats who said for decades, “We believe in campaign finance reform, but we’re not going to unilaterally disarm”— well, he did unilaterally disarm. And then he was equipped with the 27-buck average people. So what Trump has done, brilliantly, is to say: “I don’t need these fat cats on Wall Street. I’m spending my own money.” And that has huge resonance.
But that’s not the enduring aspect of the campaign which most of the press has missed. I don’t know how much you know about the Commission on Presidential Debates. It’s a private, non-profit corporation. The Democrats and the Republicans wanted to get rid of the League of Women Voters running the debates, because they were too uppity, so they created this. It’s been funded entirely by corporations—Anheuser-Busch, Ford, AT&T. So here you have this corporation deciding on behalf of the two parties how many debates, the form of the debates, the moderators, the whole works. I didn’t think it could get much worse than that. Now we get to 2016, and the debates are inventories for profits for commercial media. So now we have Fox, CNN, they take turns sponsoring the debates. And they’re getting huge ratings because Trump has helped turn it into a circus. Just think, you’ve got the profit-seekers at Fox and CNN and all the others deciding who gets on the debate, the duration of the debate, where’s the debate. Are we kidding? The commercialization of debates in primaries? And nobody comments on it?
You’ve written recently about the potential for left-right alliances to make progress on things like free trade, which both the Tea Party and the far left oppose. How come they couldn’t stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership from moving forward this year?
Oh, they’re likely to win on TPP — and the vote was close on fast track. But one reason is, there’s a difference between 535 members of Congress and shifting opinion back home. There’s a lag time, but it’s clicking more and more, as conservatives think, “What’s all this doing to our sovereignty?”
It would help, wouldn’t it, if a candidate said, “This is a left-right issue”? But they’re appealing to primary voters, who are very partisan. So they can’t even utter the words without being attacked for sacrilegious rhetoric. But that would really nourish the quality of the campaign. The issues that are really operational are criminal-justice reform, minimum wage, opposition to crony capitalism or corporate welfare, violations of civil liberties under the Patriot Act. Those are the big ones, but others are emerging. For example, there’s left-right support for getting rid of the Electoral College. And then cracking down on corporate crime, like breaking down the big New York banks. You get down to where people live, work, and raise their families, and the ideological differences tend to diminish.
Another issue that crosses party lines is civil liberties and technology. And that’s tricky, because some people are just as troubled by companies controlling our data as they are by the government controlling it — like in the case of Apple versus the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Who do you trust more in this instance?
Well, you’ve got basically three monopolies: Facebook, Apple, and Google. I mean, Apple has competition, but Facebook and Google are as close to global monopolies as you can imagine. And they get our information for free — very personal information — and they make money from it. So I’m not saying it’s like Scylla and Charybdis, but you’ve got these companies that are violating people’s privacy, and they’re encouraging more and more disclosure of personal information. They do it in a very clever way. It’s not just “likes” now. We’re permitted to use five or six other words. And who decreed that we’re not allowed to send anything longer than 140 characters? So they do have almost governmental powers.
But I side with Apple on this one, because the government is completely untrustworthy. National Security Agency dragnet-snooping is a five-year felony, and they got away with it.
You’ve written about how enlightened billionaires are needed to help guide us in the right direction. I wonder what you think about the new class of Silicon Valley philanthro-capitalists, like Mark Zuckerberg, pledging to put all his wealth into a charitable LLC. Is that what you had in mind when you wrote Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!?
There’s a distinction between charity and justice. Charity is soup kitchens. Justice is giving people the opportunity to not have to go to soup kitchens — like giving them decent jobs. What you’re talking about is overwhelmingly charity. Some of them are embarrassingly promoting their own industry, if indirectly. That’s what Bill Gates did — you know, computers for all classrooms. It’s also a good business strategy. But justice means confronting power. It means getting controversial. It means incurring retaliation.
I had a multibillionaire once tell me, “Ralph, we all know how to make lots of money, but we don’t have a clue what to do with it.” There’s a strong case that for a billion dollars we could get corporate tax reform, with lobbies in every district, plus Capitol Hill, plus media. You want to invest in justice? Here’s what you’re going to have to invest to make it happen. The abolitionist movement, women’s rights, gay rights, the civil rights movement — they all had money behind them, from Philadelphia, New York, Boston.
Wealthy people could do a lot in the area of support for a major, multitrillion-dollar investment in repairing America, which would create a lot of jobs. Civic training for middle- and high-school youth — because schools don’t teach that; they teach computer science. They could reform securities laws to give investors more power. It’s endless.
Do you think social media has been a benefit or a harm to organizers?
Well, it’s been a great benefit to Sanders. But I think, on balance, it’s destroying the brains of your generation. In terms of sheer time and sheer trivia and sheer narcissism and sheer emotional pain, it’s unparalleled, right down to fifth graders. And I don’t think we’ve begun to analyze what’s happening to all of us — but more to the younger generations. The New York Review of Books just had a review of four books on what the smartphone is doing to people. And they polled young women at Baylor University, how many hours they’re into this: 10 a day. This isn’t just like you’re watching television. This is total immersion. And it’s just going to get worse. That means shorter attention spans, less sociability. They can’t talk to each other on the phone anymore.
But what if they’re talking to each other through their phones?
Yeah, but it’s not voice. They don’t like to talk by voice. They’re too sensitive. And it’s exclusive of the family, taking you out of your household. It’s a very isolated thing. One girl said she had 600 text messages a day, and she’d die without her phone.
At first, we all said: “Oh, it’s going to be so much easier to organize now. No stamps, no long-distance calls, instant massive audiences.” It’s not happening. You get petitions — but now they’re totally drowning in petitions, you know, over at Change.org. You can’t even get crowdsourcing much anymore, because the clutter defeats its original utility, so it devours itself.
What about something like Black Lives Matter, which I think has made quite an impact on the discourse?
Yeah, but how far does Black Lives Matter go? Is it raising money for offices and permanent staff? It’s like Occupy Wall Street. They had the same technology. It gets you to first base, and it doesn’t get you further.
Well, what if it serves a purpose in the moment — which is to make an impact on the debate — and doesn’t carry on as an institution?
OK, well, there’s a negative, which is demoralization when they can’t get there. You’ve already seen that with Black Lives Matter. They’re so sensitive to injustice, and then they don’t see any response to their work. One young man committed suicide. The tension is incredible. And what will happen when the press turns on them? The press finished off Occupy. The minute they were ejected it was no longer news. Not that they knew how to organize anything. Not that they knew how to take any advice from the ’70s and ’60s.
One big piece of advice I have for organizers is to stop writing off Congress. A lot of these groups have written off Congress as gridlocked and hopeless, including the climate folks, but it’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, you know, because the people who haven’t written off Congress are the corporate lobbyists. A lot of mass demonstrations just go into the ether because they’re not lobbying members of Congress, yet a lot of the things these groups want have to go through Congress. I think if Occupy Wall Street had picked minimum wage, they would still be around.
Do you see any promising young movements or leaders that you think are the real deal?
Well, how do you see them? Those kinds of people don’t get on the talk shows anymore. The nightly news once made leaders out of people who mobilize neighborhoods. They were such civic celebrities that they could hold their own news conferences and communicate to people over Channel 7, Channel 5, Channel 9. And there used to be local talk shows that were hungry for local news. But it’s completely obliterated now. Look at the evening news: It’s beyond satire.
Oh, I meet these people, all over the country. Nobody knows their name, except their own community.
What are they doing, these people?
They’re doing what Jesse Jackson did, Gloria Steinem did, Ralph Nader did, Barry Commoner did, Paul Ehrlich did — but they don’t appear on television anymore. The media’s been completely commercialized and corporatized. It’s so bad that people like you don’t even watch it. Like, do you ever watch Saturday afternoon network shows?
I never watch TV.
None of your generation does. Do you know what’s on it? You can’t believe how bad it is. About an hour of these bicycle gymnasts competing. Then you have paid infomercials. Then you have horrible third-run B-grade movies. And sometimes you have sports, but most of that’s on cable now. And the most insipid shows you can imagine. I turn it on once in a while to see what they’re doing with my property — you know, public airwaves, we all own it — and I just can’t believe it. Nothing else is going on in this country? Nothing else that merits programs on Saturday afternoon TV? And I say, “America, you are asleep.”
There are all kinds of wonderful things going on, but they don’t accelerate and diffuse. Because they’re not part of the media, they’re shut out.
I hear you are a voracious reader and recommender of books. What have you been recommending? And do you think books have the impact they used to?
Well, we are living in a golden age of muckraking books and muckraking documentary films. Ten times as many films come out now than when I came to Washington. Books on the coal industry; books on the tax code; books on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs; books on the copper industry ravaging Arizona; the cocoa industry — all over the world. And yet they have less effect. Democracy is too underdeveloped to receive them.
That’s why I say there aren’t enough institutions. OK, say you turn on 60 Minutes and there’s a terrific investigative report about student-loan rackets. This was an actual case, maybe five years ago. 60 Minutes used to have a real wallop, but it keeps going down. Why is it going down? Well, fewer congressional hearings pick it up. Prosecutorial budgets? Squeezed. Consumer groups? It’s not a growth industry. They’re overloaded. Our health-research group is overwhelmed following up on what’s reported on the drug industry in the Washington Post and the New York Times. So the consumer groups are not growing to keep up with the abuses and the growth of the economy. There’s no citizen group on nanotech. Hello! That is an extremely tumultuous technology.
I wish I could start a group that did nothing but follow up on Post and Times investigative reports. Why? Because at least if they produced something, and they followed up, it would appear in the newspaper! Let’s say they did the student-loan story, and there was a really powerful group of people in their 20s and 30s with student-loan debt. And let’s say they had 35 full-time people here and around the country—lawyers—going after Sallie Mae. They’d have picked something like that up. It would’ve been sensational.
To step back here for a moment: What is the thing that you’ve fought for the longest that you haven’t achieved?
Mechanisms for starting new citizen groups. All democratic societies have to be organized. It isn’t enough to just know what’s wrong and say what should be done. As Jean Monnet once said: “Without people, nothing’s possible. But without institutions, nothing’s enduring.”
I organized my Princeton University alumni class to start a project that places students into civic-action groups around the country and the world. And my Harvard Law School class started 16 centers for law and justice. And I have thought, if we actually showed that this worked — that it’s 10 years working, it’s 15 years working — there are alumni classes all over the country who would say: “Hey, that looks like a lot of fun. Why don’t we do it?” And that’s my greatest regret: not spreading that model, because it would have massively nourished the fibers and the productivity of a democratic society.