Let’s be real about this right up front– if we’re talking actual votes, Ralph Nader hasn’t exactly seen a lot of success as a presidential candidate. We’re taught that, as a third-party candidate who has run with the New Party, no party, and Green Party, Nader’s campaigns have been doomed from the start, just like those of every other non-binary (i.e. neither Democrat nor Republican) political player seeking the highest office (or really any office of consequence) in the land.
Ok, but whatabout what happened this year? When a Larry David lookalike and unabashed Democratic Socialist had a wildly successful campaign in a country where until very recently the word “socialism” was grounds for bashing someone with a giant crucifix and screaming “Down CCCP! DOWWWWN”? In a lot of ways Bernie Sanders, a lifelong Independent, was a third-party candidate, which thwarts the narrative of there being a doomed, foregone conclusion to campaigns like Nader’s.
While he swept just one vote at the 1972 Democratic Convention, only 2.74 percent of the vote in 2000, and a dismal .38 in 2004, Nader has repeatedly been accused of playing the “spoiler,” particularly for Democrats’ campaigns. Most notable was the 2000 contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush that culminated in a contentious recount in Florida– Nader Haters say that without his candidacy, Gore could have swept up the extra votes to make him the undisputed winner. It’s a fight that still rages on today, and one that’s been invoked to discourage the current Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, from running in 2016. Nader, of course, isn’t at all about this spoiler accusation and has called it a form of “discrimination,” one that “counters a candidate’s civil liberties. Everyone has an equal right to run for public office.”
He’s probably not plotting some sort of presidential comeback, but Nader found it to be an appropriate moment to write a new book, Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think. Released in August, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a civic self-help book for the politically disillusioned. Nader hopes the manual of sorts will inspire people– that’s you, Bernie Bros and Sandersistas– to get back out there.
You can grip a copy of the book and catch Nader in-person at the Brooklyn Book Fest on Sunday September 18, 7 pm, and at the Union Square Barnes & Noble on Monday September 19. In the meantime, enjoy our convo with Nader (we definitely did).
It’s always time for this book because the real challenge of democracy is the people and justice forces breaking through the power we now call oligarchy and plutocracy. There’s a lot of talk now about inequality, and it usually starts with inequality of income, the top 1 percent, etc., and then they’ll move to the inequality of wealth, but they don’t get to the inequality of power, which is fundamental to producing inequality of wealth and inequality of income and inequality of voice. This [book] gets to that level of shifting power from the few to the many so that the few don’t spend their days deciding for the many in favor of the few.
It’s a very forward-thinking book, it’s a call to action, sort of a how-to manual for people about how they can civically engage in democracy. One of the things that stands in the way of this action is, you say in the book, because “we are a society of spectators.” Immediately, I thought of my generation– Netflix-n-chill, video games, Virtual Reality, but you don’t mention Millennials once by name. Why is that?
No, because it’s basically not age-related. Some of my other writings do focus on that and Occupy Wall Street, but when it comes to breaking through power, there isn’t an age stratification, there is an age inheritance. That is, the people who have been doing it for 30, 40 years need to put their arms around the shoulders of the younger people and bring them into the arena so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel all time.
I think one of the problems with Occupy Wall Street is they didn’t recognize that enough. So people who have been around a long time who could have shown them how they sustained what was a great breakthrough in New York and elsewhere, weren’t called upon unfortunately. And so the moment when [Occupy] were thrown out of [the parks they controlled], they lost the media. Because the media was enthralled with the 24/7 nature of it, taking control of public space, for obvious reasons.
The moment they were split from that, they lost their cache– not [to say] that [Occupy] should have lost control in what they were trying to do. That’s a huge asset, to be in the mass media eye for three to four months. They could have built on it with, say, a minimum wage project all over the country surrounding Congressional offices back home. And that would have helped sustain them because, you know, you have 30 million people making less today than in 1968, adjusted for inflation– that’s a pretty big constituency.
You mention in the book that social networks drive social movements, which is interesting because there’s no explicit mention of social media. It seems like it was related to the whole Millennial absence, is that true?
Well, there was mention of media and there was mention of taking control of the public airwaves, which we own, so that we have, say, three hours a day of audience network instead of just 24/7 entertainment, advertising, and puff of the networks. That’s what I’m focusing on.
So many people have written about social media. I’m not an expert at all on that. It has it’s uses, but I don’t think it’s produced very much in terms of concrete action. It’s very good for retrieving information and telling people what’s going on. But getting people in the streets? Boy, have we had bad experiences with that. Getting people out to gatherings, to convocations– you can send the media out and you’re lucky if you get 10 people showing up. So I’m very much [about] old-fashioned media– person-to-person.
It’s very important for [BLM] to know that the biggest wealth in this country is owned by we the people and controlled by they the corporations. If you don’t start out with the assets you have in a democracy– which is the public lands, the public airwaves, trillions of dollars of government R&D to build all the industries [such as] computer, biotech, and so on, pharmaceuticals, aerospace– you’re basically conceding the thought-control process of our educational system, which never tells us what we own. Therefore we never ask, “Well, if we own the airwaves and the public lands, how come we’re giving it away? How come we don’t have any control over it?” That’s where I make the contribution [in this book].
Yeah, it is [a swing-back]. It is. It’s not entirely their fault. I mean, Bernie endorsed Hillary unqualified. He should have said, “And my constituency watching her every minute when she’s in the White House could make her a great president.” Instead he just said, “She’ll be a great president.” That’s tremendously demoralizing to people around the country, young people especially. And they don’t have resources, they don’t have full-time organizers. He had the money.
So yeah, it’s a bad scene. And I foreshadowed that. I warned Bernie about that, you know, there’s a huge cliff out there after the primaries. You’re gonna get people staying home, people disillusioned, cynical, withdrawn– and that beautiful asset you’ve built up across the country of human beings surging forward, can be dissipated.
Yeah it did, inside the [Democratic] party. It was very good what he did. I think he exceeded wildly his own expectations, as well as everybody else’s expectations. He was very cautious about running– he polled people, “Should I run? I don’t wanna just get 2 percent.” And look what happened.
Actually, if the procedures were fair, and the count was fair in Nevada and Iowa, [with] the momentum he could have beat her. She scratched out with 20 percent unelected delegates.
Well, I always say it’s easier than you think, look at the subtitle right? [Laughs.] That’s what you gotta start with– and it’s not whimsy, it’s not fantasy, it’s historically accurate. It has always taken a tiny number of people, to turn around the country in the right direction– as long as they represent a majority of public opinion– and it’s always taken a few people to oppress and control the country, too. There’s a 1 percent on both sides, you know.
I mean, [my campaign with the Green Party] had all this environmental [policy], worker and consumer safety, freedom of information, and we never had a fraction of 1 percent. We were lucky to have a few thousand people around the country. But our evidence and our proposals were supported by a huge silent majority in the polls, and the politicians had their finger to that wind, you see?
It does if something comes out of it other than lockstep for Hillary. I don’t know, this Our Revolution that he started– there’s a lot of dissension. Bernie’s always been a lone ranger, he’s never been much of a networker and organizer. I knew him before he was mayor of Burlington, he hasn’t returned a call for 18 years. He’s a total lone ranger in the Senate. He doesn’t network the citizen groups the way Paul Wellstone did.
That’s why I’m not that sanguine about much coming out of it, other than the memory, and sort of the resolve to do it again– other people doing it again. I think young people should really start building a third party, a youth party. It’s not that hard. If they do it, they’ll see the enormous strength they have.
They don’t even have to run candidates the first two years, they can start local and state and national. They can feel their way, get experience, then go all out. They have huge leverage, you know, in a winner-take-all electoral college system.
I think that’s such a different message that was coming out of the Sanders campaign, not necessarily directly from Bernie, but from his supporters that the system is broken, screw the system. Instead of utilizing the system, I feel like a lot of people my age have just dropped out after Bernie left, they think there’s nothing in it for them now.
Yes– huge, huge. I wrote a book on this a couple years ago, The Emerging Right Left Alliance. Just look at all the issues where the Left and Right [agree] on up to 70 to 80 percent in the polls: criminal justice reform, policy reform, bloated military budget, cracking down on corporate crime, against corporate welfare (handouts, giveaways, subsidies). Minimum wage comes in, believe it or not, a lot of conservative Walmart workers there. [There’s] corporate tax reform and civil liberties, [being] against the Patriot Act, and that’s just for starters.
So those are big issues and in some areas they’re already operational, this Left-Right legislative support. In 15 states they’ve passed juvenile justice reform, they couldn’t have done it without a Left-Right [union].
Well, he does– but he doesn’t have to succeed, does he? I don’t mean in an election– I mean, I hope he doesn’t succeed. But people can disregard it. What he’s done is a typical technique– people focus on areas where the Left and Right disagree, and those are often abstract, ideological, religious, whatever. But where they agree reflects where they live, work, raise their families. When you get down to [that], guess what? Right wingers [also] want clean air, clean water, safe food, safe drugs [all] for their kids and for themselves. You see how the ideology dissipates because real life comes into play.
Yeah, there’s a lot of that. The white, male, blue-collar worker have really taken the brunt of globalization– empty factories, empty communities, loss of self-regard and they can’t be the breadwinner and they have to go and get a fast-food job, if they’re lucky. It’s terrible. Democrats could have used that, they could have riled up all these people. It could have gone either way, you know? They didn’t because the Democrats sold out to the corporations, including Hillary.
Trump does it on immigration, but immigration is just a rebound to the real issues which are loss of jobs, loss of pensions, loss of unemployment compensation, loss of homes, foreclosures. What he does is say, “Yeah, it’s all due to those immigrants.” Yeah, [laughs sarcastically] it’s all due to those immigrants. Well, who wants cheap labor in this country? It’s Wall Street, it’s The Wall Street Journal, it’s the corporations, Tyson Foods, the meatpackers, the agrobusiness.
So what you do is you take all that and you bring it down to jobs, pensions, decent housing, public transit– those things. The Democrats have totally failed. That’s why Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman kept winning. Because they kept the bread-and-butter issues and once that vacuum occurred in the Democratic party what emerged are these social issues– abortion, school prayer, immigration. And once the politicians vector that way, the mass media loves it– it’s high ratings, it’s raw emotions, it’s people shouting at each other.
There’s a lot of disingenuous stuff going on with Trump’s campaign, but I was thinking that the narrative in your book, the idea of “breaking through power,” is something that he’s almost hijacked in terms of this ground-up story.
Here’s a corrupt gambler who creams off the riches from bankrupt companies of his and he’s cheated everybody in sight– he’s cheated his partners, his investors, his consumers, Trump University, his workers, taxpayers by being a corporate welfare king and not paying taxes, he’s cheated his creditors. [Laughs.] He’s cheated everyone. It’s the old story: divide and rule, get the media for the ratings. The debates are gonna be interesting.