Activist and perennial third-party presidential candidate Ralph Nader talks exclusively to Michael Taylor about the 2008 election, the ‘Obama swoon’ and Australia’s ongoing subservience to the US
Ralph Nader is the reason for seatbelts, product labelling and the Environmental Protection Agency. He has organised millions into over 100 public interest groups that have been instrumental in establishing the Freedom of Information Act, the Clean Air and Water Acts and countless others. Time has named him one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century.
What did America gain from your standing this year?
Well, we kept the progressive agenda alive before millions of people that we connected with in our local media and events, and put some pressure on the two parties in slowing their race to the bottom.
Our campaign gave young people especially an opportunity to become more skilled in clean politics, electioneering and organisation. They’ll become the leaders of the future.
And we advanced the civil liberties struggle on behalf of candidate rights to get on the ballot and into debates and to be heard, without which voters are kept in the dark and stripped of choice.
How would you compare it with your previous runs, especially 2000?
Pretty much the same. When things don’t change much on the ground in policy and legislation, you just have to keep banging on the door.
As for 2000, it’s amazing how people still scapegoat the Greens for that. The studies have shown that by pushing Gore he got more votes than he would’ve gotten if I wasn’t there. And Bush never won the election – he was selected by five Republican politicians in a rump decision by the Supreme Court.
How would you sum up the health of elections in the US from a third-party point of view?
It’s not good. We’re under a corporate-indentured two-party dictatorship that has numerous ways to exclude competition by third-party and independent candidates. That means people are denied choices, which is the essence of democracy.
You’re excluded from the debates, [which are] the only way, unless you’re a multi-billionaire, to reach tens of millions of people in the fall of a presidential election. And because of that, the national media don’t cover you.
Now in every major poll since 2000 a majority of Americans wanted me on those debates, so if they can exclude me, they can do it to anyone. So I’m a good exhibit to document the grand illusion, the myth, of voter choice here.
On top of that are the mountainous hurdles that dozens of states place obstructing us getting on the ballot to begin with. Now when all that happens, what’s left of a presidential election?
The two parties choreograph their agendas and trips and are not challenged, and they are increasingly converging so that their similarities tower over the dwindling differences they’re willing to fight over.
Will you run again in 2012?
No decision on that.
Are you surprised Obama won?
Well, by October I predicted it would be a landslide for him, but definitely. I originally predicted the two nominees would be McCain and Clinton.
How would you sum up Obama’s road to the White House?
Irresistible expediency in order to win. People say, ‘He had to do that to win.’ Well, he was lucky – a lot of politicians start out good and become expedient and still lose big. [Plus] the Bush-Cheney regime was an easy act to follow. They were 20 per cent in the polls.
Also, most people heard his message that he was against the war from the start and that helped him. Despite the fact that he wasn’t in the Senate during the vote and voted for every appropriation but one to fund the war once he was – [he] voted for the Patriot Act reauthorisation…
And look, it’s traditional that people get cold feet and want to vote for the winner or the least worst regardless of whether it’s a slam-dunk Republican or Democrat state. They don’t think Electoral College and say, ‘OK, we’re gonna send a message by voting for another candidate.’
But this year it was far more pronounced by what I call the ‘Obama swoon’ – people would tell me they were going to vote for me, but that they felt an almost magnetic pull to be part of history and be able to tell their friends they voted for Obama.
It’s psychology, not politics.
What do you make of the record $600 million the Obama campaign raised?
What most people missed in their glowing reviews of how much money he raised in small amounts over the Internet without strings attached was that he raised far more corporate interest, Wall Street and corporate lawyer money than anybody in American history. With strings attached. And the question that beckons is: Why are all these commercial interests investing in him? Because he’s demonstrated he’s their man.
Was there anything positive you saw in the election? The enthusiasm and record turnout?
Well, it was a big turnout. It was a euphoric turnout and a high-expectation turnout, but without a mandate.
In what way?
He was so vague: hope, change, change, hope. No specifics. He didn’t even have a living wage programme, had no programme dealing with the 100 million poor Americans, never campaigned in poor areas or with black leaders, never even mentioned the word poor. So it was very disappointing in that sense.
What about the new face America presents to world?
Well, image is important and it is an unprecedented upward career move – the first African-American president. But once the celebrations are concluded, the question remains: Is it going to be more than that?
But given the celebrations around the world, won’t he at least heal some of the rifts caused by the Bush administration, especially in areas like the Middle East?
A lot of third-world people think, ‘He has to be with the Israelis and the Zionists to get elected, but deep in his heart he is for us!’ That’s what was reflected in those celebrations.
But with Israel and Palestine at least, there’s not going to be any change. Rahm Emanuel is part of the hard-line pro-Israeli AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] lobby and now he’s Chief of Staff.
So what do you think they will be most surprised at one year from now?
How much he continues Bush’s foreign and military policies.
So there’ll be absolutely no change?
Well, I wouldn’t say absolutely… But he was belligerent towards Russia and Iran and he’s an AIPAC guy even though he was an articulate supporter of Palestinian rights in Chicago circles before he ran for election. And he wants an even bigger military budget.
So how has Obama gone from someone who talks in Dreams from My Father about working for a Ralph Nader offshoot in Harlem to someone you’ve characterised as cowardly, shameful and character-deficient?
Again, political expediency. He’s not a transformational/challenging personality, he’s a harmony/ideology personality. And that’s basically a cover for him not wanting to take on organised power.
Then when do you think the honeymoon’s over?
Very early. Look who he’s surrounding himself with: corporate Clinton retreads and even some of the Bushites.
If he puts in some executive orders reversing some of Bush’s environment and consumer deregulation of his administration’s last weeks, he’ll look pretty good. But only because Bush was so bad. And that won’t last.
How do you think the Rudd-Obama relationship will differ from the Howard-Bush relationship?
I’ve always been astonished at one PM after another in Australia demonstrating how much of a toady he is to the White House. But Howard gave new meaning to the term ‘down under’. Such obeisance. I had an empathetic feeling of shame for the Australian people for having a leader who couldn’t think for himself or carve out a different kind of policy, not just in Asia but Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, the environment. Rudd’s at least not as supplicant-oriented…
Australia ought to stop thinking so little of itself. It should be more than a big continent, it should be a big moral and diplomatic player. An honest broker.
Australia has the biggest troop presence outside of NATO in Afghanistan. Will Rudd be asked to send more troops?
Definitely. Obama’s sending more US soldiers and he has to cover himself by saying he’s gotten more Allied soldiers.
And that is a quagmire of quagmires. It’s like putting fire on gasoline. That problem can only be dealt with diplomatically. All the civilian casualties are simply expanding the opposition.
No-one ever conquers those people. The British empire failed twice, the Soviet empire failed and the American empire will fail.
Given Obama’s time in Indonesia growing up, will there be more of a focus on Asia?
I don’t think so… He doesn’t understand Arab culture, Islamic culture, Afghanistan, certainly not Iran.
What about China?
Not much will change because our China policy is very heavily determined by the imbalance of trade and US multinational corporate presence in China shipping products here.
A day after the election you asked on Fox News if Obama would be ‘an Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or an Uncle Tom for the giant corporations who are running America into the ground’. How does a comment like that help your cause?
He’s the racist. When somebody turns on their own race and ignores them, you don’t think that’s the worst kind of racism imaginable?
But I didn’t say he’s an Uncle Tom. I said we applaud the first African-American president and we wish him well, but as president that’s a question he’ll have to face.
But how does it help you build a progressive movement?
It’s deeds, not words. The liberal/progressive intelligentsia are enraged by words they think are politically incorrect, but not at all upset over the realities those words are intended to focus on.
Every day, people are dying because they can’t afford health insurance. And guess who’s dying most? Minorities, including African-Americans. When was the last time they created an uproar over that?
I preceded the comment with Obama’s pro-corporate positions. And who runs corporations? Of the Fortune 500, 493 are white. That’s amazing in a post-Civil Rights America.
But given that the night prior there were people in that crowd in Chicago who had walked arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King moved to tears…
Listen, I’ve worked with so many black people over the years who get totally disgusted with their elected black leaders who turn their backs on them in safe districts gerrymandered to perpetuate their re-election, who have become Uncle Toms to the white power structure.
That’s what’s on black people’s minds. Definitely. Every minority elected candidate has to ask themselves, ‘Am I still standing up for my people?’ If they don’t, who will?
The important thing is getting people agitated out of their slumber so even if they come out wrong-headed they’ve got a base to be enlightened later on.