In 1992, when he ran an independent candidacy for the presidency, consumer advocate Ralph Nader nailed a democratic agenda known as The Concord Principles on the church door of American politics. Presidential campaigns, it said, “have become narrow, shallow, redundant and frantic parades and horse races which candidates, their monetary backers, and their handlers control unilaterally.”
Nader, who first came to prominence with the muckraking Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, didn’t get much attention four years ago, but the power brokers are taking certain notice now. The 62-year-old activist, running as the 80,000-member Green Party’s candidate, will be on the ballot in at least six states, and polls show him making a difference. According to a Los Angeles Times poll taken in March, in a four-way race with President Clinton, Bob Dole and Ross Perot, Nader would get seven percent of California’s votes (revised upward to eight percent in more recent polls).
Nader’s strength is all the more remarkable because, as a severe critic of the election financing system, he refuses to take any campaign contributions. “Californians,” he said in announcing his candidacy, “deserve a campaign that will practice taking the corrosive impact of special-interest money out of politics.” The voters—particularly in California—are attaching themselves to Nader’s green platform, which includes national conversion to solar energy, a funding cutoff for nuclear power, a ban on hazardous waste incineration and chlorine paper bleaching, reduction of toxins in the workplace, and an end to public subsidies for polluters.
Nader talked to E from his base in Washington, D.C., incubator for (among many others), Public Citizen, Essential Information, Citizen Action, The Center for Auto Safety and the magazine Multinational Monitor.
E Magazine: How powerful do you think the polluter lobby is; and how is it structured?
Ralph Nader: While these interest groups—the nuclear power industry, the oil companies, the auto companies, the paper-mill companies, and so on—all have their own political action committees (PACs), they also have something more powerful than money—their ability to persuade. The two go hand and hand. Members of Congress get money from these interest groups, but they’re more susceptible and responsive to the argument that a company’s plant may close down or lay off workers. It’s powerful—even though very often it’s a bluff—because it’s a plausible reason in the community where the legislator comes from. The legislator is not going to say we have to get rid of environmental regulations because he’s getting money from a petro-chemical PAC. It’s much easier to say it will save jobs.
How does advocating the elimination of environmental regulations really work as an argument for Congressmen to make?
They talk about over-regulation, high economic costs, making the manufacturing process uneconomic, having to lay off workers or shut down the plant. Even if the plant eventually shuts down anyway, it’s not as relevant as a legislator’s ability to go to the local newspaper and make the jobs argument—whether it’s true or not.
Let’s look at the 104th Congress, which has produced an extraordinary amount of extreme anti-environmental legislation. Do you think this has more to do with the ideological conviction or is it indebtedness to corporate funding?
Really it’s both. The new Republican freshman class came to Washington with reform zeal, and of course they are taking more PAC money than any other freshmen class. A lot of them came out of industry, like Tom DeLay of Texas. Others who have come out of various industries have had gripes against the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, so it’s quite blurred.
You have to ask, do the PACs give the congressmen money because of the way they vote, or do they vote that way because they get the PAC money?
Again, it’s both. They’re fairly predisposed. They’re voting the way business wants them to and the money is the reward. And where the legislator is not all that predisposed, the money is more like a bribe.
I saw you speak last year in New York at the auto show, and you were pessimistic about the 1998 mandates that California was then scheduled to implement regarding electric cars. Now they have indeed been rolled back. Do you think that auto company lobbying is responsible for that?
Of course. The auto companies always do that; that’s why the Justice Department sued them during the 1960s for product fixing. They had a common united front among all of auto companies. They said then that they couldn’t put in catalytic converters. And now they’re doing the same thing again, because the ongoing consent decree that had forced them not to engage in anti-competitive, collusive practices relating to an engineering product has been abolished.
Do you think California will stand by its 10 percent electric car mandate by the year 2003?
Not unless the state intends to sponsor its own production company. Otherwise, they’ll crumble all the way. There has to be a significant market created, with all towns, cities, counties and the state saying they want to buy electric cars. There has to be enough orders to provide an incentive.
Congress seems to be shying away from full public financing of elections, and campaign contribution limits are frustrated by the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court ruling, which abolished overall spending caps. What form do you see the most effective campaign finance reform taking, and how would you get it through—by grassroots, state-by-state initiatives or by congressional action?
First of all, public elections should be financed publicly, otherwise there’s going to be financed as they are now—by Exxon, Dupont, General Motors, and the auto companies. Once you accept the principle that the public is going to fund election campaigns, then you want to do it in the most voluntary way possible. So a well-promoted check-off on the 1040 tax return allowing up to $100 per person per contribution would raise more than enough money, especially if you also had enough free time on radio and television for ballot-qualified candidates.Basically, if you want public financing, this is what you have to do—you can’t take private financing at all.
There are a number of campaign finance reform bills pending in Congress, in both the House and the Senate. I’m wondering if you’ve had an opportunity to look at those?
Yes. They’re all very partial reforms. The bills get watered down in the attempt to get them through the Congress.
Senator Russell Feingold [D-Wisconsin] told me that he supports full public financing. He introduced a bill to that effect at the beginning of the 104th Congress that didn’t go anywhere.
That’s right, it has to be done at the state level, too, to light a fire under Congress. States that allow ballot initiatives—like Missouri and Oregon—a
re the ones most likely to pass reform packages.
Is there anything the average person can do to influence campaign finance reform?
It has to come from the people. It doesn’t take that many—a quarter of a million people making it their civic hobby could bring it home. People don’t realize how little it takes, considering the size of the population.
The Center for Responsive Politics makes a point that individual contributions are more important than PACs, just in terms of the amount of money raised.
Yes, that’s definitely true in terms of cash, but not in terms of focused quid pro quo. When the auto dealers give money, everybody knows what to expect in return. It’s much more focused, much more corrupt.
But if an auto dealer brings in bundled, individual contributions from all his family, isn’t there a quid pro quo to that as well? Don’t the representatives know there that money comes from?
It’s not as organized. Congressmen and Senators keep in touch with their bribes. They’ve got a staff; they monitor, whereas an individual multimillionaire might not be quite as rigorous. PACs have to deliver; they have employees who basically have to get results. A multimillionaire doesn’t give a damn about that.
Do you think there are any good national models for election financing out there?
Certainly. England, for instance, gives its political parties free TV time. Other countries aren’t as frenzied about spending, but I think it’s partly because there are different amenities that candidates get from the public sector.
Free TV time is part of the proposed Feingold-McCain bill in the Senate. Do you think that is a good thing?
Yes. But the TV networks don’t like it and would probably lobby against it. They don’t pay any license fee, but they still want total control of all the time they get licensed for. They’re the only tenants in the country that pay no rent.
You’re running for president on the Green Party ticket. Politicians and op-ed columnists seem to be very worried about your effect on Clinton’s reelection prospects. Since we’re talking about the corrupting influence of cash, I have to ask if you actually have any sources of campaign financing?
No. I’m not in the business of raising or accepting money. I’m running to make a point.
It’s interesting that you could get seven percent of the vote without actually raising any money.
Why not? Part of the reason people are disgusted with politics is because special interest money nullifies their vote. It turns politicians into strings of broken promises—and the people are very resentful. That’s why one of our proposals is “binding none of the above.” If people think the candidates on the ballot are in the hip pockets of special economic interests, they can vote none of the above; and if it wins, it cancels the election, sends the candidates packing, and orders a new election in 30 days. It’s another form of campaign reform: None-of-the-above becomes the focus of a protest vote, instead of leaving people with the alternative of the bad or the worse candidate—or staying home and not voting.
Obviously, you don’t have a concern about being seen as what they call the “spoiler” for Clinton.
You can’t spoil a system that’s rotten to the core. You have to focus on building a progressive green movement and provide some competition between the two parties, which are really one corporate party with two heads, wearing different makeup. The Republican Party was started in the 1850s, and they weren’t worried about taking votes away from the Whigs. Clinton could always adopt the Green Party’s democracy and environmental principles, and that way he’d reduce any competition to himself.
Do you think Clinton has been better for the environment than the Republicans? And what about Al Gore’s presence?
I believe Gore has had a very minimal impact on this administration. The rhetoric of the Democrats is better, obviously, but you see how the Republicans are backing away from the extreme positions they’ve been taking. In actual practice, the differences aren’t as great as in the rhetoric. For example, lets take the industries—petro-chemical, nuclear power, automotive, utilities—there’s no difference between them. Gore must have been pulling out his fingernails over the administration’s lack of action on the greenhouse effect. And they let the salvage timber rider get through.
If you did become president—and I know it isn’t something you’re really thinking about—what would you do on the first day?
Obviously, taking office is not the goal of this candidacy. The goal is to broaden the agenda and focus on the new tools of democracy for consumers, workers, taxpayers, citizens, voters and shareholders, and to build another party—to bring young people into it.
And you would like to see the Green Party be the vehicle for that?
Yeah, if they’re up to it. They’ve got a great opportunity, now, and there are many good people starting to come into it, but it takes a lot of organization and a lot of patience and determination. They have a good chance—by the year 1998 or 2000—of being on the ballot in 20 to 30 states at least.
The so-called property rights movement has been successful inasmuch as it casts itself as a grassroots citizens movement. They identify themselves as protecting people from abusive government power. How do you respond to that?
The way to deal with it is simply to turn it around. Property owners shouldn’t just look at government for their rights, they should look at corporations, too. Say you have a house in Nitro, West Virginia that’s surrounded 24 hours a day by the pollution of a chemical plant. Shouldn’t you get reimbursed? They never complain when corporate actions decrease the value of their land, right? Once you make that point, you’ll see this movement fading away quickly.
But people have been persuaded by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk to see government as the enemy instead of corporations.
Government is a tool of business power, and Rush Limbaugh is a henchman of business power. Government doesn’t advertise on his show, so he plays that game and some people fall for it.
What are some of the environmental issues your groups are working on?
We’re working on solar energy. I want to emphasize that in the campaign big time, because that’s as close to a universal solvent in the environmental area as we’re ever likely to achieve. The solar industry is beginning to pick up the pace, especially exports to the third world. The other thing we’re doing is monitoring nuclear power for safety issues. There aren’t any new orders for power plants, so it’s all radioactive disposal and things like that.
Then we run into fighting the bills in Congress to deregulate the EPA and OSHA.
It does seem that, at least in the first part of the 104th Congress, a lot of the really horrific things Republicans wanted to do didn’t happen.
Yes, and for two reasons. The Democrats did slow it down a bit; but the second reason is that the Republicans can’t get it through their thick skulls that there’s no difference between Republican lungs and Democratic lungs. People become nonpartisian or bipartisian on these issues. But people have to form coalitions behind renewables and energy efficiency. The bigger the solar energy industry gets, the more formidable it becomes in its battle against fossil fuel and nuclear.
Do you think the campaign will be a good vehicle for you to talk about these ideas?
Yes, and if I could get on one of the debates it would be even better. But they say I’m not in enough states to mathematically qualify. There are more and more states where petition drives are underway, like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, but I may not be mathematically crossing that line.