News & Politics

Ralph Nader Lashes Back


Scoundrel. Spoiler. Narcissist. This fall the left warred over whether a vote for Nader was a vote for progress, a vote in protest, or worse, a vote for Bush. As Gore lost Florida, Nader’s critics charged that his 97,000 or so votes in that state had cost the Democrats the election. Never mind Katherine Harris, Jeb Bush and his cousin at Fox news, uncounted African American votes, the Florida courts, and finally, the U.S. Supreme Court. And never mind Gore himself. No, it all comes back to Ralph Nader. The Voice asked him to respond.

A few days before the election a group of Nader’s Raiders came out against you and encouraged voters to pull the lever for Gore. Were you betrayed by your own disciples?

These were people who worked with me more than 25 years ago so they weren’t exactly recent. Once they emerged, they were supported by the Democratic PR operation to get them on national media. They were 12 out of thousands of former Nader Raiders. I think they have lower expectations and are therefore willing to settle for a stagnant, indentured corporate Democratic Party that can’t even save our legislature from control by the extreme wing of the Republican Party, by Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and Trent Lott. From what I know, none of them are enthralled by the Democratic Party.

In the days just before and after the election it seemed that everyone in the press had something negative to say about you. Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz circulated an open letter that excoriated you for running a “wrecking ball campaign—one that betrays the very liberal and progressive values it claims to uphold.” Can you respond to that?

We embodied the progressive agenda, so what they’re talking about is tactics. And the question is whether the Democratic Party should be legitimized further in its downward slide into looking like Republicans or should there be an outside campaign to jolt it back to its historical roots as a party of working families. I advise Todd Gitlin to read some of his earlier books and refresh his perspective on the concentration of power in this country.

Jack Newfield wrote in the New York Post that you should be “shunned and shamed.”

I would have appreciated if he had picked up the phone and asked for my views. I moderately took him to task [in New York’s ’98 senate campaign] for abandoning Mark Green and supporting Chuck Schumer, and he never responded. He always renews himself, and now he’s a neoliberal.

Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate that you had a “Leninist strategy of heightening the contradictions” and that you adopted a it-has-to-get-worse-to-get-better policy. Anything to that?

We were adopting a policy that says American people deserve significant choices between two major parties and third parties. As far as Leninist strategy, Tony Coehlo and the corporate Democratic National Committee—which spawned Clinton, Gore, and Lieberman—have for 20 years destroyed the progressive agenda and excluded citizen’s groups from being able to affect policy in Washington, D.C., as they lunge into protective imitation mode with Republicans. That means the Democrats’ strategy was to defeat the Republicans by taking Republican issues away from them and becoming more like them.

Whenever you called Bush and Gore Tweedledum and Tweedledee, someone would say, “What about the Supreme Court?” Now that the Supreme Court appears to have decided the election for us, what about the Supreme Court? Will it matter that Bush will nominate future justices rather than Gore?

It matters that the Democratic Party sent Scalia and Thomas to the Court while I was up there fighting their nominations day after day. I even managed to persuade Joseph Lieberman to vote against Thomas, something he pointed out to me a year later. I couldn’t get one Democratic senator to vote against Scalia. He was confirmed 98-0, and the two absentees were Republican. Every Democrat voted him in, including Al Gore. Thomas was confirmed 52-48, with 11 Democratic senators supporting him, and with a Senate ruled by George Mitchell and the Democrats.

In an interview you did with In These Times, you spoke about the Green Party strategy to “go after Congress district by district.” Some critics fear this means going after progressive Democrats. Do the Greens want to unseat Paul Wellstone, Tom Hayden, and the like?

The aim of any party is to win, but it’s not likely that any Green could win against Wellstone or even Russ Feingold, for example. Greens are more likely to win at the local level. It’s sort of foolish to indicate that Democrats are entitled to particular voters, but Wellstone is not likely to have trouble in terms of the Green platform.

By the way, not one of these critics called me to interview me or to get my views. And they’re reporters? They don’t want to have their fixed mindset challenged. Maybe Jacob [Weisberg] interviewed me, but he never said, “Look, I think this and this. What’s your answer?”

And Katha Pollitt, I called her. In my view, she was making incorrect assumptions. I mean, I’ve fought for women’s rights since the ’50s. I’ve been a leader in documenting marketplace discrimination against women that jeopardizes their health, safety, and economic rights. Women pay more, whether for dry cleaning or unnecessary operations. This is something we could never get Ms. magazine and Gloria Steinem to take an interest in. She never called me either, and she said false things about me—that I only called her about platform shoes (which, by the way, broke a lot of women’s ankles). But we’ve talked about the WTO, about the plight of African women when they come down with malaria. Bobby Kennedy Jr. never called me. When they don’t call, you realize there’s something less than authentic at stake.

What about Harry Evans? He said he wanted to kill you. Have you heard from him?

I called him. He said it was 2:30 in the morning and people were boisterously drinking and [Bill] Clinton was listing states that he thought the Greens would cost Gore. When someone said Florida was in play, Evans made the remark. He unreservedly apologized to me.

Supposedly the word went out that you shouldn’t show your face on the Hill, that Democrats might not receive your phone calls. Do you have any sense that you’ll be ostracized?

Gore beat Gore. His own Democrats in three Florida counties wouldn’t support him—one took a holiday so the counting didn’t get finished; another said they just wouldn’t count. The Democrats must also be angry at Bush, who got 10 times more Democratic votes then I did in Florida. And at Gore, who couldn’t carry his home state and wouldn’t send Clinton to campaign in Arkansas. By the same logic, they will gleefully return Pat Buchanan’s calls. Why wouldn’t they call us if they need support on a certain issue?

Teddy Kennedy told a friend that he thought the progressive Democratic hand will be strengthened because of the Greens. In Washington, Maria Cantwell won by 2229 votes and there was no Green Party candidate running.

If they’re going to blame me for [Gore losing], they have to credit me for helping them get a 50-50 Senate rather than losing it again. Credit me for helping reform election machinery that probably in the past kept out more Democratic votes than Republican.

Not only were you kept out of the debates, you were more or less kept out of The New York Times. Has the paper of record thwarted your effort to build a third party?

The Times believes there should just be two parties, and a party like the Green Party, in that memorable phrase, “clutters” the playing field. A remarkable position for a newspaper that believes in the First Amendment and has excoriated politicians for corrupt campaign funding that the Green Party wanted to eliminate. That will go down as the most indefensible intellectual exercise that ever appeared on New York Times editorial columns, which were basically rantings. The Washington Post invited me to speak at their editorial office, and The Wall Street Journal invited two op-eds. The Times never did either.

Tom Friedman is a source of humor. He’s so off the edge that he bellows in his column, he rages, it really makes our day. Here’s a man who fancies himself an expert on global trade and has never read global trade agreements. I would give him the nomination as the columnist who has traveled more extensively and regularly around the world and has learned the least.

Anything you would have done differently in your campaign?

I would have started earlier and called up these so-called critics had I had the clairvoyance to realize they were getting cold feet. The only true aging is the erosion of one’s ideals. They’re people of increasingly low expectations. That’s the definition of a frightened liberal.

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