After being labeled a “spoiler” by political pundits and Democrats, longtime consumer crusader Ralph Nader wrote his 318-page campaign memoir, Crashing the Party: How To Tell the Truth and Still Run for President, in six months, attempting to pinpoint what went wrong and right with the Green Party and his quixotic candidacy in 2000. There is no planned promotional speaking tour, though Mr. Nader will be reading at 92nd Street Y on January 31. Below, he shares his thoughts on the Green Party’s branding problem, the plight of third-party candidates in a new age of war, priorities in 2002, and his “Love God” status.
When did you decide to write this book?
It was after the campaign, after the reactions from the frightened liberals. And all the misinterpretations of what we were doing. I wanted to set the record straight.
Do you feel like you’ve done so?
Well, as much as the publisher’s pages would allow. It was a little longer then they thought.
You still use that clunky typewriter?
The Underwood Manual. [laughs] The ribbon gave me fits.
Phil Donahue, former talk show host and loyal supporter, calls you, on the back of the book jacket, “the most important private American of the twentieth century.” Do you agree?
Uh, well, I wish it wasn’t the case. I wish there were more people who had the opportunities to build a citizen movement and proliferate a lot of citizen groups, coast to coast. But I don’t know. I can’t comment on that.
In retrospect, how would you have run your campaign differently?
From Day 1, I would have focused entirely on precinct activists to get out the vote. Period.
And that didn’t happen?
No. It went the other way. We tried to lay it out nationally, and then we tried to get our Washington office up and running, and then we tried to work the Internet–which, by the way, was worked very heavily by all the parties and didn’t bring the vote out. One percent.
Also, we didn’t use parades. There should have been parades. They’re cheap, very local, and very personal, and there’s music and drums.
Politics is still a people-to-people effort, and that’s who we should have started with, right from the beginning.
Not many people know about your personal life. What’s your schedule these days?
I travel so much, I don’t really have one.
When do you get up?
Oh, I don’t know, around 7:30.
And go to bed?
Maybe 1:00 a.m., 2:00 a.m.
Are you a vegetarian?
No. I lean that way. I don’t like red meat anymore. But I do eat fish.
You’re what, sixty…?
Feel better then ever?
Yep. No, wait, I’m sixty-seven.
Yeah. [laughs] I don’t want to rush things.
I’m not sure if you noticed or not, but somewhere down the campaign trail, you became, amongst your female supporters, something of a sex icon.
No. You’re just kidding.
No. I’m serious. You know it too.
You’re engaging in fantasies, Geoff. [laughs] You’re engaging in revelations!
I’m serious. They thought you were a total hunk.
[laughs] Where’s the evidence?
It’s everywhere. Even one of the female reporters covering you had a big-time, publicly admitted crush on you. She wrote about it in Salon. You know? “Ralph Nader, Love God.” She was even jealous when another fan at a rally declared, “YOU ARE MY LOVE GOD,” written on a sign. This “hot-blooded” reporter claimed you were affecting her work.
Oh, jeez. [laughs] That’s just . . . that’s just fun and games, and joking. You know, in the campaign you get all kinds of things like that, satire, etc.
In one section of the book, you say, initially, you were opposed to paying for the Master Card television spoof. Vans with paid volunteers would be better, you write, a more pure way of getting the campaign message to potential voters. But we live in a modern world. Technology, corruption, the power of television are realities. I wonder, do you think it’s possible to be too idealistic?
It is, abstractly. But if your in the arena of civic action, it isn’t. They [Big Corporations] don’t allow you to be. The adversarial force is against you. [laughs] GM doesn’t allow you to be very idealistic when it comes to surface transportation ideas.
During the last weeks of the election, the political analysts labeled you a “spoiler.” They said your career as consumer advocate would be much more difficult. “Nader’s gonna’ have trouble getting his calls returned,” they said. Has that been the case?
With some people, yes. Like John Conyers (D-MI) and Joe Biden (D-DE.) They’ve really become pretty nasty. They won’t have anything to do with our program.
You see, as citizen groups, we’re being increasingly shut out of Washington. It’s like what Dylan said. I think it was Dylan: “There’s not much left to lose.”
So we’re re-orienting ourselves: helping build a political movement, opening up new areas like the development of Internet and interactive TV, development of our own media, like democracy.org, like citizen.org, and helping new citizen groups for a day when the situation [in Washington] will be more auspicious. We’re also helping the Green Party. I’ve been to 23 fundraisers since November 2000.
Do you think the Green Party is much stronger since the election?
Yes–but not as strong as I’d hoped. They won 25 percent of their seats last November, out of 280 candidates. But it needs more candidates. More local candidates. There are 2.5 million elective offices in the U.S., and that’s not just City Councilmen and State Legislature. If you want to really start a local party you’ve got to have lots of local candidates. You can’t beat somebody with nobody.
I always thought the Green Party had a branding problem.
You’re right. It does.
Maybe it just the name–Green–it doesn’t seem to resonant well with Americans, like it’s associated with tree-hugging, or something.
I think it’s because people like Rush Limbaugh, who stereotype it again and again. And the pictures at the conventions…they normal pick out the guy with the ponytail and the nose ring. [laughs] So, I think you’re right. And that’s not a trivial issue for the Greens.
Should it be?
In the best of all worlds, yes. Branding is a problem.
Have you ever flirted with a new name for the party?
I had a few great names, let me think . . . Oh, yeah! The American Party.
Well, it’s simple, I guess, to the point.
The others would be, The Sovereignty of People Party, or the Independent Party.
When the pundits were screaming “spoiler” and blaming you for “tossing the election” to Bush, did that ever hurt you, personally?
After all these years, you don’t take these things personally. Everything is a functional reaction. I was trying to refocus the media on why we were doing this.
How do you think the war on terrorism will effect the future of third-party candidates?
Well, you know what happens with any kind of war. The president’s polls go way up. There’s not much tolerance for dissent. The government gets few inputs because a lack of robust disagreement–and as government gets less and less input, it’s more prone to making more mistakes, blunders, it procrastinates revisions in policy–and that’s what we’re getting to see now in Afghanistan.
What we’ve also seen is massive bombing, lots of civilians killed, injured, and lots of refugees, death by disease, starvation, and the rest, and the country is now overtaken by the old warlords. Very unsavory and brutal creatures. There’s chaos, and the interim government hardly controls Kabul. We’ve succeeded in burning down the haystack in order to find the needle, but we haven’t found the needle.
Does the lack of dissent, or the absence of a visible anti-war movement, surprise you?
It does. It’s now three, four months. This is the time when we should speak up, and speak out more then ever. That’s the only way the government can gauge the best array of proposals and caveats.
In the book, you write, “The corporate quest for sovereignty over the sovereignty of the people is an affront to our Constitution and our Democracy.” Isn’t that corporate quest just capitalism in action? Do you really think real democracy can exist under the capitalist model?
It’s corporate capitalism. Big time corporate capitalism that doesn’t have an allegiance to any country or community, other then to control them as they walk or stride the world, unchallenged, and use governments as puppets.
The Constitution didn’t talk about corporations; it talked about people. That’s why I say it’s become an “affront” to the Constitution because corporations have become constitutionally protected powers, never envisioned by the Constitution. The preamble starts out “We the People.” It doesn’t start out, “We the People, and Corporations.”
Will there be a breaking point?
Yes. There’s always is a breaking point. One thing you can rely on, commercial interests always push the envelope too far. Greed has no self-restraint to it, as we’ve seen, with Enron.
Have you ever thought about when that “breaking point” will be?
It’s a function of two movements. The Greed Movement, and how far it’s in your face, how far it extends over abuses. The second is the degree to which the citizenry mobilizes to counter, and to reassert their sovereignty.
Too early to say. I’m Focusing on 2002. Getting thousands of more Green candidates on the local and state level. That’s so critical, in fleshing out The Green Party into fifty states and getting a whole new crew of leaders.
You’ve been in Washington nearly half a decade. Ralph Nader is not going to be around forever. Do you ever think about who’s going to fill your void?
A lot of that is up to the media, isn’t it? There’s a lot of valiant people whose name nobody knows.
Rick Perlstein on Ralph Nader’s Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President