Ralph Nader made political history in Portland last August when more than 10,000 people paid money to see the third-party presidential candidate speak at Memorial Coliseum. It was the beginning of a mega-rally tour that would not win enough votes to qualify the Green Party for federal campaign funding but would gain Nader enough support that he would be blamed for handing the presidency to Republican George W. Bush.
Since the election, news stories about Nader have invariably described him as "unrepentant." Progressives won't forgive him, however, and he has clearly lost standing among his former comrades. Still, if Nader's conversation with Willamette Week is any indication, not only is his conscience clear, he is having fun in the role of political gadfly.
Nader kicks off his Democracy Rising tour Saturday, Aug. 4, at the Rose Garden.
Nader: Did we meet when I was last at your paper?
Willamette Week: Yes, we did meet during the election, during what the Democrats would call the dark days of campaign 2000.
Well, they won Oregon by the skin of their teeth.
And they would say no thanks to you, Ralph Nader.
Yeah, and thanks to Gore, I didn't win Oregon.
You know, they hate that kind of talk.
That's right. They think they're entitled. You see, they haven't had a challenge from a progressive side since Henry Wallace in 1948. They've gotten used to thinking that they're entitled to all those votes because people have nowhere else to go other than the dreaded Republicans. It's allowed the party to be pulled to the right because they don't have to worry about the other side. They don't have to worry about the progressive side.
Do you think that you can really give them cause to worry about the progressive side? I don't hear anyone else but you clamoring for a pull to the left.
They would never want to admit it, would they?
The Democratic Party has openly been moving to the center for years. They are the New Democrats courtesy of the Democratic Leadership Council.
But they haven't admitted what you just referred to, that they need the progressive voters to prevail.
Well, they don't.
They do. Increasingly they may lose future elections with progressive voters. They're not going to be able to win many national elections without progressive voters unless they change.
Is that what you're threatening to do?
No. Well, the Aug. 4 thing is not political; it's open to everyone. It's civic.
But you've said several times there will be 80-some Green congressional candidates and that you're willing to take out some centrist Democrats.
Oh, yeah. We'd like to win for the Greens, whoever they take out. If they take out right-wingers like DeLay or Armey, it doesn't matter. They don't care who they beat, Republicans or Democrats.
But that isn't what is going to happen. The Greens won't win and will pull the votes from the Democrats, just like you did with Al Gore.
The Greens are going to win a lot of seats locally. They won five out of five this spring in Wisconsin, three out of three in Massachusetts, a 100 percent record. We're talking local, state and national, but the easiest is the local. Next is national, but no party was ever built in a day. Rome wasn't built in a day, yet all the questions are premised on the fact that you can't win on the first time, so why even try. It's like saying you can't build a house by just putting in a foundation, so why even try?
What are you going to do to keep the Green Party from going the direction of the Reform Party? How are you going to prevent yourself from being just a blip in national presidential political history?
By bringing in a lot of young talent. You're going to have about 800 Green chapters at universities around the country. They're just a step away from running for local office. It's really quite different than Perot, who bankrolled everything. They never really had an agenda other than the deficit. The Green Party agenda is the most detailed, best and deepest agenda of any party in America, so it has something to be cohesive around.
Give me the Green Party agenda in a sound bite.
It's a pro-democracy agenda with the following emphases: public funding of public campaigns, more worker rights to form unions (millions of workers cannot form unions because of obstructive laws), the end of corporate welfare, a reassignment of the millions and billions of dollars a year to public needs and public works, strong environmental protection and the expansion of solar energy, the legalization of industrial hemp for our farmers to grow (which of course we import, but we can't grow), medievalism, mass transit, new propulsion systems, dramatic increases in energy efficiency, strong civil rights and civil liberties, a crackdown on corporate crime fraud and abuse (especially in the ghettos), foreign policy that sides with workers and peasants for a change instead of dictators and oligarchs, reducing the excessive military budget in a post-Cold War era and providing facilities-easy mechanisms such as inserts, bank utility envelopes, inviting people to join their own consumer groups.
Besides college students, lefty neighborhoods here in Portland and labor unions, who is calling for this agenda?
Well, the polls show overwhelming support for every one of those.
Sure, when you ask people if they want to protect the environment, of course they say yes. That doesn't mean anything.
Right. That's the function of the mega-rallies. Recruit new talent, motivate people who are inclined in this direction but have never connected with the 50 or so tables of the citizen groups who will be there.
But this is Portland. Anyone who doesn't know how to get involved with an issue they care about has not been paying any attention. It's very easy to become publicly involved here.
But there is always the intensity factor.
What do you mean by that?
Someone can say I'm going to call up this group and I'm going to join or volunteer, but they never get around to it. But they come to the rally, they see them face to face. And then there is the young generation that isn't really connected and then they connect with one another. That's the point: introducing people to one another who share common causes. We always talk about the issue and the quality of the issue, etc. But it's very much a numbers issue, too. It's like a reservoir that's been depleted. Our democracy has been weakened for over two decades with the ascendancy of corporate power. You have to replenish the reservoir, and you need more people. When you ask how do things get done in a nice way in this country, there are people who are working to do that every day. It makes sense to have their numbers tripled, quadrupled.
How was Phoenix?
First of all, it wasn't a mega-rally. It was a ballroom. In the Phoenix Civic Plaza Ballroom, which is part of one of the most forbidding architectural monstrosities of that city, it's a complex, you know, like a fort. It was rather cool in Phoenix...it settled to 112 degrees. But we had 1,200 people.
How many people were you hoping for?
We were hoping for as many as could fit in the ballroom, [2,500] but 1,200 isn't bad considering we only had about three and a half weeks. We had about 45 tables from various Arizona groups.
Just one, Michelle Shocked, and a local blues musician.
Which is the issue that really gets the campuses going?
Corporate globalization, the sweatshop issue. Corporate globalization: They see it at the expense of the poor, the expense of the environment, expense of privacy, expense of local autonomy, expense of preserving privacy, expense of equatorial forests and at the expense of democracy. Corporate-dominated globalization is on a collision course with democracy, and democracy is losing. This is the issue of our time. Under this are all other issues.
What do you make of Genoa?
It shows you that it's growing. You go from 40,000 in Seattle to 100,000 in Genoa. It's sending a message. It's a rather crude way to send a message, but when you're shut out of TV, newspapers, legislative forums, international forums, that's the only outlet. That's the lesson of history.
Cutting the safety net to be globally competitive...how many times have you heard that? Media, global concentration of media in fewer and fewer hands. The environment. The class stratification. The divide between the rich and the poor. The corporate control of public wealth like public lands, public pensions, public airwaves. The oceans, everything. This is the major governance movement of our era. Corporate governments, and there is nothing challenging it except protests, and that's why it's going to grow-because the corporations are driven by this commercial pressure to control everything they touch. They have to, it's in their corporate genes, they have to. They can't control Congress completely, so they create WTO to sidestep Congress. Look, you can tell what powerful businesses can do if they're not controlled. One is slavery.
And tell me what your strategy is to stop the corporations.
Well, it's called strengthening democratic processes by involving more people practicing democracy and all specialized areas as well as general areas, like election reform.
How many people do you expect to come to this rally in Portland?
That's an empirical question best answered by Jason [Kafoury].
Are you expecting the same sort of experience that you had at the rally last year?
Well, I think we should have it close to 10,000.
Ten thousand. Really? Excuse my skepticism, but it strikes me that the first weekend in August, I was told, is the No. 1 wedding weekend of the year.
Well, they can come to celebrate on their way to their honeymoon. A civic festival. By the way, we want people to bring their families, their teenagers and pre-teenagers-very good entry level into the great American civic tradition.
Do you really expect 10,000 to come hear a political speech in the middle of summer in an off election year?
Do you want me to answer that realistically? Part of that depends on whether the Willamette Weekly-
I know, I'm kidding you. You're in Or-ee-gahn. It depends on whether Willamette Week puts it on the cover.
Well, that's not going to happen.
Because our covers are already set. But I appreciate how much faith you have in Willamette Week. This interview will run the week before. But beyond that-what is it about you that can draw 10,000 people in the middle of summer?
The Oregonian progressive mystique.
What do you mean by that?
I mean that Oregon is reaching critical mass in terms of filling large arenas for, um, the great progressive issues of our time. That means that there is a lot of repeat attendance. If you want me to explain it, that's why I call it the Oregonian Progressive Mystique. OPM.
So that's a real term that you use.
Listen, we went all over the country in the 1970s with huge audiences of students trying to organize PIRG. It caught first in Oregon, Oregon State in Corvallis. Then the University of Oregon, Portland State University.
But Oregon is not representative of the rest for the country, so how would you make this spread? Nationwide. I mean, we are a unique oasis.
But there are other oases. I think Minneapolis is one. Boston, because of their size. Perhaps you're better proportionately, in terms of your population. But when you get to the size of the Boston area, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, New York, and you have roughly the same size of arenas, right? We should fill them. But you're right, if we get 10,000 in hot August, that would say something, won't it?
What will it say?
It will say that more and more people want a new politics and a vigorous democracy, and invigorated democracy. Because they're making connections.
And what do you want them to walk away with?
A renewed self-confidence in themselves, to work harder as citizens and to reach out to other citizens to bring them into the civic movement. Also to generate that all-important ripple effect all the way across the country to Washington with their members of Congress. Look, if this gets 10,000, you don't think Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith are going to raise an eyebrow? You don't think they're going to have a different kind of finger to the wind?
To do what?
On close calls in the Congress, and whether they're going to decide to have a hearing or to what extent they're going to balance the corporate lobbyists at their back with the rumble from Portland.
Give me an example of something that Ron Wyden did last year that if 10,000 people come to this rally he might think twice about.
He supported NAFTA and GATT.
And he might not do that if he believes...
Or he might have held out for more in terms of environmental standards or whatever.
But realistically Ron Wyden is not threatened by your rally, because there's no more progressive Democratic candidate-no feasible one.
Well, but he could be a better senator. There's always this penumbra of better instincts that's put in motion when the citizenry puts some more guts in Washington. See what I mean? He may want to do a few more things better than he's willing to do in the present configuration of lobbying in Washington if he sees that kind of rally. That's what happened with [Warren] Magnuson, you know, many years ago: He was a business senator, then he started seeing the demonstrations in Washington state and he became the greatest consumer champion in American history in the Senate. Literally. And he never feared losing at any time. He had the safest seat around. But you see what it did is it gave an edge to his better instincts.
Since the election you've also been deflecting a lot of criticism for costing Gore the election, and I know your answers for that. Did the New York Times story about the overseas absentee ballots last week add anything new to the way you respond to the "are you happy now?" question?
Well, of course, just another "what if." To pick my "what if" over dozens of other "what ifs" is basically reflective of the desire not to have any third party run at all on the progressive side. I mean, why else would Carville focus on me?
Yeah, James Carville.
What did he do?
The Louisiana serpent. He said he's going to shun me. Can you imagine spending time in Washington enduring being shunned by Carville? It sounds like an inexpensive line of clothing-shunned by Carville. I mean, why doesn't he go after Bush? Bush is taking 13 times the number of Democratic votes in Florida that I got-13 times-according to the exit polls, Democratic votes. Why doesn't he go after the loss of Tennessee, why doesn't he go after Gore's lousy performance in the debates, where you had Gore Persona 1, Gore Persona 2, Gore Persona 3?
Are you getting tired of answering for the election?
Yeah, because it goes nowhere; it goes backward. I mean, because it's all on one premise and the premise is that you shouldn't have run. That's what I do now when I hear someone now say, "Are you regretful about Bush?" I say, what would you have us do in the campaign? What's your answer? Would you have us not run? And as Phil Donahue said, "What are we supposed to do, whimper along and in another four years get on our knees and ask the two parties, 'Can we run now?'" Isn't that a wonderful way to put it? It's almost a First Amendment issue, you know.
James Carville, however, is not the only person who's shunning you, according to the latest issue of Mother Jones. Did you read that story?
Did you see that graphic?
I can't look at it, it's all bloody.
You see, that's what I don't like about Mother Jones, they cheapen the currency.
Well, we're guilty of that sometimes as well, too, just to get attention, but there were some interesting...
But so does vomiting.
I'm not going to put that in this interview. Mother Jones says Ken Cook of Environmental Working Group is shunning you, as well as Carville. The head of Physicians for Social Responsibility won't take your calls. What's that like?
Well, I've noticed there are differences between upstanding citizen groups and sniveling ones. Groups like Cook's have excluded themselves, they've been shut out the way we have for 20 years by dollar signs on every door in Washington, D.C. They don't realize it, they're willing to go to work every day and achieve less and less by the year and still put up a brave front.
And I've met with Harry Reed, I've met with Dick Gephart, there are some that are still harsh like Barney Frank or John Conyers.
Barney Frank is still mad at you?
Yeah, and John Conyers, but you know, they just cannot tolerate anybody taking away votes from Democrats on the progressive side. They don't realize that without the Green Party the Democrats would not control the Senate today.
Because of Maria Cantwell?
At least because of Cantwell. She wins by 2,300 votes. I get 103,000 votes in Washington state.
So you're sure that you won the Senate for Cantwell?
Well, yeah, Harry Reed sitting in his office said, "I and Maria Cantwell are both well aware of what you're saying, that the Greens' spillover vote won it for her, that brought them to fifty-fifty, and without which Jeffords would never have taken his jump."
So you're taking credit for the Democratic Senate.
No I'm saying this: If we're going to be blamed for costing Gore the election, if that "what if" is going to be only our "what if," not [him losing] Tennessee and Arkansas, etc., then logically they have to give us credit. For winning the Cantwell seat and maybe the [Debbie] Stabenow seat [in Michigan]. Just imagine what we've done for them...we now have the Democrats in charge of the Senate. If they want to, they can block any proposal and any nominee that Bush sends up.
But that may not last through the next election if Green candidates are siphoning votes from Democratic incumbents or Democratic candidates.
If there's that many Green candidates. That's not likely to be that many.
Has your effectiveness in D.C. been limited?
That's not how I define my effectiveness. My effectiveness is in building a democracy movement with others around the country. Both the civic groups and the Green Party.
Do you know Denis Hayes?
This is what he said about you when he was here, getting back to the bitterness among the Democrats and the environmentalists. He said that you were irresponsible and that going for the 5 percent you abandoned the source of your strength, which is your independence, and instead became a politician. You became a politician motivated by the desire to get money, and that made you just as corrupt by the process of the other people trying to do the same thing.
Well, those are just conclusions. One might even grace them with the word "epithet." What does that mean? What does "irresponsible" mean? What does "another politician" mean? He supported the most unauthentic politician of all, Al Gore. What does he mean by "doing this just for the money"? What money?
The 5 percent, the federal funding.
Oh, that's not going to stop us, that's a convenience. That's not a necessity. Isn't he for public funding for public campaigns? Last I heard, Denis was for public funding for public campaigns. This is a part of the drive to public campaigns. So what is he talking about? He's part of the clique now. He's no longer the dynamo that started Earth Day. I mean, you can tell by the language these people use. "Irresponsible" is another word for saying "let Gore win."
Well, I understand what you're saying...
And "politician," what do you think he supported? Didn't he go up and down the West Coast pimpin' for Gore?
I think so, yeah.
OK, so that cancels that out. Just for the money, well, Gore got the money, he got a lot more money. Does he say Gore is campaigning in order to get the money? See what I mean? It's what semanticists call a "blah," it's a very self-revealing list of words. Not to mention the fact that none of these guys, who I've known and worked with for 30 years, ever called me up before they went on their Gore-tista sojourn. Isn't that interesting? Jesse Jackson didn't, Gloria Steinem didn't, Denis Hayes didn't, [Paul] Wellstone.
They didn't call you before they started?
No, they never called. You'd think that some of them would have said, "Ralph, I hate to do this, but I've got to do it because I'm very practical. You're a dreamer. Here's what I'm going to say, and I want to give you notice." See now, the only guy who did that was a businessman from Southern California before he put an ad in the paper. He had the courtesy.
What does that mean do you think?
It means they couldn't withstand my response.
Which would be?
Well, what I'm telling you. They couldn't withstand the response. Every four years they go for the least worst, and every four years both parties get worse. And, you know, this was in the years 1980, '84, '88, '92, '96 and 2000. They never learn. And as a result they are legitimizing the downward slide of American politics by signaling to the Democrats, the DLC, that they got nowhere to go. The more they signal they have nowhere to go, the more powerless they become. What did they extract? They were all put out on the trail in October, all these people. What did they extract from Gore in return? This was their maximum point of leverage. They were so terrified of the dreaded Republicans that they surrendered to the nearly as bad Democrats. They didn't even bargain, they didn't even say, "OK we're all going to do this, but we're going to have a meeting with you, Al, and we want something in writing about what you're going to do on the environment." Here's Denis Hayes: If he goes down in history, he'll go down for one thing-two things-Earth Day and championing solar energy. And here's Gore who would never make one speech on solar energy in eight years, even though he was begged to. Here's a guy who is such a coward that he supported fully all the subsidies that Reagan and George Bush the First pumped into the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries, and never made any effort with his influence on Capitol Hill or Bully Pulpit, on solar energy. And here's Denis Hayes, his chief career objective-being led by the nose like with a nose ring by Al Gore. You see what I mean.
At the reconciliation meeting that was held here in Portland between the Greens and the Democrats before the election I watched a grown man, who had been working in forest protection for years, stand up and cry and say, "Please don't vote for Nader, because if Bush wins we will go backwards."
You mean he was worried about the salvage rider that was signed into law by Clinton?
No, he was worried about the roadless policy.
Oh, was he worried about the clear-cutting in the Tsongas forest? Was he worried about all the grandfather clauses to these monuments and these other things-the roadless policy-where you could do it through helicopters, all kinds of loopholes and grandfathers?
So what are you saying is, the people who are on the ground in the environmental movement have been willing to compromise.
Yeah, I'm saying if someone has a forest of 1,000 trees and one wants to cut down 800 and the other wants to cut down 600, I wouldn't support either of them. I wouldn't support any of them. Who gave us GATT, who shoved GATT down the throats of labor, down the throats of minorities, down the throats of the progressive wing of the party? Who shoved NAFTA and fast track-a dictatorial procedure-through Congress? It makes a mockery of congressional democracy. Who wanted a bigger military budget than even George W. Bush? It was Al Gore. Who is even more creative in corporate subsides like subsidizing mergers between Lockheed and Martin Marietta-billion-and-a-half dollars? It wasn't the Republicans, it was the Democrats. Who thought up acquisition reform in the Pentagon, which delegated critical governmental functions to the private defense contractors including the testing methods for their weapons? We could go for, for hours listing this.
Well, what's going to have to happen before we get to the point where you don't have to defend yourself for running for president?
I don't defend myself, I'm making the arguments as I respond.
OK, what will have to happen before people stop asking you these questions?
A third party reaches critical-mass status like NDP [New Democratic Party] in Canada. When it elects enough people, for example, 10 members of the House, and they were the swing votes, you'd never hear that again, you'd never hear what you're referring to again. They'd be on their knees. Just like New York politicians for years in the city were on their knees before the liberal and conservative parties, both of which never got more than 6 or 7 percent of the vote total, because they were the swing. And New York has fusion so they could put the, they begged for the conservative-liberal line, the Democrat and Republican candidates.
Let's talk about the Green Party for a minute: There's a pretty strong Green Party here in Oregon, but at the same time they're not, and they're going to kill me for this, but they're not all that relevant statewide. I cover Salem, I was down there for six months and there were issues on low-income tax credits, DNA privacy, Internet issues, environmental issues-they were nowhere.
It's a party a-borning; it's just getting under way.
The Green Party's been here for years.
I know, but you know, as a discussion group, it's just getting under way in the electoral sense. I mean, does it have a full-time office with a staff? That's the preliminary stage when a party is serious.
I don't understand why you're not a member of the Green Party. What is the reason for that?
One is that I don't want to get involved in intra-Green Party disputes.
And how does not being a member keep you from...?
Once you become a member and you have my position, like as a presidential candidate, you will be expected to take sides. And the differences that they dispute over are not of any significance to me.
That sounds sort of disdainful.
I'm disdainful of any intra-party battles and squabbles and bickering that don't deal with the major power issues of our time. These are not squabbles over policy, they're not squabbles over whether we should go soft on multinationals, whether we should do this on global warming. They are squabbles over turf, over personality, over very minor tactics, over jockeying for position, mostly between the two schisms-the GPUSA and the ASGP, which is slowly being resolved. Why, because I stayed out of it. I pulled the party's perspective outward, which is what I want to do. I want to extrovert the party, which tends to give them a greater frame of reference. Some of them realized, what are we doing in this petty bickering? We've got bigger horizons to aspire to. Every new party has that, goes through those wrenches.
Do you think the Green Party is really the way to make the kind of fundamental changes you want to make in overturning the spread of corporate power?
It all depends on how many people become active.
Listen to this quote from Mark Cooper: "I've spent a lot of time reporting about the Greens, and I always come away with equal amounts admiration and horror, admiration for the serious and thoughtful activists among their ranks and stone-cold horror for the collection of wing nuts and goofballs all around them." I would say that's a pretty accurate assessment.
Less and less because the former is coming in bigger numbers.
Do you think they'll stay, the former being the ones you brought in and whom I met myself at your rally, or will the wing nuts and goofballs push them out?
It all depends on who works harder.
What if nobody comes to this rally? Part of your rally, I'm assuming, is bringing people together and showing that you are not irrelevant in national politics, isn't that true?
No, it has nothing to do with me being relevant or irrelevant. I'm a catalyst.
OK, so part of the point of the rally is...?
See, the assumption to a lot of your questions and other reporters is that I give a whit about my influence in Washington. Those doors have been closed for 20 years. I've just been candid enough, unlike my fellow citizen groups here, to realize that we've been stripped of our power, which is the first step toward gaining more civic power.
Why would people need to come hear you again if they heard you in November? What new thing are you going to say?
Well, they want to see what's next, what's planned next.
Tell me what's next.
What's next is to find 1 million people willing to contribute $100 and 100 hours of volunteer time yearly to push all of these issues on the civic front. This will make politicians and politics bend to the will of the people.
Are you the man to convince them to do that?
Oh, one of many.
Whose idea was it to start the mega-rallies again, yours or Kafoury's?
It was Kafoury and his partner and another fellow sitting in the back garden of their house. They said Nader filled his high school auditorium on a rainy night with 1,500 people with hardly any publicity, why not go for a coliseum?
But whose idea was it to continue on after the election, to do this one?
Mine, but everyone came to the same conclusion. Mass rallies we held against nuclear power in the early '70s trained a whole generation of leadership against nuclear power plants from all over the country, so I have always believed in mass training rallies. These aren't mass training rallies, but they a similar dimension of excitement.
You're going to have Eddie Vedder and Danny Glover. What's the benefit of having celebrities there?
Well, Glover is really a civil rights advocate and very eloquent. He recites Langston Hughes' poems, it's really something. And Eddie, he had registration tables at his concerts, for heaven's sake. The only celebrities who support us have their own history of social justice activity, almost without exception: Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, Eddie Vedder, Michelle Shocked-they've all got a good record.