For nearly 40 years, Ralph Nader has been crusading against the expansion of corporate control over our political economy. But while he has been called America’s preeminent public citizen, his critics say he is the country’s biggest public nuisance. Nader sits down with Bill Moyers to answer your questions and discuss the need for greater citizen involvement in our democracy.
MOYERS: As we said, the Congress didn't deliver on coverage for prescription drugs before quitting for the summer, and it didn't finish its business on corporate tax havens either.
As we reported three weeks ago, these off-shore shell games enable companies to rent a post office box in some foreign country and thereby cut their federal taxes here at home. The Senate last week voted to deny military contracts to companies that engage in such hocus pocus, but corporate lobbyists swarmed all over the house of representatives to prevent any action there.
Meanwhile, one big company, Stanley Works, the largest maker of hand tools in the country, has had a change of heart. It was planning to reincorporate in Bermuda. This would have saved Stanley Works about $30 million on its share of the costs of fighting the war on terrorism and other public services.
As you saw in our report, the company's workers denounced management for being unpatriotic and public opinion agreed. Last week Stanley turned the ship around. The company's board said it had decided not to reincorporate in Bermuda. So, Old Glory still waves over the headquarters in Connecticut.
MOYERS: In the midst of the current corporate crime wave, a recent article proclaimed, "If one political figure looks prophetic these days, it is Ralph Nader." For nearly 40 years, he's been crusading against the expansion of corporate control over our political economy. But while Ralph Nader has been called America's preeminent public citizen, his critics say he is the country's biggest public nuisance.
Undeterred, Ralph Nader ran for president two years ago on an independent third party ticket, hoping to get people involved.
What he got, say his critics, was George W. Bush in the White House.
Ralph Nader is with us tonight. He'll answer the viewer questions that have poured in since last week, when we said he'd be here. And we'll get his response to our two pieces tonight dealing with corporate power.
Thanks for joining us.
RALPH NADER: Thank you.
MOYERS: Some people say that we have a historic opportunity now to renew democracy and reverse the trend toward corporate control over economics and politics. Do you think that will happen?
NADER: Certainly I hope so, but nobody can prophesize it.
It's all up to the American people and the extent to which they have the civil self-confidence and band together and impress their members of Congress and mobilize. This is an extraordinary moment, because for 20 years there's been a relentless increase in corporate power trespassing on civic values.
The commercialism going into civic values, commercializing childhood, universities, commercializing elections, politicians, government.
And democracy loses in that way, because civic values represent health, safety, justice, democratic processes, respect to the environment, respect for posterity.
MOYERS: The goods and services that the market does not deliver.
Every democracy, to its merit, has got to have sanctuaries that are off limits to commercialism.
MOYERS: Congress just passed some legislation to reform some of the more egregious abuses we've seen recently. Do you think that legislation will prove effective?
NADER: It's very, very modest. It's the first step, it's very high on rhetoric. But basically it says to the S.E.C. And to other agencies, "here's some tools, enforce the law."
But there have been tools for years and, for example, that these corporate crooks could go to jail for a year or two; now it's up to 10 or 20 years in terms of the penalties being increased.
But they never went to jail for a year or two. To see a corporate crook in jail is about as rare as the Australian dodo.
MOYERS: Can you really count, can we really count on effective democratic governments, government scrutiny of industry when it is business and wealthy donors who are making the greatest contributions to the political campaigns that elect the people who write and oversee the law?
NADER: No, of course, not. I mean, as long as there are "for sale" signs on Congress and on the White House, it's not going to happen. Anything that's commercialized, any public institution that relies on private, mostly business money, and has a "for sale" sign, is obviously going to sell to the richest people.
They're the ones who can afford to buy it.
MOYERS: But even as we talk, the Federal Elections Commission with the connivance of the two parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, are attempting to gut the McCain-Feingold Bill, which would have reduced soft money from the system.
I mean, what can ordinary citizens do about that other than complain?
NADER: A second round. I mean, the Federal Election Commission, commissioners are basically provoking anger among John McCain and Russ Feingold in the senate and others. And there's got to be another round.
If 500,000 people took five minutes off and just told their members of Congress, "We want a second wave of corporate reform.
We want public financing of public campaigns." The finger to the wind goes up in the House, in the Senate. What if two million people did that? It's no big deal.
If large numbers of people just spend five or six minutes telling the members of Congress that their trunk line to corporate money is going to be nullified by an aroused public.
But you see, people grow up feeling powerless.
MOYERS: What should people do who are watching?
NADER: Well, the minimal thing is just to contact their member. A letter is better than a phone call, and a phone call is better than e-mail.
And to say, "Do you want more signatures on this letter? Just write me back, I'll get you ten more from your own district."
And to say, "And by the way, when are you coming back to the district so that we can meet you in the auditorium when you have these town meetings."
"And by the way, we're sending this letter to 15 other people, including your opponent, including the local radio and TV stations and the newspapers and the editorial writers."
There's a way to contact your member of Congress that's more than just a paragraph saying, "I protest, I demand." It can have a real cutting edge, and that's the minimum people can do.
For heaven's sakes, 500 million citizen hours are devoted to watching the football super bowl earlier this year. That enough of time, that time in one year in key Congressional districts would have gotten us universal health care.
MOYERS: But football is fun. How do we make politics fun again, exciting again?
NADER: Because it gives us justice. And justice gives us health and safety and the protection of children and decent education and good health care with emphasis on prevention and clean environment. I mean, if that isn't fun, I don't know what fun is.
MOYERS: You saw our piece on the pharmaceutical ads. Big pharm... The pharmaceutical industry actually has more lobbyists in Washington than there are members of Congress. I mean, who's going to speak up for the public interest in that kind of monopoly?
NADER: In three years they spent $250 million in Washington lobbying the pharmaceutical industry.
MOYERS: And they spend $2 billion to $3 billion on these ads we just saw.
NADER: And that segment really is a story of the drugging of America and the gouging of America. More people die from excessive prescriptions of the wrong kinds of drugs with the wrong kinds of side effects than are killed by hard drugs on the streets of America. Far more.
And more than that, although we give them tax credits, the drug companies, we give them free research and development right down to the drugs like taxall and A.Z.T., free to the drug companies, paid for by the U.S.
Taxpayer, developed, discovered, tested by the national institutes of health. And they still are gouging us.
And they still are charging more prices to Americans than any other country in the world where they sell the exact same drugs.
MOYERS: If you were president of the United States right now, what would you do about the practice we just saw of those ads?
NADER: Oh, well, if we had universal health care, we would control drug prices.
The reason why drug prices are cheaper in Canada, cheaper in Western Europe, is they put a cap on them. Enough is enough. You don't want a society that if you don't pay, can't pay, you die.
MOYERS: What about the argument of the companies, however, that they need lots of money for research and development to bring along these new miracle drugs?
NADER: Yes. If they need more money, why don't they cut down on some of the huge advertising and promotion expense, which all adds up when you actually figure it, more than what they spend on so-called research and development that isn't subsidized by the federal government.
You know, we have a web site called essential.org. It lists the major anti-cancer drugs, and 75% of them were taxpayer funded.
Of course, the drug companies then put ads in papers saying, "look how creative we are." They never put a footnote saying, "Thank you, American taxpayer."
MOYERS: If you followed one of those ads and asked your doctor, what would you ask your doctor?
NADER: I would ask my doctor if he did his or her own research, or did he listen to that slick detail man while he's eating chocolate cake.
MOYERS: Several of our viewers want to know if after President Bush's tax break, after his environmental policies, after Dick Cheney handing the government over to industry, does Ralph Nader continue to see no difference between the Democratic and the Republican party?
NADER: You can always rely on the Republican party to make the Democrats look good. Now, the similarities between the two parties tower over the dwindling real differences that they're willing to fight over.
MOYERS: But there are differences. There are.
NADER: For example... Yes.
MOYERS: One of our viewers has said, "Why doesn't Ralph get in and wider the difference instead of standing outside?"
NADER: They provide an alternative agenda, and they jolt one of the two parties like the Abolition Party, the women's right to vote party.
MOYERS: The Progressive Party.
NADER: The Labor Party, the Progressive Party. You know, only one-third party ever won, was...
MOYERS: Even George Wallace's American Independent Party moved the Republican Party to act on the silent majority.
NADER: And Ross Perot on the deficit.
MOYERS: They've come along in one election and then they disappear by the next election. How do you keep the Green Party from doing...
NADER: Because the Green Party platform is very broad and detailed. It deals with labor, environment, taxes, corporate abuses, clean elections. Most of these other parties are largely one issue: parties.
MOYERS: A retired senior citizen in Minnesota asked if you will support Paul Wellstone's reelection to the Senate in November.
He says the Green Party says it wants to protect the environment, but it's running a candidate against Senator Wellstone, who is the outstanding environmentalist in the city. Will you support Wellstone?
NADER: I'll support his votes and his record. But if you're trying to build a new party and the candidate who is challenging Wellstone from a very small voter vote, the Green Party in Minnesota, if you're trying to build a party, you can't pick and choose unless that candidate takes a bad position, at which point I'll criticize him. But how do you build a party when you say, well, candidates, don't run in this area, run in this district, don't run in this state?
Democrats would never do that for the Greens.
MOYERS: You're urging people to vote for the Green candidate against Wellstone?
NADER: If... I have to see what his positions are. He's not quite clear on his position, but if I like his position, I'm trying to build the Green Party.
MOYERS: But what do you have against Wellstone?
NADER: I praise Wellstone, in fact, I just wrote him a letter saying lets have a joint press conference to have some more corporate crime reforms and to organize investors. I'm willing to do that. You know he didn't support me and I know I was much closer to him than Al Gore was.
MOYERS: Some people are saying your waffling Ralph. What should the Democratic voter, the Independent voter do in Minnesota? Vote for a Green Party that everyone knows is not going to be elected Senator or send the Republican to the Senate by voting against Wellstone.
NADER: Vote their conscience. I'm not going to tell them how to vote this way or that way. If I was in Minnesota and I liked the Green Party candidate and his positions and I wanted to build a major party out of a small party I'd vote for the Green Party candidate.
MOYERS: A viewer from Oregon says, "Mr. Nader, ours is not a parliamentary system and we must choose between the red and the black.
There is a dime's worth of difference between the two parties, and why don't you admit that and try to increase the difference?"
NADER: I never said there is no difference. Said there's... there are few major differences between the two parties on military policy, treasury policy, federal reserve, foreign policy, a lot of regulatory policy, believe it or not, there isn't a dime's worth of difference.
And they need a jolt from the outside because all these citizen groups, which I've helped build and many other people have helped build, have been shut out of Washington by both parties increasingly for 20 years.
MOYERS: From Hawaii: If Green can't win in the primary, they certainly can't win in the general election. Why doesn't Ralph run in Democratic primaries in 2004 instead of becoming the spoiler in the general election?
NADER: Well, I don't think you can spoil a system that's already spoiled to the core, the corrupt dirty money election system that both parties have catered to and both parties have benefited from.
If there were no other similarities than the Republicans and Democrats selling our government, selling our election to the highest bidders, that's enough for me to try to build a new movement.
MOYERS: Do you belong... Actually belong to the Green Party?
NADER: No, I do not.
MOYERS: Why don't you? You're urging...
NADER: Because I want to work expanding the Green Party from the outside. I've been an Independent all my life.
MOYERS: You're still actually registered as an Independent.
NADER: Yes, I'm an Independent.
NADER: I don't want to get involved in internal Green Party issues.
MOYERS: We have to pause right here and take a pledge break, Ralph Nader.
Stay with us, we'll come back and continue this discussion. This is the season when public television stations across the country take time out to ask for your direct support. If your station is among them, please think of it as the chance to vote on what you want to see.
If you prefer strong reporting and analysis with programs like "THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER," "WASHINGTON WEEK," and now, we'll be listening as the phone rings.
Later in this program, we'll tell you about an unintended legacy of NAFTA: secret tribunals that let foreign companies do an end-run around U.S. laws, and how the president and Congress just made it worse.
And we'll continue our conversation with Mr. Nader on that and many other subjects.
MOYERS: The poet John Keats once famously equated truth with beauty.
A rather surprising proof of that formula is found in a recent book and traveling exhibition by photographer Emmet Gowin, titled CHANGING THE EARTH.
Emmet Gowin takes aerial photographs of enormous scale that show places where human activity has badly scarred the land, leaving a large human footprint on our planet. The truth is, we are changing the earth.
Yet the beauty of what's being lost call us to imagine that it's not too late to change course. The exhibition of these photographs is traveling throughout the country.
Look for it. Here is Emmet Gowin on Changing the Earth.
EMMET GOWIN: We are made out of the earth. We are stardust.
It feeds us.
It gives us the water that we drink.
It is our spiritual sustenance.
We're tied to this earth.
It emotionally supports our very being.
Again and again, you can read the natural physicality of the landscape through the marks and layers that humans have imposed on the landscape.
It was a small community near St. Louis beside a river. It seemed so pastoral. And this quiet village was just that until the cancer rate shot up.
And it turned out that the contractor was spraying the streets with oil laced with this chemical material which is a carcinogen.
Once it was discovered what was the cause of the cancer, all of the inhabitants of the village were evacuated and the village abandoned.
I was flying out with a pilot out of Globe, Arizona. We'd just come outside the city limits of an area that had been used as a trailer park, and obviously something's happened. The trailer park is picked up and moved.
For me the most important thing in this fragile landscape where there's so little rainfall, scars like these, car paths, it's not something that's going to go away. In 1,000 years, there'll be still some traces of this activity.
This is toxic water treatment facility in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It's a system of aeration pumps that force chemically laden water up into the air, and it's frightening to think that this water that doesn't smell good, doesn't look good, in the end is returned to the river from which it was taken.
In the mid '60s when I wanted to go to the Nevada test site, I could imagine an earth surface pockmarked by the collision of this multitude of bombs that had been tested.
This great release of energy not only vaporized the earth, but shook it up. And the surface of the crust sags and these are called subsidence craters, dropping into the void where the earth had been.
The sense of tragedy when you think about just how many intercontinental ballistic missiles were pointed at the Russians and theirs at us.
Sedan Crater, Nevada test site. It was a test to show that the nuclear weapon would be a good way to move earth. Perhaps 100 of them could dig a new Panama Canal. It was buried some 600 feet deep in the desert, and blew out something like 12 million tons of earth. It's over 1,200 feet in diameter.
I think it's a desperate and terrible mistake to think that we can control the earth. But I think until we face what we've done, we can't begin to really redress or change our path. We have to see before we can change. And I can only think about the moment I'm living in now. This is surely a time for grace and beauty, and it's as if the world doesn't accept that.
MOYERS: Thirty-five state attorneys general lobbied for Chapter 11 to be eliminated from the new trade authority just handed to the President, but they were brushed aside. Ralph Nader, attorneys general don't make campaign contributions to members of Congress, do they?
NADER: No, they don't. Nor do they make news. This whole issue was considered too complex for the national news media to cover, and unfortunately, it went below the radar screen.
MOYERS: Could they have done this if it had been a public debate in the open on CSPAN with all this happening instead of at midnight and 3:00 in the morning?
NADER: It would have been impossible. The country courthouses in the south alone would have said, "what?
You're going to have some overturning of American jury verdicts that have already passed the screen of the trial judge? No way. You're going to have to have this decided in the secret tribunals." This is really unconstitutional, yet it's very hard to invoke constitutional protections against these trade agreements, these international agreements, because you don't as a citizen have standing to sue in federal court. That's the doctrine that excludes us.
MOYERS: And wouldn't one simple reform be to simply require all of this to be done in front of the cameras, to open the hearings, the committee meetings, the conference meetings, to public television?
NADER: That would have helped a great deal. I know when I testified for the house ways and means committee on the G.A.T.T. and W.T.O. There wasn't any camera there.
It was considered too dry, too dusty. And yet the G.A.T. W.T.O. Represented the greatest surrender of local state and national sovereignty in American history.
MOYERS: and didn't you offer $10,000 to the public charity of any Senator's choice who would read... Actually say he read that W.T.O. Agreement?
NADER: Yes, exactly. We scouted Capitol Hill lobbying for a year and we never found anyone, any member of Congress ever read the 500 or so pages before they voted.
They had a year. So we offered a prize. The only Senator who took us up on it was Senator Hank Brown. He actually read it. And then he said, "I have an announcement to make." He's a Republican from Colorado. He said, "I'm for free trade."
NADER: I voted a couple of years ago for NAFTA. But I read this document, I was so appalled by the antidemocratic nature of it, that I'm going to vote against it.
MOYERS: But despite what the attorneys general, despite what the public seems to want on something like this, these still happen; these laws get passed, they get passed in the middle of the night, and they're written by the very people who benefit from them.
NADER: Because we have the corporate state in Washington. Corporations have far more power than people.
You're right, the public opinion polls, even with the minimal publicity, were predominately against these trade agreements because people suspected that they were going to be controlled by more and more absentee powers. It's hard enough to deal with Tallahassee, Sacramento and Washington, which is relatively in the open, instead of having to deal with Geneva, Switzerland, and these secret tribunals.
MOYERS: A question from a viewer by e-mail. Why is it that pollution... Why is it that bought political campaigns haven't created a groundswell for a viable alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans?
NADER: I think that people basically have given up on themselves. They really have sold themselves short as significant citizens in a democracy.
And it starts when they're children, when they don't learn civic skills, and they go to grammar school and high school, they don't learn how to practice democracy. They're sitting in front of computer screens. They're learning how to memorize, to regurgitate, to vegetate.
Then when they finish their education, they're not ready to participate.
And of course, luckily we have citizen groups around the country that have held up our democracy for the rest of us. That's why we have some good environmental laws, some good consumer protection laws. But it's not enough.
MOYERS: Are there any corporations you admire, corporations that have the right stuff, that are models of good corporate citizenship?
NADER: Oh, yes. For example, Patagonia, the maker of very durable clothing in Southern California, extremely environmental, extremely enlightened, extremely good to its workers.
The Interface Corporation out of Atlanta, Georgia, the biggest carpet manufacturer for commercial installment in the world, and it is now moving towards zero pollution and maximum recycling-- a spectacular display of corporate efficiency, reducing its costs and paying its debt to the planet earth.
Of course, you don't see these on the evening news, either, do you?
MOYERS: No, because all the a viewer from Oregon. Mr. Nader, we will have a single payer universal healthcare measure on November's ballot. Would you support it?
NADER: Well, I usually like to read something before I support it, but if it is that, I certainly would support it.
Every western democracy for decades has given all its people universal healthcare, paid maternity leave, paid family sick leave. But that's not the case in the richest country in the world.
MOYERS: A New York viewer says, "I really respected Ralph Nader 20 years ago when I was in college, but he lost me in 2000 when he botched his campaign with his petulant whining complaints about the other candidates and his total neglect of any issues except for the environment."
And from Ohio: "Instead of being the fringe progressive liberal Green Party that conservatives ridicule as extremists, why can't Green become the party for the working family?"
NADER: Well, we tried a great effort in that direction. I campaigned in 50 states, in poor areas from Los Angeles to Hartford, Connecticut. We campaigned in union halls. Actually we got several union endorsements and considerable support from that end.
MOYERS: So why didn't the message get through?
NADER: No message gets through in the present political climate if you're not on the presidential debates.
I campaigned all these states many times, coast to coast from Hawaii to Maine, Washington to Florida. Some... Before huge audiences, filling Madison Square Garden and the Target Center in Minnesota and so on, all over the country.
And I calculated I reached two percent of the people that I would have reached had I been on one of those three presidential debates.
And that debate commission, as you know, is a private company created and controlled by the Republican/Democratic parties.
MOYERS: They kept you off and then they had kept...
NADER: Buchanan off.
MOYERS: Buchanan off.
NADER: They kept Perot off in 1996.
MOYERS: What can be done about that?
NADER: We have to have a new people's Presidential Debate Commission with some good foundations supporting it and a whole variety of political opinion represented on the board. And it's got to be really non- partisan.
The presidential debate commission now is a bipartisan, a tool of excluding all other competing candidates even though the polls showed repeatedly in 2000 that they wanted me and Buchanan on those debates.
MOYERS: One of our viewers says, the result of Ralph Nader's efforts have been to rouse the new conservatives of the radical right to copy and improve on his methods and they've shifted the nation to the right. This viewer goes on to say that your race for president in 2000 helped to install the right wing into the White House. In this plutocracy, he says... "How can you crusade for social good without creating a backlash that proves worse than your solutions?"
NADER: You've got to go for more fundamental change. You've got to basically do the things and build the institutions and rouse the public so that the popular sovereignty overcomes the corporate sovereignty. That's one, and that starts with the schools. It starts with the union halls, expanding the union movement.
It starts with taxpayer groups that don't like to see billions of dollars go to corporate subsidies, handouts and giveaways.
And you know, the only place where democracy comes before work, Bill, is in the dictionary. It takes a lot of work. People have to put the time in. They've got to believe in themselves. And if you look at American history, that's plenty of inspiration.
I mean, look at the uphill fight of the abolitionists, the women's suffrages, the trade unions-- these people were up against huge odds, and they didn't give up on themselves. They didn't have the equivalent of saying, "I don't have time. I'm watching the second rerun of CHEERS.
MOYERS: But if there is such resistance from the system, and as you just said, the two parties keep a lock on the debate, people despair, say it just isn't worth my getting out and knocking on the doors because my vote doesn't count as much as the contributions from the corporations or the wealthy donors. And they're realistic about that.
NADER: We shouldn't have the luxury of despair-- that's a quitter's attitude. People don't quit on the athletic field.
And we've got to learn not to quit, because we have to learn that what it takes for the people to really break through is a lot less than what we grow up thinking it takes. People are still sovereign in this country and these members of Congress don't go back and get reelected unless they get the votes.
And the money intercepts that, and the votes has got to drive the money out.
MOYERS: This is the last question I have time for, from a viewer. This is from Washington, D.C. "Since I've learned you would be interviewing Ralph Nader, I've been thinking about his legacy. America was never the same after he took on General Motors. He shows us that giants can be wounded, could be felled, and that ordinary people do count, even if their fear... Even if their fight is a long and difficult one. Hated and feared by the powers that be, he soldiers on. Ask him how he has the stamina to keep at it."
NADER: Don't like the alternative: the white flag of surrender? That's not a very pleasant alternative. Also the sense of your own self- respect when you're up against injustice and so many people are being ripped off and harmed and repressed. You've got to lock arms with them and help get a more just society.
MOYERS: Are you going to run in 2004?
NADER: I really think it's too early to say. I don't like long campaigns. There's still 2002 elections to go through. But I am considering it.
MOYERS: We are out of time, unfortunately, Ralph Nader. But thank you very much for being with us tonight on now.
NADER: You're welcome.