THE BLOG
01/22/2016 02:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Scheer Intelligence: Ralph Nader, the Voice Against Corporate Power

Ralph Nader became a consumer advocate while taking on the automobile industry with the groundbreaking book, Unsafe at Any Speed. Fifty years later, he continues to speak out against the outsized influence corporations have on American politics and life.

It's estimated that three-and-a-half million lives have been saved on American roads by reforms owed to Nader's advocacy in the 1960s.

In this week's episode of "Scheer Intelligence," Truthdig Editor-in-Chief's podcast on KCRW, Nader talks about the rise of Bernie Sanders and the conditions he believes Sanders must set in order to endorse Hilary Clinton in the event she wins the Democratic nomination. Nader also discusses why Citizens United may have been the most important Supreme Court ruling of the century, as well as why he believes we only need a small fraction of the population to be politically engaged in order to dramatically change policy.

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Adapted from Truthdig.com

Read the full transcript below.

Robert Scheer: This is Robert Scheer with another edition of our podcast, Scheer Intelligence. I'm here with Ralph Nader, somebody I consider to be the kind of American original I'm trying to profile in this series; a product of the different immigration, crazy-quilt cultural, ethnicity, religious backgrounds we have in this country. And Ralph Nader is truly an American original, a person who just transformed the nature of politics as far as reflecting the interests of the average person called a consumer. Saved more lives beginning with his automobile safety crusade, and on through his various other campaigns; training a whole generation of new lawyers who in the main defended the public interest, and various spinoff organizations. And I'm here with him at an unusual moment. We're at The Nation Cruise, where a basically liberal, left audience is considering the choices in this election between a Bernie Sanders and a Hillary Clinton. And the reason I wanted to talk to Ralph is that I was on a similar cruise with him previously when Barack Obama was first running. And, I think, stupidly, in retrospect, disparaged his advocating an independent path, his concerns about an Obama candidacy coopting American politics. And I'm here not only to make amends but to ask Ralph Nader how he views this current election. So, what's going on, Ralph? I know you probably favor Bernie Sanders, but he's also agreed to support whoever the candidate is of the party; is this a dead end? Is this meaningful? What's the answer?

Ralph Nader: Well, that was a mistake he made, when he was asked, you know, about the middle of 2015, or maybe in the spring, 'Will you support the Democratic nominee?' And he said 'I always do.' Well, he should have said it depends who it is. Because the moment he said 'I always do,' the Clinton forces knew that he will fall in line, in April, say, if he loses the primaries to her, Hillary Clinton. And then it'll be, you know, one happy, corporate, Democratic run to November. The tragedy is that he's going to leave behind millions of very discouraged voters who voted for him. And he will have demonstrated that he did all this effort, raised a lot of good money in small contributions, and got nothing for it in terms of an agenda. Nothing. So what I'm suggesting is that the followers, if you're going to vote for Bernie Sanders in the various state primaries, tell him right from the beginning that he has to condition any support for Hillary on his agenda. He's got to get Hillary, very, very specifically, to adopt his major agenda in return for his endorsement. If he doesn't do that, it's the same old cycle that you've talked about, where the progressive candidate is folded in, like Dennis Kucinich and others; they're all folded in. They leave all kinds of disheartened voters and followers behind, and the corporate Democrats march all the way to Wall Street.

RS: Well, one of the ironic results of the Obama victory, where I was captivated by the young people turning out for Obama, I was captivated by his ability to raise a number of questions, including criticism of the banking industry and, by implication, criticism of the Democratic Party's support, beginning with Bill Clinton, of the deregulation of the banking industry, and so forth. Well, after Hillary dropped out in that race, Barack Obama then actually turned to the very same people, the Timothy Geithners and the Lawrence Summerses and so forth, that had constructed the Clinton deregulation, and put them in government. And one of the results of the Obama administration, the continuation of the wars, the failure to really hold any of the bankers responsible, is the very disillusionment that you were talking about, actually, is out there. I mean, I've seen it with the young people that I teach; they certainly don't have the enthusiasm for this election that they had for the Obama election. And what I'm wondering about is this sort of interesting, odd, unexpected figure of Bernie Sanders. On the one hand, there's a great educational value to his campaign; you know, he's actually raised the possibility that something called democratic socialism might matter; certainly on domestic issues he's had a very principled position of challenging big corporate power that I'm sure you're sympathetic to. But as you suggest, already he's taken that step to betraying--maybe that's too harsh a word, I don't know; but it would seem to me if he just stands up there on the stage holding Hillary Clinton's--and she hasn't changed her position on certain key questions, one of which certainly would be how you treat Wall Street, where she's carried a lot of baggage for Wall Street and taken a lot of money from them--it could have an extremely negative effect.

RN: Yes. I think his ambition is limited. I think he just wants to push the agenda toward progressive politics, and then support the Democratic nominee, and go back to the Senate where you know he has a committee, and he's part of the Democratic Party, even though he's technically an Independent Socialist. So he's very much concerned with not jeopardizing his base in the Senate, and his seniority in the Senate. So I don't think he has the ambition to try to overtake her. Because he has all kinds of arguments against her, as you know; she's never met a war she didn't like, she's never met a weapons system she didn't like, she is a war hawk even more than Obama. She overrode Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates, who was opposed to toppling the dictator of Libya, and persuaded Obama to remove the dictator of Libya. And the incredible chaos still is going on, spilling over into Central Africa, killing, sectarian fights. And that's her war. So I call her Hillary the Hawk, or in other moments, when I want to be bilingual, I call her Generalissima Hillary. And then--

RS: Or you could call her Margaret Thatcher.

RN: [Laughs] Worse! She's got her hands on more weapons, got her hands on a bigger empire, got her hands on the Bush-Obama past, where no national sovereignty is a barrier to special forces, drones and other attacks, unconstitutional, illegal, and violating the UN charter and the Geneva Conventions. Domestically, she's a complete corporatist. I mean, she got two speeches that totaled a half a million dollars within a couple weeks of themselves by Goldman Sachs. She then goes to at least a dozen giant trade association gatherings, locks the door--that's the condition--gets paid two hundred, two hundred fifty thousand dollars to tell them what they want to hear. And no one is demanding that she release the tapes. Because I'm sure that the car dealer's convention is going to remember the nice things she said about perhaps not regulating them very much. And all those tapes should be disclosed. So she's a Wall Street corporatist, and she's a militarist, and she's running for the Democratic Party, and Bernie Sanders is going to endorse her?

RS: Well, but you--I'm talking to--you know--I'm talking to Ralph Nader, and you know Bernie Sanders; you've known him for quite a while, haven't you?

RN: I knew him before he was mayor of Burlington. And we had some meetings together when I was up in Vermont. But he became a lone ranger, like a lot of progressive senators are lone rangers. By that I mean they don't network, they don't connect with the national citizen groups that are progressive; you know, huddle with them the way the Republicans do with the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute. And so I haven't gotten a call back from Bernie Sanders in 15 years. I've called him, I've written him; when he went on the floor, remember, he gave that, you know, 15-hour speech that he turned into a book--I wanted to congratulate him--never returned a call, never would meet. I think part of it is he's gone a long way without my advice; he's a lone ranger; he's been elected by a very conservative Republican state, Vermont, even though he still keeps the title democratic socialist; that's quite an achievement. So that can get into a politician a sense of 'Who needs anybody giving me advice?' Well, he's running for president now, and he's got a little tiny staff [laughs] in Vermont. He does need advice, because his delivery's getting a bit tedious; it's not diverse enough, new facts, he should give a speech on the post office, he should give a speech on corporate crime enforcement and lack of budget for the criminal prosecuting agencies in the U.S. government. But he doesn't do that. That's why I really think he is, in his own mind, his campaign has very limited ambition. It's to push Hillary in a more progressive direction, however rhetorically; you can't trust her to ever translate her progressive rhetoric into actual record if she gets elected. And he goes back to the Senate; he's got a bigger mailing list--I think he's going to raise $75 million in small contributions; that's never been done before in American political history. And I think that satisfies him.

RS: But isn't it also good for the country to have had a Bernie Sanders have this kind of reach, and introduce some new ideas, including that the words "democratic socialism" actually can be as American as apple pie, and that these are things--is there no great educational value to this, win or lose?

RN: There is, but you know the public's memory is very short. They can't often remember what somebody said at the presidential level; they can't even remember who was the vice presidential candidate. But more to the point is, what he says, he's going to raise expectation levels; and if he folds in with Hillary's campaign without having Hillary endorse publicly, vociferously and specifically his agenda, he is going to tarnish whatever memory of his good speeches with a sense of that he sold out. That he basically--not sold out for money, that he sold out because he wanted to maintain his base in the U.S. Senate. And that can negate any of the good things that he has done educating the public to understand that socialism in the U.S. is as American as apple pie. You know that, Bob. You got, you got public electric utilities, about a thousand of them, owned by the cities, including the Los Angeles [Water and] Power District, the Tennessee Valley Authority; you got public libraries, you got public schools, you got public transit, you got the public post office. [Laughs] In some conservative states you have public-owned, state-owned liquor stores, like in New Hampshire. In conservative Nebraska, the utility is publicly owned, the electric utility. And of course he mentioned Social Security and Medicare. So that's a very good thing he's done. But as I say, it can be completely overwhelmed by disillusionment if he folds without conditioning the wishes of millions of his voters by telling Hillary: no endorsement without adopting this agenda. Which she should adopt, because it has majority support; it's a vote-getter for her.

RS: What would the agenda be?

RN: The agenda would be, ah, one, breaking up the banks, the big New York banks. The second would be expanding Social Security. The third is full Medicare for all, everybody and nobody out; free choice of doctor and hospital, which we don't have today, and it's half as expensive per capita. That's the experience in Canada; they cover everybody with half as much dollars per capita. It would be expanding public works; we used to call it public works, that means more modern public transit, expanding Amtrak, expanding city transit systems; upgrade sewage, water systems; repair schools. Huge jobs program, good pay, they can't be exported to countries like China. And he's serious about that. It includes corporate tax reform; I think he would do something about these tax havens. And I think it would also include a lot of criminal justice reform. He's not really talking that much about that, but I think he would be a force for reforming the drug law and emptying out a lot of nonviolent prisoners from our jails, leaving enough space for enhanced prosecution of corporate crooks who would take their place.

RS: Yeah, and there are some Republican candidates, and there's some sentiment certainly on the libertarian side of the Republicans for prison reform; even the Koch brothers have come out for that. And generally, what will happen, Bernie--Hillary Clinton--he probably will not propose that, and even if he does, she's not going to do this. And then we're going to once again, for most of the people who've been listening to you on The Nation Cruise, who are liberal and somewhat on the left, they'll go for the lesser evil. And I recall when Jerry Brown, who's actually in California setting a much better model for the Democratic Party on a number of issues--but I remember when he was running against Bill Clinton in the primary. He said, 'This is not a choice of the lesser of two evils; it's the evil of two lessers.' And that's an interesting concept here. Is, you know, people will be traumatized by the idea of one of those Republicans getting in. Unless, and probably it's some more establishment person like a Jeb Bush, who will then move more to the center, and you'll have--

RN: Well, it's more than an interesting concept; it's the ultimate trap of American politics, where the Democrat voters will support anybody who's not as bad as the Republican nominee. And so they judge the Democratic Party, which is dominated by the corporate Democrats, by how bad the Republicans are instead [of] by how much better the Democrats can be. And there's no end to that trap. You've seen a lot of four-year cycles; every four years, both parties move to the right. Every four years, the corporate influence is greater. Every four years, as the Democrats move to the right, it gives the Republicans more elbow room to become even more reactionary. And nobody who chooses the lesser of two evils or the evil of two lessers ever will answer this question: What is your breaking point? What's your moral compass? They can't answer it, because there is no breaking point. There will always be the two major parties; the Republicans will probably always be worse [laughs] than the Democrats. And they're bringing the country down with them, because they are basically doing what their corporate paymasters from Wall Street to Houston are telling them to do, give or take a few aberrations by libertarians on the right or some hard core progressives on the left. So this is, you know, you bring down the United States of America, you bring down a lot of the world; and that is possible because we don't have a competitive democracy. Here's why we don't have a democracy in an electoral sense, Bob; one, we have, money is all-important, corrupting people's voters. Number two, gerrymandering means that the politicians will pick their voters; I mean, imagine anything less Democratic than that. And both Democrats and Republicans do that, depending on who runs the state government. And number three, they block competition! They are a duopoly. They would be indicted for violation of the anti-trust laws if there are two companies. And they're blocking the ability of third parties to get a foothold and grow from four years to four years, or two years to two years at the state and local level, at a level unheard of in Western countries. It is harder to get on the ballot in North Carolina as a presidential candidate, than to get on the ballot in six European countries. And once you add the absurdity of the Electoral College, where you can come in second in the popular vote and be president, you add this winner-take-all, so that the Green Party, even if it got 48 percent of the vote, it would lose. Whereas in Germany if it breaks five percent of the vote, it gets five percent of the Parliament. If it goes to 10 percent, it gets 10 percent of the Parliament. So you see it can grow from one election to another. So we have the most anti-Democratic elections in the Western world, hands down, and some non-Western-world countries as well, as I say. You could never elect someone like Lula in Brazil, or someone like Obrador, who really won the election in Mexico but they took it from him; you couldn't do that in this country, because there are too many obstructions built into the system by the two parties, Republican and Democrats, who think they own all the votes.

RS: So how do we get out of this trap? Ah, you've been--you know, you've been an effective person. You're not, you know, yes, somebody could say, you know, 'There's Ralph Nader, he's a bit of a crank, he's getting older, he won't go along.' But you actually have accomplished an incredible amount in this country. We could go through the list of your achievements of defending the rights of consumers. But not only that, you have influenced a large number of people, some of whom ended up being lawyers in the government and political people and media and so forth. And then what seems to happen is that most of them sell out. Right? You haven't sold out.

RN: Or they wear out.

RS: Ah.

RN: Or they wear out. [Laughs]

RS: They wear out. Now you have contact with these people. I know I run into a very large number of people, as I've covered politics, as I've covered government, really influential people; and they call it, they were Nader's Raiders, they were in one institute or another in defense of the public interest. I believe John Phillips, our ambassador to Italy, was once a lawyer who worked with you. But I know there are many others. What happens? What is it about the American experience now that people end up at war with their better natures?

RN: Well, one is, they react to this stranglehold of the two parties by adjusting to it. And so look who came out of our shop? Jim Fallows. Michael Kinsley. Ronald Bronstein. David Ignatius. Michael Moore. And with the exception of Michael Moore, they've adjusted. OK? They're centrists. And they've done well in journalism. But here's how we'd get out of it. First you get rid of the Electoral College; that means that a presidential campaign will have to campaign in all the states. Right now, forty states are either slam-dunk Republican, like Texas, or slam-dunk Democrat, like Massachusetts. So they don't have to campaign in those states. That's one. The second is, you say, well, who can get rid of big money in politics--it's Congress, all right? So that goes to my second point. One percent or less active people in every congressional district, connecting with one another, anteing up some money for full time office in each congressional district with three or four full time people, can turn Congress around in this. Why? Because it reflects the majority opinion. Believe it or not, both left [and] right think it stinks: that money corrupts, and it stinks. So once you have majority opinion behind you, you can get Congress changed. And someone once said, 'Well, what do you mean, one percent or less engaged? What does engaged mean?' And I say, the equivalent of a serious hobby. A serious hobby, whether it's bridge, playing bridge or watching birds, it's three to five hundred hours a year. And they probably spend five hundred bucks a year on their hobby, OK? You put that in, one percent or less, you can connect beautifully with the Internet now, in every congressional district, 435. So you're dealing with one percent--let's say one percent. That would be about two and a half million people representing tens of millions of people on who? A mere 535 members of Congress, senators and representatives, 20 percent of which are with you from the get-go. Right? So we've got to stop thinking it's insurmountable, this 'you can't fight Citi, you can't fight Exxon, you can't change everything'--the moment people exaggerate the power of the opposition, they're depowering themselves by definition. They're turning themselves into even more powerless things. And the third thing that can be done to break the two-party is start locally. Because locally, you know, Bob, there are often city councils where nobody runs against the incumbents. Because it's not a two-party. They don't even have the two-party system, Democrat-Republican; Board of Education, that's where you can really start. The Tea Party was smart; they started a lot at the local level, and then they went to Congress. And that's the way you break up the two-party duopoly. Because you can also get rid of the ballot access barriers; you can put in instant runoff voting; you can loosen up the system so people have a chance to have a chance. It's amazing. In nature, a seed is given a chance to sprout, but not in American politics.

RS: Well, I'm talking to Ralph Nader. This is Bob Scheer. Let me ask you a question about the demonization of the others; you know, we're actually doing this interview on a cruise of left liberals that responded to Nation Magazine's appeal. But here, more, if you mention the Koch brothers, you mention the Republicans--well, they're the devil incarnate, you know. And I was just wondering about that, because you know after all, and we hear about Citizens United, we hear about all the money in the corporate--well, when Obama ran, he ended up getting more money from these fat cats, from Wall Street, than--

RN: By far than McCain. And any other Republicans you've pointed out in history. He got more money--[than] McCain. And I understand when he ran against Romney, he actually got [laughs] more money from Bain Capital, which was Romney's investment firm, than Romney got. Because he's exactly what they want. He can pacify the liberals--

RS: Well, he's the Manchurian candidate.

RN: Yeah.

RS: OK, so but then the question really is, because you know, again, on this trip people say, well, Citizens United, Koch brothers, Koch brothers--and that's the main fundraising vehicle. And you know, I look at the Koch brothers, and they have their different positions. But are they really the end? Are they really worse than Goldman Sachs and all the other firms that will probably go quite enthusiastically for Hillary Clinton? And so what is the message here? How do we begin to think clearly about what's going on in our politics?

RN: Well, the message is, there are two entities in the United States. One are human beings, and the other is the corporate entity. And it's no contest. Because corporations have privileges and immunities that we'll never have, even individual billionaires will never have; I mean, we just stopped buying the [Cayman] Islands, where one office building had ten thousand corporate tax avoiders registered. And you know, for example, Citigroup has maybe a dozen subsidiaries. They can create their own children, right? Which most individuals can't do with abandon, all over the world, with hundreds of subsidiaries; they can create their own parents, called holding companies, to evade certain regulations and certain jurisdictions. By the same token, they have all the rights we have. So my point is, we got to create a double standard that only people have certain constitutional rights, because it starts out, the preamble, 'We the people,' not 'We the corporation.' Right? And that corporations, as such--not their employees--as such should not be allowed to give money to campaigns, should not be allowed to lobby, and should not be allowed to testify in the corporate name. Because they're not human beings. And so I call this subordination: subordinate the corporate entity, constitutionally, to the supremacy and the sovereignty of the people as our Founders envisioned. The word company, corporation or political parties doesn't even exist in the Constitution. Why do they run us? Why do they rule us? The second change is already underway: tens of billions of consumer dollars are building the local economies. They're farmer, you know, to consumer marketplaces; they're local renewable energy; they're credit unions; they're community banks; they're community health clinics, on and on. And YES! Magazine chronicles this out of Seattle. And every time people spend money in the local economy, they're taking money away from the Bank of America, Exxon, you know, the big guys. And it's already tens of billions, but that's what I call displacement. So you displace these giant, multinational corporations that have no allegiance to any community or any country; they go wherever they can control the government and make the most profit. You displace them at the local economy level, and you subordinate them legally so that people have greater constitutional rights than this legal fiction called the multinational corporation.

RS: But now we're going to go into this election, Ralph Nader. And people are going to say, Hillary Clinton has said she's against Citizens United, and she more likely will appoint people to the Supreme Court who would reverse it. And that's, again, people could say, 'You know, what Ralph Nader said on that podcast is quite interesting. But you vote for Hilary, you'll get somebody appointed at a court that will reverse that decision; you vote for the Republicans, they won't do that.'

RN: Well, let's say they do reverse Citizens United. It was pretty bad before Citizens United. [Laughs] 2010--before 2010, money ruled too. You know, the big corporate executives gave money; they had all kinds of loopholes to give to the Democratic committees but not to the candidates; to get over the minimum level the individual can give to each political candidate. It was a terrible situation! If anything, Citizens United woke up the country. You know, they went to the final step of basically saying, corporations can spend as much money as they want to elect or defeat a local, state or national candidate in the United States of America. I mean [laughs], I mean, you can't get any worse than that, because I think the 2016 election may cost seven, eight billion dollars. Everything--Congress, presidency--I mean, that's like a fourth of Exxon's profits, post-tax, such as it is [laughs]. So, you know, the Supreme Court--I have never advocated the impeachment of any member of the Supreme Court, until they passed Citizens United. Because that was the final straw of a whole series of decisions by a five-four majority in the Supreme Court that basically subordinated the sovereignty of the American people to the supremacy of these artificial fictions whose only motivation is greater profits.

RS: OK, but somebody listening to this will say, 'You know, Ralph Nader, you just made the case for a vote for Hillary. Because she will appoint judges who are, will probably reverse Citizens United.'

RN: But it's nowhere near enough. If it goes to where it was in 2009, 2008--it was terrible. There were all kinds of books saying how primaries were corrupted by money. This one just opened up all the spigots. And actually, it might lead to a backfire. But our country needs so many reforms and changes that we just can't focus everything on Citizens United. You know, sometimes liberals get trapped; like, the women's rights movement got trapped by the ERA. I mean, it sucked the oxygen out of--that women all over the country paid more than men for a lot of things. They got unnecessary operations, because it was a male-dominated medical system; they had to pay more for auto purchases; they were discriminated against in terms of credit--it was all ERA, ERA, ERA. The same trap can be the future of progressive movements if you just focus on Citizens United. That's a tidbit compared to the subordination of the entire corporate structure constitutionally to the supremacy of the people. And I could give you examples where major social movements were blocked like check-offs in banks and insurance companies and utilities facilitating the organization of independent consumer groups to challenge these companies for the regulatory agencies and the court of public opinion. You know why that was shut down? Because the Supreme Court ruled that the California public utility commission, which gave people in California the right to be represented by an insert in the billing envelope for Pacific Gas and Electric, violated Pacific Gas and Electric's First Amendment rights to remain silent and not rebut this little envelope, which made the case to invite people to form an independent group to challenge Pacific Gas and Electric before the utility commission. That was so bad, Rehnquist dissented, and said 'What are you trying to say, Supreme Court, 6-3? What are you trying to say, that a corporation has a conscience? That it can have a First Amendment right to stay silent and not rebut?' This is to confuse metaphor with reality! Those are the really big issues. We have to subordinate the corporation to the supremacy of the people so the people can defend themselves, and we have to displace giant corporate sales at the community level by expanding the local community businesses.

RS: Well, let me close this, then, by asking you to look back at your whole life as a consumer advocate. I don't think in American history there's been any individual more successful than you in raising a standard of concern for the average person. I don't think that there's any person that can come to mind who was more successful. And that's an important word here; a lot of people cared, you know; there were a lot of muckrakers and populists and figures and so forth. But what was so amazing about Ralph Nader--and what year would you put the--when was the automobile victory--

RN: It was 1966. It was only nine months after 'Unsafe at Any Speed' came out; see how fast Congress operated? You know, you--

RS: That's your book, I mean, for people who don't remember, and it--yes--

RN: Yeah, 'Unsafe at Any Speed'. You bring a key point. If we had a Democratic Congress in the past 30 years, as good as it was in 1967, '68, '69, we'd have full Medicare for all, we'd have a living wage [laughs], we'd have all kinds of reforms. But they cut the ground from under us. We have nothing to work with, and they--the Democratic Party, here's the main indictment. They cannot defend the United States of America against the worst Republican Party in its history. This is a party that has already passed bills in the House against children. They've passed bills against food stamps. They've passed bills against the right to clean air and clean water. It didn't get through the Senate, because of the filibuster. They've passed bills to expand the already bloated, corrupt military budget. They've passed bills to deregulate Wall Street even further, never mind it crashed on the U.S. Economy in 2008, 2009. They're starving the National Parks System; they want to allow more tax havens abroad for corporations--I mean, you would think this would allow the Democratic Party, Bob, to landslide; instead, they've lost the Congress. When do these guys get a flunking grade?

RS: Well, but I want to--because this is a series in what I call 'American originals.' And I think you're a person--now, we're talking about 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, you took on the most powerful industry in America, the automobile industry, celebrated by people with the most massive adverting mechanism; they defined American culture. I mean, I would be, I don't think, and exaggeration to say that most people in America even defined freedom and quality of life and the ability to move and status by their car. And you challenged those very idols, you challenged those tokens; you said, no, they should not be worshiped, the big car, the fuel-efficient car, the unsafe car; no, we have to challenge that. You educated--and obviously, people came to your side and they supported you. But you wrote a book, you advocated by consumer interests; and you defeated this incredibly powerful industry, OK? And how old were you then?

RN: Thirty-two.

RS: Thirty-two-year-old guy comes along, writes a book, 'Unsafe at Any Speed'; and within, what'd you say, a year and a half, you get legislation--

RN: Little over nine months.

RS: --nine months, you get legislation passed. And we now accept as normal that cars should be safe. And as a result we've had a tremendous decline in highway deaths and everything else, OK?

RN: Yeah, over three and a half million lives saved.

RS: Three and a half million--

In addition to injuries diminished or prevented.

RS: All right, all right. So there's the 32-year-old Ralph Nader. And now I'm talking to you as, what, 82 years old, right?

RN: [Laughs] Eighty-one.

RS: Eighty-one years old, Ralph Nader. We're sittin' here, improbably enough, in a thing where they play cards on a cruise ship, y'know. And I ran for Congress in '66, by the way; I ran against a war candidate, a guy who supported Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat; and I was editor of Ramparts Magazine. So we can both look back at fifty years. And I think you know, at that time, I was blown away by what you did. And I thought, my God, America can go through incredibly radical change. How would you assess this 50-year period? Where are we now?

RN: I would assess that my only support were the American people, and they took all these wins we got for granted and sat by while corporations beefed up their lobbyists, beefed up their campaign money, beefed up their media, and took over Washington. Washington is corporate occupied territory. It didn't have to be. My main message to people is, don't get discouraged because American history shows one percent or less active people in Congressional districts representing you; majority opinion can turn around the Congress and defeat these corporations again and again and again. And there's no time to go into all the details, but we did it; our predecessors have done it throughout American history. But it does take two and a half million people who are as serious about their civic duties as birdwatchers are [laughs] watching and counting the number of different birds that they collect. And if they want to get my column free, just go to Nader.org and they'll get a weekly column free; seven minutes of agitation, if you're a moderate reader, every week, that often tells you what can be done. And so we can overcome this demoralization of so many good people in this country.

RS: Yeah, I mean, I think the great thing about you, Ralph Nader, is you haven't--you haven't given up, and you haven't dropped a beat, and you haven't--you know, most people get cynical; most people get worn out. They burn out and so forth. And the reason I am so excited about talking to you, and I've witnessed you now for a whole week on this cruise--ah, you've got it, OK. But also, you're a truly brilliant lawyer and social analyst, rare. And I want you--we have a few minutes left--I want you to really look at this trajectory. And first of all, let's talk about, quickly summarize the accomplishments. Because this was, you know, a revolutionary change in America, the assertion of this consumer interest, the challenge to be corporations, that a 32-year-old young lawyer, you know, 32-year-young lawyer, managed to pull off. And there were others. Why don't you first give us a list of those victories.

RN: Yeah, it was that critical period, 1966 to 1974, when the main environmental laws were passed; the consumer product safety, auto safety laws were passed; the great Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1974; even Nixon signed into law the occupational safety and health law--

RS: The Environmental Protection Agency--

RN: The Environmental Protection Act--he would have gone further if the Democrats didn't block him. He wanted the right to vote for members of Congress by the District of Columbia residents. He had a health plan, insurance plan better than Clinton offered years later. He even had a minimum incomes plan that was devised and supported by Milton Freedman and Daniel P. Moynihan, who was the assistant to Nixon, to start rolling back poverty. And the Congress blocked it, and then the decline really started. And--

RS: Well, let's stop for that moment first, because this is a history people don't know, you know? First of all, Nixon also did a surprising thing in going to China and taking the wind out of the Cold War. But let's talk about that domestic, because Nixon has been demonized, and of course we had Watergate; but let's talk about this critical moment. In '66 you write a book, right, 'Unsafe at Any Speed', and really--

RN: In '65.

RS:'65, and it really fuels, adds tremendous energy to a consumer movement. And then an improbable president, Richard Nixon, actually builds on some of this stuff. And how do we get from there--from there to today? And look at the loss of income inequality, the attacks on labor unions--

RN: Bob, Nixon was the last Republican to be afraid of liberals. He was afraid of the rumble from the people coming out of the tumultuous sixties that spilled over into the early seventies, and that's why he would sign and sign and sign these bills, along with the ones that Lyndon Johnson signed. But once the rumble of the people diminished, and once the corporate media started blocking the kind of coverage we got--we couldn't have done a lot of what we did; we had some reporters who covered us day after day, the columnist Drew Pearson, the Washington Post's Morton Mintz, the New York Times's Walter Rugaber in Detroit on auto safety, the great reporter Pat Sloyan, UPI. They don't do that anymore. They're all looking for Pulitzer Prizes, you know; they want to write one big feature; you got to follow the struggle in Congress, you know, week after week. And we don't have that. So we have to rebuild it, and my view of rebuilding it is to get people to think, am I going to be one of the one percent reflecting majority opinion that's going to roll up my sleeves with people in my congressional district, and I'm going to be responsible for my two senators and representative, along with several thousand other people in each congressional district? You know, I think people should take Congress personally. The people of this country under our Constitution--

RS: Well, that's what the Tea Party does.

RN: Yeah, exactly. The people delegate their power under the Constitution to 535 members of Congress, representatives and senators, and a majority of these people have sold it to Wall Street, have sold it to the corporations, and they have allowed the corporations to turn our government through the Congress against its own people. You know, I think people should get angry at that. Just the way they get angry if they lose their NFL football game. At least that level.

RS: Thank you, Ralph Nader. This has been a terrific conversation with a true American original. And people should check out your column; we also run it on Truthdig every week. And you know, I just want to say that it's just a great inspiration that you are going--you've, let me just say, you've had a great life. No?

RN: Well, I mean, pursuit of justice is the greatest gratification. I can't think of anything better. I mean, was it Daniel Webster, the senator from Massachusetts, said 'Justice is the great work of human beings on earth.' Without justice, you don't get freedom or liberty. And you know that; you've exposed so many examples of wrongdoing. And I applaud you for Truthdig and for having Chris Hedges on. You know, he writes that big column; I sometimes call him up on Sunday and interrupt him when he's going over the last lines, but that's very, very important. And we need people who will let the chips fall where they may in search of the truth. You know, the--somebody, [Charles] Lewis, who started the Center for Public Integrity, I talked to him a couple years ago and I said, what are you doing? And he said 'I'm writing a book.' I said, what's the title? He said, 'The Future of Truth.' Well, with this presidential campaign, that's a pretty important question, isn't it?

RS: Yeah. Thank you, Ralph Nader. This is Bob Scheer and this has been another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

Last updated on January 23, 2016.