With Joe Biden in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress and the Senate, Ralph Nader, the lifelong good-government crusader and consumer advocate, issues a stark warning to progressives: The Democratic Party is still not on the side of working Americans, no matter what politicians, media pundits and their corporate donors will have us think. The former Green Party presidential candidate has dedicated his life to putting pressure on America’s most powerful corporate and political leaders, and while some activists are ready to let the Biden administration get away with ecocide, expanded drone wars, and other forms of murder, Nader is prepared to do no such thing. His thorough and well-researched critiques, such as his recent piece on the Democrat-assisted corporate takeover of Medicare, are needed now more than ever as American media undergoes what Matt Taibbi calls a mass “sovietization” during the Biden honeymoon.
On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” host Robert Scheer asks Nader, “What have you learned in these 60 years of being a consumer advocate and public intellectual?”
“One thing I’ve learned is that Democrats are on an infinite journey towards cowardliness,” responds Nader, “because now they’re getting credit for their $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, 100% financed on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren, without a single effort to [rescind] the Trump tax cuts that are at least $2 trillion over the ten years since they were passed in 2017.”
Nader points to the many “institutional taboos” that Democrats won’t speak of let alone challenge, such as tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich, as well as an outrageously bloated Pentagon budget. While the “Scheer Intelligence” guest says that Democrats may look better compared to “the cruelest, most vicious” Republicans, but they don’t address any of the significant problems impacting Americans every day and, at the same time, stifle dissent from the progressive wing of the party. He argues that all of this is part of the system that we now live in, thanks to both political parties selling out to corporate interests.
“Corporate capitalism is not capitalism,” argues Nader. “Capitalism is your ma-and-pa store on Main Street; corporate capitalism is basically corporate socialism because without socialism in Washington bailing out capitalism, capitalism would have collapsed a long time ago.”
But Nader goes even further from calling our current system corporate capitalism or socialism and labels it “corporate fascism” due to the fact that moneyed interests have strategic power over everything from our diets to our public lands. Scheer and Nader have a lively discussion about whether or not it is possible to challenge the powers that be in an age of corporate fascism. Scheer argues that it is impossible to truly effect change under the conditions of life in today’s America, in which the traditional proletariat is no longer able to organize due to the gigification of the economy at the same time powerful corporations such as Google and Facebook disguise their obscene profit-seeking under the cloaks of anti-racism, women’s rights and other worthy social issues. Nader, however, is more hopeful than Scheer about a power that people still have the opportunity to harness.
“Here’s the rub,” explains Nader. “It has never taken more than 1% active citizens scattered throughout the country representing [or building] the majority public opinion to change Congress on any number of agendas throughout history.”
The former presidential candidate calls for civic movements to take on the legislative branch, which to him is the most powerful part of the federal government, with a laser focus. Listen to the full conversation between Nader and Scheer as they discuss the many ways Democrats, such as Nancy Pelosi, along with Republicans, have willingly placed American democracy in corporate claws and time and again betrayed the interests of the very people who elected them. You can also check out Nader’s most recent book, “The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook” here.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. I always say the intelligence comes from my guests, and I mean it, but never so much as today when my guest is Ralph Nader. Ralph Nader is one of the great legendary figures of American history. I’d put him right up there with Tom Paine, Walt Whitman, whatever, the people who try to speak for the common person, for the average person, and take on the powerful, take on the people who care about themselves not the rest, mock the idea of democracy. Ralph Nader has been the living embodiment of democracy, the advocate for everything from the consumers who are going to be killed in cars without seatbelts to now where he speaks the truth about our military budget, about our abysmal failure to deal with this pandemic because we will not do what every other civilized country does about medical care. And so, with just one little note here, I’ve had my differences with Ralph, and I’ve had to apologize for them. And one particular incident, which will come up here, is [that] we were both speakers debating on a Nation magazine cruise, and on that cruise, I was being critical of Ralph having run an independent campaign for president, and I was still of the idea that somehow the Clintonistas were not great but certainly a lesser evil, and I bought into all that, and I defended the Clinton administration, which has turned out in retrospect to be a horror; they deregulated Wall Street, they ended the welfare system, they allowed concentration of media ownership with the Telecommunications Act, they betrayed the spirit of democracy and, I must say, bear tremendous responsibility, of course along with the savage Republicans, for this incredible income gap that we have, bringing the class struggle or the need for class struggle, to America. I also want to apologize to people listening to this because one failing of Ralph Nader is that he does not go with the times technologically, he is not enamored with the latest gadget, he doesn’t get the latest iPhone, in fact, he doesn’t own a computer. So, when it came time to do this podcast, I was assuming. because I have all the gadgets. that we would do it as we do with Zencaster, I would send him the signal, or Zoom, or something. Well, he doesn’t have one. So, we had a bit of struggle here to get the quality of the tape up to NPR standards. We’ve done it, thanks to Joshua Scheer, the executive producer. But trust me, what Ralph has to say is really worth listening to, maybe more than words coming from any other person in America at this time in our history. So, with that endorsement, let me put my first question to Ralph Nader.
So let me kind of begin with a basic question. And you know, we’re in a honeymoon period where just about everyone that I know thinks, wow, Biden’s going to do a great job, thank god the–you know, even the people who think it’s a lesser evil think, wow, the good times are going to roll. And then I read your piece, which I will publish, make available, saying look, they’re not going to do what’s needed. We’re not going to get healthcare reform. Once again, the Democrats are going to sell out. And if [there’s] anything we’ve learned from the pandemic, it is that this country, which is the richest country in the world and is proclaimed the best medical system, actually has the worst record in the whole world in dealing with the pandemic. The largest number of fatalities, despite spending an enormous amount of money. So why don’t we use this as a teaching moment, and what you’ve learned in this, what, 60 years of being a consumer advocate and a public intellectual, where are you now?
Ralph Nader: Well, one thing I’ve learned is that the Democratic Party is on an infinite journey of cowardliness. Because now they’re getting credit for a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, one hundred percent financed on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren, without a single effort–never mind success–to restore the gigantic Trump tax cuts that are at least $2 trillion, over the next 10 years since they were passed in 2017. Probably larger, because the tax lawyers opened up new loopholes that were made possible. So what we have is another institutionalized Democratic Party taboo. You don’t talk about tax increases; you don’t talk about tax increases on the wealthy; you don’t talk about restoring enormous tax reductions over the years, on Wall Street, on the superrich, on the multinational corporations. You just let the children and grandchildren pay the bill.
So now we have a Democratic Party taboo on the military budget. It used to be they would talk about it, at least; at least people like Senator Proxmire would hold hearings on military waste, fraud, and abuse. But no, that is the largest operating budget in the federal government, and it isn’t even audited. The Pentagon is violating a 1992 federal statute requiring them to submit an audited budget to the General Accounting Office, or Government Accountability Office as it’s now called, of the U.S. Congress. So you have two giant revenue factors. One, a huge drain on public infrastructure investment by empire and blowing up other countries abroad in the military budget.
And you have another taboo emerging now, you’d think they’re under the sway of Grover Norquist–they don’t talk about restoring the tax cuts. They don’t campaign on restoring the tax cuts, with the exception of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. So the tragedy here is that they are telling the IRS–starved-budget IRS, due to the Republicans starting in 2011; they cut the IRS budget to the bone, engaged in aiding and abetting tax evasion–and they’re telling the IRS, shovel out $1.9 trillion and watch the waste, watch the fraud, watch the money going to people and corporations who don’t deserve it. Luckily, they pinpointed $1,400 to designated people; that’s going to go through. But it’s just a frenzied bit of legislation that the press is going to have a field day covering.
RS: So, but the reality is–I want to look at the trajectory of your life. Basically, you started as a consumer advocate, and argued for things that most people could agree were good things to be done. And you expected the large corporations could be pressured to do the right thing–most famously, have seat belts in cars, which of course everybody now accepts. But we’re up against a fundamentally different issue, which is that the corporations can’t do the right thing, because they’re committed to a profit model, and a competitive profit model that requires doing the wrong thing. Ripping us off, exploiting us, betraying our confidence in them. Isn’t that really the lesson of your life as a public intellectual?
RN: Well, there are many lessons, and one of them is that when you beat back corporate crime, fraud, abuse, and corporate control over our government successfully, as we did to some degree in the 1960s and 1970s, you have to expect a counterattack. And the corporations did that. They beefed up their lobbying in Washington and vastly increased their political action committee contributions; they fielded their own candidates; they challenged good incumbents in the primary; they developed their own mass media right out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They made sure that talk radio was taken over by right-wing corporatists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and all the others, dominating day after day, three hours a day by each one of them; radio changing a lot of blue-collar workers into Reagan Democrats, which flipped election after election.
In the meantime, the people back home who benefited from these health and safety regulations and some economic regulations, took too much for granted. They didn’t do their homework on who they voted for or voted against. They didn’t strengthen the civic movements back in the grassroots. When I ran on the Green Party ticket and Independent ticket trying to mobilize civic activity and put pressure on the major parties–as small parties did in the nineteenth century against slavery, women’s right to vote and the populist progressive farmer movement–there was very little resonance by people who supported our agenda. We had an agenda of majoritarian support.
So we are at a stage that I would call a corporate state, that is exactly the definition of fascism conveyed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a 1938 message to the U.S. Congress. He said when private power takes over government, that is fascism. And it keeps getting deeper and more dominant with every four years of presidential election, and every two years of Congressional election.
You can see the signs everywhere, Bob. The Democrats now are so weak and cowardly that they can’t even protect what’s left of Medicare. The corporations now own 40 percent of the beneficiaries of Medicare. It’s called, euphemistically, Medicare Advantage; I call it Medicare Disadvantage. What they do is they’ve hooked up with both parties in Congress to have the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicare, allow corporations to offer alternative plans using the Medicare trademark, and invite elderly people to free lunches, which screens out the immobile and higher-risk, and selling them this very deceptive package, which Dr. Fred Hyde, who knows what he’s talking about, said, “It’s not what you pay, it’s what you get.”
So now, unlike traditional Medicare, where you can have your free choices of doctor and hospital, they have their own networks, just like private insurance, for Medicare Disadvantage. You have to have all kinds of bureaucratic prior authorizations by United Health Care, Aetna, and the other Medicare grabbers. And it’s OK if you don’t get sick; if you get sick, you see the cudgels come down, just the way they do for patients who have private health insurance. Now, the Democrats are not even challenging this. Every year, they get fine-print amendments, the big insurance companies, allowing them to expand their tentacles, their grip on traditional Medicare, to the point where they now have 40 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries under these deceptive, cruel Medicare Disadvantage plans.
So what we’re seeing here is not the Democrats moving forward. They can’t save the health and safety regulatory agencies from being pushed backward. When they gain the presidency and the Congress, they can’t seem to roll back enough of what the Republicans have done. In 2009 under Obama, they hardly rolled back anything. In fact they expanded Bush and Cheney’s empire with more drone attacks, and more lawlessness. And the same is true for a lot of the regulatory changes. The Democrats were just as bad as the Republicans running the auto safety agency, the Food and Drug Administration; they were a little better with the Environmental Protection Agency. But they put to sleep, just like the Republicans, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
And yet they can’t help but look better from the cruelest, most vicious Republican Party in history. Except they can’t landslide them every two years, because they’re too busy catering to the corporate state. They’re too busy marginalizing progressive Democrats. They’re too busy destroying any kind of alternative political electoral competition. They’re too busy to clean up campaign finance corruption, which they benefit from just like the Republicans.
So this is a propitious time only because Biden looks very good compared to Trump. But Biden comes from corporate Delaware. We know who Biden is. Now, he may be Biden Two instead of Biden One, because there’s such horror and deprivation in the COVID-driven USA. And we hope that is the case. But when I go up on Capitol Hill, and I meet with the most progressive Democrats in the House, like Jamie Raskin and others, they’re terrified of Nancy Pelosi. She is running a one-person rule in the House of Representatives, just the way McConnell was running a one-person rule, until he was displaced, in the Senate.
So we have here what’s called the symbol of democracy after January 6: how dare these rioters desecrate the symbol, the core of democracy. But as an institution, it’s run as a consummate autocracy, run by four people: the Democratic and Republican heads in the House, and the Democratic and Republican heads in the Senate. They’ve stripped the committee chairs of the power they had, and whether they’re Democratic or Republican. Newt Gingrich’s “deforms” in 1994 of Congress, to concentrate power in the hands of the few, have been continued by the Democratic Party.
And so if you don’t persuade Nancy Pelosi, you don’t get anywhere in the U.S. Congress, which is why we got nowhere with 11 impeachable offenses against Trump in December 2019, and she only picked Ukraine. And although Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and many other chairs wanted her to use more arrows in her quiver against McConnell and Trump, and make McConnell defend all the horrible impeachable offenses, that are really kitchen-table issues on television, in the trial in the Senate, she refused. And nobody dared oppose her. They call her the commander in chief.
So this is where we’re at. When you look at reality, it’s very grim, Bob. When you look at comparative depravity, you say oh, what a relief we got the Democrats in power. You know, we’re not going to sink further into the abyss. But we have to have higher expectation levels, don’t we?
RS: Well, we might–we might sink further into the abyss, because–far be it from me to take you to school, but actually, Bill Clinton, who came in as a New Democrat, was able to deregulate Wall Street, much more effectively, powerfully deregulate, than the Republicans were. He made the basic alliance that reversed the New Deal controls, that reversed Glass Steagall and the Financial Services Modernization Act, right? The Commodity Futures Modernization Act. All of that stuff the Republicans couldn’t do on their own. And so what’s concerning about the Democrats is they put a better spin on it.
And that’s what actually Obama did in the bailout after the Great Recession, right? Instead of helping homeowners keep their homes, or renters or what have you, he bailed out Wall Street. If the Republicans had just tried to do that alone, they would have been disgraced. It took Obama and Warren Summers and the crowd around him to say, oh, we’re going to bail out Goldman Sachs, we’ll let them become a public bank instead of a private, we’ll funnel money through AIG. I mean, it’s one of the great scandals in America, and in turned out the Democrats, both under Clinton and under Obama, were more effective in [the] deal for Wall Street than the Republicans.
RN: Exactly. Obama, as a lot of people know, refused to prosecute any of the Wall Street crooks that destroyed the economy in 2008, 2009. And he spent his political efforts bailing out, as you indicate, Wall Street. Whenever the Democrats go corporate, they succeed, because the Republicans gleefully jump on board. They can hardly believe what they’re seeing. And–
RS: Well, I think that’s really an important point. Because the article that we’re going to print from you on what’s happening to the medical system–they’re spending so much money because of the pandemic, now an additional $1.9 trillion; we’re not getting any of that money from, say, the 30 richest people or whatever they are who made $1.1 trillion more during the pandemic. I mean, the rich and the superrich got much richer. And this money, as you lay out in that column, is basically going to flow back to these people. It’s going to go to insurance companies, it’s–right?–it’s going to go to the big financial interests. And we’re going to be stuck holding–.
So let me ask you a basic question. You’ve been a student of American capitalism now for a long time. The American–the corporate, capitalist system that you first went up against was inherently unattractive. They were fat cats. There was big, old General Motors and U.S. Steel and Alcoa and so forth. What we have now is a variety of capitalism that is very good at PR. The Googles, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, you can go down the list. They talk a great game, they have a lot of appeal to younger people. And it’s kind of contrasting Orwell and Huxley. It’s the capitalism of seduction, of consumerism, of the con. And it’s very difficult to take off after these guys, because they kind of have defined a new goodness, a new concern. It’s incredibly effective, is it not?
RN: Yes, and you make a very important distinction: corporate capitalism is not capitalism. Capitalism is your ma and pa store on Main Street; corporate capitalism is basic corporate socialism. Because without socialism in Washington bailing out capitalism, capitalism would have collapsed a long time ago. Big time. Look at what the bailouts are like. Every time Wall Street gets in trouble, every time the banks overreach and speculate, Washington bails them out. Every time there’s a major industry deep in trouble, like the auto industry, General Motors, Washington socialism bails them out. And that’s what’s going on now. All these big corporations are in Washington desperately demanding, desperately pleading for socialism–to bail out the big drug companies, demand advance payment in the billions for producing drugs that make them a colossal profit with no price regulation. All over, they want bailouts everywhere, bailouts, handouts, giveaways, subsidies. It’s half of what Washington does every day, shovel out more of the money, the guarantees, the overblown contracts, to the military contractors. And it just keeps going. Boeing crashed a 737 MAX and got a huge bailout from Washington in a variety of ways. You can’t even count the variety of ways these corporations get government subsidies, handouts, giveaways, special treatment, privileges, deferred taxation, you name it. The tax code is a massive regular bailout for these multinational companies, who can pretty much park their profits abroad in tax havens, build up the expenses here, and then pay virtually nothing to support the public works and the public services in the United States, which gave them birth and maintains their bulging profits.
So the progressive language, Bob, hasn’t caught up with the reality that what we’re seeing here is an entrenched corporate socialist state, where Wall Street controls government and turns it against its own people. And the awareness of the young generation of what’s going on, in terms of the corporate supremacists controlling our political economy, strategically planning every conceivable nook and corner. They’re commercializing childhood, they’re strategically planning higher education, they’ve planned our tax system, they’re strategically planning our electoral and political system, our public budgets, our military foreign policy. They’re strategically planning the public land and its disposition daily, one-third of America. They strategically planned the epidemic of obesity, which they knew full well was the result of their high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt diet, that they’ve seduced young people with billions of dollars of TV advertising over the last 40 years. And this young generation that calls themselves progressive and changed, or change agent, they just don’t have a clue. They don’t read. You don’t read, you don’t think. You don’t think, you don’t read. You don’t do those things, you don’t set the stage for social justice movements. We all know this, over the years.
And here’s the rub, here’s the optimism. I wrote a paper back a few years ago called “Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think.” And I listed all these takeovers of our weakened Democratic society by giant corporations. And then I said, look how little it took in the past to change them. It has never taken more than one percent active citizens, distributed throughout the country, representing majority public opinion, or building to majority public opinion, to change Congress on any number of agendas. You name it, throughout history. Even the Civil Rights Movement never had more than two and a half million really active citizens all over the country. That’s about one percent of the adults in 435 Congressional districts. So why in the world aren’t all these demonstrators and marchers focusing on 535 men and women who put their shoes on every day the way we do–about 130 of them are on our side to begin with–in order to turn around the federal government by the smallest but most Constitutionally strongest branch of government, the U.S. Congress–a branch whose names we know, unlike the judiciary or the executive branch?
And it defies credulity how all this effort–marches, demonstrations, protests–the energy goes into the ether instead of latching on to a laser beam focusing right on Capitol hill. It’s Congress that should be the focus. Congress is the only Constitutional authority that can control runaway corporate power, discipline it, break it up, challenge it, displace it with cooperatives and other economic institutions, and render it subordinate to the power of sovereign human beings. These corporations, as we all know, are artificial entities; they have no sovereignty under the Constitution; they’re not even mentioned in the Constitution, the word “company” or “corporation.” The Preamble starts “We the people,” not “We the Congress” or “We the corporations.”
And unless we seize our sovereign power and then control Congress, which has a huge leverage effect on state, local, and national government, we will continue to be driven into the ground with over half the people in the country impoverished already, and with more and more corporations deciding that they are going to make money from money. Instead of investing trillions of dollars into productive enterprise and employment, they are buying back their stock, which is the closest to burning trillions of dollars over the last ten years in order to increase the metrics for their executive compensation. Doesn’t create a single job or create a single business.
RS: OK, Ralph. Now, you laid it out. But you haven’t answered why–why the protests are not effective, why they get away with this theft, why it’s so difficult to change. And I’m offering, or going to right now offer a different, even more pessimistic view. The corporate state that you were so effective in challenging, OK, was stodgy, overconfident, elitist, and lousy at public relations. And they were good at selling big cars with fins and all that, but they weren’t good at really mobilizing the public to identify all that with a lifestyle. Pepsi was pretty good, you know, the Pepsi generation, and feeling free and so forth. What has happened is a huge change in the nature of modern capitalism. And I do think your use of the word “socialism” is valid in the sense that it’s totally interconnected with government.
And that’s why I wanted to shift this discussion, and in the time we have left, to this modern manifestation of corporate capitalism. A company like Google–and Amazon, for instance, a huge defense contractor, right? They’re building the cloud for the major intelligence agencies, they lost out to Microsoft on who was going to do the Pentagon’s big cloud and so forth. They are, you know, as much military contractors as Boeing is. But Boeing was the old-fashioned company; more obvious, you know. And what these companies are is they embody a lifestyle. That’s what Google, Apple–right?–Facebook, that’s what they’re all about. And that’s why it’s very difficult for a younger generation to see through that. Because they have conquered the notion of freedom. Freedom is buying their tools, their toys, communicating through their mechanisms, heavily censored, heavily controlled. And the modern face of corporate capitalism appears to be enlightened. It’s multinational, they can do business in countries all over the world. They support, they claim, civil rights, women’s rights and so forth.
So it’s a beast of a different order now. And I’m asking you, Ralph Nader, to compare the fight against a General Motors and the fight against Google and Facebook and Amazon.
RN: Well, we’ve been distracted massively. The necessities of life are not treated by Google, Facebook, and Amazon and Microsoft and Apple. They don’t provide food. They don’t provide shelter. They don’t provide the mechanics of transportation. They don’t provide healthcare. They don’t provide children’s support services. They don’t provide for retirement income, based on productive factories that used to give pensions to their workers. What they do is control our time and shovel before us ways to shift around and search and look for information, which they make sure is never connected to power. And they provide us with a massive advertising media on the internet. [overlapping voices]
RS: I want to just stop you for a second–you’re describing the totalitarian model of Brave New World, of Huxley. They’re amusing us to death, they’re distracting us to death. They’ve created a new consciousness in this country which justifies their theft.
RN: Yes, and they’re moving into entertainment now, they’re challenging Netflix and so on. What I’m saying is, we need to divide this economy into two parts: the internet virtual reality, and the necessity economy. And we need to organize Congress, watchdog groups in every Congressional district, to take back control of Congress–which isn’t all that big a deal; we’ve got the votes, the corporations have the money but they don’t have the votes. And redirect national policy to raise the empirical reality of livelihood and opportunity in the country. Health, safety, economic well-being, public services that work, and so forth. So that’s the focus, that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve been distracted by these illusionists. These corporations are basically illusionists. What is Facebook, in terms of economic history? What does Facebook do, in terms of any of the necessities of life? Nothing.
RS: OK–well, that’s not true, Ralph. What they do is provide an alternative sense of community that mocks a democratic model. It mocks a model of commitment–
RN: No. They provide illusion. They provide a community in the internet, virtual reality, that has all kinds of corrosive dimensions to it, in terms of nastiness, slander, viciousness, intimidation. They don’t provide anything new here. We have community back in our neighborhoods, which we can displace whatever narcissistic fulfillment comes from desperate people who use Facebook to connect with other human beings in an ethereal manner. So what I’m trying to do is, I’m trying to show the utter trivial but disastrous distraction and control of people’s time and minds by these Silicon Valley companies, whose basic research was almost entirely funded by the U.S. government.
RS: Right. Google was basically a Pentagon project. But Ralph, I have to push you a little more. And you know, I regret pushing you, because the times when I’ve done this, particularly on that Nation cruise where you and I had a fierce debate, I ended up apologizing after and saying you were right and I was wrong, because I was still pushing the lesser evil of Clintonism, and you were unmasking me. So I have some trepidation in challenging you here, but let me push it a little further.
In traditional economics, economic study, there’s always been this conflict between use value and exchange value. You know, it shows up in the classical economists, shows up in Marx, shows up everywhere, John Stuart Mill, what have you. You’re basically making the case for use value. And use value is important because we’re destroying the planet by not focusing on what we really need, what will really service; we waste. We waste because of exchange value, profit-making, the illusion of power and success and so forth for ordinary people. So this is a fundamental issue in the construction of society.
But the fact of the matter is, this internet world that we live in–and it is global; it affects young people in China, it affects them in Saudi Arabia, it affects them everywhere. And in that world, the exchange value, what you pay for something–whether it glitters, you know; whether it–the Apple iPhone has to change every year or it’s not going to appeal to us. That constant notion of waste, fast fashion, you find all of these manifestations–that is the drug of our modern life. And that’s not going away. You know, that is a far fiercer enemy than anything General Motors was offering.
The other thing I want to throw in the hopper and get you to address before we end is that your ally in taking on General Motors and other big corporations was a well-organized working class. We could talk about class, and we could talk about the needs of the workers. Well, Apple has very few workers in the United States. We have a gig economy for many people, and we see that in the pandemic, finally we have to supply some unemployment insurance to gig workers, and so forth, some security.
But we basically have a proletariat that is rootless. Not ruthless, rootless. And it’s a model that is kept ripe for plucking, for deception and so forth. And that’s what you have now. You don’t have a United Auto Workers that can hold the Democratic Party responsible, as it held Franklin Delano Roosevelt responsible, you know. Or the steelworkers; you know all that history. The coal miners’ union–that was what was pressuring Roosevelt and the Democrats. That pressured Truman, it pressured–you know, but then it ended.
And this model of capitalism now is a far more difficult–you just say, oh, you’ll just have to change the votes of some people in Congress–well, that’s not true. Those people respond to a culture that is created by the new capitalism. Their constituents will throw them out if they don’t cater to that. That’s the real dilemma of our modern time, is it not?
RN: I think in terms of the distribution of potential power in this country, as long as you have the Constitution and elective legislatures, you have the opening for civic movements that don’t even have to deal with elections. They work between elections. We won all our victories without really electing anybody in Congress in the sixties and seventies. We won because between elections we put great pressure on key members of Congress who had leverage with other members of Congress. So if we got Senator Magnuson to adopt an auto safety regulation bill, that was almost assured to go through the Senate, because of his power in that area of jurisdiction.
So I want to go back to feasibility thinking here. Let’s just start with the necessities of life and aspire to bring the livelihoods of people and the reliability of economic expectations of people, say, to the level of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark and Finland. We can do that with less than one percent of the people organized in Congressional districts. Because look, health insurance is now supported, single-payer, without even the Democratic Party pushing it, by 70% of the people. That’s a lot of conservatives, not just liberals. Seventy percent. You go through one improvement after another, and it has 65, 70, 80%. There was a time a few years ago 90% of the people wanted to break up the big banks in New York.
And so let’s just talk feasibility. Let’s just talk feasibility before we get into such speculations about the omnicidal trajectory of giant corporations without any national accountabilities, much less international restraints.
RS: OK, Ralph, let me push back just a little bit–
RN: And just one more thing. And you’re right, the giant corporation now has strategically planned the international labor market, like no socialist under Norman Thomas would ever have dreamed in the 1930s. They’ve broken the union movement; they’ve broken the retirement expectation of workers in terms of livable pensions. They have divided and ruled them ideologically by controlling the media and the pipeline into millions of blue-collar workers they changed into Reagan Democrats, because the Democrats never challenged the corporate control of radio and television–sure.
But the point is, you’ve got to ask yourself, what is the foothold? Whenever you want to make changes, what is the foothold? The greatest foothold we have are the state legislatures and the Congress. OK–if that’s the foothold, what’s the fulcrum? The fulcrum is about two and a half million organized people out of 225 million adults, reflecting on many turnaround issues in Congress, majority opinion with significant inputs from conservative voters as well as liberal.
Quite a bit of the recent criminal justice reforms in about 15 legislatures came with left-right support in the legislature. But on many issues, including corporate tax reform, universal healthcare, living wage, clean air, clean water, public services upgrades–you have huge public opinion. Look at the public opinion support for the $1.9 trillion. But you don’t have focused pressure on those 535 members of Congress to force them to utilize the tools of Congress–public hearings, public access, you name it–the way we did in the sixties and early seventies.
RS: Can I–please, let me just push back a little bit.
RN: Go ahead.
RS: First of all, this public that you’re celebrating may even be redundant or irrelevant to most of what these corporations are doing. For example, many of the goods that people are buying right now on Amazon, I don’t know the exact percentage, but eyeballing it, it seems that most of them are made in China or in other countries that specialize in cheap labor. And when a country like China tries to get into higher tech and design and so forth, they’re pushed back with old-fashioned jingoism. You know, and red-baiting or what have you.
So the reality is, we’re not even having any debate at all about foreign policy. Not just military policy; trade policy, for example. One of the things that I thought Trump deserved some credit for, I don’t know why or how he did it, but in the NAFTA rewrite, I think it’s the first time there is actually a provision for paying workers in Mexico $16 an hour on 45% of a car that’s going to be sold in the United States, right? That’s my understanding of that rewrite, the thing that sounds like the Marine Corps, not NAFTA anymore.
But at least there was a recognition–that’s not the $40 an hour or the $50 an hour that some autoworkers have made in the past, but at least to say that someone in Mexico assembling a car for the U.S. market ought to be paid $16 an hour, that’s an important victory. No one even talks about it. And in fact, on the contrary, you have a company like Tesla which is going to leave Hayward, California, not just to go to Texas–they’re going to go to–they’re in China now, that’s their real market, that’s where their real production [is]. Because they can have a docile labor force. And so trade agreements are off the table. Wars, forever wars, are off the table. A regime change is off the table, you know? So the fact of the matter is, in much of your workforce, the union movement is primarily locked into Democratic Party local politics of cops, firemen, city workers of one kind or another. With the exception of people in–janitors and so forth, some service workers. But basically we don’t have a labor movement to provide a counterpoint.
So you know, this idea that you can just go out and reorganize Congress–the people who control Congress–when Obama made the decision to turn down public financing in the presidential election, that was the end of public financing in the presidential election. And so we know these Congressional people, some of them may be progressive, they may welcome you to their meetings. But they’re going to basically deliver on the big economic war, trade, you know, even the guaranteed $15 an hour got lost–they’re going to basically play ball with the big money people. And their power is now much greater than it ever was in the capitalist world that you were describing. Because you did have strong labor movements, you did have to produce things here, you know. And now they can produce them elsewhere, where workers don’t have a chance.
You know what I’m saying, Ralph, you know that’s a critical problem, and it’s delusionary to say oh, let’s just work harder in these Congressional districts and get people elected. Because those people will end up selling out. Because they’ll sell out to the people who can keep reelecting them and have the big money. And they’ll threaten–look what happened with medical reform. They said, you do medical reform, union workers are going to be hurt, they have good medical plans. And they actually can organize what remains of the union movement to get workers to say, yeah, I don’t want to lose my health plan. Then unemployment comes along and they find they don’t really have a health plan, you know, and they find it doesn’t serve them well.
RN: Well, corporations are very good at dividing and ruling, to be sure. But if you look at the trajectory, they’re heading toward global omnicide. It’s not only climate violence, it’s science and technology completely out of control. Look at the warnings by that famous article in Wired magazine in 2002, saying that artificial intelligence, biotech, and nanotech are going to destroy the world if they’re not brought under control. So the corporations basically don’t know when to stop. Enough is never enough. And so they love to fund wars and military contracts; they don’t do very much at all about redeeming poverty, even though they’re in charge. They can’t deliver for the political economy of the world.
So things are going to get worse and worse, and pretty soon there will be either total surrender and narcissistic mass suicide, or people will say that you cannot have a moral and humane economy and government when you have artificial entities that are inherently irresponsible and unaccountable subordinating human values and civic values to the imperial commercial values. You can’t do that. The money lenders were opposed in Biblical times because it was considered sacrilegious to make money from money, and not be productive, not produce food and other things. And what we have now is an increasingly monetized economy, where more and more corporations are just making money from money. That’s what brought Boeing to where it was, from an engineering company into a financial company.
So you look at the future, and you see serfdom everywhere. Contract, fine-print contract serfdom, the courts being blocked by tort reform–wounded people can’t even get their day in court. And everywhere the doors are closing. So you say, OK, what door is still open? Members of Congress want to get reelected. They don’t get elected by corporations. They get funded by corporations in order to intimidate potential opponents. But we’ve seen that they can’t do a complete job of that. That you can pry open Congress in a whole variety of techniques and ways, from civic strategies to primary challenges, et cetera, to using the leverage of your hard core supporters in Congress more effectively, and on and on. And that’s the only tool we have under our Constitution to turn around.
Now, what is a turnaround, in addition to raising standards of living and access to justice? A major turnaround is this: that artificial entities must be subordinated Constitutionally to the supremacy of real people–OK? We the people–and the second is these giant artificial entities must be displaced by other economic institutions. Starting with consumers who don’t buy from Amazon, if they can avoid it. Who don’t buy from all these giant Walmarts and McDonald’s and so on, and start supporting local economies that are now in the tens of billions of dollars of operation. And they’re all around, and they’re much more accountable, because you can highball them.
That’s the displacement. When you go to legitimate credit unions, you weaken Bank of America. When you improve your health with diet and exercise, you weaken the drug companies and the health so-called care companies. When you develop solar energy you weaken ExxonMobil. These are all displacements. It’s two things. Subordination under the Constitution of the artificial entities called the corporate entity, to real human beings. Corporations were originally chartered in the 1800s in Massachusetts to be our servants, not our masters; they were on a short lease they had to renew themselves. And now they’re our masters and we’re their servants. So one is subordination, the other is displacement. Those are the ultimate goals in order to develop societies that can fulfill human possibilities.
RS: OK, Ralph–
RN: So, if anybody has better answers, I’m open to hearing about it.
RS: I’m going to give you a better answer. And I’m doing it, again, with considerable humility. Because I think you, more than any other single individual, educated the American public to the corruption, the deceit of the large corporations and the corporate culture. So you know, I want to pay tribute to that. I want to pay tribute to that, and I think there have been enormous positive consequences and results. We do have a consumer consciousness; we have a suspicion of big power; we have respect for regulation. And I teach in a college, and I find there are, you know, disciples of Ralph Nader in my classes, even if they don’t know they’re disciples of Ralph Nader. OK–that’s the positive sign, and I certainly don’t want to undercut your appeal, or–you know, I respect the hell out of it.
However, I want to present–you know, you’re a good friend of Chris Hedges; let me channel Chris Hedges here a little bit. The real problem is manipulation from a liberal class. And that can divide and conquer in the modern media world in ways that could not have even been imagined, even in the old Madison Avenue advertising world. That a significant number of the people in the public that should know better, sell out, in a way that I’ve never seen before. Even the very idea of selling out is no longer part of the conversation. You try to sell out–how can I sell out? And enough comes off the table so that there’s a whole group of intellectuals and professors and people like that–you can be a college professor now, and particularly if your wife is working, in between you you’re making four or five hundred thousand a year in a major university. You know, 250, 300 thousand, or $200,000 for an individual. Your children can go to private schools and avoid all the problems of the real world of public education. You know this, Ralph. You can wall yourself off and live in gated communities.
And so they’re very good at cooption. It’s not the old, you know, Ford family, you know, my way or the highway. It’s, they can buy people off. Most of the people who work in your groups, the Nader leaders and so forth, ended up selling out. They’re the liberal class now. I don’t have the data to support that; it’s just my assessment, my eyeballing. [unclear] But the reality is, this modern capitalism, with its socialist base, really–all that base is, is a base of cooption. Of meritocracy–we haven’t talked about the meritocracy, these elite colleges that specialize in training the snake-oil salesmen for these big corporations. So they don’t come across as head-crackers, they come across as concerned.
That’s what the appeal is of Apple, of Google and so forth; they seem enlightened on civil rights, and even workers’ rights and lifestyle differences and identity politics and so forth. They’re incredibly effective at it, which as I say is what Huxley was warning about. You know, they don’t go for the boots and the club; they’ll go for this cooption. And what you have left–and that’s what you see in the Trump base, you know–you see the most alienated, the people that believed, because of their being white and their being rural and their being this, that they could survive. They’re the angriest, because they’ve been the most blatantly betrayed, and they’re not given the legs up in the meritocracy and the good SAT scores, et cetera, et cetera, to do better.
That’s the crisis of America now. You’ve got all kinds of people who can talk a good game about the environment and everything, but they’ll go work for the same companies that are specializing in waste and destroying the planet. They will, Ralph. That’s the challenge. If you’re going to give a commencement address, you’re going to have to meet that challenge. That’s what got Chris Hedges booed when he dared tell a college crowd what imperialism really was about, and the wasted lives of people all over the world, and lost his job at the New York Times for that reason.
RN: Well, you put your finger on the biggest single problem, which is the hoodwinking of tens of millions of people supporting these autocrats, plutocrats who are working against the interests of the very people who are hurrahing them–that’s the Trump rallies, for example, the Trump voters. I mean, he did everything he could, other than his rhetoric, to undermine the working class of America. He even said in his campaign he thought they were overpaid, he froze the minimum wage, he deregulated their health and safety protections. He didn’t really do anything about trade. He gave Apple a waiver on tariffs importing hundreds of billions of dollars of iPhones and computers from China. In other words, fraudulent plutocrats and oligarchs can sell a phony populist message–phony to its core–to enough people to win elections.
So I said to Chris Hedges last year, I thought he grossly understated the title of his book, The Death of the Liberal Class. Because it’s even worse since the book was published. That’s why we need a new drive of people–who don’t have this baggage, who aren’t the Ivy League sellouts, who aren’t the Hillary and Bill Clinton empire advocates and warmongers–summoning the members back to town meetings. Believe it or not, Bob, it doesn’t take more than 500 signatures on a petition to get an in-person town meeting back home responding to the agenda of the petitioners by a member of the House of Representatives.
It can be done. And once you eyeball them–no flacks, no intermediaries, in auditoriums–you have a different kind of connection operating. The politicians, fortunately, are still afraid of the people. They’re afraid of corporate retribution, to be sure, but the corporations don’t have all that many votes. Not yet, at least. So that’s an important point, that we’ve got to begin publicly talking with one another back in the Congressional districts, deprogramming some of our myths about politicians that campaign for the people and then go back to Washington and operate against the people. That’s one.
But let me just give you an operating, optimistic example. The biggest threat to what was once the most powerful industry in America, the fossil-fuel industry, the biggest threat is bubbling up solar energy, wind power, and energy conservation. It is now cheaper to go that way than to go the way of nuclear, coal, gas, and oil. Now, how did that come about? Well, first of all, they couldn’t quite monopolize everything in the country, the ExxonMobils. Second, small business started flexing their efforts here. The solar panels are being put on roofs all over the country at an accelerating rate. Energy conservation creates much more jobs than a new nuclear power plant. Repairing and retrofitting buildings and homes all over the country.
So without a ban on fossil fuels, without a graduated ban, mandatory regulation, in order to save the planet and save a lot of other things, the fossil fuel and nuclear industries–and the nuclear industry is essentially shutting down now, not fast enough for me–those industries are being displaced. Now, we have to analyze how they’re being displaced. What started their displacement? A whole number of things, including a lot of public education by environmental groups; give them some credit. And the profit motive. But the profit motive is going to smaller, decentralized units. Sure, the wind power industry can be subject to concentration, but that’s another problem compared to a much more monstrous problem of greenhouse-gas emitting fossil-fuel industries and production facilities.
So you’ve got to analyze it in this way. I always thought we should analyze the successes, not just deprecate our failures and our downward trends, to see what works and what doesn’t work. I mean, there are certain clinics in this country that are working very effectively on prevention, smoking cessation, obesity reduction, diet improvement. So we ought to work on those kinds of things that don’t need Congressional power. They need neighborhood organization, the rebuilding of community in ways that are clearly, clearly favorable to the survival and prosperity of human beings, regardless of the labels they give themselves politically.
So we should talk about best practices. I’ve got a book in manuscript of 12 CEOs that I have admired over the years, that really treated their workers well, made a profit, respected the environment, et cetera, et cetera. I can’t even find a major publisher. Even with best practices, operating companies–you know, like Patagonia. Like Interface Corporation, which reached carbon neutrality a year and a half ago, out of Atlanta, Georgia, the biggest tile manufacturer in the world. You can’t even get a major publisher. So that’s the level of pessimism among publishing; it has nothing to do with censorship. They want attacks leveled. They told me, when are you going to go after more corporate crooks? I said, I’ve been doing it for 60 years, isn’t it time to give some alternative standards that are better, upgraded standards? Here are these corporations, they met the bottom line and they beat their competition by doing good. So, end of sermon.
RS, RN: [Laughter]
RN: You’ve got to keep reminding your listeners of With Enough Shovels. Remember that one?
RS: Yes, I wrote it, Ralph, as you know.
RS: But I–OK, and I do want to end on a positive note. I mean, you know, you’ve been a great force in the country. And you know, pessimism can only get you so far. And I think you showed–let me pay tribute to that. I mean, the fact of the matter is, you made concern for the consumer a mass movement. And people don’t understand that. I do want to end on that. The world that I grew up in, in the fifties and sixties, celebrated Madison Avenue, celebrated these thieves and the whole corrupt imagery and the big cars and the gas guzzlers and everything else. And you were able to develop a mass movement that challenged all that, and said it’s not working, and it’s ugly and it gets people killed and it pollutes the air and everything else. And so–and you’ve kept it up. And as I said, on more than one occasion I’ve had to apologize for challenging you. And frankly, I hope I’m wrong this time. I do.
RN: No, you’re very–that’s why you’re a good interviewer, you’re provocative. But the point is, what I’d like you to do, Bob, is interview the editors of YES! magazine out of Seattle. Because they’re talking about the expansion of local economies, which I describe as displacement of giant corporations. And the spread of food coops–that’s hardly a news item. Food coops are spreading around the country, where the consumers decide what they want to sell themselves. You know, and therefore they’re going to have a higher emphasis on nutrition. They’re not going to be so seduced by exciting packaging and special sales in these giant food supermarkets. So I always thought that YES! magazine had so many concrete examples–education, health, retail organization, energy, food, housing–it never gets any attention. But they’ve documented it. They’re not talking theory, they’re talking names and places. It would be a great interview for you.
RS: Oh, I’m going to get right on it. I never heard of them, but I’m going to get right on it. And let me, as long as we’re recommending books, let me close this by saying, you know, there are different Ralph Naders, and one Ralph Nader that I have [unclear] is your family Lebanese cookbook. And it’s still for sale, right? It’s out there?
RN: Oh yes, it’s for sale. If you go to the publisher, Akashic Books, a little publisher in New York, they’ll send you an autographed copy.
RS: And Akashic Books is also the publisher of my book, one of my books. I know Johnny Temple.
RN: Oh, wonderful.
RS: I didn’t realize he published that book. I bought it in one of the few independent bookstores around, and I didn’t even look at the publisher. But it’s great, because one has in that cookbook–and this is a good way to end this–this vision of the Mediterranean cuisine, you know, Lebanese cuisine, that is both spicy and tasteful and yet is great for your health. And so I think that’s a good closing description of Ralph Nader. You’ve retained your sense of humor, you’re always up for a good debate, and you’re nourishing. [Laughs]
RN: And I thank my mother for almost all those recipes, which are relatively low in salt, sugar, and fat, and are easily purchased in supermarkets, the ingredients. And as long as more people are cooking during the COVID period, this is a great cookbook. It’s called The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook: Classic Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond. Thank you for the plug, Bob.
RS: OK, and thank you for the interview, Ralph. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Christopher Ho at KCRW, the FM station in Santa Monica–it’s a terrific one–posts this. Natasha Hakimi Zapata writes the introduction. Lucy Berbeo does the transcription. And Joshua Scheer is our executive producer. And I want to thank, I don’t know if you knew Jean Stein well; she wrote Edie, she wrote other books, and very important. But I want to thank the JWK Foundation in memory of Jean Stein for supporting these interviews. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week.