Exclusive interview with Ralph Nader on his new book ‘Breaking Through Power’
Nader Talks Up Book at Brooklyn Book Festival
“Before there was Occupy Wall Street, before there was Bernie Sanders, there was Ralph Nader,” Brooklyn Law School Dean Nicholas Allard said this past Sunday when he introduced political and consumer activist Ralph Nader at the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Nader was appearing at a panel called “Politically Correct?” that was held at the law school and moderated by Allard. Also on the panel were author Thomas Frank (“Listen, Liberal”) and Professor Gloria Browne-Marshall of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (“The Voting Rights Wars”).
Nader was at the book festival to promote his new book, “Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think” (City Lights Books, 2016). The basic premise of the book is that both political parties and the media have become corrupted through corporate control, but that small groups of individuals — “the other 1 percent”— can effect change by working outside the two-party system.
The Brooklyn Eagle spoke to Nader on the phone before the festival and also attended the panel. When asked, “What does Brooklyn mean to you?” Nader admitted that he used to enjoy “seeing the Brooklyn Dodgers being beaten by my beloved New York Yankees,” also adding that he loves the Middle Eastern food merchants and restaurants on Atlantic Avenue. Nader is the son of Lebanese immigrants.
Nader’s work on car safety in the 1960s, which he immortalized in a previous book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” is well known. He and several consumer advocacy groups that he founded were also instrumental in legislation that led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “with a lot of help from our allies in Congress.”
Nader is also known for his 2000 run for president on the Green Party ticket, and some observers blame his third-party effort for swinging the election to George W. Bush. Nader told the Eagle that today he has no formal affiliation with the Green Party, and that his last two presidential runs, in 2004 and 2008, were as an independent.
While there was once a substantial difference between the two major parties on the issue of corporate control of American life, he says, that ended around 1980, when the Democrats “started dialing for the same corporate dollars” as the Republicans.
He quoted a statement President Franklin D. Roosevelt made in 1938: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.”
Nader also excoriated the “corporate media,” saying that high-profile magazines like People, AARP Magazine and Parade prefer to glorify celebrities rather than people who have made a difference in Americans’ daily lives.
At one time, Nader said, things were different. In “Breaking Through Power,” he talks about a feature he read in Parade “around 30 years ago” about Ralf Hotchkiss, who revolutionized wheelchair manufacturing by designing lighter, cheaper and more durable wheelchairs.
Both during the Eagle’s conversation with Nader and at the Brooklyn Law School panel, he emphasized that change must come from outside the two-party system. The struggles for abolition of slavery, for women’s right to vote and for labor legislation were largely led by third parties and advocacy groups.
“Less than 1 percent of the population was involved in these struggles — but that’s all it takes,” he said.
As an example of how citizen advocacy can work, Nader recalled that during the ’60s and ’70s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union kept adding to their nuclear arsenals in an arms race. “Then, there were mass rallies for a nuclear freeze, over and over again, in the U.S. Eventually, President Reagan began talking about nuclear arms reduction.”
At the Book Festival event, Nader emphasized that the main decision-making power in the U.S. rests in Congress, but that its elected representatives have voluntarily given up that power “to the lobbyists and the executive branch.” Any successful movement, he said, needs to pressure Congress and find allies on Capitol Hill.
While speaking to the Eagle, Nader made a point that he repeated at the book festival; he said that liberals, leftists and “honest conservatives” have more in common than the mainstream media would let on.
“There’s an emerging left-right alliance that is against corporate welfare, believes in breaking up the big banks, raising the minimum wage, cracking down on corporate crimes and revising the Patriot Act,” he told the Eagle. “But the media only focuses on four or five issues where they disagree, like gun legislation and abortion.”
Nader ended his talk by urging audience members to visit his site, breakingthroughpower.org, and to learn about the “Breaking Through Power” conference to be held from Sept. 26 to 29 in Washington, D.C.
Nader’s two fellow speakers at the panel also made interesting points that complemented the consumer advocate’s talk while basically agreeing with his point of view.
Frank said the Democratic Party has ceased being the party of the working class and has become the party of the professional class — the “10 percent.” These people can’t really get tough on Wall Street or Big Pharma, he said, “because these are their former classmates, their colleagues.”
Browne-Marshall, who began her talk by emphasizing her pride in her African-American heritage, said that for every step forward in civil rights, there has been a push back by those who sought to impede African-Americans’ progress.
For example, she said, when black people began to exercise political power in the South after the Civil War, Southern legislators responded with the “Mississippi Plan” of selectively enforced literacy tests, poll taxes and “grandfather clauses” that specified that only people whose grandfathers were voters should have the right to vote.
Raanan Geberer, a freelance writer, retired in 2014 as Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He had been Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Bulletin until 1996, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was revived and merged with the Bulletin.
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