It Takes Just One Percent of People to Change Things: An Interview With Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader has been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century. Among his victories are the ideas and commodities we now take for granted.
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Ralph Nader has been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century. Among his victories are the ideas and commodities we now take for granted: seat belts, air bags, crashworthy cars, better labeling on food, lower levels of lead in the environment, smoking awareness, and healthier eating habits. In this interview, Nader talks about how we can create change in the current U.S. political landscape.


Omega: What can the average American do to influence the current political landscape?

Ralph: It's for them to get together in living room groups and do their homework on the candidates. Ask themselves what kind of country they want to see. Ask themselves what Washington can do in that direction. Then go right through the rhetoric and decide who they want to vote for.

It doesn't take that much for voters in various areas of the country to summon the candidates for their own debates. Less than 1 percent. We calculated in 2012 that if we had about 10,000 people in 20 areas of the country mobilizing to demand that the candidates go to their communities, that would be pretty decisive.

The candidates won't know how to handle this. They are very used to controlling the process, trivializing it, turning people off. They don't care if they turn people off if it's in the form of cynicism, because cynicism means withdrawal. In that sense, that's the ultimate restriction of the voters' allegedly primary role in the electoral process.

The voters now have been reduced to spectators of circus-like performances, where the media decides who wins based on clips, on stumbles, on gaffs. It could hardly be worse in terms of what this country needs for political leadership.

It all comes down to this question: Are enough people going to take the reins of a democratic society, move it right into the electoral arena, and then reflect sensible majority public opinion, which already exists, despite the two party propaganda?

It's easier than you think to change things, if two conditions operate: 1) If 1 percent of the people become very engaged in civic life. 2) They reflect what Abraham Lincoln called the public sentiment. If that occurs, it becomes a pretty difficult movement to stop by the oligarchs and the plutocrats.

Omega: How can we start finding and acting on the common ground so many people find on major issues, rather than being locked in divisive rhetoric?

Ralph: I think it starts with a Left-Right alliance on common objectives. There are at least 24 major issues that are supported by heavy majorities, which include Left-Right and Conservative-Liberal. For example, people do not like corporate welfare crony capitalism. They favor Main Street over Wall Street. They actually favor a higher minimum wage -- it comes in at 70-80 percent. They are beginning to agree on criminal justice reform and doing something about the failing war on drugs. A lot of these issues already have a Left-Right support in public opinion polls. The challenge is to move it operationally, having Left-Right come together, demonstrate, march, contact their legislators, and place agendas before their candidates. Eventually what will happen -- it's already happening with the minimum wage, for example -- some candidates will pick it up. It will become incorporated in the debates. The questions will start getting asked.

Omega: What should our environmental priorities be, specifically with climate change?

Ralph: I would merge the consumers, workers and environmentalists into one movement. I think it was a mistake environmentalists made starting with climate change. They started too high in the atmosphere. They should have started with the pocketbook, then air pollution and its effect on children, then they could have taken it to the atmosphere. That gives you huge options and opportunities. One of the three prongs might not appeal to several million people, but another prong will. For example, if the worker prong doesn't appeal to environmentalists because they don't work in mines, foundries or factories, it will appeal to workers, because they get sick, they cough, and they lose time. They can see their bodies deteriorating.

We need to change our language as environmentalists a little bit, to begin talking about pollution control in terms of economic productivity through energy efficient consumer products, dollar savings, and savings from reducing the disease and property damage from pollution. We have to start talking about pollution as silent forms of mass violence. Pollution is violence. The word violence touches different nerves. It begins to transcend simple ideological obstacles in the minds of people who are not clued in to the global drift toward environmental disaster.

Omega: What about working with Congress?

Ralph: About 18 months ago I wrote a letter to [hedge fund manager] Tom Steyer, [Al] Gore, and [George] Soros. It was a combined letter. I said, none of the climate change groups are focused on Congress anymore. They think Congress is gridlocked and that's not where the action is. But that is where the action is. Why are the nuclear, oil, and gas lobbyists still swarming over Congress? Because they think Congress is ineffective?

The answer that came back was that they preferred to work the grassroots. Well, you can work the grassroots, but that's just one hand clapping. If you don't focus on 535 men and women in Congress you cannot expect good national policy on renewable energy and energy efficiency, or anything to do with good agricultural policy. If they give up on Congress, that means they give up on public hearings, which get a lot of media attention. That means they give up on government procurement standards to facilitate renewable and sustainable energy. That means they give up on understanding how to crowbar recalcitrant members of Congress.

Ralph Nader will be presenting at Seeds of Change: Cultivating the Commons taking place October 9-11, 2015 at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

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