Relentless consumer advocate and frequent presidential candidate Ralph Nader is coming to Portland to discuss his new book, “Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think.”
At 149 pages, his new release from City Lights Books is a quick and captivating read that seeks to enrage its audience before motivating readers toward a pragmatic solution.
Nader succinctly lays out the ways Americans have handed over their common properties and constitutional rights to corporations and corrupt politicians, giving way to what he says is now a plutocracy featuring two parties beholden to special interests, not the people.
He also willfully weaves in instances when relatively small movements of committed citizens have won major victories against seemingly insurmountable corporate power.
For example, he points out that the fight for a $15 minimum wage made headlines and has led to wage increases in some areas because fewer than 73,000 people spent a few hours each week promoting the idea. To put that in perspective – that’s a major victory for millions of workers, resulting from the efforts of a group whose size equates to about 3 percent of the Portland metro area’s population.
Nader ends “Breaking Through Power” with a bipartisan-supported agenda and a blueprint for how a small number of dedicated Americans could easily work to take back the country for everyone. He argues that if just 1 percent of the population worked together to put pressure on Congress from each district, it could make all the difference.
One example of citizens attempting to take back power will be on the ballot in Multnomah County this November, he said.
Measure 26-184 seeks to limit campaign contributions in county commissioner races, but because it includes a provision on independent expenditures, its proponents say it could ultimately be used to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious Citizens United decision.
Nader will be at Powell’s City of Books at noon Saturday, Oct. 22, to discuss his new title. Later that day, he’ll deliver a speech at a fundraiser for the campaign finance reform ballot measure. The fundraiser begins at 7 p.m. at the First Unitarian Church of Portland.
Nader recently spoke with Street Roots by phone from Washington, D.C., where he had just hosted a four-day conference where 91 prominent civic leaders from across the nation joined him in giving lectures under the banner of “Breaking Through Power.”
He said it was one of the broadest gatherings of civic leaders the nation has ever seen – and not one major media outlet covered it. Even The Nation, an event sponsor, failed to send a reporter. The independent media’s failure to prop up progressive leaders, the junk-filled abyss that dominates our public airwaves, and his new book were among the topics we discussed.
Emily Green: In “Breaking Through Power,” you write, “Our country has more problems than it should tolerate and more solutions than it uses.” How did we get to a place where we are so complacent?
Ralph Nader: Well, that’s what happens when you have inequality of power.
There’s a lot of talk about inequality of wealth – greater than any other Western country – but there’s not enough talk about inequality of power – power in the hands of the few deciding for the many. When you have that kind of situation, then you have the few, who have vested interest in fossil fuels and nuclear, thwarting for decades the onset of energy efficiency and renewable energy, so even though the solutions are on the shelf, they don’t get on the ground because the people are not shaping our political economy – the top 1 percent is.
That’s why we call it “Breaking Through Power,” because the shift of power from the few to many in all kinds of structured manners on all kinds of aspects of our society is what produces a functioning democracy.
If it isn’t shifted, you have a deteriorating democracy that is largely dysfunctional, except for its ability to serve and subsidize the plutocracy and its allied oligarchy in Washington, otherwise known as the corporate state – the merger of Wall Street and Washington – with the government being turned against its own people.
E.G.: Your book contains some examples of breaking through power, such as when activists took on Big Tobacco, and when they demanded a higher minimum wage and won. But at the end of the day, you can still buy cigarettes in every convenience store across America, and nowhere in the U.S. is a minimum wage equal to a living wage. If breaking through power is so easy, why have we failed to do so in a really meaningful way?
R.N.: Because we’ve never reached the 1 percent threshold of people mobilizing in congressional and legislative districts to make those changes. Those changes were made by a fraction of 1 percent of the people.
A few thousand people challenged the tobacco industry, for example. What if a million people did that? A few thousand people picketed McDonalds and Wal-Mart. What if 200,000 people did that?
That’s why I subtitled the book “It’s Easier Than We Think,” because what these few people have shown is that if they were joined by up to 1 percent of the people, say 2.5 million people who have Congress watch as their hobby, around an agenda that’s supported by a majority of the people, it would prevail, no matter how powerful we think corporations are.
I wrote a book called “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State,” where I identified 24 major areas that are supported by left-right, but the ruling powers focus on what divides us, and divide-and-rule strategy has been working for over 2,000 years as a way of entrenching autocratic power.
When you get down to where people live, work and raise their families, the so-called polarization, ideological divide dissipates rapidly, because they’re facing reality, and conservative families are defrauded just like liberal families. Their kids are exposed to bad water and air, just like liberal families.
We regulated the auto companies with less than a couple thousand people working around the country on Congress. And as far as tobacco is concerned, you saw the part where the best estimate is just a few thousand people? But tobacco use now is down from 45 percent in 1964 to under 18 percent. So while you can still buy it, we don’t want to drive it underground. Haven’t we learned with marijuana and other drugs? You don’t drive it underground. You create a criminal incarceration society. It’s being treated as a health problem, which is what hardcore drugs should be treated as – a health problem.
E.G.: “Breaking Through Power” lays out priorities that you say have left and right support, along with a blueprint and strategy for how to organize and break through this power. Are you attempting to start a movement, and if so, what role do you see independent media playing?
R.N.: Well, the first role is showing up. Your media did not show up for “Breaking Through Power” (conference in Washington, D.C.). Eight days: four days in May, four days in September. They weren’t there. Isn’t that amazing?
Democracy Now! wasn’t there, In These Times wasn’t there, Mother Jones wasn’t there, Nation magazine wasn’t there. This is the major gathering of progressive civic leaders and doers on more issues and more reforms than has ever been brought together in American history – and they didn’t show up.
So my first answer is: Why don’t you show up?
You think the right-wing media wouldn’t show up for a C-PAC convention every year? There’s serious, serious deficiencies in liberal and progressive arenas in this country that prohibit even intimating an association with the word “movement.” It’s a farce. If you go and look at breakingthroughpower.org you’ll see what I mean – 64 hours of videotaped presentations, people who actually change things, and none of the progressive media showed up. And of course the mass media didn’t show up, the corporate media.
If you don’t show up for the future of our country as you see it and agree with it, then there’s not much more to discuss, and there’s not many more recommendations that can be made in answer to your question.
E.G.: Right now we’re in an election cycle where both frontrunners have historically low approval ratings. Here in Oregon, it’s expected 38 percent of voters won’t vote for either of them. Where do we go from here?
R.N.: It’s not an election, it’s a selection of two candidates in a two-party duopoly by the forces of plutocracy and oligarchy, so let’s not call it an election.
An election implies choice, and when you have both parties – parties of war, parties of Wall Street, parties of police abuse, parties of the status quo – you don’t have an election; you have a selection. Of course, it reached grotesque proportions in 2000 when Bush was selected by a 5-4 Scalia-led judicial coup d’état (he laughs).
There should be a binding “None of the Above” on the ballot so those 38 percent can vote “no confidence” in the whole sham, and if it wins, it requires new elections, for mayor or whatever, and new candidates, if a binding “None of the Above” wins. That has about 90 percent support when you explain it to people.
E.G.: You also write about, in your book, and this is one of the priorities mentioned at the end: reclaiming the public airwaves. Why place so much emphasis on this when most people have subscription cable or get their news and entertainment from the internet? Why are public airwaves still important?
R.N.: Because they draw community audiences. The internet draws individuated – Facebook, Instagram – cluttered audiences, No. 1.
No. 2: We own this property, the public airwaves, and the cable – we give the monopoly licenses. So why isn’t there a cable channel for labor? Why isn’t there a cable channel for students? Why isn’t there a cable channel for consumers? For environmentalists? Why do they have 650 channels, and it’s all junk, and it’s so fractured, it’s almost grotesque – you can’t characterize it.
How come we don’t have a cable channel on civic activity that’s succeeding and improving one community, that other communities want to know about so we have best practices?
It’s because our expectation level is at zero. We all grow up corporate unless we free ourselves, and so we have the low-expectation levels of corporatism. How many ads do kids see by the time they’re 11? They’re all ads by corporations. You don’t see an ad for mass transit. You see ads for cars, horsepower, speed, glamour, style.
The progressive press is estranged from a critical, penetrating, realistic critique of our society. They don’t show up locally. They don’t show up nationally. They’re in a rut of satisfying themselves with exposés and denunciation, and they never go to action.
If we propose ways that utility ratepayers could organize themselves, or insurance policy (holders) can organize themselves, etc., they would be bored. They’re bored with electoral reforms.
Once in a while they’ll mention instant-runoff voting and proportional representation – but they won’t pursue it, and they won’t publicize it where it exists, like in San Francisco, where they have instant-runoff voting.
They get high from exposing and denouncing – they love it. And they don’t go the next step to highlight and give visibility to citizen groups that are actually trying to change things all over the country, and with great ideas. No! They’re into their next exposé and denunciation, which are important, but if you don’t go to the next step of action, and give visibility to people who are doing things, you produce widespread cynicism and withdrawal from the political and electoral arena.
Because people just say, “Look at these terrible situations. Who can do anything about it? It’s so terrible.” They never read about people who are trying to do something about it. You have “60 Minutes” exposés, New York Times exposés, and when people try to do something about it, they don’t cover them; they go on to their next application for a Pulitzer Prize.
Do you want a comment on the indie press’s ignoring of eight days of “Breaking Through Power”? That’s the scandal here: There are a lot of press conferences that they should show up for, and they don’t show up.
E.G.: Why do you think that is?
R.N.: I think they’re lazy. I think they like to mimic the headlines of the day, and give their take on it, and that, of course, brings them completely away from things that are going on that the mass media is ignoring. Basically they’re being led by the nose by what the mass media turns into headlines, so if there are a lot of police shootings, they spend a lot of time on that, and if 700 people a day die from mishaps in hospitals and induced infection, negligence, malpractice, it’s not in the headlines.
That figure comes from Johns Hopkins University in March 2016 – 700 a day, a day, preventable deaths, just in hospitals. Do you listen to Democracy Now!?
R.N.: Well she’s (Amy Goodman) having a hard time resisting that. She has to follow the headlines, and give a progressive take on it. Well that’s fine, but if that’s all you do, you are not lifting up budding new initiatives and studies and reports and lawsuits that are not in that mass media headline!
E.G.: You mentioned hospital malpractice. What other areas would you like to see more coverage of?
R.N.: The totally inadequate budgets to enforce the law against corporate crime. No law and order for corporate crime, not enough federal cops on the corporate crime beat.
E.G.: How do you think that would be best addressed?
R.N.: Again, that’s where the Congress watchdog comes in. They’ve got to counter the obvious starving of the FDA, EPA, OSHA and other budgets, upgrade the severity of fines, strengthen the laws.
That’s a major thing – that destroys far more people than street crime. OSHA: 60,000 workplace-related deaths. EPA: 65,000 from air pollution dead a year. Johns Hopkins: 250,000 people in hospitals, preventable deaths – we’re not even talking about the injuries and sicknesses.
And 14,000 street homicides – see the comparisons?
The issue is preventability. They don’t talk about that. You can’t get them to write anything about the Pentagon budget, unaudited.
If you want a list, go to my website, votenader.org (under “Issues” tab), which I kept open since 2008 at some expense, so you can see the issues we were espousing, many of which have majoritarian support, that were taken off the table completely by the Democratic and Republican parties – not even discussible.
E.G.: Are there any people who have jumped out at you, that might be some of the next progressive leaders in our country?
R.N.: Well, you wouldn’t know their names, would you?
E.G.: Probably not.
R.N.: So why should I tell you? And I don’t know 1 percent of them. There are budding leaders who aren’t allowed to turn into flowers. They don’t get on the evening TV news anymore, which is a caricature of itself. Therefore, they don’t command an audience. They can’t have a news conference and anybody come, because they’re not known.
The censorship of any prospect of civic celebrities – local, state and national – is very little discussed.
If I said to you, name me the leading women’s rights and civil rights and environmental rights leaders, if you’ve been around for 40 years or so, you’d name people who are in their 70s and 80s, because they got on TV, they got on “The Phil Donahue Show” – that’s 10 million people. They got on “The Mike Douglas Show,” Merv Griffin; they would get on the nightly news, the network news – well nobody gets on there anymore. All those programs are gone, and they’re replaced with total junk, masochism, sadism, who did this to who – that’s the way they’re using our common property, our public airwaves. They’re not going deep enough.
E.G.: You mention the need for an audit of the Pentagon’s budget. Can you elaborate on why this audit is so important?
R.N.: Yeah, because in the first 10 months of the Iraq War, the Pentagon admitted they couldn’t locate $9 billion worth of money. Because years before that, the Air Force bought billions of dollars of supplies that they had in warehouses around the world, in countries that they didn’t know about.
An audit requires more proficient expenditure, or they have to explain why. It reduces cost overruns and corruption within the military industrial contracting system. It starts informing Congress, which doesn’t want to know because they give them a blank check.
If they give them an audit, the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office, they can’t get a blank check. Because it’s right on their table, and they can’t keep funding stuff for redundant, wasteful weapons, cost overrun, corruption, crime – you name it. There isn’t a secretary of defense that’s come out against running an audit, but they don’t do anything about it because Lockheed and Grumman and Boeing – they don’t want it. They won’t say it publicly, but why would they want an audit when they are ripping off the taxpayer like crazy?
E.G.: In the spirit of highlighting solutions, what can third-party hopefuls learn from the Green Party’s experiences running a third-party presidential candidate that could help them be more successful in the future?
R.N.: Well, they can learn that you don’t run a presidential campaign with only 250 candidates locally out of 2.5 million seats. Board of education, city council – they’ve never been able to expand their local candidacies, which would support, obviously, a turnout for their presidential or senatorial candidates.
And it’s partly because they’re not recruiting energetic people. They can’t recruit candidates; they can’t recruit fundraisers; they can’t recruit enough for a budget so that they have staff. So the lesson basically is: Start your own local party where you can knock on every door, where you can do what the Tea Party did to take over the Republican Party.
E.G.: If people want to get involved in your movement, what should they do?
R.N.: The most important thing for them to do is start Congress-watchdog groups – even with 10, 20, 30 people and a letterhead. You send it to senators, representatives. You say you’re going to watchdog them, you’re going to disseminate it throughout the state of Oregon, and we want to interview you and we want to sponsor town meetings.
You start building power from knowledge and the ability to disseminate it, and since most of the major changes in this country, at least structurally, have to go through Congress, it’s a pretty good idea to focus on Congress, which Occupy Wall Street didn’t do.
I’ll leave you with a woeful comment by Eugene Deb, as he was winding up his career in 1920s. A reporter, like you, came up to him and said, “Mr. Debs, you’ve been fighting for the working people of this country since the 1880s. What’s your biggest regret?” And he looked at the reporter, and he said, “My biggest regret? I’ll tell you. My biggest regret is the American people, under their constitution, can have almost anything they want. But it doesn’t seem that they want much of anything at all.”
If you go
Ralph Nader at Powell’s
What: “Breaking Through Power” discussion and signing
When: Noon Saturday, Oct. 22
Where: Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., Portland
Ralph Nader on campaign finance reform
What: Honest Elections in Multnomah County Ballot Measure 26-184 benefit and information session
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 22; doors open at 6:30
Where: First Unitarian Church of Portland, main sanctuary, 1211 SW Main St.
Cost: Suggested donation of $3 to $20; no one will be turned away due to inability to pay
“Breaking Through Power”
In his new book, “Breaking Through Power,” Ralph Nader lays out a blueprint for organizing citizens in each congressional district to engage with their U.S. representative and senator on a list of bipartisan-supported reforms.
But if you haven’t read the book, there are other ways to get involved right away:
To get involved in lobbying Congress, Nader suggests visiting Citizen.org. It’s the website for Public Citizen, a citizens interest group in Washington, D.C., that he founded in 1971.
In the website’s “Action Center,” visitors can find an array of ways to get involved in current campaigns, such as Help Elizabeth Warren Change Wall Street and Tell Congress to End Forced Arbitration, by signing petitions, contacting their elected officials or sharing their stories.
Nader suggests people interested in advocating for full Medicare for all can start by visiting SinglePayerAction.org.
For periodic ways to get involved, visit Nader.org to sign up for his weekly column.