Former presidential candidate and longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader joins us to discuss his latest book, "Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State." Nader highlights the common concerns shared by a wide swath of the American public, regardless of political orientation, including mass government surveillance, opposing nebulous free trade agreements, reforming the criminal justice system, and punishing criminal behavior on Wall Street. Nader also discusses the U.S. push for the sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, General Motors’ new bid to escape liability for its deadly ignition defect, the revived nuclear era under President Obama, and challenging U.S. militarism through the defense budget.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: For the rest of the hour, we’re joined by Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, corporate critic, attorney, author, activist, former presidential candidate. For well over 40 years, Ralph has helped us drive safer cars, eat healthier food, breathe better air, drink cleaner water, work in safer environments. His devotion to political reform and citizens’ activism has fueled a number of critical policy victories and the creation of generations of watchdogs and activists to carry them forward.
In recent years, Ralph Nader’s name has become synonymous with challenging the nation’s two-party political system. He ran for president in 1996 and 2000 as a candidate on the Green Party ticket, again in 2004 and 2008 as an independent.
Now, he’s out with a new book; it is called Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. It highlights the common concerns shared by a wide swath of the American public, regardless of political orientation. These concerns include resisting mass surveillance, opposing nebulous free trade agreements, and punishing criminal behavior on Wall Street. Throughout, Ralph Nader argues in favor of transcending divisive partisan labels and instead working in concert to pursue shared interests, all the while offering practical solutions rooted in collective organizing.
We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Ralph Nader. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Ralph. So, talk about what gives you hope. When the headlines are blaring out around the country that there is a complete logjam in Washington between the Democrats and the Republicans, you say the alliance between different—the whole political spectrum is actually coming together.
RALPH NADER: Yes. You’ve got to think of politics in America now as two stratas. On the top, dominating the left-right emerging alliance, are the corporate powers and their political allies in the Congress and elsewhere. And what we’re seeing here is a corporate strategy of long standing that fears a combination of left-right convergence on issues that would challenge corporate power. So, they really like the idea of left-right fighting each other over the social issues. They really work to divide and rule these left-right public opinion and representatives. And so far, they have been dominant, the corporatists.
But they’re beginning to lose. And we have enough historical evidence to show that the tide is running against them. For example, on the minimum wage fight, that comes in 70, 80 percent in the polls, which means a lot of conservative Wal-Mart workers think they should get a restored minimum wage, at least to what it was 46 years ago plus inflation adjustment. That would be almost $11 an hour.
The left-right alliance is coming through at the state legislative level on juvenile justice reform and addressing the whole problem of prisons in our country. Newt Gingrich and others have started a group called Right on Crime. And the progressive forces are working hand in glove with right and left state legislatures, and they’ve gotten through some bills in over a dozen legislatures.
The third area where it’s breaking through, the left-right alliance, is to block the further expansion of these globalized trade agreements. The Pacific trade agreement, which is being negotiated with Asian countries by President Obama, is not going to be blocked under an opposition in the House of Representatives to fast track. In other words, Republicans and Democrats, I think, have about a majority of the House, even defying their leadership in the Democratic and Republican Party, Boehner and Pelosi. They have enough votes right now to block a fast-track, zip-through-the House trade agreement. And that’s a left-right.
A little over a year ago, there was almost a majority vote in the House to block the NSA from dragnet surveillance. That was a bubbling up of public opinion, going from the grassroots all the way to the House of Representatives, in defiance of Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
So we’re seeing this emerge. And if we really want to get things done in this country, long-overdue redirections, then we better pay attention to this emerging left-right alliance that I describe in detail. There are 25 areas of left-right convergence in this country, and they represent a majority. That’s why I called the book Unstoppable. And all we need now is to start the conversation level locally, have it bubble up into the media—the media sort of likes this idea of unlikely allies, especially at the local level—and have it move into the political stream and then put it on the table, all these issues, for the electoral campaigns that are coming up.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, I want to go to this global issue of the TPP, because over the weekend President Obama spoke to young leaders during this town hall-style meeting at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His talk was briefly disrupted by peaceful protesters holding up signs denouncing a sweeping new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the TPP often referred to by critics as NAFTA on steroids, as you were talking about, establishing a free-trade zone that would stretch from Vietnam to Chile, encompass 800 million people, about a third of world trade, nearly 40 percent of the global economy. Obama defended the TPP.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The trade agreement that we’re trying to create, the TPP, part of what we’re trying to do is to create higher standards for labor protection, higher standards for environmental protection, more consistent protection of intellectual property, because, increasingly, that’s the next phase of wealth. All those things require more transparency and more accountability and more rule of law. And I think that it’s entirely consistent with Malaysia moving into the next phase.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama in Malaysia. Who is advising President Obama on TPP? The unions? Environmental organizations? Ralph Nader.
RALPH NADER: Well, they can’t get back through the secrecy of these negotiations in these drafts. As Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch has pointed out repeatedly, even members of Congress couldn’t get the draft negotiations from the TPP, although the corporate lobbyists have access to these drafts. But it’s quite clear that the TPP is nothing more than an extension of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization on steroids.
And here’s where we have a left-right alliance, each one with their reason. On the left, they’re opposed to these agreements because they’re bad for workers; they’re bad for the price of medicines being affordable, under the intellectual property rules that are being negotiated; they’re bad for open government; and they’re bad for the environment. On the right, they don’t like these trade agreements because they shred our sovereignty. I happen to agree with that, too. All international treaties reduce sovereignties, by definition. But this one, these trade agreements are the greatest usurpers of local, state and national sovereignty in American history. And so, we have this growing alliance. And, by the way, it goes back to documents like the 2002 Texas Republican state platform, that was dead set against these trade agreements on sovereignty issues.
So, I don’t think President Obama is reflecting his campaign assurances in 2008 when he said he was going to work to revise NAFTA and WTO for better environmental, labor and consumer protections. He hasn’t done that for WTO or NAFTA, and he’s not doing it for this trans-Pacific trade agreement.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of the power of corporations, General Motors is asking a court to shield it from legal liability for all conduct predating its 2009 bankruptcy. The motion was filed earlier this month that seeks recognition of the split from "Old GM" into the post-bankruptcy "New GM." If approved, GM’s request could protect it from claims over the defective ignition switch linked to at least 13, maybe hundreds of deaths. General Motors knew of the defect for over a decade, of course, but only issued a recall earlier this year. The company’s request was disclosed in a federal lawsuit filed in Texas over the defect. In its court motion, GM says, quote, "Just like the other 'ignition switch actions' that other plaintiffs have filed in the wake of public reports regarding the outstanding recall, this case relates to a vehicle designed, manufactured, originally sold and advertised by Old GM," unquote. Meanwhile, GM Chief Executive Mary Barra said the automaker will create a global organization that will focus on product safety and quality. This is Mary Barra speaking in New York earlier this month.
MARY BARRA: This new way of developing vehicles will provide the highest levels of safety, quality and customer service, and ensure that a situation like the ignition switch recall doesn’t happen again.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s GM CEO Mary Barra, the new CEO of GM. Ralph Nader, the old, the new, what does this mean?
RALPH NADER: Well, as a longtime, unpaid consultant to General Motors, I would advise Mary Barra, first of all, to reopen all these product liability suits by the bereaved families, before the bankruptcy and after the bankruptcy. You’ve got people who want their day in court. They want a trial by jury. They want to bring General Motors to compensate them for their horrendous losses, before their jury, peers. And GM is resisting reopening these prebankruptcy cases. And here’s another example of convergence. When it comes to having your day in court, if your loved one was killed or seriously injured in a defective GM car, it doesn’t matter whether you call yourself a Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative: You want your day in court. When we get down to where people live, work and raise their children, these manipulative ideologies that are controlled by the plutocracy, both from Wall Street to Washington, tend to dissipate as people focus on simple fair play, simple Golden Rule, simple justice.
And GM better realize that this imbroglio that they’ve gotten themselves into is only going to get worse. The press is competitively covering it. They’re looking for media prizes on it. It’s not going to stop. More is going to spill out of the impenetrable bureaucratic bungling of GM with other car models beyond the 2.6 million vehicles they’re recalling for the faulty ignition switch situation. Mary Barra has already suspended two project engineers, with pay. So, obviously, she’s conducting an internal investigation. The only way, really, this is going to be prevented in the future is not only for tougher regulation; stronger legislation in Congress; better budgets for the Department of Transportation to enforce the safety laws; stronger safety standards; stronger reporting standards, so that the auto companies, not just GM, are required, under heavy penalty, to report immediately evidence of vehicle defects on the highway—but it’s also going to require protection of whistleblowers inside GM through an independent ombudsman, which I hope that she will establish, with direct contact to her CEO office. So the engineer who wants to bring his conscience or her conscience to work and report a covered-up defect, that might later kill people on the highway, can go to the ombudsman, get protection so they don’t lose their job, and the ombudsman can go directly to the CEO. That’s the internal requirement to get people in GM to be able to freely bring their conscience to work without risking their careers.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Ralph, just before we go to break, then we’ll come back, on this issue of GM, it goes to where grassroots movements are. I mean, you were the leading champion of car safety. You took on General Motors in the 1960s. They put a tail on you. They tried to bring you down by compromising you, sending women to you and tracking your every move. And you exposed them in Congress. You got a big settlement and started your organization. But it’s a half a century ago. Do you think progress has been made?
RALPH NADER: Oh, yeah. I mean, motor vehicles are safer, more fuel-efficient, more controlled in their pollution, far more than 50 years ago. However, there’s a whole new wave of innovation that can move our motor vehicle fleet toward even greater crash safety, greater operational safety in terms of brakes and handling, and, above all, transform them into non-emitting vehicles. That is, you can have hydrogen-powered cars, electric cars. The technology is here. It will become less and less expensive to the consumer to purchase these cars. And as David Freeman, the longtime head of the Tennessee Valley Authority and other public utilities, has stated recently, we can transform our entire economy into an all-electric economy powered by solar energy and driven by energy efficiencies that are already on the table and practical in terms of their application within 30 to 40 years, replacing entirely—almost entirely—fossil fuels and nuclear power. So this is the vision that I think the motor vehicle industry—and Tesla seems to be leading the way here—that we would like to see on the horizon.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet we speak to you as Arkansas is devastated from a string of tornadoes. At least 17 people have died, almost all in Arkansas. You have Congress, the House, voting, though this won’t be passed by the Senate, that the National [Oceanic and Atmospheric] Administration cannot talk about the causes of climate change, can only talk about extreme weather. You have Tennessee passing legislation that would outlaw some public transit.
RALPH NADER: Yeah, I mean, this is the corporatist pressure against what I can see around the country as an emerging left-right alliance on—not just on climate change, but on the effect that it has on agriculture, effect it has on disasters that cost the taxpayer, the effect it has on the need for fuel efficiency—good for motorists’ pocketbook—and reducing pollution on the ground. This is a great opportunity for a left-right alliance here.
Remember, we defeated the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in 1983, supported by big business and Ronald Reagan, and we beat them in the House with a left-right alliance. It was a stunning defeat for then the powerful Senator Howard Baker, who wanted this boondoggle Clinch River Breeder Reactor built in his state. And not many years later, in 1986, there was a left-right alliance, Senator—Republican Senator Grassley from Ohio, Congressman Howard Berman, Democrat from California, to pass the False Claims Act, which has saved taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, protecting internal government whistleblowers. And we just got through, a little over a year ago, a further protection for government whistleblowers, overwhelmingly, in the House and Senate. Again, you see bubbling up from the grassroots. Yeah, it’s a pretty good idea to protect government employees who blow the whistle on corporate fraud, corruption, fleecing Medicare, defense contract abuses, etc.
It comes up from the bottom, Amy. And that’s what we’ve got to do. And we can start with, you know, like the pre-Revolutionary committees of correspondence way back, when they really got together in Massachusetts and elsewhere. And that’s what started the drive. And it can start again with conversations and these little alliances where you live in—throughout the United States, which then bubble up into the media, then bubble up to your members of Congress or the state legislature. Pretty soon, it becomes a political issue. Pretty soon, it’s back on the table. And you’ve got to get all these issues, many of which I describe in my book, Unstoppable—
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph, we’re—
RALPH NADER: You’ve got to get all these issues, like corporate welfare and the bloated defense budget and—yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about the issue of militarism in a moment. We’re speaking with Ralph Nader, longtime consumer activist, corporate critic, former presidential candidate many times over. His new book is called Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. We’ll come back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue our conversation with Ralph Nader, longtime consumer advocate, four-time presidential candidate. His latest book is called Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. Ralph, front page of The New York Times today, huge pictures, it says, "Putting a 32,000-Ton Cap on Chernobyl." There’s another piece by Matthew Wald that says, "Environmentalists and the nuclear industry are beginning a push to preserve old nuclear reactors whose economic viability is threatened by cheap natural gas and rising production of wind energy. They argue [that] while natural gas and wind are helpful as sources of electricity with little or no production of greenhouse gases, national climate goals will be unreachable if zero-carbon nuclear reactors are phased out." And they talk about some of the people who are involved with this, like Carol Browner, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and a former climate adviser to President Obama. In over 30 years, no administration has succeeded in pushing forward with building nuclear power plants—until President Obama, now two being pushed forward in Georgia, this in the aftermath also of the disaster in Japan, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and the meltdowns. Your thoughts on nuclear power and where we stand on climate change and these being put forward as green alternatives?
RALPH NADER: Well, Wall Street will not finance any new nuclear plant because they’re so uneconomic, as Warren Buffett has said it, more than once, without a full government guarantee by the taxpayer. That alone should raise questions. The second thing is that nuclear power is a long-range, troubled construction project. We haven’t had a new one ordered and opened since 1973. The third is that nuclear power represents a national security problem. It not only is uninsurable in the private market, but is a national security problem with radioactively deep spent fuel rods and transportation vehicles carrying radioactive waste to who knows where—we still don’t have a permanent storage place in America for all this waste. Those are all very vulnerable points to accident or sabotage.
So, nuclear power is extremely costly. Right now, the bulk of new electric-generating capacity, installed, as well, in the last year was solar. So, solar power, wind power are going down in price, especially solar panels that are being put on roofs all over the country, especially in California. That is really replacing it. Now, natural gas is coming in and also tanking nuclear power. And the nuclear power barons know that. So why are we messing around with another potential Fukushima disaster such as Indian Point’s two aging reactors, 30 miles from where you are right now in Manhattan, Amy? Aging plants, even Senator Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Cuomo said, when they were in those posts, they need to be shut down. They’re near active earthquake faults. It’s totally unevacuable in case of an accident. The people can hardly get out of town in rush hour.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, interestingly, talking about the left-right alliance, although I’m not exactly seeing left here, but Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat; Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican; Spencer Abraham, Michigan Republican, former energy secretary; and William Daley, the former chief of staff of Obama, being—starting this new lobbying effort for the nuclear industry.
RALPH NADER: Yeah, and there—
AMY GOODMAN: And since we just have two minutes, if you might pivot to the issue of militarism, which you take on in your book, Unstoppable?
RALPH NADER: Well, a lot of these coalitions are funded by the nuclear industry themselves. By the way, there is a corporate-liberal convergence with corporate conservatives for years. That’s what’s driven this country into the ground—corporate liberals like the Clintons and corporate conservatives like John Boehner, etc.
The militarism part is another invitation for an emerging left-right alliance. Barney Frank, Congressman Barney Frank, left, and Ron Paul, Congressman Ron Paul, Libertarian, got together in 2010 to develop a caucus against a bloated military budget and the militarism that comes from it. That’s an example in Congress of a far larger number of left-right convergences being repressed by their leadership, which has other corporate campaign cash incentives in mind. So what we’re seeing here—listen, even after 9/11, there was a public opinion poll saying that we shouldn’t do war on Afghanistan; we should pursue the backers of 9/11, bring them to justice, but not this massive invasion of Afghanistan. And for years, left-right public opinion polls have said we should get out of Afghanistan. So there is a large, emerging left-right alliance here against militarism. It was against the invasion of Iraq by Bush and Cheney—the unconstitutional, criminal invasion of Iraq. You had over 300 retired generals, admirals, national security leaders and diplomats speaking out against it before the invasion in March 2003, and they were Republicans and Democrats.
So there is this huge potential here to turn this country around. I don’t sugarcoat the obstacles in this book, Unstoppable. I go into them one after the other, and how we can overcome them and how we can establish a new political realignment here. We have enough historical precedent of successful left-right breakthroughs. We’ve got to break through to the political and electoral sphere here and start turning the country around.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, I want to thank you very much for being with us, a longtime consumer advocate, presidential candidate, has written a new book. It’s called Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.