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Independent Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader Discusses Future Obama Presidency and Two-Party Politics

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We speak with independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader. The longtime consumer advocate appeared on the ballot in forty-five states. He received about one percent of the vote, the highest of any third-party candidate. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Melissa Harris-Lacewell. She’s a professor at Princeton University, a professor of politics and African American studies. She is writing the book Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough. And Ralph Nader, independent presidential candidate, joining us on the phone from Washington, the longtime consumer advocate, appeared on the ballot in forty-five states, received about one percent of the vote, the highest of any third-party presidential candidate.

Ralph Nader, welcome. Your thoughts on this election?

RALPH NADER: Thank you, Amy. Well, obviously we all congratulate Barack Obama. We wish him well. But the precursor to his election has not been very encouraging, and he has repeatedly taken up the positions of the corporate supremacists, not just his latest vote for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, but a whole string of votes and policy positions. He opposes single-payer health insurance. Well, the HMOs and the insurance companies do, too. He wants a bigger military budget. So does the military-industrial complex. His idea of a living wage on his website is $9.50 an hour by 2011. That would make it less than it was in 1968, adjusted for inflation.

He matched McCain in the third debate, belligerent — belligerency for belligerency, toward Russia, toward Iran, more soldiers in Afghanistan, supporting the Israeli military repression and occupation and blockade of Gaza and the West Bank. And virtually nothing about 100 million poor people in this country. That’s why I really fault him, that he played the Clinton linguistic game by talking constantly about the middle class and not mentioning the word “poor.”

And we expect more of him. And I don’t think he has a public philosophy of where corporations must operate in this country. How? Under what rule of law? Under what regulation? Under what vulnerability to litigation in the courts? He’s proud of tort reform, supports the nuclear industry, supports the coal industry. So we’re really talking about just more of the same, in terms of the corporate domination of Washington.

I detected no concern, no quaking of concern, among the drug industry, oil, gas industry, nuclear, coal industry, Wall Street, over his probable election in the last few weeks. Usually, when they’re really worried about a politician, they will issue warnings. But Barack Obama has raised far more money than John McCain from Wall Street interests, corporate interests and, above all, corporate lawyers. And the question to be asked is, why are they investing so much in Barack Obama? Because they believe he’s their man. So, prepare to be disappointed, but keep your hope up.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ralph Nader, you go now from being a presidential candidate to what you have always been, and that is a citizen activist. What are you going to do about it?

RALPH NADER: Well, first of all, we’ve got a website called november5.org, which is designed to test whether there’s support in this country to build strong Congress action groups in every congressional district. Certainly, we know the outlines of it. We take the many long overdue future directions in our country, that are on our website, votenader.org — just go to the “issues” page — and, of course, it’s many of the familiar ones: living wage, full Medicare for all, solar energy, energy efficiency, peace advocacy, reduce the bloated military budget, put in a whole public works program, transform the tax system to tax what we like the least or dislike the most, like securities speculation. All of these and others can be a package of reform and redirection, spearheaded by laser-like Congress action groups with full-time staffs in each congressional district. That’s a tall order, but we have to try to aspire to it, because Congress is the pivot institution now. If you can turn Congress around, which is the most powerful branch of the federal government under the Constitution, you can turn the federal government around. So if you’re interested in a preliminary examination of this effort, just log into november5.org.

I think the big story for us, Amy, in the progressive world is the hardcore progressive voter in the slam-dunk McCain and Obama states, like Massachusetts and New York, Obama, and Texas, for example, McCain, didn’t turn out for the progressive candidates, for Nader-Gonzalez, for Cynthia McKinney. They didn’t turn out. The real problem in this country is the voters are in a two-party prison. They don’t get access to other candidates on the presidential debates, which are controlled by the two parties. The candidates are blacked out by the national media. They’re drained for five months in the presidential year just trying to get on the ballots because of the hurdles that the two parties have placed in front of their potential competition. And the hardcore progressive voter is just not turning out for progressive candidates. And so, I don’t know what people in The Nation and Progressive and Washington Monthly and In These Times are doing with their computers writing all these great editorials and these great critiques of the Democratic Party, and when it comes to election time, they abandon, if not undermine, the very candidacies, like Nader-Gonzalez and the Green Party, who are taking their agenda into the arena.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ralph Nader, let me bring — let me bring Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell into this discussion. You’ve heard Ralph Nader’s critique of what an Obama White House represents. Your response?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Sure. Well, I appreciate the idea that a two-party system limits our capacity to represent interest, and particularly a two-party system in the US, which is really — the center is really right-of-center from what — most of what we would imagine. So the problem is that to imagine that simply running third-party candidates in a structure that is set up to provide only really opportunities for two parties, it’s more than just getting on the ballot or being in the debate. In order for a third or multiple party system to work, you can’t have a first-past-the-post majoritarian system. Now, what we also know, however, from parliamentary and multiparty systems is that those coalitions still have to form after the vote in order to govern. So, you know, two-party systems, you know, maybe bring the coalition together before the vote. Parliamentary systems tend to bring those together after the vote.

I think one of the important things to remember, though, in this election is that it was important for some part of the left to get a win. My niece is eighteen years old. She has now voted in her first election, and she won. And something very powerful happens when citizens engage in their government, and they actually get a response. Part of what’s important about Barack Obama’s story is that he’s both an African American community activist with an ethic of service to the community, but he’s also the grandson of the greatest generation, of a World War II veteran and a Rosie the Riveter, because that generation believed that the government was in a social contract with its people, that you would sacrifice for your nation, but your nation would then provide for you the opportunity for education, for housing, for reasonable retirement and healthcare. And so, when Barack Obama brings together that ethic of community service from African American urban life and that grandson of the greatest generation, I think the potential here for progressive politics is not just about hope. I think there’s some very real potential here for progressive politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, I’d like you to respond to that and also this latest news that ABC News is reporting, that Barack Obama has offered Rahm Emanuel the job of the White House chief of staff, the Illinois Congress member, the Congress member from, well, his area.

RALPH NADER: Well, there you are, a traditional politician, Rahm Emanuel, reactionary, right-wing Democrat, a former Clintonite, a guy who knows how to raise special interest money in the White House, is well-known for it, and a hard-line militaristic supporter of Israel’s repression of the Palestinian people. So, you will know in the next few days, by his choices, Barack Obama’s choices, that this is going to be a very traditional corporate-indentured Democratic Party. That’s a very sorry spectacle.

But it is true, what your — what you just heard is a parliamentary system allows more voices. It allows coalitions. Right after World War II, out of the rubble of World War II, Western Europeans, through a multiparty system, proportional representation, and through their stronger trade unions and cooperatives, demanded and received, for all their people, by law, full health insurance, decent wages, decent pensions, four weeks paid vacation, paid maternity leave, paid family sick leave, decent daycare, decent public transit and university-free tuition. Sixty-three years later, the Republican and Democratic parties haven’t delivered any of those by law for all our people. So I think the two-party duopoly is extremely ossifying, it’s extremely stagnant. It’s exactly what corporate power wants, because even when a more liberal party wins, they know how to block it, they know how to buy it, they know how to co-opt it. That’s what we’re looking at in this country. We are a country that lives under election laws that are the most obstructive against voters, most obstructive against candidates. Can’t even count the votes properly, can’t get candidates on the ballot. And what we have to do is go to the civic arena again and try to build up just old-fashioned-type power.

I just want to leave you with a comment, a very telling comment by Eugene Debs in the early 1920s at the end of the career of this great labor leader who fought desegregation and fought the giant industrialists. He was asked, “What’s your greatest regret?” by a reporter. And Debs said, “My greatest regret? My greatest regret is that, under our Constitution, the American people can have almost anything they want, but it just seems like they don’t want much of anything at all.” What he was talking about is the lowest expectation levels of any society in the Western world. And we have to face — we have to face ourselves. And the issue in America today is the voter, the voter’s mind, the voter’s expectation, the voter’s determination, the voter’s resignation. The voters are what we have to examine now, why they continue to vote for candidates and for parties that go to Washington and betray them again and again and again, on behalf of the corporate supremacists, who — to whom they have delivered every department and agency in the federal government, including the Department of Labor. So go to november5.org, and see if you’re interested in this proposal for Congress action groups back home.

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