The long-time progressive makes a pitch for the disenfranchised Right.
Nader recently accepted Pat Buchanan’s invitation to sit down with us
and explain why his third-party presidential bid ought to appeal to
conservatives disaffected with George W. Bush. We think readers will be
interested in the reflections of a man who has been a major figure in
American public life for 40 years—and who now finds himself that rarest
of birds, a conviction politician. This discussion appears in the 21 June issue of Buchanon's magazine, The American Conservative
Let me start off with foreign policy—Iraq and the Middle East. You have
seen the polls indicating widespread contempt for the United States
abroad. Why do they hate us?
Ralph Nader: First of
all, we have been supporting despots, dictators, and oligarchs in all
those states for a variety of purposes. We supported Saddam Hussein. He
was our anti-Communist dictator until 1990. It’s also cultural; they
see corporate culture as abandoning the restraints on personal behavior
dictated by their religion and culture. Our corporate pornography and
anything-goes values are profoundly offensive to them.
other thing is that we are supporting the Israeli military regime with
billions of dollars and ignoring both the Israeli peace movement, which
is very substantial, and the Palestinian peace movement. They see a
nuclear-armed Israel that could wipe out the Middle East in a weekend
if it wanted to.
They think that we are on their backs, in their house, undermining their desire to overthrow their own tyrants.
PB: Then you would say it is not only Bush who is at fault, but Clinton and Bush and Reagan, all the way back?
The subservience of our congressional and White House puppets to
Israeli military policy has been consistent. Until ’91, any dictator
who was anti-Communist was our ally.
PB: You used the
term “congressional puppets.” Did John Kerry show himself to be a
congressional puppet when he voted to give the president a blank check
to go to war?
RN: They’re almost all puppets. There
are two sets: Congressional puppets and White House puppets. When the
chief puppeteer comes to Washington, the puppets prance.
Why do both sets of puppets, support the Sharon/Likud policies in the
Middle East rather than the peace movement candidates and leaders in
RN: That is a good question because the peace
movement is broad indeed. They just put 120,000 people in a square in
Tel Aviv. They are composed of former government ministers, existing
and former members of the Knesset, former generals, former combat
veterans, former heads of internal security, people from all
backgrounds. It is not any fringe movement.
The answer to
your question is that instead of focusing on how to bring a peaceful
settlement, both parties concede their independent judgment to the
pro-Israeli lobbies in this country because they perceive them as
determining the margin in some state elections and as sources of
funding. They don’t appear to agree with Tom Friedman, who wrote that
memorable phrase, “Ariel Sharon has Arafat under house arrest in
Ramallah and Bush under house arrest in the Oval Office.”
no member of Congress can say that, and so we come to this paradoxical
conclusion that there is far more freedom in Israel to discuss this
than there is in the United States, which is providing billions of
dollars in economic and military assistance.
me move on to Iraq. You were opposed to the war, and it now appears
that it has become sort of a bloody stalemate. You said you would bring
troops out of Iraq within six months. What if the country collapses and
becomes a haven for terrorists? Would you send American troops back in
to clean it up?
RN: Under my proposal there would be
an international peacekeeping force, and the withdrawal would be a
smart withdrawal during which there are internationally supervised
elections. We would have both military and corporate withdrawal because
the Iraqi people see the corporations are beginning to take over their
economy, including their oil resources. And we would continue
humanitarian assistance until the Iraqi people get on their feet. We
would bring to the forefront during the election autonomies for Kurds,
Sunnis, and Shi’ites. So this would not be like a withdrawal in Vietnam
where we just barely got out with the helicopters.
You often mention corporations. What is the theory behind this or what
are the alternatives to corporate economic power? I presume you are not
talking about state ownership or socialism, or perhaps you are …
Well, that is what representative government is for, to counteract the
excesses of the monied interests, as Thomas Jefferson said. Because big
business realizes that the main countervailing force against their
excesses and abuses is government, their goal has been to take over the
government, and they do this with money and politics. They do it by
putting their top officials at the Pentagon, Treasury, and Federal
Reserve, and they do it by providing job opportunities to retiring
members of Congress. They have law firms that draft legislation and
think-tanks that provide ready-made speeches. They also do it by
threatening to leave the country. The quickest way to bring a member of
Congress to his or her knees is by shifting industries abroad.
corporate power violates many principles of capitalism. For example,
under capitalism, owners control their property. Under multinational
corporations, the shareholders don’t control their corporation. Under
capitalism, if you can’t make the market respond, you sink. Under big
business, you don’t go bankrupt; you go to Washington for a bailout.
Under capitalism, there is supposed to be freedom of contract. When was
the last time you negotiated a contract with banks or auto dealers?
They are all fine-print contracts. The law of contracts has been wiped
out for 99 percent of contracts that ordinary consumers sign on to.
Capitalism is supposed to be based on law and order. Corporations get
away with corporate crime, fraud, and abuse. And finally, capitalism is
premised on a level playing field; the most meritorious is supposed to
win. Tell that to a small inventor or a small business up against
McDonald’s or a software programmer up against Microsoft.
multinational corporations have no allegiance to any country or
community other than to control them or abandon them. So what we have
now is the merger of big business and big government to further
subsidize costs or eliminate risks or guarantee profits by our
PB: Let’s move to immigration. We stop 1.5
million illegal aliens on our borders each year. One million still get
through. There are currently 8-14 million illegal aliens in the United
States. The president is mandated under the Constitution to defend the
States against foreign invasion, and this certainly seems to constitute
RN: As long as our foreign policy supports
dictators and oligarchs, you are going to have desperate people moving
north over the border.
Part of the problem involves NAFTA.
The flood of cheap corn into Mexico has dispossessed over a million
Mexican farmers, and, with their families, they either go to the slums
or, in their desperation, head north.
In addition, I don’t
think the United States should be in the business of brain-draining
skilled talent, especially in the Third World, because we are importing
in the best engineers, scientists, software people, doctors,
entrepreneurs who should be in their countries, building their own
countries. We are driving the talent to these shores—
PB: How do we defend these shores?
I don’t believe in giving visas to software people from the Third World
when we have got all kinds of unemployed software people here.
Let’s get down to the manual labor. This is the reason the Wall Street Journal
is for an open-borders policy: they want a cheap-wage policy. There are
two ways to deal with that. One is to raise the minimum wage to the
purchasing-power level of 1968—$8 an hour—and then, in another year,
raise it to $10 an hour because the economy since 1968 has doubled in
production per capita.
PB: Say we went to $10 an hour
minimum wage. It is 50 cents an hour in Mexico. Why wouldn’t that cause
not 1.5 million, but 3 million to head straight north where they could
be making 20 times what they can make minimum wage in Mexico?
Because 14 million Americans are unemployed or part-time employed who
want full employment or have given up looking for jobs. The more the
minimum wage goes up, the more they will do so-called work that
Americans won’t do. They are not going to do it at $5.15 an hour and
have another used car, another insurance policy, another repair bill to
get to work, but they are much more likely to do it at $10 an hour.
second is to enforce the law against employers. It is hard to blame
desperately poor people who want to feed their families and are willing
to work their heads off. You have to start with Washington and Wall
PB: Should illegal aliens be entitled to social-welfare benefits, even though they are not citizens and broke into the country?
I think they should be given all the fair-labor standards and all the
rights and benefits of American workers, and if this country doesn’t
like that, maybe they will do something about the immigration laws.
PB: Should they be entitled to get driver’s licenses?
Yes, in order to reduce hazards on the highway. If you have people who
are driving illegally, there are going to be more crashes, and more
people are going to be killed.
PB: The Democrats have
picked up on Bush’s amnesty idea and have proposed an amnesty for
illegals who have been in the country for five years and who have shown
that they have jobs and can support themselves. Would you support the
RN: This is very difficult
because you are giving a green light to cross the border illegally. I
don’t like the idea of legalization because then the question is how do
you prevent the next wave and the next? I like the idea of giving
workers and children—they are working, they are having their taxes
withheld, they are performing a valuable service, even though they are
illegally here—of giving them the same benefits of any other workers.
If that produces enough outrage to raise the immigration issue to a
high level of visibility for public debate, that would be a good thing.
The U.S. population now—primarily due to immigrants and their children
coming in—is estimated to grow to over 400 million by mid-century.
Would that have an adverse impact on the environment?
We don’t have the absorptive capacity for that many people. Over 32
million came in, in the ’90s, which is the highest in American history.
PB: What would you do about it?
RN: We have to control our immigration. We have to limit the number of people who come into this country illegally.
PB: What level of legal immigration do you think we should have per year?
First of all, we have to say what is the impact on African-Americans
and Hispanic Americans in this country in terms of wages of our present
stance on immigration? It is a wage-depressing policy, which is why the
Chambers of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers,
Tyson Foods, and the Wall Street Journal like it. The AFL-CIO has no objection to it because they think they can organize the illegal workers—
PB: They switched.
–because they have been so inept at organizing other workers. There is
hardly a more complex issue, except on the outside of the issue, the
foreign policy, the NAFTA—
PB: I was going to ask you about NAFTA and the WTO—
Sovereignty shredding, you know. The decisions are now in Geneva,
bypassing our courts, our regulatory agencies, our legislatures.
I find it amazing that Congress sits there and they get an order from
the WTO, and they capitulate. What happened to bristling conservative
defiance, “don’t tread on me” patriotism? I think the problem is that a
lot of these guys in Congress—I think some of them are basically good
guys. But I went up there and was asking about some issue, and they
would say things like, “I don’t even know what it is about. My boss
tells me …”
RN: Did you hear about my challenge to Senator Hank Brown?
put a challenge out before WTO was voted in 1995 because we went all
over Capitol Hill and had never found any Member of Congress or a
staffer who had ever read the proposal. So I said, “I’ll give $10,000
to the favorite charity of any Member of Congress who will sign an
affidavit that he or she has read the WTO agreement and will answer 10
questions in public.”
The deadline passed. Nobody. So I
extended it a week. A quarter to 5:00 on Friday, the phone rings in our
office. It is Hank Brown, and he said, “I don’t want the $10,000 to
charity, but I will take you up on it. How much time do I have?” I
said, “Take a month.” So he reserves the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee for the interrogation.
It gets better. The press is
all there, and in the witness chair is Hank Brown. We have 12
questions, and he answers every one. They weren’t all simple either. It
was really impressive. And I said, “Thank you very much. That was
really commendable,” and we start to get up and he says, “Wait. I have
something to say.” He says, “You know, I am a free trader, and I voted
for NAFTA, but after reading the WTO agreement, I was so appalled by
the anti-democratic provisions that I am going to vote against it and
urge everyone else to.”
The next day, almost no press. It
shows you the bias against anybody who challenges those multinational
systems of autocratic governance that we call “trade agreements.” And
he didn’t convince one extra senator.
Once when I testified
before the House Ways and Means Committee, I had to say some nice
things at the beginning, “Mr. Chairman, distinguished Members of the
House Ways and Means Committee, it is indeed a pleasure to testify
before a committee of Congress that has read this proposed trade
agreement,” and the chair looks up and says, “What makes you think we
Let’s put it this way: it is impossible to exaggerate the dereliction of diligence in the Congress.
Can we move on to taxes? Reagan cut the top tax rate from 70 percent to
28 percent in terms of personal income taxes. Clinton raised it to
39.6. Bush has cut it back to 35 percent. What do you think is the
maximum income-tax rate that should be imposed on wage earners?
RN: Zero under $100,000. Now you got to ask me how I am going to make —
PB: What is the rate above $100,000? What is the top rate?
Then you have a graduated rate. Thirty-five percent, in that range, for
the top rate. It comes down to the loopholes. When it was 70 percent,
did you ever meet anybody who paid 70 percent?
would I make it up? This is where the creativity comes in. I would move
the incidence of taxation, first, from work to wealth. So I would keep
the estate tax, number one.
PB: You restore the estate tax to 55 percent?
RN: That is a little extreme.
PB: That is where Bush has it, 55, and he is cutting it down gradually to zero. What do you think it should be?
RN: Again, 35 percent.
PB: Would this be on all estates?
RN: No. Estates above $10 million.
PB: Ralph, you are not going to raise much money with this tax.
There will still be a tax on smaller estates. I think all estates over,
say, $500,000 should pay some tax. The estate tax as a whole raises
about $32 billion a year, but the thing is the loopholes. Buffett, as
an example, won’t pay because all of it is going to his foundation.
I think we should have a very modest wealth tax. I agree with the founder of the Price Club, who thinks it should be 1 percent.
PB: One percent of your wealth each year would be turned over to the federal government?
Right. Then the third shift is why don’t we tax things we like the
least? We should tax polluters. We should tax gambling. We should tax
the addictive industries that are costing us so much and luring the
young into alcoholism and tobacco and drugs. And we should tax, above
all, stock and currency speculation.
PB: A short-term capital gains tax?
Like a sales tax. If you go to a store and buy furniture, you pay 6, 7,
or whatever percent. You buy 1,000 shares of General Motors, you don’t
pay anything. So what we are doing is taxing food and clothing but not
the purchase of stocks, bonds, derivatives, and currency speculation. A
quarter-of-a-cent tax will produce hundreds of billions of dollars a
year because of the volatility. You remember the days when 3 million
shares on the New York Stock Exchange was a big day? Now it is 1.5
The point is this: work should be taxed the
least. Then you move to wealth, and then you move to things we do not
like. And you will have more than enough to replace the taxes of under
$100,000 income and to provide for universal health insurance and
decent public transit and to repair the public-works infrastructure.
So you have got a $500 billion deficit now, and the early baby-boomer
retirements start in 2008, and by 2012, the whole Clinton-and-Bush
generation gets Medicare and Medicaid. These are the biggest payers
into these so-called trust funds. They are also going to be the biggest
drawers out, and 77 million of them retire in 2030. So how do you
balance that budget?
RN: You repeal Bush’s two tax
cuts in 2001 and 2003. Then you get out of Iraq, and you cut the waste
and the shenanigans out of the military contracting. That would more
than take care of the deficit.
PB: You bring the troops home from Europe and Korea and the Balkans?
We are presently defending prosperous nations like Japan, Germany, and
England, who are perfectly capable of defending themselves against
PB: Let me move to the social issues. Would you have voted against or in favor of the ban on partial-birth abortion?
I believe in choice. I don’t think government should tell women to have
children or not to have children. I am also against feticide. If
doctors think it is a fetus, that should be banned. It is a medical
PB: Between the woman and her doctor—
RN: And whoever else, family, clergy.
PB: Should homosexuals have the same right in law to form marriages and receive marriage licenses from the state as men and women?
Yes, and if you had that, you wouldn’t have to use the word “marriage.”
The reason “gay marriage” is used is because state laws connect certain
benefits with that word. As a lesbian leader was quoted saying in the New York Times a few weeks ago, the issue is not the word “marriage.” The word is “equality.”
PB: Let’s go to politics. If you had not been in the race in 2000, who would have won?
That requires me to be a retrospective clairvoyant. If I wasn’t in a
race, would the Democrats have gone all-out to get out the vote in
certain states because they were worried about the percentages I was
drawing? And if I was not in the race, would Gore have made populist
statements day after day—“I am for the people, not the powerful”—which
polls showed brought him more votes than if he went to Lieberman’s
Having said that, exit polls showed 25
percent of my votes would have gone to Bush, 38 percent would have gone
to Gore, and the rest would have stayed home and not voted. A month and
a half ago, a poll came from New Hampshire that showed that 8 percent
were for me: 9 percent Republicans, 11 percent independents, 4 percent
PB: If you hurt Bush more than Gore, why are the Democrats trying to keep you off the ballot?
Because they will forever think that my progressive policies will take
more Democrat votes and independent votes than they will take from the
PB: If you got 15 percent of the vote this time, who do you think would be the next president of the United States?
RN: I don’t know how it would break.
Let me ask you about your ballot position because it was around this
time that we were wrapping up getting on the ballot in all 50 states.
How many ballots are you on right now?
RN: None yet,
but we’ll be on more than 43 states, which is the number we had last
time. We want to get on them all. The problem is, we haven’t
concentrated on the easy states.
TAC: Is there any circumstance in which you can come to an arrangement with Kerry campaign not to run?
The time to drop out is before you drop in. You cannot build a national
campaign and get tens of thousands of volunteers working their hearts
out and then in October feed the cynicism of American politics by
cutting some sort of deal. The answer is no.
PB: What are the reasons a conservative should vote for Ralph Nader?
RN: Well, largely—
PB: Rather than Kerry.
I’m not expecting conservatives to change their minds on certain issues
that we disagree on, but if we look at the issues where we have common
positions, they reach a level of gravity that would lead conservatives
to stop being taken for granted by the corporate Republicans and send
them a message by voting for my independent candidacy.
are the issues. One, conservatives are furious with the Bush regime
because of the fantastic deficits as far as the eye can see. That was a
betrayal of Bush’s positions, and it was a reversal of what Bush found
when he came to Washington.
Conservatives are very upset
about their tax dollars going to corporate welfare kings because that
undermines market competition and is a wasted use of their taxes.
are upset about the sovereignty-shredding WTO and NAFTA. I wish they
had helped us more when we tried to stop them in Congress because, with
a modest conservative push, we would have defeated NAFTA because it was
narrowly passed. If there was no NAFTA, there wouldn’t have been a WTO.
are also very upset with a self-styled conservative president who is
encouraging the shipment of whole industries and jobs to a despotic
Communist regime in China. That is what I mean by the distinction
between corporate Republicans and conservative Republicans.
conservatives, contrary to popular belief, believe in law and order
against corporate crime, fraud, and abuse, and they are not satisfied
that the Bush administration has done enough.
are also upset about the Patriot Act, which they view as big
government, privacy-invading, snooping, and excessive surveillance.
They are not inaccurate in that respect.
And finally, two
other things. They don’t like “Leave No Child Behind” because it is a
stupidly conceived federal regulation of local school systems through
misguided and very fraudulent multiple-choice testing impositions.
conservatives are aghast that a born-again Christian president has done
nothing about rampant corporate pornography and violence directed to
children and separating children from their parents and undermining
If you add all of those up, you should
have a conservative rebellion against the giant corporation in the
White House masquerading as a human being named George W. Bush. Just as
progressives have been abandoned by the corporate Democrats and
told,”You got nowhere to go other than to stay home or vote for the
Democrats,” this is the fate of the authentic conservatives in the
I noticed this a long time ago, Pat. I once
said to Bill Bennett, “Would you agree that corporatism is on a
collision course with conservative values?” and he said yes.
impact of giant corporations, commercialism, direct marketing to kids,
sidestepping parents, selling them junk food, selling them violence,
selling them sex and addictions, selling them the suspension of their
socialization process—years ago conservatives spoke out on that, but it
was never transformed into a political position. It was always an
ethical, religious value position. It is time to take it into the
PB: Well, it’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for coming over, Ralph.
RN: Thank you very much.