Ralph Nader: 'Once you accept the anything-but-Bush position, the brain really does close down'

The Monday Interview: Consumer rights campaigner and presidential campaign maverick
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The Independent Online

Ralph Nader holds a unique position in American politics. Hated by Democrats, adored by his hardcore supporters and now championed by trouble-making Republicans, the 70-year-old consumer rights candidate represents many different things to different people.

Ralph Nader holds a unique position in American politics. Hated by Democrats, adored by his hardcore supporters and now championed by trouble-making Republicans, the 70-year-old consumer rights candidate represents many different things to different people.

The situation of the independent presidential candidate is also odd, because many progressives and those on the left who strongly agree with his politics - indeed, many of those who have long supported him - are adamantly and angrily opposed to him running. In some cases that ire - evidenced by a string of special websites as well as an orchestrated campaign against him by the Democrats - boils over into fury.

Nader does not seem to care. It may simply be a thick skin, or a huge ego, as his detractors claim, that protects him, but he says he has no regrets. "[If George Bush were re-elected] the blame would go to the Democrats," he says. "If Bush wins, the blame would go to the number two party, that lost. That is where the responsibility lies; they started with 40 per cent of the vote."

Such comments infuriate Democrats who blame Mr Nader for Al Gore's defeat in 2000 and say his presence in this year's contest threatens to condemn the US to a second, and potentially more radical, Bush term. This has led to all manner of people, among them the Democratic Party's chairman, Terry McAuliffe, pleading with Mr Nader not to run. A few weeks ago on national television, the film maker Michael Moore - who supported Mr Nader in 2000 - and the comedian Bill Maher got down on bended knee in front of the candidate and pleaded with him to drop out.

Their argument is straightforward: in 2000, though Nader won only 2.7 per cent of the vote, in key states such as Florida and New Hampshire, his presence on the ballot and the votes he took from the Democrats proved fatal to Mr Gore. In Florida, his critics argue, if just 1 per cent of Nader's 97,488 supporters had voted for Gore, he would have been president. In New Hampshire Nader took 22,198 votes, and Bush won the state by only 7,211 votes.

This time the election is shaping up to be as close. Mr Nader's opponents say that no matter how unsatisfactory a candidate one might consider John Kerry to be, he is still many times preferable to Bush; and that Mr Nader should find himself being supported in some states by Republicans working to get him on the ballot to split the anti-Bush vote should be a warning sign. He is, say his critics, nothing more than a spoiler, driven by ego and self-indulgence. Mr Nader dismisses such talk. First, he says the Democrats can blame only themselves for allowing Mr Bush to steal an election he did not win. Second, he says, exit polls showed that up to 25 per cent of those who voted for him in 2000 would have otherwise voted for Bush, up to 41 per cent for Gore but that the rest would not have bothered to vote at all.

He adds: "The other thing is that 10 times more Democrats voted for Bush than voted for Nader." Democrats never want to discuss the matter he says. "Once you accept the anybody-but-Bush position the brain really does close. They don't want to hear anything."

But however he may wish to frame it, Mr Nader's argument boils down to a choice between incremental change in November or more radical change over a longer period. For Mr Nader there is little practical difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, and the real challenge is to try to establish a third party in US politics,something, he says, the Democrats bitterly oppose.

"The corporations have won this election. They have been winning these elections for years ... If there is a difference [between the parties] it is rhetoric. Why is Kerry identical to Bush on Iraq? I evaluate the Democrats on defence as well as offence ... Why did they not stop Bush? They [say] they were against the tax cuts for the wealthy but they did not stop it even when they controlled the Senate."

He says that at a congressional level, for many Americans it is not even a choice between two parties. In a majority of seats, districts are either totally Democrat or totally Republican, an arrangement party leaders have agreed to. "The gift that they have given us is one-party choice," Mr Nader says. "There is no real choice ... It isn't even choice, it's selection ... These are strange times we live in."

Many of Mr Nader's outspoken critics say that while they support his views and may have supported him in 2000, President Bush has shown himself to be so dangerously right wing that those on the left cannot risk giving him a second term. The circumstances of this election are unique, they say, and it is not the time for experiments in breaking the two-party system.

Mr Nader's tactic, they say, should have been to run in the Democratic primaries or else to now throw the weight of the radical left behind the Kerry campaign and work for a more progressive party after the election.

Theodore Lowi, a professor of government at Cornell University, said: "[The election in 2000 came] before the true identity of George Bush had been revealed. Nader knows as well as the rest of us that, despite Kerry's lacklustre leadership, there is now a radical difference between the two major parties. Moreover, Nader is running as a bullet candidate without any party affiliation; he is a mere spoiler with no future."

Again Mr Nader is again quick to dismiss such claims. He is fond of quoting the 19th-century Indiana socialist Eugene Debs, "I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don't want, and get it". He concedes that if someone is adamantly of the anyone-but-Bush mindset they should not vote for him but Kerry, "if your expectations levels are so low".

Mr Nader says he is trying to transform the political landscape rather than tweak it. Again turning his focus to the corporations, multinationals and lobbyists, he says: "They have shut us out from everything. You cannot get anything done. For-sale signs are up everywhere."

He has long been pushing against closed doors. Born in Winsted, Connecticut, to Lebanese immigrants who ran a bakery, Mr Nader studied at Harvard and edited the Harvard Law Review before graduating and setting up a small practice.

Mr Nader soon started speaking out against the abuse of corporate power, making headlines with his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, in which he condemned the car industry for producing unsafe vehicles. Nader's status soared when executives of General Motors hired private detectives to harass him and were then forced to apologise publicly before a nationally televised Senate committee hearing.

Backed by a group of young activist lawyers known as Nader's Raiders, he went on to produce exposés of industrial hazards, pollution, unsafe products, and governmental neglect of consumer safety laws. He is credited with a key role in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Freedom of Information Act and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In this latest fight, Mr Nader knows he has no chance of winning more than a few per cent of voters. He remains in the election campaign, he says, to draw attention to issues that are not being discussed, and to try to force the Democrats to move to the left to attract those people considering voting for him.

He says he is amazed that the Democrats do not campaign on more populist issues; why they do not try to appeal to the millions of Americans outside the political system who do not bother vote. "Ask yourself why Kerry does not bring up these issues," Mr Nader says. "Forty-seven million Americans make under $10 an hour. Millions work for five-and-half, six dollars. You cannot live on that."

The Democrats, he says, have lost sight of what they were supposed to be fighting for. "It's all about money, who has raised the most. It becomes the end itself. When you ask the members of the House and Senate why they lost [seats] in the 2002 election they say they did not have enough money."

THE CV

Born 1934

Education Gilbert School; Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton University; Harvard Law School

1959 US Army

1959 Lawyer, Connecticut

1961-63 Lecturer, University of Hartford.

1967-68: Lecturer, Princeton University

1969-1990: Founded centres for research and published books on consumer protection

1996 & 2000 Green Party presidential candidate

2004 Independent presidential candidate

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