Ralph Nader: One Citizen’s View from Winsted, CT

Mary McGrath photo

Ralph Nader on Main Street can still see the flatbed trucks hauling textile machinery out of his hometown in the 1950s, his high school years. The work of Winsted and New England mills was bound for the Carolinas and Georgia, then Mexico and Asia. In 1900 there’d been 100 factories and machine shops in Winsted, making useful things for the world — cloth to clocks. In Ralph’s boyhood, a factory worker could raise a family on one paycheck in a 6-room house with a 2% V.A. mortgage, and drive a second-hand car. Then as now the green hills of northwest Connecticut were a breezy walk or bike ride away. “You could hear cows mooing one minute, and the milk would be in glass bottles on your doorstep a few hours later…”

We’re a long way from the convention speeches in Tampa and Charlotte. Listen and judge for yourself whether we’re closer to your experience and your aspirations. In Charlotte the Democrats are counting on an uptick in the job scores. In Winsted Ralph Nader is underlining what we all know: real wages for most American workers peaked in 1973, actual jobs in 2000. The United States, he says, is “increasingly an Advanced Third-World Country,” where mass poverty abounds and freakish new fortunes are lightly taxed. What Nader is counting on is a resurgence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great standard, Self-Reliance — a phrase he invokes continually, with many meanings. On the sandlot ballfield where Shaf and Ralph Nader played with Michael and David Halberstam in the 1940s, we are recalling particularly the omni-journalist David Halberstam, another giant of Emerson’s non-conforming boldness. “You didn’t want to be blocking home plate when one of the Halberstams slid in.” Baseball, as ever, is metaphor.

Every time you see local athletics, participatory sports, informal sports, a pickup game, basketball, touch football, it reduces the kind of spectator syndrome of people just sitting at home, eating junk food, getting overweight, watching spectacular athletes battle each other on a television screen. The more we can generate our own economic activity, the less we’ll be controlled by absentee owners in London, New York, Tokyo. And the more stable it will be, and the less risky. I would never have believed that the New York Stock Exchange would shake up and down, day after day, because of something going on in Greece. And that’s because of enormous global interdependence — that’s not healthy. It’s financial interdepence, linked by speculation and a Goldman Sachs relation with Greece. That never occurred in the United States. We are losing not only our community self-reliance but our regional and national self-reliance, and the only countervailing trend is these community economies I mention [credit unions, renewable energy, community health clinics]… The biggest obstacle is the emergence of the global corporations that have no allegiance to nation or to community, other than to control them or to export their jobs and industry to the most labor-repressive dictatorships and oligarchies in the world.


Winsted’s Main Street, about 1912, pre-Nader and pre-flood

The vernacular Ralph Nader laughs more than you remember and notices a hundred mundane details: the Christian Science Church that’s become an Elks Hall, the old fish store that’s now (“sign of the times”) a CPA’s office. He pines for the sidewalk bustle, even for the 20 taverns and bars of Main Street in his youth — booming with ethnic humor, gossip, trivia and grave talk. “You can be critical,” he says, “but it sure beats sitting at home alone watching a television screen.” Winsted the factory town had three restaurants. Winsted the lower-income bedroom town has eleven. “More people not eating at home,” Ralph remarks. His father’s restaurant — Highland Arms, named in a contest — is empty, but his parents, Nathra and Rose, are ever more on his mind: immigrants from Lebanon in their late teens in the late 1920s, who talked their way into a no-collateral loan from the Mechanics Savings Bank to start their business across the street. “You couldn’t do that with Bank of America,” Ralph laughs. In Nader’s restaurant, a dime got you a cup of coffee and five minutes, maybe ten, of political conversation with the owner. “My father thought things through, you know. He wasn’t an ideolog. It was ‘multi-step thinking,’ I call it, invulnerable to slogans and propaganda. He went deeper — the facts, the situation, the other side. He was a big reader, and he memorized a lot of poetry.”

I’m reminded of Tony Judt‘s cracks about mass media and “our dilapidated public conversation.” Who will tell the people about the country, I’m asking.

The country really knows who’s running the country, as Lincoln Steffens discovered in one city after another. In any bar in Pittsburgh or Cleveland he could get good answers to ‘who runs this city?’ People knew, by name in those days. Today people know logos, not the names of CEOs, but they do know that a handful of companies run the politicians and they run the show. What’s lacking is a sense that they can constructively rebel against this if they spend some time and some strategic smarts the way our forbears did at their best moments, especially the populist-progressive movement in the late 19th Century, which started with nothing but dirt-poor farmers in East Texas. In six months they organized 200,000 farmers. Each of them paid $1 dues, which is $50 today. And they organized the most fundamental political reform movement — almost electing a president — in the history of the United States. Governors they elected, senators, state legislatures… They didn’t make any excuses for themselves. They had two assets: their land and their votes, garnished by self-respect. And that’s what’s missing these days. There’s a widespread sense of utter powerlessness among people. It’s bred into them in grade school. School children do not learn practical civics. They don’t learn about their community. They don’t learn about town hall. They don’t connect with adults supervising them in improving the community, other than a few scraps of charity and cleaning up here and there…

I complain that he’s unfair to both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, and he softens some. “When the Tea Party turned up, I said: ‘They’ve got a pulse! All power to them.’ The original Tea Party people were against wars of aggression, they were against bloated military budgets, they were against the Patriot Act, they were against corporate welfare, they were against Wall Street shenanigans. Then they were high-jacked by the Republican Party. But at least they showed up, and they showed something very interesting: that less than a few tens of thousands of people could get the attention of the country. Half of democracy is showing up — at town meetings when members of Congress showed up in their district…” Occupy made three big contributions, on the Nader card: 1. energy and drama that sent “some tremors into the sanctuaries of corporatism and oligarcy.” 2. the “99 percent” slogan, which signaled an inclusive protest, with no identity politics under the umbrella. 3. A clear target: gross inequality between haves and have-nots, and the rule of the few over the many. “But they did not come up with a strategy of civic power, or with leadership,” Nader notes. If they had organized around a $10 minimum wage, for example, and acted up in Congressional districts around the country, “they could have won tens of billions of dollars for working people. But they rejected politics as dirty.” Our season of unrest, Ralph Nader says, is not over.

It is only the beginning, because… the economy is going to get worse. The greed at the top is going to get worse. The constant empire wars and drones and all the rest of going after people who basically are trying to protect their valleys or conquer their country, but are no threat to us — and we’re still droning them and putting special forces all over, draining our treasury enormously, distracting from domestic issues. All those are going to get worse. So we will see periodic eruptions. The question is whether we’ll see the leaders of the future as part of those eruptions. Serious people who know how to collaborate, keep their eye on the ball, who know that shift of power is the first step to recovering a modest, democratic society. What’s interesting about our country today is: we have all kinds of solutions on the shelf, and all kinds of problems on the ground, and we’re not connecting the two… We don’t have the democratic institutions to take the solutions like energy, housing, food, and foreign policy and connect them to problems on the ground. However, that is a source of hope: that we have so many solutions that are ready to go — technical, social, resource — that most countries don’t have.

It’s still a bit startling to many people that Ralph Nader feels a convergence coming with opposites like the libertarian Republican from Texas, Ron Paul — an indomitably principled fringe candidate for the presidency, as Nader was.

I think the common ground is antipathy to concentrated, unaccountable power that projects itself unconstitutionally and militarily abroad, and projects itself against the right of people to fulfill their life’s possibility by decent livelihoods and political voice. So that means that Ron Paul and I, for example, agree we have militarized our foreign policy illegally and unconstitutionally. We should not project empire; we should pay attention to our domestic needs. We agree that the Patriot Act had provisions that are insufferably violative of civil liberties. We agree that corporations should not be bailed out by taxpayers. We agree that there should be multi-party systems and we agree that small business, local economies, that kind of free enterprise is preferable to giant corporations and Wall Street domination. Now he thinks the free market will level the playing field; that’s where we disagree. He doesn’t like Social Security, he doesn’t like Medicare… So what do you do with someone like him? Well, you accept where the convergence is possible, without compromising your principles. When you talk about converging on civil liberties, when you talk about military and foreign policy, when you talk about corporate welfare, these are important areas. So let’s pool our resources and start new groups that only do convergence, without other priorities or conflicts. That’s where it is now, because convergence has enormous power in Congress.

Ralph Nader with Chris Lydon in Winsted, CT, August 30, 2012

Ralph Nader in conversation has a surprising effect on me — in common with that other hard-marker and scold, Noam Chomsky. In the end he’s a reassuring model of constructive hope. Professor Chomsky was reminding us not so long ago of the rising force of anti-imperial feeling in this country. So Ralph Nader judges that awareness and activism are very much alive. “When you go down to where people live, work, shop and play, the ideologies and abstractions — what George Will calls ‘the pitiless abstractions’ — fade away and the Golden Rule comes in. Basic decency comes in…” And then there are those “two secrets of democracy,” Ralph Nader says, that people discover sooner or later. “It works, and it’s easier than it looks.”

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