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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  • sidewalker

    Thank you so much for another wonderful conversation, Chris. If there is anyone who speaks truth to power in such a sensible and accessible way better than Ralph Nader, I’ve yet to hear her.

    His point about the effectiveness of civic engagement and activism is key, and we are seeing it played out here in Tokyo over the future direction of energy policy post one of the worst industrial disasters (man-made) in history. The first few months after the nuclear meltdowns, because of shock, but more so because of limited information and little recent experience of protesting, only a few hundred of us turned out for demonstrations. As the months passed, as the truth seeped out, especially through the internet, the numbers grew and first-timers found their voice and became empowered. Hundreds and thousands have grown to tens of thousands every friday evening after work in front of the prime minister’s official residence. At first the authorities and media dismissed us as a noisy fringe, but as mothers and children, grandmothers and office workers joined the crowd, the politicians and major broadcasters started to take note and many elected officials, first in favour of restarting nuclear power plants and continuing on as usual, now fear for their jobs. The present government has put forth three choices for Japan’s reliance on nuclear power–0%, 15% or 25%. Many concluded at the beginning that they would choose the 15% solution, to try and appease both industry and the citizens, but as people kept up the fight during the boiling days of summer, as their popularity in the polls dropped, internal struggles within the ruling Democratic Party emerged. What seemed inevitable is no longer certain, though the tight “nuclear village” of industry, politicians, bureaucrats, academics, and the media will not easily be defeated. The decision will come soon, and if it is not for Zero, our movement will probably be emboldened, as it was when two reactors were restarted in May, and the anger voiced in the streets will be reflected in the next election.

    While this issue is critical, it seems that many Japanese people have begun to discovered their democratic voice. If it leads to an active challenge of authority in other areas, then with Ralph Nader, I too find reason to believe we might just act less for immediate gratification and more on behalf of posterity.

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  • Kento

    I’m not as optimistic about Japan’s political future. In Japan, The feeling of political helplessness is probably worse than that of the United States (every political discussion I ever had seemed to end with my interlocutor sighing and saying “shoganai, ne?”), but Japan is not a political country. The nuclear protests are targeted at a single, relatively simple policy issue. But the most essential problems in Japan right now are metapolitical, having to do with things like the internal structure of the dominant political parties, and how little political ideology is actually tied to any one party. (The now dominant DPJ is largely composed of former members of their main opposition, the LDP, and if the PLF party succeeds, it will be composed mostly of former members of the DPJ. Strategy and loyalties seem more essential that ideology). I don’t think success in one domain is going to inspire the Japanese people to believe they can succeed at changing their political system.

    Our moment’s lack of political confidence on the left in the United States has to do with what we feel was a failed revolution. The 2008 election, I think, should be interpreted as a larger protest than the Tea Party or Occupy put together, inspired by much of the same anxiety. But when I search my feelings for why I felt political helplessness after watching the Democrats fail to pass legislation while having 60 senators in their caucus, I feel that an intellectual context for disappointment was prepared for me. Though the idea is ancient, the message that “mediocrity always prevails” is so accessible now.

    If you like anything that isn’t extremely popular, there’s an internet message board that’s willing to accept you as one of the enlightened few who gets it. Much television is made by people made jaded by the medium’s creative limitations, and political failings. (Jaded, because to be jaded is to be resigned, to be resigned is to be non-threatening. People made bitter still believe in their ideals, and hate a world that can’t see the ideals made real, their art would be too terrifying for any network to air.) Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, it’s an easy belief to adopt. Easy to fall into.

  • Potter

    We wouldn’t be hearing from Sidewalker in Tokyo ( hello!) without those screens and electronic connections… and we and our kids would not have access to a lot else. We are interconnecting! And we had better. We know of massacres in the far corners, revolutions that are enabled, ideas that spread… music from Mali and Madagascar and they hear us.

    It’s wonderful to hear Nader reminisce: the picture he paints about the way it was and even the way it still is in some ways not only in Winsted. What we lost is The Past, inevitably gone, save for the beautiful telling and the great pictures. We are taking a lot more pictures now too.

    This interview was also fine at the end. I mean about where we are now and what we need to do going forward. What a shame then that Ralph Nader had a lot more to give until he shot himself in the foot in the 2000 election stubbornly going after votes in hotly contested states like Florida. Why is it that I can’t listen to him now without thinking that this is a man who played a role, a significant one, in changing the direction of this country for the worse as he tried to make it better. Surely, for instance, we would not have gone to war in Iraq.

    And would he say now that it will make no difference who we, even we who were disappointed in Obama, will vote for in this coming election?

  • sidewalker

    Maybe because I just can’t stomach Kento’s disappointment and helplessness and Potter’s (hello! back to you) acceptance of the slightly better of two mediocre corporation-beholden parties that I find Nader and his belief in the power of political engagement (and third–or more–party politics) always refreshing, but not naively so. He should not be blamed for Iraq; that is on the Repubicans, Democrats and the flag-waving American public. Also, I am not disappointed in Obama because it was clear from the beginning that he was part of the usual hype machine and hero-worshiping politics that will never lead to sustained democratic change. This change comes from bodies on the street, which is why I acknowledge Kento’s assessment of national politics in Japan but disagree with him and see the emergence of civic political agency that can challenge the status-quo on a variety of issues, even if not in the immediate. The fringe has become less fringy and people are listening to “alternative” voices, which start to make much more sense when the authorities and mainstream media are discredited.

    • Potter

      The problem is, we have two major political parties and if, at the end of the process, we vote for a third party candidate that has no chance of winning, and vote as a protest or vote for the one that you think is ideally best, that has no chance of winning ( we have polls that are pretty good), you wind up with a GWBush and a war in Iraq and a right wing Supreme Court instead of an international police action against Bin Laden and a very strong push from and within this country against global warming … for instance. You wind up with Citizens United, preemptive war doctrine (a war of choice in Iraq) and anti-Americanism, torture, Guantanamo…49,000 of our soldiers wounded ( outside and inside), and 6000 dead …tens of thousands more of Iraqi’s wounded displaced or dead, trickle down economics at home, more relaxed regulations, drilling for oil instead of conservation and development of alternative energy,… etc.

      No Not Nader’s fault but he and those who voted for him played a role in that result in Florida.

      So the lesson, for me at least, is that there are consequences, serious ones, to voting for a third party candidate, in our system when it’s a close election and one party, the least attractive one, is being very aggressive and dishonest in critical states. And I think this is one lesson that many take away from the 2000 election.

      I did not vote for Nader though I may have agreed with what he said. But I did not agree that there is no difference between the candidates. That idea apparently caught on with some. That is not to say that Nader’s ideas and his idealism were not welcome in the beginning as they are now too (in his lower voice). He just did not know when to get out of the way or, better, throw his weight behind the better candidate. No hindsight is needed here. At the time of the election this was very clear who was the better of the two.

      We will get to Japan….we will….we will… I still have your email Sidewalker!

  • Al dussault

    It was by coincidence that I met you over a mauve chaise, and I am glad to be a part of your project. The interview with Nader was stimulating the way a massage can be, he hit upon the weak points with a strong handed manner driving home that we are in the end self reliant, if we dare.
    It has been eleven years since I last heard you interview and your finger on the pulse it refreshing. Al d

  • Kento

    Protests in Japan: To be sure, it is a positive development, news media will be less hasty in dismissing political protests, and if the protests are successful, some people will take a lesson from it, and protest other things. Forcing the DPJ to stand firm against the United States on the military base issue doesn’t seem like an unrealistic goal, and if that were successful, it would open a lot more doors for street level political action, and even be inspirational for the peoples of other countries. But there is so much to overcome.

    Disappointment in Obama: Much of the disappointment comes from a belief that we thought we were changing things from the street, and of course from the new power of the web. Political change is supposed to come from elections as well as popular demonstration, hope as well as anger.

    I was in Japan during the final months of the 2008 election, but I know in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, 75,000 people came to see Barack Obama that year. Nearly 2,000,000 came to the inauguration. That’s a lot of bodies on the street. Disappointment comes from knowing that wasn’t enough.

    Nader and the 2000 election: Any specific event is born of a confluence of circumstances. Take Nader out of the process, and things may have been very different. But the same can be said of many other things. The system was already broken, a well meaning man just happened to make it obvious.

  • Bruce K.

    Great interview. I don’t always agree with Ralph Nader on Foreign Policy issues, but I almost always do on Domestic Policy. He is a sincere and tirelessly ethical and moral and a national treasure. One always has to wonder what would have happened had he actually been able to win the Presidency.

    It’s too bad that Americans cannot have a choice as to how and where to live and what kind of community they want to build. Thanks for the interview.

  • Franklin J. Kapustka, PE

    I think Ralph would have made a great president. He could have really righted the ship in the Republican party as a Teddy Roosevelt Progressive Republican or in the Democratic party instead of the Bill Clinton closet Republican era. He really addresses the right issues the right way far more often than 99% of the other candidates. It really saddens me that he did not start out as a congressman way back in the late 1970s to push politics toward what is right and just verses undisguised greed.

  • Robert Zucchi

    Here Chris Lydon provides, and makes a valuable contribution to, a forum for examining the egalitarian values that should always influence public policy in a democracy, featuring one of this country’s most tireless and selfless advocates for those values.

    It’s a comfort to hear Ralph Nader address us with his old eloquence, his agile intelligence, his lawyerly gift for summation, all undiminished by time. As I listened I realized that he must have been an adornment to the glamorous academies of learning he attended, rather than the other way around.

    William F Buckley Jr once said of Nader in a broadcast interview that “He seems to dislike America” … for Buckley a mild reproach, possibly the result of his unedifying exchange with Gore Vidal on national television years before. Only here Mr. Nader, once you get past his habitual monotone and uninflected delivery, clearly likes the small American industrial town of his youth, with its myriad opportunities for employment, its mostly harmonious multiracial relations, its culture of self-sufficiency and leveling avoidance of ostentation. And, pace Buckley, he finds a lot to like about America in our own vexed time, believing as he does that new grassroots artisanal occupations and trades are in part replacing the vanished occupations of the old mill towns, and that new expressions of community and common interest are arising with them.

    Mr. Nader’s optimism here is a tonic to minds fatigued by the crassness of our national politics in this election year. He seems not to have become jaded or embittered by the long fight he’s waged for pro bono publico policies and rational, people’s-interest governance. It’s good to be reminded of his long and generally positive contribution to civilizing the national conversation about American priorities.

  • ahmahsheila@yahoo.com

    Dear Ralph,
    I do not think my input is worth a lot, but I want to try to get a hold of you (I hope you read this) and tell you I admire you and have for many years, especially since I heard you speak many years ago at what was then Worcester State College in Worcester MA. Somehow, I was convinced to hope you would become our President (OUR being – all Americans). I voted for you and hoped many more would as our President. I made posters and held them at the polling stations at the legal length away from the door. My children saw me as their bus deposited them at their high school then, they knew why I was there. I was there to try to get people to vote for you. If they had been lobbyists in WASHINGTON, MAYBE THAT WOULD HAVE SWUNG THE ELECTION. Somehow I had wished I had more friends THAT I could have talked into voting for you then. I know my boss voted for you and I believe my impassioned pleas helped. That may have been a major coup! So now where do we stand? I actually sent a donation to your campaign. How do we now move forward? We don’t have anyone to represent us as “fellow Americans”.
    I work for a small community newspaper in Central Mass, not too far from you in Connecticut. I’m just a little person and I am aware of that, but I do admire you and know it is probably good you didn’t make it to the big time white house because I do not trust too many people in power. I am not naive. I lived through the Kennedys and MLK being assasignated, not a great historical time for Americans.

    So if I can hear from you it would be ‘PRICELESS” – I have more.
    Thank you for your devotion and fearlessness to us, the little people.
    We really do need you.

    With love and much admiration and gratitude,
    and waiting to hear from you,

  • George Mulligan

    I’ve peacefully fought the powers for many years. They are not invulnerable. However they have interlocking defenses which frustrates most people.

    Their vulnerability is implosion because everyone can be shown clear, plain, and evident facts and circumstances where those in the interlocking see they shall be betrayed.

    I don’t agree with the premise of Mr. Nader’s last book. However if I could get support of him and his organization, the 9th Amendment, QUI TAM – MASS TORT, HIGH CRIMES. BRIBERY, FELONIES, R.I.C.O. ACT could effect change.

    Archimedes: Give me a LEVER and I can move the world.

    The system is run by ruthless mensa morons. They are vulnerable. At no time in History has there ever been legitimate government, except maybe post WW II USA greatest
    generation. Increasingly, fewer people can control more people. There is a sense of urgency.

    When those abusing the system are shown they are played for fools ….

  • Potter

    I don’t get Nader’s sense of timing to be out there trying to get people to stay home on election day ( it seems) and his hedges when he says that Obama is better than Romney but the “worse evil” ( ostensibly because he knows better?). I don’t get his denial of “spoiler” as a concept, never-mind that he was one. yes what he says is true- but we are not in a perfect world and how do we get to those goals? :