Ralph Nader is America’s leading consumer advocate and favorite third party candidate. After three unsuccessful bids for the presidency in the past decade, he recently turned to writing fiction. In Nader’s first novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! ($27.50, Seven Stories Press), a cadre of billionaires called the Meliowzrists and led by Warren Buffet, use their vast personal wealth to free American democracy from corporate power. Nader spoke with the Independent about Obama, the political culture of Washington, and his utopian vision for America via telephone from his office in Washington, DC.
Why did you choose to lay out your plan for fixing America in fiction, instead of in a manifesto, or roadmap, or something like that?
Well, people don’t read wonky books anymore, and even those don’t show how you get a plan implemented or adopted. So you need narrative, and the best narrative is this kind of practical utopian fiction.
You call it a practical utopia, but how practical do you think it is?
Well, it’s practical to the point where one ingredient is required: a small number of very rich people, willing to put their money on the line, raise it from their peers, and stay with a very smart strategy. The book is designed on a lightning fast strategy, since the longer it takes the stronger the opposition grows. You can see that in the health care reform in Washington now.
Do you think the climate for reform has recently changed in Washington, with Obama’s election?
No. Something [on healthcare] will pass, because the Democrats are in control, but it’s being shredded as we speak. It should have started with single-payer, full Medicare for all. You don’t send out a half-baked, overly complex, ambiguous, trapdoor-ridden bill of 2000 pages. That just gives the opposition more interfaces for attrition.
Do you think a lot of that attrition, a lot of the bloat on the bill comes from vested corporate interests in Washington?
Well yeah, the primary protagonists are the right wing Republican ideologues, the blue dog democrats, and on the outside, the triple lobby of the health insurance companies, the drug companies, and the hospital chains.
Were the stimulus plan and bank bailouts inevitable byproducts of being politically in bed with those same companies?
When we opposed deregulation, that’s what we predicted would happen. Greed has to be curtailed, on its own it doesn’t know when to stop until it’s over the cliff. They could have done it in a much smarter way, but they panicked the public to get what they want, and ended up panicking themselves. You can’t say “hurry, hurry, public!” and “hurry, hurry, Congress!” and do anything deliberate and smart. They just slapped it together, sent it up there, and said, “Give me $700 billion.”
As disillusionment with Obama grows, do you think that the American public will react to by moving towards reform or be numbed to inaction?
It’s a very demoralized public. Demoralization comes from witnessing what’s happening and a sense of their powerlessness, which is then described as apathy, which leads to withdrawal. It’s a very dangerous situation.
Do you think that the two-party system itself is being held together by corporate culture?
Well it is money, but after a while, money produces a pre-selection of candidates. Let’s put it this way. People don’t even bother running if they see what’s expected of them and how they have to grovel to raise enough money, deal with the king-makers in the party, et cetera.
That’s why this book is so important, to jar people into liberating their own imagination, going in their own directions. Society’s stuck in traffic, it’s paralyzed, Wall Street is corrupt and bailed out and irresponsible and criminal, and you’ve got Washington that’s in a total gridlock, that’s a disaster, in terms of trying to deal with problems, year after year, decade after decade. It’s been 60 years since Truman proposed single-payer health care.
But in your book, you propose an almost oligarchic approach to reform, with a group of billionaires reforming the country. Is American democracy is at the point where we need an elite group to fix us?
It’s primarily opening doors that are closed, that can’t be opened without resources and contacts. The Meliorists used a lot of money, used media, and used their Rolodex. And you could see as the book progressed, more and more power was built at the community level, and more and more power devolved at the community level. They didn’t make all the decisions at the committee level, that’s why they called their approach redirections, you see. It’s on page 76.
Is there much chance for reform from within Washington, or would have to come from some outside force, like your Meliorists?
Well, it can come from inside, because the 535 members of Congress answer to people back home. Or they’re supposed to answer to people back home. In Washington, they answer largely to commercial interests in the District, who offer overwhelming political funding, and jobs, and threats to go overseas with jobs. So when it comes to any kind of reform, it’s got to be done back home, because that’s where the votes are, that’s where the negative votes are, and that’s where the pressure from the voters can come. In Washington, the corporate lobbyists outnumber the citizen group lobbyists by a huge amount.
Since publishing the book, have you seen any response from people with money about getting involved in reforming politics?
Well, it takes quite a while to get people at that wealth into that level of thought. They have to upgrade their imagination, drop their sense of powerlessness. A lot of super-rich older people think they’ve lost their power in their 70s, 80s, 90s, but I show in the book that’s not necessarily true at all. Now, they’re as amateur as anyone else, they don’t know how to build power. They give a lot of money to charity, huge money to charity - George Soros has built citizen groups with his open society groups, and he just announced he’s going to put a billion dollars in clean energy technology investments, I guess, but that isn’t exactly what I was putting before them.
Could this same concept of moneyed intervention, with America as the wealthiest nation in the world, impose or foster democracy in other countries, too?
Well, there’s an old saying. If we want to spread democracy let’s be one, right? Let’s start with turning our country around and watch the fruits that will be forthcoming. I’ve been all over this country, and while you’ll have trouble convincing rednecks of a lot of things, on economic issues all these things are open. Once some of the peer group changes, they change.
So changing the culture at a grassroots level could work?
Exactly. One of the definitions of culture is to circumscribe human imagination. We just grow up corporate, we grow up not speaking out, we grow up censuring ourselves. It’s true in academia, and it’s enormously true in law school, it’s almost laughable. I was just at Harvard, speaking, and here are these kids in the room, and some of them never gave a wrong answer to a question in their life, and they’re just like neophytes. They’re being processed, they’re being choreographed according to a certain ideology of law. A lot of it is empirical starvation and not just what they do study, but what they don’t study. The curriculum is a reflection of the job market, and guess where the job market is - in the corporate law firms.
You think that grassroots power is strong enough to break through the media and corporate bloc in Washington?
If it has money. There’s 2000 lobbyists for the drug, health insurance and hospital chain industry lobby in congress with huge backup, of course, PACs and so on, and there isn’t one full-time lobbyist for single payer reform, which is a majority position of the people, doctors, and nurses, in the country. That gives you an idea what the mismatch is like. But in the book, the forces for reform are all attracted by money, and their actions are made possible by money.
Where do the young fit into reform?
Every social justice movement in our history, except the GI Bill of Rights, was started by people who had no power. Women’s suffrage, labor, abolition of slavery, that’s how it starts. Now that’s a long road, that way, but they were funded by rich families. Women’s suffrage movement, abolition of slavery, 50s and 60s civil rights, they were funded by rich families who stayed in the background. So there is a precedent for social justice funding. It’s not charity, this is power collection, democracy building, social justice funding. It’s not deductible.
Are you considering re-entering a public spotlight in any upcoming elections to try and promote these ideas?
I’m trying to get some super-rich people to have small conferences to discuss the concept in their own frame of reference, for their own cause, but it’s going to take a while. It always takes a while. Look at all the years just to convince people just about cars. Or tobacco.