By Kevin Kelly
As corporate influence expands seemingly unchecked and elected representatives reject compromise in favor of zero-sum game or stalemate, consumer rights advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader has undertaken one of his most ambitious challenges- the organization of a coalition of both left and right, uniting to defeat the “corporate state.”
For more than five decades, Nader has mobilized Americans to demand greater oversight on such pivotal issues as auto safety, pollution, government reform, and health care. Nader’s success as a political activist earned him distinction by The Atlantic as one of the 100 most influential Americans in history. At the same time, the corporate forces he has fought against branded him a pariah. This week, Nader took time from touring to discuss with me his latest book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, a work he undertook “to generate a major public discussion where left-right alliances become more visible, more demanding, and more connected with the media.”
Left and Right coming together? Is it possible? According to Nader, absolutely. Left-right alliances are a natural evolution because “they agree on a lot of things—they’re opposed to Wall Street bailouts and general subsidies/giveaways to corporations…they’re opposed to militarism, Empire abroad, the bloated military budget, they don’t like the restrictions on their civil liberties under the Patriot Act…they want to break up the ‘too big to fail’ banks… they like direct democracy and referendum recall…”
Nader detailed a number of relatively recent co-sponsored conservative/liberal initiatives including the Ron Paul/Barney Frank call for defense cuts, the Rand Paul/Ron Wyden filibuster demanding transparency on the drone program, and the proposed Walter Jones/Dennis Kucinich legislation to amend the War Powers Act. Further evidence of right-left coalitions include the successful avoidance of pre-emptive airstrikes on Syria, the bipartisan rebellion against NSA blanket surveillance on the telephone/email communications of American citizens, and the joining of conservative and liberal minds to push comprehensive prison reform and drug policy overhaul.
Nader points out that these alliances are not only natural but much more prevalent than the public realizes. He credits self-serving corporate agenda and corporate-financed media with keeping both his message from being heard and the American electorate ignorant of the possibilities of right-left agreement: “They don’t want me on their programs. I can’t get on Diane Rehm…I can’t get on Charlie Rose…This is all public TV and radio, you know…They’ve bought into the system- look who funds them.”
Nader is not alone in his concern over disproportionate corporate influence and questionable corporate agenda. History is filled with accounts of overreach and warning, from the very inception of the American Republic. Thomas Jefferson observed: “I hope we shall crush…in its birth, the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Jefferson’s fears are echoed by countless notable figures who followed, including Major General Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in American history, who described himself as a forced “gangster for capitalism” and revealed in his 1935 pamphlet War Is a Racket that his true marching orders came from corporations that dictated America’s foreign policy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who enjoyed a uniquely panoramic view of the corporate/political landscape, was uneasy enough to address Congress in 1938, calling for the creation of a Temporary National Economic Commission (TNEC), the purpose of which was to examine the growing concentration of corporate power. He would later say that “the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state…in its essence is fascism.” Similarly, Vice President Henry Wallace wrote of the dangers of corporatists in an op-ed for the New York Times in 1944: “…Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjugation.”
“Unstoppable” introduces readers to an incredible group of Depression-era concerned citizens who likewise recognized and wrote of the malignant potential of power centralization and resulting undue corporate influence. Nader describes the enlightened insight of this eclectic group of author-activists: “They were artists, writers, poets, workers, farmers, and they called themselves decentralists… I featured them in my book because I have never come across a more powerful critique of the corporate state…they weren’t armchair philosophers…they weren’t part of cushy think tanks in D.C. or New York…they lived among the dispossessed and the deprived in the horrible depression and poverty of those years.. The amazing thing about it is they weren’t taken in by government regulation. They thought government regulation would be taken over by the corporate lobbyists and turned against the people- which has happened.” In the same spirit that brought together such a diverse group of decentralists, Nader believes that a coalition of left and right can, and must, unify today in opposition to corporate appropriation.
One of the foremost priorities of a right-left coalition, according to Nader, should be the passage of a constitutional amendment prohibiting corporations from financing/ingratiating political candidates. Thanks in large part to the disencumbering Supreme Court rulings of Citizens United and McCutcheon which allow for unlimited campaign contributions, the domination of the American political landscape by corporations has been all but assured. Shortly after the rulings, a study released by Princeton University concluded that America is slipping towards an oligarchy. Nader disagrees, believing that the country has already reached oligarchy stratus: “It’s an oligarchy-plutocracy. It’s ruled by the wealthy, and the wealthy rule politically through the political representatives at the national, state, and local level to turn it into an oligarchy.” Without the formation of a right-left alliance and the passage of a constitutional amendment to address campaign financing, Nader predicts that corporations will continue to pull the puppet strings of America’s elected officials: “There will be more and more mergers between Wall Street and Washington, with Wall Street singing the tune.”
Given the increasing mistrust of American leadership by the public, Ralph Nader’s message of bipartisan cooperation is more relevant than ever. Encouraged by cooperative left-right victories, Nader looks to the 2016 election and possible independent-thinking contenders such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown to spur meaningful discourse and embolden politicians to act on behalf of constituency over loyalty to corporation or party affiliation.
Nader concludes the conversation with the idea that the youth of today have an integral part to play in the country’s return to a true democratic political process, through grassroots initiatives to challenge the two political parties. He offers a “how-to” model requiring three electoral cycles, with the first four year cycle dedicated to establishing a non-candidate political party, “learning the ropes,” choosing agendas, reaching out to other youth-supporters, and selecting who to vote for or against. During a first election cycle, no candidate would be put forth. According to Nader, at this point, “…the powers that be will look out at you and say ‘hey, there are votes here if we take on one or more of these agendas.’” The second four years should see the fielding of candidates at the local, state, and national level, and in the third election cycle, “… you take over.” Nader estimates that it would require only 1,000 people to begin such a model and foster it through to third-cycle success:”… It takes about 1,000 people to start something like this, and to multiply. One thousand young people, who have both the long view and the immediate self interest combined, because Wall Street has collapsed your generation.”
Kevin Patrick Kelly is a university student majoring in History and Political Science. Previously, he was a columnist for Washington Times Communities. Follow him on Twitter @TheKevinPKelly.
Untold History does not subscribe to any specific agenda and seeks to promote independent commentary about history and current affairs.