David Feldman, Ralph Nader, Bill Curry, John Nichols
David Feldman: Welcome to the Radio Nader Hour. My name is David Feldman. Steve Skrovan is shopping for property in Canada this week, and we’re here with the man of the hour Ralph Nader. Hi Ralph.
Ralph Nader: Hello, what a program we have today, post election.
David Feldman: Yes. We’re going to devote the full hour to election analysis with two of the most astute political commentators on the scene today. And we’re going to do that in a round table format. Joining us is returning guest Bill Curry who writes for Salon. Mr. Curry was a White House counselor to President Clinton and a two time Democratic Nominee for Governor of Connecticut. He’s at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism, welcome back Bill Curry.
Bill Curry: Thank you.
David Feldman: We’re also joined today for the very first time by the National Affairs Correspondent for The Nation Magazine, John Nichols. Mr. Nichols is also a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times. He’s also the associate editor of The Capitol Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. Welcome to the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, John Nichols.
John Nichols: It’s an honor to be with all of you.
David Feldman: Ralph?
Ralph Nader: Thank you again Bill and John. I want to get started with a comment you made this morning, John Nichols, on Democracy Now! This is the second Presidential election in sixteen years where the Democrats won the national popular vote for President and lost the Electoral College. When do you think the Democrats are going to take a stand against the Electoral College and support the ongoing interstate compact that has been led by Steve Silberstein in San Francisco that has now enough states to 165 electoral votes on the way to 270?
John Nichols: I would hope that one of the play outs of this election cycle would be a rapid and impassioned embrace of that change. Look, there are many proposals for how to get rid of the Electoral College. We should have done it a century ago, long, long ago, longer. But now, we are faced with a fundamental reality that I don’t think has yet dawned on most Americans, most journalist who are looking at this race. We have a lousy election system in this country. We don’t count ballots well or quickly. and the weeks go on. As we count all the ballots, all the provisional ballots just slowly recounted and reconciled out, we’re going to find out that Hillary Clinton has won the popular vote by a wider margin I believe than any “loser” in a presidential race in American history. It could well get toward a million votes. And if that happens, we should really recognize that if we were just like most other countries in the world, Donald Trump wouldn’t be president.
Ralph Nader: Let’s get to this next point of accountability. In parliamentary countries, when the ruling party loses, the head of the party often resigns his or her seat, as David Cameron did after the Brexit vote. Bill Curry, let me put this question to you. Who should resign in the Congress, in the leadership in the Congress or in the Democratic Party apparatus after this colossal disaster to someone who had a high untrustworthy poll, very high in the 60s and sometimes like 60% Donald Trump. And who was a hypocrite against most of the accusations he made about others, he was the target of his own accusations. Nancy Pelosi, let’s start with her, four time loser.
Bill Curry: First of all, the entire geriatric leadership of the Democratic Party in the House should have gone a long time ago. And if there even a bit of either a spine or self-respect to the House Democrats, they’ll finally do it. The Republicans have turned over their entire leadership team I believe – their entire team – three times while these same Democrats have been in control. The average age of Republican leaders are almost twenty years younger than that of a Democratic leader. They’re all out of touch. The politics that most of them have embraced has been now thoroughly discredited, not only to the base, but to almost anyone who pauses to think about it. So they should all go. The whole crowd the Clintons accumulated – of the Terry McAuliffes and Rahm Emanuels and Debbie Wasserman Schultzes and Doug Band – all of these people have hardly been performing public service and/or service to their party. But let me just point out one other thing. These people all did the wrong thing and they continue to, but it’s not why Bernie lost in the primary. For sure, without unions representing more than 70% of all members, Hillary Clinton never would have come close enough in Iowa to have pretended to win it. She never would have won Illinois without ASFME. She never would have won Massachusetts without the teachers or Nevada without the culinary workers. Our own progressive base did more to consolidate her nomination than this decrepit, feeble party had the ability to do. The housecleaning here isn’t just among the most obvious targets. I think it extends a bit further. And if housecleaning can’t happen, then just think of it just movement building. We need to rebuild the progressive, independent and stronger progressive movement that is no longer colonized by the Democratic Party. When we do, both the parties and movement would be better off.
Ralph Nader: Okay. Before we get to that, I want to talk about what kind of community mobilization, hopefully on left/right issues of gravity, after the election is over, working on both Republican and Democrat members of the Congress. Before we talk about that, let me put forward this thesis. The victory of Donald Trump – unheralded by most polls and most pundits – was a revolt of white America, a cultural revolt, an economic revolt, and a racial revolt. What’s your reaction to that thesis, John Nichols?
John Nichols: I think it’s more than that. And I think that we have to very careful about being cavalier in how we describe what has happened. But, what you are talking about is a component of what has happened. Now, the way to understand the circumstance we are in is that we’re now forty years into deindustrialization. We’re thirty years into radical globalization or twenty years into a digital revolution that has changed virtually everything about how we communicate, how we interact with one another. We’re about ten years or less into an automation revolution that’s going to change everything about how we work. In this country, you had a substantial number of working class people, not just white folks, you also have African Americans, Latinos and others who at one time had some assurance, especially if they were in a union job in an industrial setting of reasonably good work. Work that would pay them a decent salary, benefits and some sort of hope for a retirement and maybe also would provide employment for their kids and grandkids. That’s being blown apart. Because Donald Trump’s appeal was so frequently racist, xenophobic, cruel, sexist – you just run down the list of terms – some working class communities said, “We’re not going to go near that. We’re not going to vote for that guy.” Some white working class communities, especially in more rural areas and smaller cities said – even though I think many of them may have had genuine objections to how Trump communicated – said “We’re going to vote for an oligarch. We’re going to vote for a billionaire populist, because we think that maybe that’s going to help us get through this jarring moment that we can’t wrap our heads around.” And so, I think we need to understand all the factors that underpinned what has happened. And we also have to understand coming out of what Bill just said. We have to understand, this campaign never addressed anything, if almost nothing, of what I was just talking about with deindustrialization, globalization, digital revolution, automation. This was a backward looking campaign that offered people no vision for where we’re headed. And that’s on the Democratic Party.
Ralph Nader: Well, some people think that Donald Trump – using his own inimitable language – hijacked the progressive view of politics, apart from his bigoted and racial and misogynistic remarks. I want to play his last national TV ad. Remember, he was outspent at least four to one on national TV. He had no celebrities going around for him as Hillary Clinton did. He had no ground game to get out the vote. He was actually opposed by most CEOs and most media editorial positions. And he still prevailed in the Electoral College. Now take away the section in his ad on immigration, and I want you to react to this two-minute ad that was his final message to America. And one of his memorable phrases was, “This is our last chance.” And of course you know how many people have thought they knew who “our” was and “this is ‘our’ last chance.” Jimmy let’s play this two minute ad.
Donald Trump: “Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people. The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind. The political establishment that is trying to stop us is the same group responsible for our disastrous trade deals, massive illegal immigration, and economic and foreign policies that have bled our country dry. The political establishment has brought about the destruction of our factories and our jobs as they flee to Mexico, China, and other countries all around the world. It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities. The only thing that can stop this corrupt machine is you. The only force strong enough to save our country is us. The only people brave enough to vote out this corrupt establishment is you, the American people. I am doing this for the people and for the movement. And we will take back this country for you. And we will make America great again. I’m Donald Trump, and I approve this message.”
Ralph Nader: Okay John Nichols, Bill Curry, what’s your reaction to this? Did he hijack the progressive message? Why didn’t he have competition? And what do you think of the two minute finale that you just heard? Let’s start John Nichols.
John Nichols: Look, I heard that. And I heard actually the speeches in which he incorporated some of that language. This was a core theme. Of course, he hijacked language. I mean this is a guy talking about “our” movement. This is a guy talking about economic elites, about corporations. I mean, I know a guy on this call who ran for President once and talked about movements and economic elites and corporations, Ralph – and did so from a progressive populist position. Trump has clearly taken a great deal of the language. And it’s an interesting thing, too. He took something very much from the left, where he presented himself as part of the movement. He didn’t even say, “I’m your strong man, I’m your – you know – savior, I’m going to see you through this thing,” he said “our” movement. This is very smart language. His language is certainly informed by historic progressive messages and contemporary ideals, I think, in many cases. Until you ask the exact question, “How did the billionaire populist…” Right? That’s the phrase for this guy. “How did a billionaire populist, who is really more ‘billionaire’ than ‘populist’ and always will be abscond with so much of the language?” A: he’s not a politician. He assessed the circumstance, and he figured out what was needed, what would work, that was smart. He did that in the Republican primaries, and then he did it in the general election. But this is the heart of it. Democrats had a chance with Bernie Sanders to provide a deeper, clearer, much more effective articulation of these ideas, these concerns and a way out. They didn’t just reject Bernie Sanders, a lot of people in power in the Democratic Party, who said, “Oh no this guy, he would be a disaster. He would be, you know he would lose, you got to trust it to the tried and true people who’ve have been running this thing for a very long time.” If you read some of the e-mails that went back and forth between these top Democrats, they were pushing away, not just Bernie Sanders but Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio and anybody who came to them and said, “Look, this stuff is at the heart of what’s going on. We’ve got to embrace it. We’ve got to become, you know, better at talking about it.” So yes, Trump assessed the situation, figured out a language that was highly effective. It was a language Democrats could have embraced, could have made central to their campaign. They never comfortably did so, and they lost not just the presidency, but frankly because we’re evolving toward a parliamentary style system – not in reality but in the way that voting occurs – they also lost a lot of Senate races and House races, where people who were doing a better job of articulating that message were cut off, didn’t get to succeed because the Presidential candidate was so weak.
Ralph Nader: Bill, what’s your take on it? And bring in Bernie Sanders. What’s your take on this ad?
Bill Curry: First of all, I’d just make one small semantic quibble. And that is that Trump didn’t hijack the populism, the Democratic Party made a gift of it to him. And he simply accepted it. The second thing I would just say — and let me just sign on to everything that John has said – that that elite, as he alluded to, made a decision that in the midst of a global insurrection against political corruption and economic oligarchy that Hillary Clinton’s “pay to play” politics in global finance capitalism would somehow play better than Bernie Sanders Democratic Socialism. And every ideology thinks it’s scientific. And the hardest ideology to expose is centrist ideology, because they do the best job at pretending to be empirical. But the fact of the matter is, they ignored every poll they had, all the data they had, and even all the anecdotes they could possibly have accumulated in order to reach the conclusion that Hillary was a stronger candidate than Bernie. The Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the United States and maybe even the planet have all been changed in ways no rational person could welcome. And I remain certain that if anyone other than Clinton – and certainly if you accept for just one moment that when all the polls said the right things by such wide margins for so long they might be right – Bernie Sanders could have won this had he been the nominee, like Roosevelt took out Landon. And if she’d simply put him on the ticket, she probably could have brought Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And I see no reason to doubt the thesis. The Democratic Party – again as I said this morning, “Never underestimate the capacity of an entire social order to commit suicide.” And they did that. The last thing I want to add though, and just a sentence: and that is, I also strongly agree with what John said earlier. The worse mistake we could make isn’t – some Clinton people will blame the Bernie people. Somehow, I’m sure that will happen. I used to worry about it. But what I most worry about is that they’re going to blame the people. They’re going to blame the voters. They’re going to say that all the voters are just like Trump. As with all human change, the first road to growth starts with taking responsibility. The Democratic Party did this to itself. And while there are millions of voters who were no doubt racially motivated, there were millions of voters who’ve lost their pensions and the equity in their homes and their dreams of their children’s college education, who’ve become addicted and suicidal, whose mortality rates have diminished. And it’s been years since they heard anybody call their name. All that happened yesterday is that they got a chance – it was just one chance anybody had given them to say, “no.”
Ralph Nader: If you look at the map it’s amazing how the Democrat states are West Coast and East Coast above North Carolina. And in the middle country, everything in between, is very heavily Republican. It’s like they were ignored. They felt ignored. They were very resentful. They had very, very daily examples of that resentment. And here you go where the insurance company jacking up rates under Obamacare at the worst opportune moments. Let’s back up in terms of electoral reforms, do you think there should be universal voting, voting as a duty like in Australia and some other countries, together with a binding “none of the above” to deal with the civil liberties issue and instant run off voting. What do you think of those three, John Nichols?
John Nichols: Yes, yes, yes. Look, you pointed out that, when we look at that map, we have East Coast and West Coast states supporting Clinton, the Democrats. More of the center of the country, rejecting. At this point, we – because I think as you taught me, Ralph – must always look at the structural realities. The structural realities in America are that in a host of states since 2010, when Republican governors have come in, they’ve made it harder to vote with voter ID laws, with limits on early voting, with a host of interventions that, that just simply make it more difficult for working class people to cast a ballot. On the other hand, in Oregon they’re leading on some of the registration reforms you talk about. State of Maine looks like it’s headed toward an embrace of instant run-off voting. And we’ll see how the final results come there. We have communities across this country that have moved to reforms that you’re talking about. And they work. We’re not talking about some sort of fantasy here. We are talking about simple, political realities that are structural. And if they are implemented, they produce different results. One thing to remember about all this: our goal should be maximized turnout elections, high turnout elections in which great masses of people participate. In Iceland the other day, they had an election about a week ago where almost 80% of the people turned out. I don’t think we’ll get to 60% in America and potentially a good deal less than that. This is a big deal. Iceland, it looks like, may have a relatively conservative government. And yet their conservative government, because of that high turnout, will be environmentally sensitive, sensitive to women, supportive of the social welfare state, you know conservatism – so called conservatism in much of the rest of the world – is much more – not always – but often much more good management rather than some sort of alternative vision where you would really reject all these things because when you have high turnout, you can’t reject these basics. America is defined by our low turnout elections, by the difficulty of voting. And so Democrats, progressives, anybody who isn’t satisfied with Donald Trump should be immediately going to these structural responses and looking for ways to implement them at every level from the community to the state to ultimately the federal.
Ralph Nader: Bill, you’ve observed very closely Bernie Sanders’ movement. What do you think he should do right now, both in terms of mass rallies, perhaps before the end of the year? How does he bring his followers together, who are going in all directions despairing, some voted for Hillary, some voted for Trump, some stayed home, a few might have voted for the Greens? What would you recommend to Bernie Sanders? Because he has the only operating asset electorally left in the Democratic Party on the national scene.
Bill Curry: First of all, I would say that we woke up this morning with Bernie Sanders as the de facto leader of the Democratic Party in America. Now, that may not be true in a week or a month or a year, but it’s true this morning. The first question is the one you just posed. What will he do with that? Will he know what to do with it? There’s some things his people haven’t proven very good at so far, and that is knowing what to do organizationally. But to be fair, it’s a very complex question. The first thing he can do is make a decision to disempower himself in the following way: to find a way for the actual assets of this campaign to become the property of the people who built it. This is what a Democratic Socialist would want to do you, would think. It’s the opposite of what Obama did. Obama, you know, in 2008 built the largest grassroots, electoral political movement certainly in the nation’s history and then took it private and put it under the aegis of a couple of his corporate donors, quite literally, put them in charge of it. And they never had another meeting. And they just did what so much of the left has done which is, turn a grassroots movement into a Washington-based Pac with a grassroots mailing list. The challenge here is for Bernie and for the left to find out a way not to do that. Two of the glaring defects of left or shortcomings, I think, have been exposed in this campaign and recently. One is that – unlike progressive movements in other countries – we don’t have a public integrity movement that is strong. And we also don’t have a peace movement …
Ralph Nader: Bill, you’re talking about public corruption right, when you talk about public integrity?
Bill Curry: Uh huh.
Ralph Nader: Okay, you want to elaborate that?
Bill Curry: Yes, that’s right. We don’t have an anti-corruption movement in this country. Common Cause, I appreciate what they do. But there hasn’t been a strong – again we don’t have a strong independent progressive movement. And it would strengthen the Democrats, I’m almost sure, and the progressives for certain, if they became more independent and resume a kind of more arms length relationship with the Party. They have to do some building. The two areas that strike me as the areas in which we’re weakest are, one: public corruption; and two: peace. And we’ve had strong peace movements before. We don’t have one now. Other areas, we have a lot of other building to do. So it’s not just up to Bernie. That piece of it – it’s up to an awful lot of people. Define ways in which organizations as diverse as churches, non-profits and pacs can find a way to work together. And Bernie’s job is to go out there, I think, and continue to provide some spiritual leadership to this thing and to help frame the message, and to be very much a part of that. It’s not true that the country is just waiting for someone to run on exactly what progressives think. We have to do some retooling of our own. Our message isn’t quite ready, and we need to go through a policy process. I’ll just finish by saying, a mantra I’ve repeated in many articles and speeches over the last year: “policy precedes message.” First, you figure out what you believe, and then how to tell people about it. If you find the right concrete, compelling and specific idea, it will do your fundraising and your organizing for you. That’s how The (Nuclear) Freeze, that’s how your movement, that’s how every great progressive movement operated.
Ralph Nader: Bill, you know there is a sort of subliminal consensus on the militarization of foreign policy, interventionism, empire by both parties in this election, and they evidence that by hardly talking about it. And Bernie didn’t talk much about the militarization of foreign policy.
Bill Curry: Not his strong suit.
Ralph Nader: All empires devour themselves. And the diversion of massive portions of our public budget into the Pentagon budget, into the war making machine has bled dry the potential of renovating and refurbishing our massive public works that are crumbling all over the country, creating good paying jobs that can’t be exploited. What do you think should happen in terms of amplifying whatever movement Bernie had? By the way, for the first time, this progressive movement can raise good money. The same people that raised 235 million in small denominations for Bernie are still active. They’re ready to go. That means that there’s money for full time organizers in every Congressional district if Bernie is something other than a Lone Ranger.
John Nichols: Yeah, I think either of us would say similar things. But here is a way to back up and look at this. We know the military industrial complex about which Eisenhower warned is both a budgetary challenge, it’s also a structural challenge for our society. This is big deal stuff. But we also know that we have to figure out how to talk about all this. The answer to how we talk about this is to borrow a page from the past. When the nonpartisan leaders, the farmer laborites and the progressives of the Upper Midwest created independent third parties – all which by the way ultimately sort of evolved into the modern Democratic Party in those states at a time when those price are quite viable – they always put out these wonderful documents. I’ve got some of the historic ones. They’re full budgets. They would put out their whole budget and mass produce it and give it to activists across the state. They’d say, “Here’s how much we want to tax. Here is where we want to allocate the money. Here’s where we might open some things up for debate. But if we’re elected this is our budget, this is our plan and so we show you what we can do and how to do it.” If the Democratic Party was a progressive political party – or even progressive movements within it – were to simply do that on a regular basis, I think Americans would as justifiably be shocked by the disproportionality of our defense spending that by the corporate welfare, by all of the things that are run through a budget. This doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s that transparency, it’s that willingness to bring people into the process, that’s the only way to change it. You don’t change it by having some grand vision from above. You show people the reality and then you invite them to be a part of making that change.
Ralph Nader: Just to add to your point, John. Over 90% of the people want the Pentagon budget to be audited. Who wouldn’t? And the Pentagon budget is un-auditable. It’s violating Federal Law since 1992. The Congress knows that. It’s the only agency in government that does not provide audited material for the Government Accountability Office, the GAO arm of the US Congress. And there’s not one person working full time reflecting this massive left/right consensus that of course the bloated ways for redundant, corrupt contracting budget of the Pentagon should be audited. And that fits right in with the point you just made on the people’s budget being part of a grass root effort. Bill, you were going to say?
Bill Curry: I just wanted to say, but first of all that I – again I want to agree with John on that historical note, and there are thousand such examples – that the concreteness and specificity by their nature are radical, especially to now more than ever and they’re so important to any kind of successful movement building, public education. And it will almost always show that another really sort of key point which is that, you can either make the change or write the check. One of the reasons people end up liking so many Socialists who run for office is that they are also frugal and ethical, and that they demonstrate in their platforms that by embracing systemic reform, we save money in the end. And the government does become more accountable. That’s really the way to get to the kind of better-managed and more honest government people want. The transparency thing that you’ve talked about Ralph is so critical to this. One of the reasons they’re not going to get the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) is that they – unlike every European country in the European Trade Agreement – they refused to disclose the details to the public for years. And if they had, maybe they would have found out some of its gross defects. And maybe they would have been able to cobble together an agreement that in fact worked better for working people. But, you know, as it is that didn’t happen. It goes to the core of what we, of the pressure we bring on Trump. Trump did steal, more than anything, the public corruption agenda. And we have to hold his feet to the fire on it. Those are all important.
Ralph Nader: Okay, let me just get to third parties here. Before I want to provoke your imagination – we’re talking with John Nichols who writes for the Nation and the Capitol Times in Wisconsin. We’re talking with Bill Curry, who was the Councilor for President Clinton for a number of years, and who has written brilliant articles for Salon and now for The Daily Beast. Third Parties: here’s how they did yesterday. Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party, former Governor of New Mexico came in about 3%. You’ve got 4 million and 24,000 votes. He didn’t quite get to 5% for federal funding on the next round. Jill Stein, Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party, she got about 1%, 1.2 million votes. Now, third parties have had a glorious history in the United States, even though they’ve never won a national election. They put on the table, they put on the ballot first, the abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, the protection of farmers by regulating railroads and banks in the late 19th Century, the organization of labor, the unions, fair labor standards in the 20th Century. Third parties first put on the ballot progressive taxation, a number of electoral reforms, Social Security, Medicare, consumer protection, unemployment compensation and on and on. They do provide a valuable push on the two party tyranny, on the two party duopoly. Now at what point would you, John Nichols or Bill Curry, reach a breaking point with the major party of your choice, which I assume is the Democratic Party? At what point in any quadrennial election do you say, “Now is the time?” Because for people who keep telling me, “Now is not the time to vote for a third party. We got a terrible Republican. And even though the Democrats are not good, they’re not as bad as a Republican.” Please can you tell us, who have worked in the third party vineyards, when is the time? And make any other brief comments on third parties.
John Nichols: I’ll just begin, because Bill then can bring the brilliance at the next stage. Let me offer this insight. We just had a classic example of the importance of third parties. The danger as regards to third parties is to always assume that the only measure of their success – and I know you don’t Ralph and I don’t expect you do either Bill – that the measure of their success is in votes. That it is electoral. It can also be in framing the debate. And what Jill Stein did at Standing Rock, where she went and stood in solidarity with Native Americans seeking to halt a pipeline was incredibly critical. When she went out there – I don’t know if everybody remembers this – she went there before most of the other folks, who have since been arrested, who brought more and more attention to this. And here she was, using her status as a third party candidate, maybe hoping, yes also to get attention to her candidacy, but using her status as a third party candidate, engaging in civil disobedience, participating in those protests. That goes back to Norman Thomas. That goes back to Eugene Victor Debs. This is a huge part of what a third party is about, what it can do. And we saw a good example of it. So we should celebrate that and embrace it. We also have to – as you’ve said so many times Ralph – break the corruption of the so-called “bipartisan” Commission on Debates. That’s the answer to your core question. When do we break? Some of us have already broken. And our break is to say that we have to make it possible for third parties to be heard at the start of the process in those first debates, because once you do that, then you get the deeper answer to your question. Because the deeper answer to your question from tens of millions of Americans is, that they will make the break when the third party is viable, when they see the possibility that their vote might not win but at least it can move the ball. And getting into the debates is absolutely critical to that, because suddenly you can have a candidate, who is very much on the margins, brought into the center of the discourse. I really strongly emphasize this: that we should all make the first break and be radically, passionately committed to multi-party debates. And I’ll tell you something else. A multi-party debate would have been bad for Donald Trump. Bottom line is, he was helped by one-on-one debates in which it was just him going back and forth. And everybody thought – a lot of people thought – Hillary Clinton won the debates. And I happen to be one of them. But the fact of the matter is, he stood alone on the stage with her as the only alternative. And so, people – Democrats – ought to really think about that.
Ralph Nader: Bill, in your most recent article, you say, “The most consequential election of our lives may end in a photo finish. Many progressives who back Bernie Sanders support Jill Stein or plan on staying home, I write to implore them to vote for Hillary Clinton, for our country and for our planet’s sake. And because for progressives, it’s a smart move.” Now, what do you think about the third party – the exclusionary debates, the harassment of third parties, ballot access obstacles – do they have a future in America?
Bill Curry: Okay first of all, on all the questions of ballot access and harassment and debate access, I agree with you. And I have long said – what John just said about this year. I believe that if Jill Stein had been allowed to participate in the debates this year, Hillary Clinton would have won. I believe – and I have said for sixteen years now – that if they’d let you into the debates in 2000, Gore would have won. Because you would have done a much better – I feel more certain of you than I do with Jill Stein – but you would have framed the issues that Gore didn’t. And it would have actually helped him. But they were too afraid. I’m in the group though – and you and I have had this argument between us for decades now – I think it’s the single thing that we most consistently disagree on – close to the only one – and that is this: that I still believe that we are in much more in need of a second party than a third party. And I’ve been on this hobbyhorse for thirty years now. That the Green Party – I disagree with John on this – I don’t think the Green Party made any difference at all in this election, except as a kind of a distraction. And progressives should ponder hard the fact that millennials overwhelmingly chose Libertarian over Green. And that ought to be part of our policy discussion. And I would also say that even though I lost the job I worked hardest for, the governorship of Connecticut, because a third party candidate bled a few votes – and it would have been the most progressive administration in the modern history of the country on a state level – I don’t denigrate third party movements, because I recognize their contribution. But I also recognize that it’s the movements that produce the ideas that you didn’t have to be in an election and then it’s harder now. And this is something you and I talked about a lot. It’s so much harder to educate now in an election. The debate doesn’t begin until the day after the election. It’s what’s insidiously wrong with where we are now. And so, I really wish that the left would just finally take a hard look at what the right has done. The Tea Party is six years old, it now runs the House, the Senate, the White House, the Supreme Court and is the most important influence in State Houses across the country. And it represents a tiny minority of American opinion. Progressives are closely aligned not only with our best values but the majority opinions of the broad middle class. And we’ve never been worse off. I would like us to just finally take that lesson to heart and do – not what the Greens do – but with the Working Families Party model has – at least banner – is moving toward. You primary the worst ones. You endorse the best ones. And you run independents where it makes tactical sense for your movement and for your cause.
Ralph Nader: All right.
Bill Curry: Protest politics isn’t enough. We have to learn to vie for power. That’s what I think.
Ralph Nader: Okay, now I want to move you to an area where you have to imagine in order to envision real possibilities. An enlightened mega billionaire comes to you, John Nichols, and to Bill Curry – and I want to see what your respective answers are. The billionaire says, “I’m going to give you $5 billion, and I want a plan what you would do with it to turn politics around in our country, from the bottom up and from the top down in a reasonable period of time, say thirty-six months crossing an election, or 48 months.” John Nichols, what would you do with that $5 billion, how would you use it?
John Nichols: $5 billion?
Ralph Nader: 5 billion with a B.
John Nichols: Okay. I would use the existing and rapidly developing digital platforms in which to create a national movement for a simple tax check off or tax benefit that would allow citizens to give $200 a year, tax free. They would get the money back to pay for nonprofit, independent media. I would use the 5 billion not to create independent media, but to create a mechanism by which citizens could support independent media that they approve of. It could be on the left, it can be on the right but the bottom line is, it has to be journalistic. It has to actually have at least some model where it goes out and reports on the news and gets information into this process. I’ll tell you what, give you an example of what that could do. If you had a million people who had their $200 and they all gave it to Amy Goodman, Ralph, you and I last night might well have been talking to the great majority of Americans.
Ralph Nader: Okay, now keep, keep going John, keep adding to the list. Yeah keep adding what else would you use, because you got a lot of money left over. Go ahead.
John Nichols: If I win that fight quick, right?
Ralph Nader: Yeah, okay.
John Nichols: And I really get that popularized and make that a left/right model. Then fight number two is: fight number two is for – and it’s just going to put me at odds with Bill here – it’s for every structural model that allows for multiparty democracy. And the reason I want multiparty democracy is – and obviously I think that relates to instant run-off voting or proportional representation or models of that sort is that – I want at the local state and national levels options for people to come into the process that they don’t feel they’re wasting their vote. When I talk about multiparty democracy, I’m literally talking about having three or four parties on the ballot and having them have some model, where they can get places in every race. And to make that the core of that – and how I might when I said “multiple avenues” and might get us there – the core of that is eliminating gerrymandering. The vast majority of Americans cast their ballots in the vast majority of races for candidates who they know are going to win or lose before they cast that ballot. What was remarkable about last night was we got a surprise out of it, right? That’s incredibly rare in American politics. Rob Richie over at FairVote and others, they usually predict the vast majority of Congressional races before they begin and so …
Bill Curry: Poor outcome, but yes.
John Nichols: … I know…
Ralph Nader: Okay.
John Nichols: … and I’ve been a passionate supporter for years of, of getting money out of politics and all sorts of other things …
Ralph Nader: Okay.
John Nichols: … but I think the biggest barrier is gerrymandering the limits on multiparty democracy.
Ralph Nader: Okay, Bill how would you use these billions of dollars in terms of organizing communities and Congressional and Legislative districts for action?
Bill Curry: First of all, I just want to say that I actually agree with John on most of what he just said. If we have instant run-off voting across America I’d be for third parties …
John Nichols: We’d also be identifying you as the former Governor of Connecticut.
Bill Curry: Yes, we would be, but it’s not just for that one selfish reason. Yes, yes my objection to third party systems is the system’s own intolerance of them and that I can’t find a way around it, unless we were to do what you said, that I’d want to have the instant runoff ballots before I committed to the party. But in the answer to Ralph’s question, I would in fact thank the donor for his generosity and then give him back the money, because that’s not my model. And this isn’t really about money. And that’s been one of the nice lessons of this election. You cannot draw a statistical correlation anywhere, primary or general, between money spent and outcome. It’s been true for a long time. I’ve argued since at least 1996, when I analyzed the Clinton race on it. And it’s the great untold secret of our politics that the money isn’t as important. What we need – and secondly because that I really agree with what John said about our need for a new and independent nonprofit media. I believe strongly in that – But what I believe most – I just have to go back is the problem here is intellectual. I just want to give one example from the The (Nuclear) Freeze, and I’ll …
Ralph Nader: Yeah very quickly, very quickly because I want to challenge you on this. So very quickly because we’re running out of time.
Bill Curry: … in the nuclear freeze movement, it was the concreteness and the specificity and the fact that the movement had a deal breaker, “If you weren’t with us, we weren’t for you.” The left doesn’t have any more deal breakers, apparently. The concreteness and specificity and power, the idea was, “bilateral, verifiable freeze on the development, production, deployment of nuclear weapons.” And the country heard the specific idea and bought it. And secondly, ala Saul Alinsky, the movement wasn’t conveyed by any kind of technological media. It was a person-to- person, face-to-face, producing the kinds of chemical reactions of change that I believe only human connection can do. And so, that’s my model. And that’s sort of the vision I have. And whether it’s entirely true or not, I want to push more of it.
Ralph Nader: All right let me challenge you, Bill. Historically, there haven’t been many successful mass movements without full time organizers in the field. Think the Labor Movement, think the Civil Rights Movement. If we are going to change this country, the way our system is calibrated, we have to focus, have the attention on Congress and state legislatures. That’s the way the Constitutions have opened the paths. If we’re going to transform this country, we have to have organizers in the field. We have to have people mobilizing, volunteer inputs and full time staffs and full time offices. Why wouldn’t you want to use some of this $5 billion to put full time Congress watchdog groups, deploying citizen summons in town meetings to the Senators and Representatives in every Congressional district? Full time offices backed by hundreds of engaged volunteer citizens, invoking left/right consensus. Why wouldn’t you want to recognize that without field organizers, you can’t make democracy work? And that takes money.
Bill Curry: I do recognize it …
Ralph Nader: That takes money.
Bill Curry: I do recognize this, let me just say Ralph, number: one your own movement to Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the rest of the Environmental Movement, the Peace Movement, they all had tens of thousands of organizers, who weren’t paid. One of the questions here is why we have given up on that idea. And why that’s disappeared. The story of the implosion of the left in the last forty years is every bit as important as the rise of the right. But it’s gotten a lot less attention, and I think that we should look at that. I also believe that money always comes with strings, even if they’re invisible. And I also believe it’s not top down. And I believe that this election is ultimately the greatest refutation. Think of the Democrats vaunted ground game, and all the fortune spent on it. You know what? A grassroots organizing campaign, it’s like wiring a house for electricity. You can put all the wiring and the outlets and the appliances all in, but if there’s no juice in the system, when you pull the switch the lights don’t go on. And “the juice” are the values and the convictions and the ideas that drive the movement. If we took $5 billion before we took a hard look at ourselves as to what it is we’re about to sell, we’d be making a mistake. And if we figure that out well enough, just like the Consumer Movement, just like The Freeze, just like the Women’s Movement, just like the Civil Rights Movement, we’ll win.
Ralph Nader: Well, you make an interesting point. John Nichols, let me ask you this in conclusion. What do you think should be done, given the fact that 2018 is going to help the Republicans take more control of the Senate, because I think three times more Democrats are up. It doesn’t look good for the Democrats to take back Congress anytime soon. What do you think should be done in terms of progressive politics at the grassroots, beyond exhortation? How do we organize people, whether they’re volunteers, whether they are helped by full time organizers? That to me is the essential question today, because I just finished writing a little paperback called, Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think, and a lot of the examples echo Bill’s optimism here. But what would you do on the ground?
John Nichols: Go to the states. Look, you’re right about taking back the House and the Senate. There are real challenges there, and that’s just cycles of politics. Although, I think it may be a little easier than than we think, because I think there will be a reaction to President Trump. But if there is that reaction to President Trump, one of the best places for it to play out is in the states. You have a number of governors and a lot of state legislators, who are in positions of power because we have moved into a counter cyclical pattern in our politics: whatever president is in the White House, in the states you often have in off year elections a reaction to that, a push back against it. In Wisconsin when George W. Bush was in the White House, you had Democrats win the 2002 and 2006 elections in Wisconsin. When you had Barrack Obama in the White House, you had Republicans win the 2010, 2014 elections. I think there’s a lot of genuine political opportunity in the states in 2018. I would put a lot of energy there. And that has a payback on the federal level, because the governors and legislators elected in 2018 will have the ability to do redistricting in a manner that might undo a tremendous amount of the damage done as regards to competitive congressional districts. Just massive commitment to the states.
Ralph Nader: Okay, one quick question to John, and then one question to both of you. Your home state of Wisconsin, how in the world did Russ Feingold lose to Senator Johnson?
John Nichols: Sure. The answer to that is very, very simple. I kind of referenced it earlier. We are moving toward a parliamentary system in our elections, not in our governance, it’s different. We still have obviously separation of powers, three branches of government et cetera. But the fact of the matter is, if you look around the country and you see how our politics played out, it is simply that people don’t split their tickets anymore at the level that they once did. Russ Feingold, as recently as 2004 against a very viable wealthy candidate, spending a lot of money, got well over a hundred – some people say even to the range of 200,000 – votes from people that voted for George W. Bush for President. Now in 2004, Russ Feingold is running as a guy who would had opposed the Patriot Act, opposed the War in Iraq, oppose so many of Bush’s initiatives, but people are willing to split their tickets because they respected Feingold. Even some conservatives voted for him because they liked his civil liberties. We’ve really lost that. I can’t emphasize, Ralph and then Bill, how real that reality is. You show me a State where Trump wins by in large – not always – but by in large, I’ll show you a state where the Republican won the competitive Senate race and vice versa. We’re losing a lot of ground there.
Ralph Nader: Okay, last quick question. I want to sense your temperament here. Do you think after four straight Congressional loses in the House of Representatives that Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer should step down from the leadership and open up a contest for new leadership of the Democrats in the House?
Bill Curry: I’ll go first, because this is the rare issue in which I beat you to the punch. I wrote a piece on this. My last piece on this was a year ago. And the one before that was three years ago. Absolutely. And if they don’t, someone in the House caucus should rise up. That Chuck Schumer would be Wall Street’s biggest friend in the United States Senate and become the minority leader on a voice vote, and that this failed leadership in the House, right across the board remains in power, its failures. It’s just tells you how little respect they have.
Ralph Nader: You’re talking about Senator Chuck Schumer in the Senate becoming a minority leader.
Bill Curry: I’m talking about Senator Chuck Schumer in the Senate, and I’m talking about the House. And for Pelosi and Steny Hoyer and all the – I’ve called many times for them to resign or be ousted – and again I have nothing against any of them. They’re all fine. But they’ve done a terrible job of figuring out what the right policy is.
Ralph Nader: Okay.
Bill Curry: We had thirty districts uncontested this year. There’s so many things about them that have failed. If the Democrats don’t bring a new leadership now, it’s clear they’re not committed to reforming their own party or bringing it back.
Ralph Nader: Okay. John, what’s your view?
John Nichols: It’s my turn to agree with Bill very passionately.
Bill Curry: Oh, good.
John Nichols: This has nothing to do with personalities. It’s a much simpler equation than that. Parties that lose replace their leaders, right? I mean this is very, very common. Sometimes, you will give a leader a couple of tries. They let Tom Dewey try twice for President, and it just didn’t work. They let Adlai Stevenson as well. But the Democratic Party is in total crisis. Understand this. They just lost to Donald Trump, okay? You don’t have to really talk about it beyond that. They also lost all six Senate races to unbelievably ridiculous and awful candidates. And so at this most fundamental level, you just pause and you say, “Okay, we’re not very good at this. And let’s get good at this, because that’s the nature of the game.” The first thing you do is you bring in a new group of people, but you also listen to something Bernie Sanders has said. This is a very big deal. Bernie Sanders says that they’ve got to just open that Party up to young people. Everybody
says, “How are we going to get the young people engaged? How are we going to diversify our politics, open it up?” Well, Bernie Sanders was bringing tens of millions – well I should say – he was bringing millions adding up to a vote that was well over ten million. But, millions of young people entered the process. Some of these states who was getting over 80% of the votes from the people under the age of thirty. And as Sanders has said, you know it wasn’t like when he got done. The Party said, “We love your people. We want to bring them in? No, there was a fear – now Sanders doesn’t say this – I say it. But I think there was a fear of his base, because it didn’t just arrive and say, “We want to fit in.” It arrived saying, “We want a revolution.”
Ralph Nader: We’re out of time.
John Nichols: This is a constant struggle.
Ralph Nader: Yeah, we’re out of time. This has been a very invigorating conversation. Hopefully, we can continue it in the future. Thank you very much to John Nichols, regular contributor to The Nation magazine, The Capitol Times and to Bill Curry, a contributor to Salon, former councilor to President Clinton and now writes for The Daily Beast. Thank you very much, gentlemen.
Bill Curry: Thank you both, John, Ralph it’s been an honor. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you.
John Nichols: I couldn’t think of a better thing to be doing on the day after yesterday.
Billy Curry: And I feel a little better.
Ralph Nader: I hope we set the stage for some analytic introspection here. That’s very good, I really appreciate your coming on, yeah, I hope we can do it again. Thanks a lot, John.
Billy Curry: All right guys.
Ralph Nader: Okay bye-bye now.
Billy Curry: Thank you, bye-bye.
John Nichols: Take good care.
David Feldman: Ralph, I echo everything they said. What about joining the Republican Party? It seems like that’s the only vigorous debate that’s going on. What if you’re a liberal, a progressive and you just go in and just join the Republican Party? Is that the same?
Ralph Nader: You need your own standup comedy act.
David Feldman: That’s our show, I want to thank our guests today Bill Curry from Salon and John Nichols from The Nation. A transcript of this episode will be posted on ralphnaderradiohour.com. For Ralph’s weekly blog, go to nader.org. Russell Mohkiber, we didn’t have time for him today but for more of him go to corporatecrimereporter.com. Remember to visit the country’s only law museum, the American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, Connecticut. Go to tortmuseum.org. The producers of the Ralph Nader Radio Hour are Jimmy Lee Wirt and Matthew Marran. Our executive producer is Alan Minsky. Our theme music “Stand Up! Rise Up!” was written and performed by Kemp Harris. Join us next week on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour. Talk to you then, Ralph.
Ralph Nader: Thank you very much David and Jimmy. What we need to do now is start organizing our communities on Congress and state legislatures after this upheaval of November 8th, 2016, where once again the winner of the popular vote lost the election to the winner of the Electoral College.