The Miami Herald

Q & A Ralph Nader: Describing his vision for America — and why he uses fiction to explain it

Ralph Nader, 75, has been an outsized figure in American political and civic life for more than four decades. Consumer advocate, lawyer, citizen activist and former presidential candidate — perhaps most notably in 2000, when as a candidate for the Green party, he received nearly 3 percent of the vote — he has also written or co-authored 34 books. Among them: the influential “Unsafe At Any Speed,” the 1965 best-selling indictment of the auto industry and its lax safety standards. In his latest book, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” (Seven Stories Press, $27.50), Nader envisions what could happen if some of the country’s richest people pooled their resources and led a drive to get many changes Nader has long sought — curbs on corporate power and big insurance companies, for instance, and third-party victories. In the novel, characters based on real people such as Warren Buffett and Ted Turner in fictional roles mobilize the people for fairness and justice.

Here are excerpts of a question-and-answer session that Monica Hatcher, The Herald’s residential real estate writer, recently had with Nader:

Q: What advantage did you see in using fiction to explain your ideas in Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, and at 733 pages, why is the book as long as it is?

A: Fiction allows one to imagine real possibilities for the future, and the only nonfiction analogy is if you have a wonky-type list of proposals for reforms, which often makes for tedious reading. With fiction, you can drop an exciting imaginative scenario that provides a vision for real possibilities for what our country can become. I had real people in fictional roles, drawing on their background and greatly expanding their impact for good as well as providing humor, and tensions and power collisions with a beginning and an end. You can’t do that in nonfiction.

Why was it this long? It’s this long because I want the reader to be able to say, `This could happen,’ from step to step, March, April, May, June. I didn’t want any magic wands or leaps of disbelief from one action sequence to another. I had to provide a lot of realistic detail which I hope is instructive as well as entertaining

Q: Can America save itself without the super-rich, in other words, without the kind of power money buys in our society?

A: The super-rich in this case are enlightened, older [people], which reduces the percentage of potential advocates from that group of wealthy people quite dramatically. I carefully selected them. What they provide are resources, a catalyst and a shoehorn and the ability to provide opportunities for tens of thousands of people to improve their country. You can’t have organizers unless they can feed themselves; you can’t have them go around the country without transportation, communication, housing, etc. What the super-rich in this book do is fill that last equation which is money and media. I think we have a lot of people in this country who want to work for the same kinds of changes, roughly, — in fairness, equity for workers, taxpayers, consumers — but there is no money to fund them. The book basically reflects changes that were made possible, not just by good strategies and a lot of good people in neighborhoods and communities who came out, and rallied, organized and elected, but it represents a civic investment of $15 billion, which is a fraction of the fortunes of the 17 older super-rich in the book.

Q: In the book, the character Max Palevsky, venture capitalist and computer technology pioneer, has an obsession with what is called civic anomie — or, as you describe, the failure of citizens to exert even minor efforts to combat injustices they perceive as harming them. When and how did Americans become so complacent?

A: Part of it is growing up with many hours of television that empties the sidewalks and the town meetings and city council meetings. Then there are the long commutes, low pay and often having to take a job and a half; people don’t have time. Also there are very few civic skills and civic experiences provided in our schools. If people don’t spend time on their civic responsibilities, they don’t spend time on making a democracy function. They feel powerless. They don’t like what they see — politicians are in low repute, political parties always grubbing for money, major necessities of the country are not addressed, major possibilities like efficient and renewable energy over the years until recently are not addressed and people get frustrated. Many become discouraged and they realize because they haven’t put in the time in organizing the neighborhoods and all that, they don’t have much power with city hall. That turns into apathy and resignation and withdrawal.

Q. In light of the near collapse of the financial system and the scandal involving corporate bailouts and large executive bonuses, if Americans were to ever snap out of this anomie, wouldn’t this be the time? Do you see any signs of significant civic uprising?

A: No, because the money is not there. I keep emphasizing the resources. If 10 multibillionaires of advanced age really want to turn the healthcare system around and they put a billion dollars in meticulously organizing the 435 congressional districts for full Medicare for all and exposing even more the horrors of the present system of so many peopledying who can’t afford health insurance, we would get it. What is a billion dollars for a group of billionaires who together are worth $70 billion? That’s the biggest single message of the book: You have to have smarts, good people, good strategies, good timing — but little happens if there is no money.

As we speak, 2,000 lobbyists are coursing over Congress from the drug industry, the health insurance companies and the hospital chains. They are working full time to try to get their way, and there isn’t one full-time lobbyist for the most popular reform — single-payer, full Medicare for all — on Capitol Hill. So you can multiply that — military budget, preferential taxes for the rich and the powerful, lack of attention to public service repair and modernization of infrastructure. There is almost nobody there, no citizens organized back in the congressional districts.

Q: What do you hope your legacy might be 50 to 100 years from now? From a business perspective and from a political one?

A: [To bring attention] to the need for multiparty systems, for a competitive democracy, instead of a two-party tyranny that works overtime in enacting state laws to exclude independent and third party candidates and ballots. We’ve done our bit on that. To give the voters more choices beyond just the increasingly corporatized Republican and Democratic party choices.

The second is to give people the chance, by example — you know, motivate people — to think they can make a difference in their neighborhoods, communities, state and nation.

Then, the third is to build more and more democratic institutions. I think or civil liberties and civil rights have been hugely protected by the ACLU and NAACP, formed about 100 years ago, and the environmental groups and consumer groups. They’ve done a lot and gotten tough laws enacted through — in my case, auto safety, cleaner air and water, meat and poultry inspection, radiation standards, Freedom of Information Act. But we need far more because as democracy becomes more complex and as power becomes more concentrated in the hands of the corporate and the rich with their influence over Washington and state governments, we have to keep up by creating more civic institutions at all levels. Nanotechnology doesn’t have one nonprofit advocacy group monitoring it, like the Sierra Club does the environment.