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November 25, 1998

Nader takes on democracy, the media, the electoral process in American Experience lecture

About midway through his lecture Nov. 17, America's most famous consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, paused, looked up at his audience and said, "I'm watching you carefully to see what your reaction to this is: Are you angry? upset? indifferent? shocked? blasÈ? – just what?"The "this"he referred to was his scathing analysis of the depraved state of American media, the decay of the nation's democracy and the lack of moral indignation in American society.

And he hadn't even started in yet on the crumbling electoral process or the evils of corporate welfare.

Nader spoke to a near-capacity crowd at Benedum Hall Auditorium as part of the American Experience Distinguished Lecture series of the University Honors College. The series is supported in part by Pitt's Alumni Association and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

Nader's lecture, titled "Reforming Political Campaigns in America Is Urgent"but which might have been called "What's Wrong With America,"ran nearly two hours and demonstrated Nader's widespread knowledge of issues affecting U.S. citizens. "In our country, the political system is manipulated by the commercial mass media, which has other priorities: revenues, keeping the status quo, supporting the established power,"Nader said. "Ninety percent of the media is entertainment or advertisement and the rest is a redundant set of trivial news done in sound byte form."People don't realize that, legally, the public owns the airwaves, Nader pointed out. "We are the landlords, and radio and TV stations are just tenants. Tenants who pay no rent for a profitable business,"Nader charged.

"We could have our own people's channel. Instead, we think we're åfree' because we can turn the channel or turn it off. We could have a labor channel, a consumer channel, a students' channel, which all could have programs offering serious civic debate."Instead, Nader said, TV spews out violent, addictive, sometimes obscene, low-quality programming that conditions watchers to a short-attention span and predisposes the electorate to 30-second political ads – to the point where political ads and commercials are indistinguishable. "This reduces the development of social skills, good conversation, exercising, and so on,"Nader said, and it stifles and trivializes public debate.

Hindering the American electoral process are apathy, low expectations for politicians and the stranglehold of the two parties – Tweedledum and Tweedledee as Nader terms them – all of which preclude legitimate debate. Nader is one of the founders of the Green Party and supports the Labor Party's platform.

"How do you give a fledging political party a chance? Ross Perot the first time around got 19 million votes. The second time, Ross Perot, a billionaire, could not buy 30 minutes of air time; the networks turned him down. "When it came to the presidential debates, he was refused by the Presidential Debate Commission. And who is that? It's the two parties, who said, åWe don't want Ross Perot debating'; so he was, in effect, marginalized in the election.

"That's what the two-party åduopoly' is doing to competition: squashing it,"Nader said.

Voting rates in this country are 35-50 percent in national elections, depending on if it's the presidential or off-year elections; 10-14 percent vote in primaries, according to Nader. "Are our expectations of politicians low? Yes, they are. A lot of people are happy not to hear from politicians at all. And what about politicians themselves? "Well, first, politicians flatter you. Show me one who doesn't, and I'll show you a Martian. And, second, they speak in general terms. They don't give you their voting records. Why? Voters don't demand it. Why get in trouble with you by being specific?"Nader asked.

"Is there anything more powerless than an electorate that isn't getting the voting records of the people who represent them and decide great things from local, to regional, to national, to global matters that affect their lives?"Perhaps the biggest problem of all, according to Nader, is "oligarchy overriding democracy, in a country where 1 percent of the wealthy owns 92 percent of the wealth."Other examples of fiscal imbalance cited by Nader:

* In May 1998, the net worth of Bill Gates was equal to the net worth of the bottom 104 million Americans. "In addition to the interesting fact that åthe great software imitator' Bill Gates is so wealthy, what is astounding is how broke so many Americans are,"Nader said.

* 80 percent of workers have suffered a decline in wages, adjusted for inflation, from 1973 to now, even though the gross national product has risen almost every year.

* "We have the biggest economy in the world, but the U.S. has 25 percent child poverty, compared to, for example, the Netherlands' 3 percent,"Nader maintained. "The concentration of wealth has created disaster in societies throughout history."Nader also railed against corporations and corporate welfare. "Corporations are artificial legal entities,"Nader said. "They create their own holding companies, fly to Washington to lobby Congress and deduct the expenses. You and I can't do that,"Nader said. Corporations are out of control, seeking profits at the expense of citizens' welfare and corporate abuses account for many more deaths than crime, Nader said. Corporations can cut deals with dictatorships, hire slave and child labor, and have no real allegiance to the United States, which charters them and sustains them, Nader charged.

And what does Congress do, but bail them out, Nader said. "It will take you and me until 2020 to bail out the savings and loan industry – it's only a half-trillion dollars. Add another $100 billion for billing fraud and abuse in the health care industry, and it starts to add up to real money,"he said sarcastically.

"Jefferson said the purpose of government is to counteract the excesses of the monied interests,"Nader said. "If that is the case, this government is failing."The lecture was not all negative, however, as Nader offered several suggestions to help empower the citizenry.

"I support 12-year term limits,"he said. "After 12 years, most people have either sold out or worn out. "I also support the establishment of a binding ånone of the above' box on all ballots. If ånone of the above' gets more votes than any individual, the election is canceled and it forces new elections with new candidates,"Nader said.

"We have to get private money out of campaigns, or at least greatly restrict it. I recommend a $100 limit per individual that can be paid along with the annual IRS form."Regarding empowering the electorate, Nader recommended "banding together mechanisms"- providing inserts in mailings, fliers that accompany bills, such as utilities bills, auto insurance, tax forms, where people could join other consumers in watch-dog groups. "They would pay a small fee, if they wanted, and join a state-wide group that would oversee the policies of the companies,"he said.

"We might also look into proportional representation, not the winner-take-all system we have. If a candidate gets, say, 10 percent of the vote, he or she would have some representation. This is how many European countries do it.

"I'm also an advocate of direct democracy: The New England town I come from had town meetings where proposals could go straight to referendum. This is true democracy. The best definition of democracy I ever heard is: a society where, if there are any injustices, it is the direct fault of the people. We don't have that in this country,"Nader said.

"Like the rivulets that start in Montana, isolated and powerless, that eventually band together and become the Mississippi River, so can people band together for their common interests,"Nader concluded. In introducing him, Robert G. Hazo, director of Special Seminars at Pitt, said that "Nader has devoted his life to giving ordinary people the tools they need to defend themselves. He certainly knows how to tap the well of idealism. He is the embodiment of President Kennedy's admonition that åone man can make a difference.'"Nader was named one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century by Time magazine for his role in helping to create the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

He also helped draft and pass the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

In 1965, he published "Unsafe at Any Speed,"an expose of the disregard car manufacturers held for their customers' safety, which led to tougher motor vehicle laws.

Nader's bestselling books include "Winning the Insurance Game,""Why Women Pay More"and "Getting the Best From Your Doctor."His most recent consumer education books are "Children First: A Parents Guide to Fighting Corporate Predators"and "No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America."

-Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 7

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