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The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State
By Ralph Nader
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Large segments from the progressive, conservative, and libertarian political camps find themselves aligned in opposition to the destruction of civil liberties, the economically draining corporate welfare state, the relentless perpetuation of America’s wars, sovereignty-shredding trade agreements, and the unpunished crimes of Wall Street against Main Street. Nader shows how Left-Right coalitions can prevail over the corporate state and crony capitalism.
He draws on his extensive experience working with grassroots organizations in Washington and reveals the many surprising victories by united progressive and conservative forces. As a participator in, and keen observer of, these budding alliances, he breaks new ground in showing how such coalitions can overcome specific obstacles that divide them, and how they can expand their power on Capitol Hill, in the courts, and in the decisive arena of public opinion.
Americans can reclaim their right to consume safe foods and drugs, live in healthy environments, receive fair rewards for their work, resist empire, regain control of taxpayer assets, strengthen investor rights, and make bureaucrats more efficient and accountable. Nader argues it is in the interest of citizens of different political labels to join in the struggle against the corporate state that will, if left unchecked, ruin the Republic, override our constitution, and shred the basic rights of the American people.
When thinking about the genesis of this book, I remember the days working in my family’s restaurant. The premises were spacious: a long lunch counter and many booths filled with townspeople and jurors from the local county courthouse, summer residents at the local lakes and camps, salespeople and travelers driving along busy Route 44 in Connecticut. In those non–fast food days, family restaurants were conveners of talkers, not just eaters. There was much ado about local and larger politics, and lots of free associative talk about the Yankees–Red Sox rivalry or what was going on in the many factories lining the town’s streets.
Working the counter and the booths was a great education. It was conversation central, with humor, ribbing candor, and the famous Winsted raspiness. People didn’t hide their party affiliations, mostly Democrat and Republican, but they didn’t pigeonhole themselves when they gave their opinions or rendered their judgments. They weren’t all friends by any means, but they weren’t enemies either, all speaking as companionable individuals in a small town where everyone knew each other’s ethnicity, religious denomination, and business. I listened more than I talked; therefore I learned.
As a college student, I was a serious, inveterate hitchhiker, eventually using my thumb to cover thousands of free miles in many states to reach my destinations. Once I was in the front seat of the truck or car, it would have been discourteous to promptly fall asleep, no matter how tired I was. Besides, I found talking with the drivers was a way to learn. They each had their expertise, working experience, and homespun life philosophy.
Years later, in 1992, stereotyped politically as an ultraliberal, I ran a brief none-of-the-above presidential campaign in the New Hampshire primary. I had no ads and little money to spend on the four or five trips I made to the Granite state, but of the 342,131 total votes given in a crowded field, I received 6,312, or 1.85 percent. Here’s the funny thing: there were slightly more Republican than Democratic votes in my total.1 People were surprised and kept talking about this unexpected dual appeal. I wasn’t surprised. I spoke specifically, naming names, and asking for improved health, safety, and freedom of information laws, to be provided by accountable government and corporations in a society where freedom and justice discipline each other, so we can escape license and tyranny. My positions were largely for the benefit of everyone, regardless of creed, ideology, color, race, or gender.
It is with this experience in mind, the fact that my campaign appealed strongly to people in both parties, that I wrote this book to explore the topic of convergence, which I take to be voluntary alliances for the common good by positive-spirited persons of the Right and of the Left. A major area of potential for building alliances comes from the deep aversion many people have to the wars of empire and corporate control over their lives, particularly the ever-tightening influence of Big Business on the mainstream media, elections, and our local, state, and federal governments. These power grabs are then turned against the people themselves in harmful and lawless manners. If you are looking for more explicit labels for who would be attracted to these alliances, I see them as a coming together on various specific objectives of people who call themselves conservatives, libertarians, liberals, progressives, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Third Partiers, capitalists, socialists, or anarchists, or use any other labels free-thinking Americans choose for themselves.
Aren’t such alliances doomed? The enduring but surpassable obstacles to such convergences will elicit rejections from people who think such alliances are foredoomed to failure. Such naysayers have not yet experienced the exuberance of seeing through the divide-and-rule tactics that tell us we are a sharply divided “red state–blue state nation.” This book is addressed first to those people who are not knee-jerk rejectionists. It’s meant for those who want to explore another beckoning pathway—one that can rescue our country from being driven further into the ground and turn it into a nation where many more of its inhabitants can fulfill their potential.
A danger that skeptics—but not only skeptics—promulgate is complacency, the idea that political divisions are set in stone, so rightists and leftists, for example, could never join hands no matter how bad things get. But maybe these people don’t realize how bad things have already gotten in our country. After all, most people want safe food and drugs. They want to breathe clean air and drink clean water. They want their work to be rewarded with adequate returns for the necessities of life. This is true, for example, among Walmart workers, whether they label themselves as “liberal” or “conservative.” They want clean elections and competitive candidates, who provide perceived differences and choices in their platforms. They want their taxes to be reasonable and used well for the common good in an efficient manner. They want some voice in decisions that affect them. They want peace, justice, and public safety.
Yet they don’t believe they can do much to get these desirable things. Too many do not believe they can fight city hall, Washington, or Wall Street. Large majorities tell pollsters, including 74 percent of those polled in a 2000 survey conducted by Businessweek, that Big Business has too much control over their lives and that the Big Boys will always get their way in Washington.2 Therefore, as if the culture has taught them helplessness, they have ceased to believe in themselves. Or at least they act that way: they don’t spend any time and energy with others to acquire some knowledge and skills with which to restore the sovereignty and rights of the people. The instructive American history of triumphs over abusive power, usually against the odds, is lost to them.
These are generalizations about people’s attitudes, but they are fairly accurate about tens of millions of honest, humane, hardworking, self-described powerless Americans. I say “self-described” because this is how people have been taught to depict themselves. Years spent in our educational system, our culture, and our political structures nurture a sense of powerlessness from a young age. We neither learn civic skills nor experience civic practices in our schoolwork—classroom to community—nor do we think of ourselves after our school years as possessing any “freedom to participate in power,” to paraphrase Marcus Cicero. Yet, as I shall strive to demonstrate, there is a consistent, profound consensus among the American people as to the many directions our society must pursue. To be sure, there are consistent and profound differences as well, but the former far outweigh the latter and should not be subordinated to them. We can move areas of consensus into realities once we deliberate at the concrete levels of daily life and experience. That is where the widespread understanding and belief in fair play comes into formidable focus.
At this point, readers may say that while people do have wide agreement on many ends, they often disagree vigorously on the means to those ends. They think this is what keeps people from getting together. After all, this disagreement spills into our elections and our councils of government, such as Congress and state legislatures. How you reach agreed-on ends is the devil in the details.
Well, let’s get underway and see.
Convergence: The Sporadic Coming Together of Right and Left Against Corporatists
A Signal Convergence
“Strange Bedfellows” was the way the National Journal in 1982 described the coalition of environmental and conservative groups opposed to the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in Tennessee.1 The Breeder Reactor Project seemed unstoppable from the time it was first authorized by Congress in 1970. It soaked up money as if there were no tomorrow. A total of $1.3 billion was spent before a tree was cleared at the ninety-two-acre site.2 No matter, the project had powerful backers from the Nixon and Reagan White Houses to the enthusiasts on Capitol Hill. They were buttressed by legions of lobbyists from the nuclear industry and its construction and engineering allies spread over three states, all intent on partaking of this taxpayer honeypot.
Once underway, the Breeder Reactor became a classic juggernaut of the corporate state, protected by the secrecy of the Atomic Energy Commission and its officious patron, the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy. Designed to breed its own electricity, the project was treated like a military endeavor. It was protected from open debate and any disclosure or oversight, lest it give credence to the critics who called it a “technological turkey” that bred runaway economic costs instead of electricity. These critics’ doubts were enough to persuade President Jimmy Carter—who was a nuclear engineer—to cancel the Breeder because of the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. The Breeder lobby, however, continued to push to restart the project through Congress while Ronald Reagan was president.
But in the early eighties, Arkansas Democratic senator Dale Bumpers had the political nerve to encourage a liberal/conservative coalition. Until then, environmentalists were active, but conservatives had not focused on the issue intensely, since it was somewhat distant from their usual concerns. Once they did focus, they formed a group with liberals, which named itself the Taxpayers Coalition Against Clinch River. That umbrella organization included the Friends of the Earth, the National Taxpayers Union, our Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, the Council for a Competitive Economy, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the National Audubon Society, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.3
Washington hands saw this as an improbable combination of Left and Right. Members of Congress—who might have been reluctant to support the campaign—realized this combo gave them cover from their ideological and political opponents back home, since they couldn’t be targeted as identifying with either a liberal or a conservative side of the issue. Meanwhile, estimates of the project’s total costs were going through the roof. Congress’s own General Accounting Office reported them as $8.8 billion. A House subcommittee predicted a cost range from $5.3 billion to $9 billion. Both figures were a few light years from the official $400 million estimate in 1970, even allowing for inflation.4
The anti-Breeder coalition was uniquely operational. We met regularly; this was not a mere petition drive or open letter to Congress with no follow-up. The conservative/libertarian members reached their fiscally conservative friends in Congress with arguments about runaway costs, while the environmental/consumer groups were arguing that Clinch River would create a “plutonium economy,” which would generate large quantities of that lethal product in forms that could be diverted for crude nuclear weapons.
On October 26, 1983, this coalition won a stunning victory. The Senate voted 56–40 against any further funding for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor project, thus beating a furious lobbying effort from a corporate–government combination on the other side.5 The civic coalition against the Breeder Reactor triumphed over the corporate state. On the losers’ side, no one was more taken aback than the project’s leading booster, the powerful, well-connected Republican senator from Tennessee, Howard Baker. On the winners’ side, archlibertarian Fred Smith, one of the coalition leaders, told me that the decisive impact came from the linkage of economic and security arguments, together with the energetic idealisms of the two camps.
Three years later, another Left-Right coalition broke through the immense lobby of government contractors to enact a revised False Claims Act with the False Claims Amendment Act of 1986. In the words of its key sponsors, Republican senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democratic congressman Howard Berman of California, the 1986 law “provides a means and an incentive for reporting fraud against the public treasury. For thousands of individual whistle-blowers, it offers the only alternative to fearful silence or the near certainty of terrible consequence. It protects and rewards those with the courage to cast their light in dark places. It levels the playing field in the contest between corporate greed and personal conscience.”6
The act was first proposed by public interest lawyer John Phillips, and groups interested in protecting taxpayer dollars and assets came from both conservative and liberal camps. Phillips made the rounds on Capitol Hill and found support from Republicans and Democrats whose votes passed the legislation in the House and in the Senate. Conscientious whistle-blowers began to come forward to expose tens of billions of dollars in corporate fraud on government agencies from the Pentagon to the Department of Health and Human Services. These silent-no-more patriots were compensated with a share of the recoveries secured by the Justice Department, which partnered with them. By 2012 more than $40 billion had been recovered by the act, of which over $21 billion was the result of the whistle-blower protections and incentives that were enacted.7
As Grassley and Berman declared, by making greed pay the price and integrity receive the rewards, deterrence was given a lift. They noted studies that estimated that the fraud deterred “runs into the many hundreds of billions of dollars.”
These clear-cut victories led some of us to wonder what other working coalitions could be forged between what the media chose to call “unlikely allies.” There was no lack of opportunities in the following years. Outspoken verbal support from both sides for drug decriminalization, fighting corporate welfare, reducing military spending, stopping further media concentration, opposing taxpayer-funded stadiums and arenas, and challenging excessively invasive scanning by airport x-ray machines were just a few of such common stands taken by prominent leaders and organizations. Taking on a bizarre taboo, Congressman Ron Paul, with a dozen Democrats and Republicans, sponsored a bill to legalize the growing of industrial hemp, a long fiber used to produce food, paper, clothing, car parts, and fuel. Hemp is stigmatized because it is unfairly associated with marijuana. What makes the whole issue bizarre is that it has been legal for years to import industrial hemp from countries like Canada, China, Romania, and France, yet we can’t grow it here.
Many major changes can be accomplished in areas where self-described liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and progressives all agree on the goal, not because they are pushed to these stands by pressure groups, but because they feel it is the right thing to do. But beyond words, it requires what Republican Bruce Fein calls “advocacy without an agenda.”8
But there are also major obstacles to such convergences. Notwithstanding common ground for many in the Left-Right spectrum over such matters as sovereignty-shredding global trade agreements, Wall Street bailouts, the overweening expansion of Federal Reserve power, and the serious intrusions of the USA PATRIOT Act against freedom and privacy, barriers to the transition from thought to action come from numerous directions and in many forms.
The Hijacking of the Conservative Label and the DNA of Corporatism
Write an article, as I have, in a widely circulated publication about such an alliance of Right and Left, and back comes a blizzard of buzzwords—an oft-repeated semantic wave whose ultimate purpose is to stop further discourse. You’ve heard them. Billions of dollars of propaganda over the past century have succeeded in making the two major political camps engage in chronic, if not knee-jerk, jousts against one another. Here are some of the conclusory and provocative charges designed to end deliberate, evidential thinking: “that’s socialism,” “anti-capitalism,” “free market,” “big government,” “overregulation,” “deregulation,” “confiscatory taxes,” “tort reform,” “welfare,” “against free enterprise,” “stifles competition,” “freedom of contracts,” “tax and spend,” “borrow and spend,” “deficit spending,” “job-killing legislation,” “defense—whatever it takes.”
Presently, the most effective of all buzzwords is the label “conservative,” cleverly used by corporate power brokers to provide semantic cover for their radical strategic plan for the union of Big Business and many government institutions. Their actions have nothing to do with actual conservatism, but no matter. The word is more powerful than any deeds to the contrary. Take President Ronald Reagan’s statement that he had a “conservative” agenda, namely, “a strong defense, lower taxes and less government.” That he was not consistent—under his presidency there were much larger deficits, taxes reduced were later raised, and government grew—did not affect his image. He knew the hypnotic power of a slogan endlessly repeated.
Corporate lobbies, knowing a good thing when they see it, seize the label “conservative” to shield many very unconservative demands and policies. They have misleadingly exploited revered economic philosophers, such as Adam Smith, whom authentic conservatives draw on for justification, authority, and identity. But no matter how often these corporate commercialists call themselves conservatives, it is hard to mistake them for old-line conservatives since the two minds (corporate versus old-line) hail from very different moral, historical, and intellectual antecedents. Whereas true conservatives look back to Smith, Edmund Burke, and other major theorists as their forebears, corporatists’ antecedents hail from the worshippers of Mammon and those who held and abused their wealth in the days of merchant power. True conservatives should disdain such precursors. Meanwhile corporatists ride on conservative coattails and claim as their own the old-line conservative thinkers.
Corporatism or “corporate statism,” as Grover Norquist calls it, is first and foremost a doctrine of corporate supremacy. Whatever advances that system of power and status over the constitutionally affirmed sovereignty of the people comprises the widening, all-encompassing corporatist agenda. As befits the ever-concentrating command of ever more mobile capital, labor, and technology—as well as its own media—the corporations’ dynamic of expanding control with ever more immunity knows no self-imposed limitations. Large corporations usually push, with whatever political, technological, economic, marketing, and cultural tools are required, the frontiers of domination in all directions. Wielding the tools to advance their agenda is an army of diverse experts and operators bound together by common economic interests within the authoritarian hierarchy of the modern global corporation. However you might describe them, it is hard to deny that their DNA commands them to control, undermine, or eliminate any force, tradition, or institution that impedes their expansion of sales, profits, and executive compensation. That is what their extensive strategic planning is all about. What they want is maximum predictability and the most feasible control of outcomes, with government being the preferred servicing or enforcement tool.
That is what is meant by corporate statism. And as it gets stronger, it delivers a weaker economy for a majority of Americans, a weaker democratic society, and record riches for the few.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though hailing from the patrician class, put his finger on the dangers of corporatism. He wasn’t charitable in his message to Congress in 1938, successfully calling for the creation of a Temporary National Economic Commission (TNEC) to examine the concentration of corporate power. He averred that “the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than [the] democratic state . . . in its essence is fascism.”9 Though World War II’s Axis powers gave the word a more lethal meaning, Roosevelt was equating fascism with the corporate state, uniting corporate influence with, over, and inside the government at state and national levels.
In recent years, as trade, investment, and other relations between nations have tightened, the corporate state has heightened its international “governing” power through such transnational systems of autocratic decision making as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and various regional agreements. Corporate managed trade, with its many pages of self-serving rules, is not “free trade.”
Neither of the Left Nor of the Right
Given the increasing influence of corporations, it hasn’t taken corporate political strategists or their public relations firms long to see how powerful, if not decisive, alliances between the Left and Right can be in influencing Congress or other public bodies of decision-making. So one part of the corporate agenda is to get both sides fighting each other, so they are distracted from collaborating on shared goals, which would otherwise cause serious discomfort for corporatists. Corporations themselves, meanwhile, have no faith in these labels. We saw that seizure of the conservative label by corporate interests allows them to appropriate conservative philosophy and provides resources for its notable thinkers to degrade the image of the liberal label.
On the other hand, untroubled by ideological niceties, these expedient corporations do not hesitate to exploit and profit from programs uniformly identified with liberal politics, such as the war on poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and foreign aid. All these programs have proved to be extremely lucrative for corporations that contract with government agencies. Peter Schweizer of the conservative Government Accountability Institute has charged that the country’s biggest corporations, including J. P. Morgan, are profiting from the explosive growth of these programs designed for the poor. “Welfare in America is supposed to be a safety net for those in need, but instead, it’s become an insider’s game of power and profit,” Schweizer said, referring especially to the food stamp program’s contractors like J. P. Morgan.10
Key to understanding corporate behavior is the recognition that, while its propagandists trumpet the irreconcilable differences between Right and Left, corporations are remarkably flexible in relation to these divisions. What is behind this plasticity is a laser-like focus on expansion, profits, and bonuses. Corporate behavior transcends the normal meanings of opportunism. Corporate action is easy because there is rarely any steadfast, internal, interfering moral compass in the way.
Heavily funding and pressing the two major parties into a duopoly of concessions to corporate demands, the leaders of Big Business, after an election change, have only to readjust their Washington Rolodexes for high-level contacts, if the new appointees to cabinet and subcabinet levels are not already their business buddies. Whether Democrats or Republicans are in control, corporations still receive the same wasteful or expanding assorted privileges and immunities, inflated contracts, and other perks of crony capitalism and weak law enforcement—though in an unerringly rising arc of money and benefits. This is some of what President Eisenhower was alluding to in his 1961 farewell address when the retired five-star general gravely warned the American people of the “military-industrial complex” and its threat to our liberties and well-being.
Even while the harmony between the business lobbies and the two major parties may occasionally be disrupted by either inter-corporate conflicts or principled opposition from authentic conservatives and liberals/progressives, the well-budgeted corporate think tanks will continue to provide a torrent of selective ideological cover for the broader corporate agenda, with tactics like promoting rigid opposition to taxes and regulations. To the uninformed, these groups are proven masters of plausibility, offering covers for corporations’ not-so-hidden agendas.
The counterweight put forth in this book relies on the supremacy of civic values to which commercial pursuits must adjust (what Adam Smith may have meant by his phrase “moral sentiments”) and with which they can properly thrive.
Escaping the Labels
Moreover, there are more and more examples of Left-Right alliances coming forward every year. They rarely break through to achieve their objectives. But they are escaping the “pitiless abstractness” of their adopted theories and working in the world of reality in a way that both reflects and disciplines more concretely their general philosophies.
The evocative phrase “pitiless abstractness” comes from an experience that conservative columnist George F. Will had in the late 1970s.11 While sitting at home in his Washington, DC, study, where he was writing his syndicated column, he heard a loud crash. Running out the door, he saw a woman lying on the street who had just lost her life in a vehicle collision. Returning later to his desk, he wrote that he had had enough of “pitiless abstractness” and, contrary to the Reagan position, declared his support for mandatory installation of air bags by auto manufacturers.
What Will did was to descend the abstraction ladder of general antiregulatory dogmas to the facts on the ground. He derived a life-saving principle—mandating long-tested safety technology—from the grisly remains on the street. Mr. Will had seen “the other.”
Let’s look at some other examples where Left-Right convergence occurred, often prompted by real-world experiences. In 2008, demands from both the Left and the Right on and inside Congress led that body to ban genetic discrimination by health insurers. This went against the position of the influential insurance industry and its allies. It would not have happened without this alliance testing its different principles in facing the injustice of any person, adult or child, being denied insurance based on a corporate classification of their birth genes.
Ralph Nader's timely book once again makes him prescient in his insights about American politics. His against-the-grain prediction of a Left-Right alliance is not just a hope, but it is grounded in emerging evidence.” Cornel West
Nader at his bestoriginal, indignant, idealistic, and on the lookout for new political alliances and possibilities. A tonic for the cynicism that's poisoning the groundwater of our democracy.” Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley
No American in recent decades has done more than Ralph Nader to construct a workable alliance between the principled Right and the sincere Left to salvage our country and our national prosperity, and Unstoppable outlines his vital mission.” Ron Unz, former publisher of The American Conservative
Unstoppable is even-handed, erudite, practical and necessary. Nader harnesses his lifelong crusade for the public interest over the corporatist agenda into a treatise that is optimistic and patriotic. He demonstrably shows that effective Left-Right alliances aren't pipe dreams, but historic realities in need of strategic cultivation, for the sake of our future.” Nomi Prins, author of All the Presidents' Bankers
"In 'Unstoppable,' Ralph Nader argues that there are in fact surprising areas of convergence between the left and the right... These are profound observations... Mr. Nader rails so effectively in 'Unstoppable.'" David Asman, Wall Street Journal
Activist Nader sketches out places of 'convergence' where liberals and conservatives can start working together for the public good. [he] lists reforms with which many lawmakers would agree, including breaking up too-big-to-fail banks, protecting children from commercialism and ending corporate personhood.” Kirkus Reviews
One of Ralph Nader's finest efforts. A bold and lucid handbook for the future.” Patti Smith
Conservatives and liberals both look askance at the Leviathan state and realize that promises of doing good' often obscure the reality of doing well' at taxpayer expense. Those looking for opportunities for bi-partisan cooperation should look at the nexus of statism and cronyism. Unstoppable shows that opposing such corruption can bring activists of the right and left together to fight side by side.” Grover Norquist
- On Sale
- Apr 15, 2014
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Bold Type Books