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Ralph Nader Says American Democracy Needs Wake-up Call


Welcome to American Profiles, VOA's spotlight on notable Americans who have made a difference in how we think, live and act. Today: Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, whose controversial bids for the White House have stirred public debate over the future of the two-party system.

"For a nickel [five cents] you got a cup of coffee and 10 minutes of politics when you went to Nader's Restaurant," says Ralph Nader, who grew up in a small town in Connecticut talking politics at the dinner table and at his father's diner.

"It was the ultimate expression of free speech. No matter what political view anybody had they never got a stern look from my father because he liked dissent. He used to tell us: everything we have in this country we like, originally started with dissent."

Nader's parents were Lebanese immigrants. He says his father's idea of patriotism was to try to improve the country and the lives of others.

"And then he would turn the question on them and ask, 'Do you love your country?' [They would answer,] 'You're darn right I do.' They would pound the counter. Then he'd say, 'Why don't you spend little more time improving it?'"

Nader says his parents's taught him how to listen, and to think critically. He says those family values led him to become a lawyer and to fight injustice.

In 1965 Nader published a book called "Unsafe At Any Speed." In it he argued that the U.S. automobile industry was knowingly building dangerous vehicles. He specifically targeted a General Motors car, the Corvair. He said the Corvair had design flaws that could lead to accidents.

GM attempted to discredit him and investigated his personal life. Nader sued the company -- and won. And Nader used the settlement money to fight consumer battles for safer cars, food, homes and workplaces.

He hired young advocates who became known as Nader's Raiders.

One said, "Everybody worked until two in the morning or so and then we just collapsed and would get up at eight and start working again."

Another added, "We were there 24-7 [24 hours a day, 7 days a week]. It was just ridiculous." "Maybe if we started talking about civic globalization instead of corporate globalization, the world will move forward."

In 1996 and 2000, Nader ran as a presidential candidate for the Green Party, shunning the policies of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. He announced his bid for the White House again in 2004 as an independent.

"Presidential politics has been broken for a long time. The two parties have been broken. They need a wake-up call. They need somebody to hold their feet to the fire," he says.

President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004. Many Democrats dubbed Nader a spoiler for his refusal, once again, to get out of the race. "How can you spoil a spoiled political system, to begin with, and second: if we all have an equal right to run for political office, then none of us are spoilers or all of us are spoilers of one another."

Nader says today that presidential hopefuls must raise hundreds of millions of dollars to be competitive. "And where do you think they are going to get that money? They are not going to get that money from the people who harvest our food or the people that clean up after us or the people who do the everyday work in the country. They are going to get it from the millionaires, the mega-millionaires, the billionaires and the corporations.

Nader -- now 73 -- says he has not made up his mind whether to make another run for the White House. But one thing seems certain -- as a self-proclaimed public citizen, he will continue to let the American people know where he stands.