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Time magazine once pegged him “the U.S.’s toughest customer;” General Motors (and some Democrats) loved to hate him. But 78-year-old Ralph Nader still lectures, writes books, and lobbies Congressmen with the energy of a 28-year-old. And he’s been doing it for five decades. When asked to define himself, Nader always responds, “Full-time citizen, the most important office in America for anyone to achieve.”
As a newly minted Harvard law graduate, Nader made headlines in 1965 with Unsafe at Any Speed, a scathing indictment of the auto industry, which led to congressional hearings and automobile safety laws passed in 1966. He now claims nine books, including the novel Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us and his latest The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future.
We caught up with Nader at a conference “Does the President Matter?” at Bard College, where he spoke on September 22 .
A six-time candidate for US president, Nader drew a distinction between transformational versus transactional presidents, cautioning that the former can’t be conflict-averse nor beholden to corporate interests. Because of that, presidents since FDR have been “transactional,” he claimed.
But that doesn’t mean modern presidents are powerless. Obama, for example, has greatly expanded the chief executive’s power to make war (Nader cited the US attack on Libya as the best example), spy on Americans, and arrest “terrorist suspects” and hold them indefinitely without trial.
“We now have a president who decides who the drones will target and kill” and those deaths, Nader fears, create a powerful need for revenge.
“To these foreign wars,” he continued, “Congress is silent but reasserts itself when Obama asks for money for social programs…. And even one vote can kill his proposed legislation.”
Nader lamented the paradox of a president out-of-control on foreign policy but stymied on domestic matters.
To win votes, said Nader, politicians use the four Fs: flattery, fibs, fooling, and flummoxing (confusion).
But the crusader saved his greatest scorn for citizens convinced that political and social change isn’t possible. “Stop texting on your iPhones,” he urged his student listeners, “and look around you. Presidential politics has become a spectator sport surrounded by theatrics.”
Asked for three civic actions students could take, he suggested: chew on one of Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, join a citizen group, and read about and emulate our country’s greatest leaders.
As he did in the 1960s, Nader is still appealing to young people with “fire in the belly” to grasp the reins of power themselves. “There’s nothing,” he told his young audience, “more gratifying than advancing justice for people.”