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.”

Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.


Forty years ago the UN General Assembly passed a resolution against "hostile environmental modification techniques...

The beauty and the tragedy of everyday life in a war zone.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project