Ralph Nader is awkwardly hovering around the hors-d’oeuvre, occasionally grabbing for the cheese and crackers. He is slouched over, dressed in a worn-out suit, and reluctantly mingling with a crowd of progressive activists gathered in a beautiful house on Battle Road, in Princeton, NJ.
Two hours earlier, Nader was speaking on the other side of town, at Princeton University, where he discussed “The Corporate State and the Destruction of Democracy.” Though few Princetonians are likely to vote for the third party candidate, he received a warm and enthusiastic welcome from the young crowd at his alma matter, and his talk culminated in a standing ovation. Nader, too, was clearly glad to be back, as he recalled fond memories and engaged in a lively Q & A with the audience (after the moderator signaled the end of the event, he politely asked if he could take one more question).
The perennial third-party candidate, who announced his fourth run just two weeks before his Princeton appearance, began the address by tracing his social activism back to his days at Old Nassau, where as an undergraduate he noticed dead birds around campus the day after the trees were sprayed with a certain pesticide. A skeptic at heart, the young Nader saw the dangerous consequences of the pesticide, and approached a Daily Princetonian reporter about the problem. As he recalls, the would-be reporter was cocky, and dismissed the dead birds a non-issue (“Always beware of a reporter with his feet up,” Nader warned the crowd of students). If something is wrong, the young reporter told him, the biologists here at Princeton would have said so by now. “That was my Daily Princetonian 101 lesson,” said Nader. “I realized that day that knowledge isn’t enough. You need to have moral courage.”
Describing how he first became interested in issues of car safety, he recalled his youthful tendency to hitchhike. As a young man, he traveled around the country with truckers, and would “come across crashes, before the police got there.” He described the images that would launch his career as a star consumer advocate: “I would see the horrible cries of pain – sometimes no cries at all,” he said. “And I got interested in the way the vehicle crumbled in on the passenger and the driver.” Thanks to Nader’s work as a consumer advocate, Americans now drive safer cars, drink cleaner water, and have more access to government files – to name just a few of his achievements.
When he moved on to the in the topic of the lecture, Nader unleashed a condemnation of the corporations that “buy our governments,” and “run our country,” with an enthusiasm not expected from a man well into his 70s. “You cannot list one single department or agency United States government that is not overwhelmingly influenced by corporate power on the outside and staffed by corporate executives on the inside,” he told the crowd of more than 200 undergraduates.
Nader went on to cite facts about injustice and inequality in our country and around the world: “When someone says to you that 3 million out of the 6 million people in the world are living on 2 to 3 dollars a day, is that too abstract?” He went on: “What does it mean to you that the head of Wal-Mart, with his rubber stamped board of directors, made 11 to 12 thousand dollars a day, for eight hours a day, last year, when his workers were making 6 and half, 7, 8, 9-fifty an hour?” Nader added to his list of victims Americans who die from air pollution, the uninsured who can’t get cured, and the Iraqis who suffered as a result of Bill Clinton’s economic sanctions on Iraq – “500,000 children in Iraq died as a result of those embargos.” Nader related the injustices back to the crowd he was addressing: “What does it mean to you,” he began, “that you’re all too likely to go into the pattern of prior Princeton graduates, and have your exquisite talents trivialized because it pays well.”
“I’m giving you these broader statistical representations of reality,” said Nader, “because I just you to ask yourself: Are you getting angry? What’s your level of social indignation?” By the time he posed these questions, the crowd was silent, and he had clearly made his point.
At the end of his address, Nader urged the crowd to make a difference in the world. “Never let your let your talents be trivialized,” he said, noting the moral imperative Princeton students have to use their privilege and knowledge for good. The lines struck a chord with audience, and many of the spectators stayed afterwards to purchase a twenty-dollar book, and shake the third-party politician’s hand.
As Nader left McCosh 50, I walked with him over to a rented car parked on Prospect Street. Whereas in his speech he had exuded self-confidence, commanding the crowd’s attention and reveling in it, Nader now seemed uncomfortable and unexcited at the prospect of making small talk. He asked me if I signed the petition to put his name on the New Jersey ballot, and proceeded to hand it to me as we crossed the street. Sensing an awkward silence, he handed me a copy of an article he had recently written on the Israel/Palestine conflict, as would a young volunteer reluctantly distributing flyers to strangers in the street.
As soon as our conversation turned to politics and injustice, however, the awkwardness subsided, and Nader went back to his pedagogic self. Sitting in the passenger seat – with his seat belt on, of course – he described his decision to run for president, rather than seek change through other gateways. “You’ve to be willing to lose and lose and lose,” he said, “until somebody somewhere wins.”
I asked Nader why he considers it a bad idea to choose the lesser of two evils, and he shot back, without a moment of hesitation: “Because both become evil! They both become worse when you do that.” He paused for a moment. “That approach represents a dying dynamic leading to a debilitated democracy. Because there’s no end point. When are you ever not going to have somebody who is the least worst of the two parties? If you don’t have a breaking point, then there’s no end point, and you will be lead, every four years, on the same downward trend towards the corporate abyss.”
As for the countless college students that go from politically-active progressives to centrist democrats as they enter the working world, Nader once again placed the blame on our corporate society. “Partly, it’s employment opportunities that militate against a life of social activism,” he said. “Once they lock in, they want to be promoted and make more money, and then they get consumer life burdens and mortgages and so on, they start rationalizing a different way of life than they envisioned why they were fiery idealists in university.”
When we near the house on an impeccably manicured Princeton street, and enter the event on Battle Road, Nader politely shakes hands, recognizing many of the faces as friends or associates. The guests mingle over nuts and white wine, discussing what they can do to get people interested in their cause. Near the kitchen, an older gentleman is discussing New Jersey election laws, and why it is nearly impossible to create a third party in the Garden State. Another man hands out flyers urging me to oppose the “Real ID Act.”
Before I can head towards the Dixie cups and juice, John Murphy, a candidate for congress in16th district in Pennsylvania, lays out the importance of third parties to me, in a side room near the kitchen. He uses the Liberty Party from the 1830s as an example. “I don’t know that they ever elected anyone,” he said, “but one of their major points in their platform was the abolition of slavery. And they were told: ‘Hey, if you’re not careful, you’re going to let one of the lesser of the two pro-slavery parties get elected.’ And regardless of the context in which the slaves were freed, they were freed.”
He went on: “Even if Ralph does not win the election ultimately his agenda will win.” Murphy’s words echoed Nader’s from a few hours earlier in McCosh 50, where he recalled a conversation he had with six-time socialist candidate to the presidency Norman Thomas. “I asked him what the socialist party’s greatest achievement was,” Nader told the crowd of undergrads, “and he said: ‘all the great ideas that the Democrats stole from us.'”
Back at Battle Road, in a dining room lined with dusty French books, Nader is discussing the Christian Right and Bill O’Reilly with Chris Hedges, the veteran New York Times war correspondent, as a small crowd gathers around to listen. Soon, both men will make speeches, and Chris Hedges will hand out signed copies of his book War is a Force That Gives us Meaning. “Great! I can sell this on eBay and make a huge profit,” one guest whispers to me. “This is going to be depressing,” says another.
Unexpectedly, a birthday cake is brought out for Nader, who turned 74 a few days before the event. Faced with a chorus of progressive activists singing “Happy birthday,” he proceeds to forcefully extinguish the candles with two swift blows. By the time a pen that Ralph Nader carries in his pocket is auctioned off to a somewhat reluctant bidder for $200, it becomes clear that the event is coming to a close, and Nader slips out the font door, heading to yet another event in New Jersey.
For a man his age, Nader’s endurance is stunning, and one can only admire his lifelong dedication to the progressive cause. In fact, this political fight is his life. Nader has no wife or children, and very few close friends, having instead opted for a life of activism. Rather than retire, Nader is set on continuing his fight, in what he sees as an uphill but necessary battle: “When I was a sophomore at Princeton, I was overcome by the problems of the world,” Nader recalled, towards the end of his talk at the University. “And so I read Schopenhauer and all these gloom and doom philosophers of Europe – and I had a discussion with myself, and I said: what is this indulgence? What is this vanity?”
As for the vanity many see in Nader’s hopeless bids for president – even after many have blamed him for eight years of George W. Bush – he dismisses such talk as an act of political bigotry. “Basically,” Nader explained, a short time before cutting his birthday cake, “what you have is this system, where if you challenge this status quo, you are discriminated against.”
Whether one sees Nader as a noble fighter or a self-obsessed spoiler, one thing is for sure: he will keep on fighting—unapologetically and unequivocally. “You’ve got to lay the groundwork,” Nader told me in the car ride from the University to Battle Road. “Look at the social justice movements that lost for decades, and kept going and kept going. If you don’t go through that, your cause will never win.”