The three hours Ralph Nader spent one evening in mid-March at Stony Brook University encapsulated his life-long fight—his call for justice, one that continues to drive him at 77 years old.
Clutching the sides of the podium, Nader, a long-time consumer advocate and three-time (technically four) presidential candidate, gave an impassioned lecture targeted at invigorating the young audience that sat before him
He ran as a write-in candidate in 1996, placing more importance on representing the thousands displeased with America’s two-party system than winning the race.
Just days before Nader returned to the campus he last visited in 1974, the former Green Party frontrunner made headlines after calling for the impeachment of his 2008 opponent, President Barack Obama.
“He has done almost everything Bush has done that is unconstitutional, illegal under U.S. law and illegal under international law,” said Nader, referring to Obama’s continuation of Bush’s wars and the practice of rendition, blocking lawsuits with a state secrets claim, and continuing illegal surveillance and indefinite detention. “If there was a big cry to impeach Bush and Cheney and Obama’s doing the same thing, why are we giving him a pass?”
His calls for Obama’s impeachment mimic those he made during the presidency of George W. Bush—the president he is often criticized for having inadvertently helped win.
Bush tallied 543 more votes than his Democratic opponent, then Vice President Al Gore, in Florida, which controversially etched “43” and “W” together in the history books. This came after weeks of legal dispute and a conservative Supreme Court ruling that favored Bush over the legality of recounting Florida’s votes. That’s history, but the claims that Nader stole votes from Gore and cost him the election are still very much alive.
“He’s the reason why George W. Bush became president and he takes no responsibility for that,” said Dr. Jeffrey Segal, Chair of the Stony Brook Political Science department. “And the amount of damage he has done to this country is inordinate.”
Many books have been written on Nader’s role in the 2000 election as a presidential candidate, as the emerging third-party, and as the spoiler of democratic goals. The more than 97,000 votes Nader received not only earned him third place in Florida, but awarded him the first place prize of being the political scapegoat for Gore’s loss.
“At least 40 percent of Nader voters in the key state of Florida would have voted for Bush, as opposed to Gore, had they turned out in a Nader-less election,” wrote professors Michael C. Herron and Jeffrey B. Lewis in their study, Did Ralph Nader Spoil a Gore Presidency? “The other 60 percent did indeed spoil the 2000 presidential election for Gore but only because of highly idiosyncratic circumstances, namely, Florida’s extreme closeness.”
There is also a very different argument—it was Al Gore who cost Al Gore his presidency. Gore’s campaign failed to win both his home state of Tennessee and that of his boss, President Bill Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. Winning Tennessee would have earned Gore enough electoral votes and changed his address to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Additionally, much can be argued about how aggressive Gore was in legally fighting for additional recount votes, and how it affected the results.
“By the way, I do think that Al Gore cost me the election, especially in Florida,” Nader said rather defiantly before members of the National Press Club the day after the election. “And that’s a far greater concern than whether I was suppose to help elect Al Gore.”
Yet, much of what Nader spoke about was nothing new, a combination of recycled speeches he drafted throughout his years of campaigning.
He expressed concern over the corporate wrangling of American politics, the need for energy reform, and his coined view of the current form of American democracy—“a two party dictatorship.”
For an audience that mostly consisted of a generation that was once too young to remember or acknowledge Nader’s role in American politics, the lecture themes of youth activism, government accountability and a call for civic education are topics largely untouched by today’s politicians.
Despite how cliché it is to draw comparisons between what the CEO of Wal-Mart makes an hour in comparison to the entry-level worker, Nader covered the current extinction of the middle-class stemming from the current economic climate that looms upon graduating students. (For the record, Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke makes more than$16,000 per hour, which is $3,000 more than the annual salary of many Wal-Mart employees who are paid minimum wage.)
“We are living in a decaying society where the few will control the many…where the few will seize the gains that are generated by the sweat of the many,” Nader said.
Following his lecture, Nader fielded questions and encouraged student groups to make their plugs. Amongst the countless number of pitches and audience appreciation, one student challenged Nader.
“President Obama raised a lot of money from people who associate with all the causes that you spoke about tonight,” asked one student, referring to Nader’s message but lack of awareness. His question focused on how progress could be achieved without the ability to reach the masses.
The question struck a chord.
“You know who could have made this campaign a success—not a winning one, but one that could’ve broken through—several million college students, who [instead] followed their parents and grandparents, if they voted at all, who voted for the least worst candidate,” said Nader. “The college students were very disappointing. No one has done more with and for college students in the history of the country running for president then I have.”
And while it’s near impossible to relate the conditions of the youth in Middle East to the problems that face most college students here in America, the difference is that large youth movements pushed for reform, whereas in the U.S., that has not happened since the 1960’s.
The closest thing to a recent influential youth movement, Nader mentioned, were the thousands of youth protestors in Wisconsin fighting against the issue of state union workers losing their right to collective bargaining.
The funding of higher education, both public and private, is amongst the forefront of troubles placed against the youth of America. Rallies and protests have taken place from coast to coast, from schools like UC Berkley where a 40 percent raise in tuition has passed, to protests that haven taken place at Stony Brook, where the administration favors a hike in tuition to balance budget woes.
Nader repeated what he told thousands of supporters in Madison Square Garden in 2000, telling the few hundred students at Stony Brook that the current youth generation was tasked with a great burden—the handling of their future.
“Yours is the last generation that has so much to gain and so little to lose in gaining it. It’s your generation that now has to put your shoulder to the arm of justice and build on your predecessors.”
When asked about entering the 2012 Presidential race, Nader said he would not be running, though he hopes that someone will continue to carry the progressive banner.”
He was a bit more assertive when describing the flurry of support he often receives in the beginning of his campaigns and the endurance of that support. “I was also tired of people encouraging me, saying ‘Run, run, run, we’ll vote for you,’ and then getting cold feet and voting for the democrats,” Nader said.
This will be the first time in 16 years that Nader will not make a challenge for the White House. And while there are other emerging third parties that pundits can speculate about playing the spoiler—the Tea Party in particular—Nader’s absence from this election leaves a new generation of voters without one of the youth movement’s biggest advocates on the ballot.
“The biggest problem of your generation is a lack of an estimate of your own significance and power,” said Nader. “You’ve grown up powerless, you’ve grown up with your gadgets in your hands, you’ve grown up in trivial personal environments and you’ve grown-up being educated in trade schools just to get a job.”
Ralph Nader continued, “It’s really remarkable how undeveloped students are. Of course they don’t have much experience because they’re young, but they have access to all kinds of information that challenges the power structure and they don’t seem to absorb it in terms of changing their own routines and their own sense of what needs to be done for your own future in this country and this world.”