Ralph Nader talks to hundreds of Stony Brook students and community members on March 22. (Adam Peck for Think Magazine)

The dinner took longer than expected. Three eager members of our staff waited an hour for one of the most celebrated and vilified progressive politicians of the last fifty years to finish his Stony Brook-issued meal, chum it up with the always-popular officials of the Undergraduate Student Government, and conduct whatever business that activist icons might conduct before sitting down to speak with student journalists.

Ralph Nader does not look or sound like a man who garnered less than one percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election. One might imagine a perennial third-party candidate that stands little chance against the behemoth Democratic and Republican parties as small, thin, and whiney, a speck in the shadow of regal Barack Obama. Avian in face but not in build, Ralph Nader looks the part of a president. He is tall, and if he wanted to, he could intimidate. Even at 77, his husky voice and vigorous gesticulations grant him an immediate gravity that could only belong to someone who has made a permanent mark on the American landscape. Buckling up your seatbelt is sign alone that he has beat the system for your benefit.

Five seconds into sitting across from Nader, you become immediately aware that this is a man who will fight, literally, until his death for what he believes in. In other instances, it might be trite to write that, but Nader is serious and unafraid. At an age when most people are shuffling off into retirement homes, watching soap operas at two in the afternoon, or quietly contemplating their own deaths, Nader is haranguing people a half a century younger than himself to wake up and fight back against the corporate powers consuming their lives.

Think Magazine: Though well-meaning adults exhort children to go out and vote, can actual, meaningful change come through the electoral process in the United States, considering how limited the two party presidential system can be?

Ralph Nader: There are serious obstacles because you have a two party central dictatorship. But many of the things we want in this county cannot happen without going through the electoral process, getting elected officials who know where they are coming from, representing the people, and getting action through the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. It’s a longer haul because of where it all starts—from a very small citizen base—but it can be done rather quickly, there are elections every two years. You can start to turn over at the local, state, and national level.

Think Magazine: Do you think the two party system depresses voter participation?

Ralph Nader: The more similar the parties become, because they are dialing for the same corporate dollars, the more people have a hunch that these parties don’t mean anything to them. They all represent the rich and powerful. In congressional elections, participation is under 40 percent, one of the lowest voting turnouts in the Western world. One of the reasons is that the rest of the Western world has a multi-party system. They also have proportional representation, instant run-off and so forth…

Think Magazine: Recently, you called the struggle between the people and plutocracy the “larger struggle” and what should be the “parcel of every march.” Has plutocracy triumphed?

Ralph Nader: It hasn’t triumphed, which means something final, but it is triumphing more and more. The concentration of power compared to forty years ago is more pronounced. What kind of power? Technological power. Dominant, big corporations. Now they’re beginning to close in on the internet, they want to get rid of net neutrality. And the media is very concentrated. Fox and Murdoch and a few giant media moguls, but it’s also political power because they got their hooks in both parties now.  One percent of the richest people have financial wealth equivalent to the bottom 95 percent. So, right across aboard, even down at local areas, the few rich are dominating cities and towns. And of course there’s Wall Street.

Think Magazine: What can be done about that? Corporate power can seem, especially for students, like such an overwhelming force to counteract, like an elemental force that’s even beyond a machine.

Ralph Nader: That’s the exact attitude the power structure wants you to have. “Don’t even bother, they’re too powerful, there’s no alternative…” Now, these big corporations run for cover once the people mobilize. We beat ‘em again and again in the 60’s and early 70’s, the coal industry, the auto industry, the banks, polluters. They counteract, because they’re very resilient. They expanded their lobby and political action committees, and at the same times unions got weaker because of globalization and sometimes their own corruption. And the media stopped reporting what the consumer and environmental groups were doing and so the cycle turned and now it’s got to turn the other way. There are only three things you got to keep in mind. You outnumber the corporations. You’re everywhere. You’re the only ones that have the vote. And you represent the sentiment of the people. 70 percent of the people want out of Afghanistan. Why aren’t we moving out of Afghanistan?

Think Magazine: The military-industrial complex is quite powerful.

Ralph Nader: Led by the political waverer Barack Obama.

Think Magazine: Do you think these are symptoms of capitalism as a whole? Do you think the system is failing or will eventually fail? Do you think there’s an alternative to that?

Ralph Nader: It’s symptom of corporate capitalism, not small business capitalism, and increasingly multinational corporations who have no allegiance to countries other than controlling them and shipping jobs and industries to lower wage, more repressive regimes like China. We have to make a distinction with global corporations that are incompatible with democracy. They’re highly hierarchical, centralized authoritarian structures. The constitution does not move into the corporate arena, there’s no free speech permitted in corporations. Whereas if you work for a government agency and they try to curtail your free speech, you got a lawsuit, it’s a civil liberties issue.

Corporations do one thing. They engage in strategic planning to maximize their profits. They want to control everything that might challenge them or anything that might enrich them. That’s why they’re planning the educational system, military and foreign policy, trying to weaken the environmental laws, even strategically planning our genetic inheritance. That’s their DNA, that’s the thrust, they have to do that, continually. And that’s why they got away with Wall Street. Crooks and speculators collapsing the economy and killing eight million jobs. What happens? They keep their bonuses and send their companies to Washington for a bailout.

Think Magazine: Do you see now, like with the events in Wisconsin, any signs of hope, of people pushing back?

Ralph Nader: Yeah, that’s a good start.

Think Magazine: Do you think a breaking point is being reached?

Ralph Nader: Not yet, it’s coming. The corporations know no boundaries. After all, they had slaves in the 19th century. What needs to be done at the university is to have civic skill courses. You learn how to be powerful citizens, you learn how to use the freedom of information act, how to mobilize, how to put on a rally, how to do a coalition, how to diffuse voting records, how to expose Wall Street.  You know, for example, that’s a highly pressurized natural gas pipeline 150 meters from structures at Indian Point? You know that you can’t evacuate New York City from Indian point?

Knowledge, mobilization, and then you look and say, how did the students do against the war in Vietnam? Look what they did in the civil rights movement, the women’s right movement, are they any different from us? They’re not different than us except they had to pay for postage, they had to pay for telephone calls, they had to pay for communications which you don’t with the internet. So it’s developing a greater consciousness, reducing the trivia in your lives. Trivia is a form of control. That thing you hold, every day, hour after hour, is a form of control. The text messaging, the e-mail, the trivial gossip, instead of thinking big…because it’s your country, you’re gonna be around a long time, it’s your world.

Think Magazine: What about NYPIRG? (New York Public Interest Research Group) It’s been having a lot of budget issues lately. How relevant is it in 2011?

Ralph Nader: NYPIRG has a marvelous record. It has trained tens of thousands of students in civic activity and civic engagement. Whether it’s the environment, improving the New York subways, prison reform, exposing hearing aid rackets affecting the elderly. They often get course credit, as you know. NYPIRG is only as good as its students. The students run it, the student fund it.  NYPIRG fills a great gap in the curriculum of the university which is civic activity, civic skills. You don’t learn that. You learn commercial skills, job skills, accounting and computer skills. They’re filling a great gap and they’re constantly being harassed and constantly being sued. Like, “oh, why should the student government have an allocation after a student referendum?” Really? How about the allocation for sports, you get a student referendum of all the money you assess, directly and indirectly for sports?

This is what I mean by, you got to have a larger consciousness, a larger frame of reference, and it all spells to, are you going to be mature at eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, or are you forever gonna be a youngster? Let’s grow up here, you can grow up very fast because you got good brains, but gotta have a little fire in your belly, you gotta have a broader horizon as to how important you are to the country. We need you, I’m not just lecturing you to say ‘be a good citizen,’ we need your energy.