The Claremont Colleges are never lacking a lively political discussion. On Tuesday, February 21st, Scripps hosted Ralph Nader, 2000 and 2008 presidential candidate and activist. Part millennial rallying call and part attempt to understand how we got to this political climate, Nader’s talk aimed to ensure that the audience left the auditorium ready to actively participate in civic society.
Coming to prominence in the 1960s as an activist for better automobile safety in his book Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader has since led a series of activist movements. His work has targeted the Federal Trade Commission and has worked in the consumer protection arena since 1965. Nader ran for President as a third party candidate in 2000 and 2008, and some believe his candidacy caused vote splitting that cost Al Gore the election in 2000.
In his speech, Nader warned that the Trump Administration works within a doctrine of “militarism, big business, racism, and anti-public schools,” echoed by his recent cabinet picks. Nader argued that today marks the “showdown between democratic society and the government,” and said that Trump’s cabinet picks work against the mission of their organizations, calling the EPA pick Scott Pruitt an “ignoramus.”
He also made a rousing case for active democratic participation. He remarked that “half of democracy is showing up” and urged the audience to protest and call their representatives. Discussing past activist movements, Nader spoke about the immense impact that 1 percent of a group can have. When asked about other ways our country can increase civic education, Nader promoted more citizen participation both on the state and local level. He encouraged college students to participate and engage more with the democratic system and protest movements.
Citing millennial malaise, Nader bemoaned the apathy he sees among college students. Nader told the audience to not waste their twenties trying to figure out who they are and pushed action over self-exploration.
Steph Wong CM ‘17 remarked, “I’m not sure he said anything the Claremont students don’t already know. Political action is critical! It’s good to have that reinforced, but I didn’t walk away feeling any more prepared to challenge current policies that I dislike. It’s easy to tell a group of students to stop being apathetic—everyone tells us that. It’s harder to buoy our faith in a future where we have true agency. I’m not sure he did that effectively.”
Nader also pushed back against the increasingly technologically dependent society that college students live in, noting that he does not have email or an iPhone. He argued that contemporary society’s increased technological use distorts human discussion by lowering our political discourse and engagement. Critiquing the US public school system, Nader pointed out that our education system does not give citizens the proper tools to effectively engage with democracy and claimed if schoolchildren were taught how to evaluate safe drinking water, the crisis in Flint, Michigan would not have happened.
Segueing into the question of how Trump happened, Nader discussed Obama’s shortcomings with the Democratic-controlled house in Obama’s first two years. He claimed that Obama missed his chance to pass important legislation and instead focused too much on Obamacare, holding that Obama had the opportunity to push a more progressive agenda.
Ellen Lempres CM ‘18 remarked, “His analysis of our current government was compelling, but it lacked nuanced insight into feasible paths for political change and national conciliation.”
The presentation in Garrison Auditorium certainly feels less intimate than the Athenaeum experience without the chance to interact directly with students. Nader did touch upon important points and correctly identified major fissures within the US government. As nearly every cultural conversation nowadays revolves around the omnipresent Trump Administration, his conversation was framed in this present context, instead of jumping into Nader’s past experience. Nader discussed the role students can and should play in our society instead of his own experience. Moderator Giselle Fernandez did not probe Nader to discuss controversial topics about his past, such as his 2000 run, instead focusing on his advice and insights for the future.
Twice during the talk Nader discussed Barack Obama’s, Al Gore’s, and Bernie Sanders’ reluctance to meet with him, casting himself as a martyr to the progressive cause. Additionally, Nader said that “fame never went to his head,” and that Sanders succumbed to this.
Emma Cornwell SC ‘19 noted, “While he had good critical points surrounding the 2000 Election and the two-party system, he failed to recognize his role in the election and evaluate himself.”
Nader closed his talk with a Q&A session.