On Wednesday, Dec. 11, former presidential candidate and lifelong activist Ralph Nader ’55 addressed assembled members of the University community in the Whig Senate Chamber. Rising to prominence after authoring “Unsafe at Any Speed” — a highly influential text in promoting regulation of the automotive industry — Nader’s later work influenced the passage of various laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act, and reform within the Federal Trade Commission.
Nader sat down with The Daily Princetonian to answer questions about his unique political ideology, the University in the 1950s, and the modern political landscape.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Daily Princetonian: Just to start things off very easily, what sorts of things were you involved in when you were on campus?
Ralph Nader ‘55: When I was on campus [during my undergraduate years]?
DP: Yes, then.
RN: I learned about conformity. I learned about uniforms that people chose to wear. Full khaki pants and white buck shoes. It was a time of great conformity. And, of course, it was a time of partying at the clubs. But in between, there was a lot of serious study going on. There wasn’t much citizen action. It was before the civil rights movement, before any of the movements in the ’60s, and there was a lot of poverty in Princeton. There was an area segregated with African Americans in the back of … [the Nassau Inn]. The one thing good about it was they let you do what you wanted to do. Sure, you had the precept system. That’s one of the reasons I came here.
But they had an open stack in Firestone. So you walked in, and sometimes I’d work all night after they closed down in the stacks. It was a wonderful atmosphere. The worst thing is that they smoked everywhere. You’d walk into class, and they’d be smoking. You go into exams, and they’d be smoking. And nobody dared say, ‘Don’t smoke,’ because at least half of the student body smoked.
Of course it was all male at that time. The relations with females were not very healthy. It was typical male chauvinism. The food was atrocious. Absurd stuff that we called “the green death,” and veal and pork with rainbow colors. It wasn’t a healthy diet. And what will surprise you the most is when we went to Holder Hall — is that where they have the cafeteria still?
DP: We have dining halls at a bunch of different places on campus.
RN: Do you still have a Holder, then?
DP: There is still a Holder Hall, yeah.
RN: At Holder, we had this — you can’t believe this ritual. Part of it was joking, but we’d be all eating, we’re all male, and suddenly one of the classmates would bring a date in and everybody, almost everybody, not me, they would take their big spoon and go like this [imitates hitting spoon against edge of table]. It would be a crescendo of noise for about 40 seconds. And then they’d go back to eat. This poor co-ed would be coming in, sometimes they’d be forewarned, but other times it was a total shock. It was like a military ritual. I don’t know when they ended it.
And then we had this Cane Spree, where the freshman class went down the Blair Hall steps and collided with the class before. So ’55 collided ’54. ’54 was known to be a very rough class. People got injured. Actually, there was a fatality back sometime in the ’20s and ’30s. I suppose they abolished it when Princeton became co-ed. So that’s a little bit of the flavor.
So that’s, you know, a thumbnail sketch. And obviously, things have improved a lot since, especially with the smoking.
DP: Yeah, I’m very glad we aren’t smoking everywhere.
RN: Can you imagine students today walking around like that?
DP: Not at all.
I have a question regarding your experiences at Princeton. Notably, I’m wondering if there’s anything that happened to you here — a class that you took, a professor with whom you interacted — that you feel substantively impacted your politics later in life?
RN: I had the practice of auditing as many classes as I took for credit. So I audited this great class by H. H. Wilson, a professor of politics, who took a long time to become full professor for one reason: he actually taught politics and power. That may seem strange to you today, but it was all taught in terms of political theory — John Locke, Montesquieu, and congressional structures.
The fact that he dared to connect politics with power, imagine how quaint that is today, rendered him a subject of ostracism. He took a long time to go from assistant [professor] to associate [professor], even though he published, he had great student numbers in the class, he had visiting people, you know, giving lectures and demonstrations of corporate crime. That was important. H. H. Wilson, you can look him up.
DP: Moving more toward modern politics, you wrote an op-ed not too long ago advocating that Democrats “throw the kitchen sink” at articles of impeachment. Now we have Articles of Impeachment out. What do you think of the release by House Democrats?
RN: It was a minimalist approach that Nancy Pelosi took with two articles, one being, as you know, the Ukraine and the other being obstruction, which wasn’t total obstruction of other committees apart from Ukraine; it was focused heavily on Ukraine. She left a little door open for maybe bringing in some of the Mueller report. This was a serious tactical mistake.
She did it because she wanted to protect her 12 so-called moderates who won in Trump districts and which meant giving her the Speaker’s job. She’s a very cautious Speaker.
DP: If I may move into a different part of our modern politics. You also advocated for an Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders dream ticket, and you said that you thought the two of them together would be the Democrats’ best chance at 2020. That was in June. We’ve had five months for the primary process to progress. I’m wondering if you have a preference between the two of them now, and if I might be able to pin down who you support in the 2020 race.
RN: It’s who wins the primary. If Elizabeth wins the primary, obviously. And if Sanders wins the primary, obviously. Probably I think that there’s a problem with age, unfortunately. And he’s older and he’s had this heart problem. I think he’s more grounded, and I think he can actually handle Trump, probably better. Although she gets under the skin very well. They’re both good that way.
I think either way, whichever one is president [or] vice president, I think it’s the strongest ticket. These people came out of working class backgrounds, right? They’ve seen it and they've felt it, and they've gone through life’s travails.
DP: Gotcha. So I can't pin you down on a preference between Warren or Sanders.
RN: Well, it isn't a preference. I like them both. It’s basically whoever wins the primary.
DP: Pushing further in that regard, I’d like to turn to the reason I imagine you’re most notable in American households, that being your 2000 run for president. I have read up on that, I recognize that there exists a public perception of you as a spoiler and that you don’t prefer that title. I’m wondering more what it’s like to be perceived in that light. How does people thinking that of you affect the way that you sort of move through the political system?
RN: It’s a word of political bigotry. First of all, it’s only applied to third party candidates, right? Republicans and Democrats don’t call each other spoilers. So it's a word that is politically discriminatory and, by the way, all third party candidates are viewed as spoilers throughout history.
It’s lucky we had some of these so-called spoilers with the Liberty Party in 1840 against slavery and the women's rights and the labor and the farmers and without them, all these issues wouldn't have gone front and center in the electoral arena before they were adopted by one or two of the major so-called parties.
If you have an equal right to run for election, you're all trying to get votes from one another, so you’re either all spoilers to one another or nobody's a spoiler, we have an equal right to run for election. But use of the word spoiler allows the losing major party to scapegoat instead of looking at themselves in the mirror.
DP: You have unconventional views on American politics. You call yourself a moral empiricist, yes?
RN: A moral empiricist? Yeah.
DP: I’m wondering, if granted the opportunity to sort of remake the American political system in your image, how you would go about doing that? What is wrong, and what would you do to fix it?
RN: Well, first of all … number one priority in politics is to shift the power, the few have too much power over the many, it’s becoming entrenched in something called the mature corporate state. That means Wall Street over Washington, turning the government to their benefit against the benefit and rights of the populace.
That’s one thing that even the most progressive candidates don’t talk about. I emphasize that on my campaigns — shifting the power requires fundamental thinking about what it means. Obviously, some of the easy ones are public financing of campaigns, getting rid of gerrymandering, clearing the deck to obstruction to voting, voter suppression, ballot access restrictions, all that. But also there's another dimension that almost is never talked about, which is controlling what we already own as a commons.
Do you know that? Do you know about that?
DP: I’m sure you know much better.
RN: This is part of our common failure of all generations’ education. The secret is that the greatest wealth in this country is owned by the people. Now usually you say one percent, Wall Street. That’s true of a certain layer of private wealth, right, the one percent you know, have property and 40 percent of property values and all that.
Now the people own the public land, they own the public airwaves. They own trillions of dollars of research and development from Washington. They built all the major industries: aerospace, biotech, nanotech, the computer industry, the internet, pharmaceuticals, on and on.
DP: What if anything you think the average Princeton student is obligated to do in pursuit of the better world that you envision?
RN: Well, they should do what we didn’t. And that is to cease becoming fact-deprived about the concentration of power in this country, who holds the reins, and all the various ways that they control people.
Your generation is the first generation in history that is entwined by more contracts than all young generations in the past. You can’t even list all the fine print contracts you’re entrapped by, okay? Never mind your credit card, your debit card, on and on. What Princeton students have got to do, and I’m not up with your curriculum, but I would guess that you don’t really have many courses on corporate crime, and I would guess you don’t have many courses on Howard Zinn-type of historical accuracy.
That’s my major plea. My major plea is … that the students have got to read outside their courses. The courses, even though they don’t admit it, are very heavily vocational or obedience to myths, they’re obedience to myths. There are some exceptions, you know, obviously, in your teachers and so on, but by and large, economics is taught in a pathetic way here. Pathetic.
DP: Now I have my final question for you. We’ve talked about a lot of very serious stuff, and I wanted to end on something fun. You mentioned there was a lot of partying going on back in your day — do you have any fun stories from Prospect Avenue that you'd like to share?
RN: I didn’t like it. I didn't like the chauvinism.
DP: Do you have any other general fun stories from Princeton that you’d like to share?
RN: Oh yeah, we played chess and we had these long sessions sometimes [in Whig Hall] talking politics. I remember Nixon … you know, he put his dog on TV. I remember, some of the students came back and said I just saw Nixon, his speech which saved his career by the way, and one of them said “I'm feeling very nauseous.” I still remember saying that here. And we played touch football. You know, yeah, we took bike rides and hike rides outside of Princeton. We did some charity work in Trenton.
DP: Thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Best of luck in your talk.
RN: Thank you, this was an excellent interview.