Ralph Nader and the Millennials

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Ralph Nader and the Millennials may seem like an uncommon pairing, if not an obscure band name. But the similarities between the legendary, octogenarian political activist and the youngest generation are striking; neither Nader nor the Millennials hate an active government, or despise a free market. Both believe in the powers of good governance and capitalism. Yet they reserve a deep distrust of big state intervention and corporate control. Falling in the cracks between liberal and conservative, Nader and the Millennials embody a unique American political ideology that remains unlabeled.

It’s Complicated

A study that came out last month by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, reveals the seemingly contradictory political allegiances of Millennials. The generation wants increased government spending “on welfare for the poor, even if it leads it to higher taxes.” Yet they remain split on whether or not the government should attempt to reduce the income gap. Further, “Millennials simultaneously favor policies that limit and policies that expand government.” The study also finds that Millennials trust neither Democrats nor Republicans on a vast majority of issues. Even more so than older generations, Millennials are not easily compartmentalized.

As he champions both strict regulation of dangerous business practices and a laissez-faire approach to government, Nader is equally difficult to label. In his most recent book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, he focuses on points of possible convergence between the left and right to combat the deeply entrenched corporate-state relationship.

In an interview, I questioned the optimism of the title considering the cynicism that surrounds our politics. Nader suggests that the nature of liberals and conservatives locking arms is a hopeful one, and lists a number of successful convergence movements in the past. “Cynicism,” he adds, “is nothing but the indulgence of quitters.” Even the book’s back cover is optimistic, including praise from both Grover Norquist, the Libertarian anti-tax crusader, and Cornel West, the Democratic Socialist philosopher.

Nader may not dismiss labels outright, but Unstoppable illustrates the detrimental effects they can have. When people identify with an easy label, they “don’t engage in the complexity of these traditions, they put themselves at risk of being unable to detect the hypocrisy of the leaders of their own camp.” When I asked if he felt comfortable identifying with any label, Nader neglected to assign himself a traditional political marker, instead saying he is a “seeker of justice.”

The Corporate State

Unstoppable suggests that the current state of political polarization is largely the result of intense lobbying efforts by corporations to hinder compromise and partnership; when the left and right are arguing incessantly, “they are distracted from collaborating on shared goals, which would otherwise cause serious discomfort for corporatists.” Nader denounces this and writes that, “Corporatism, which so often targets conservatives, is increasingly targeting so-called liberals and creating the opposite type of convergence than the one this book is promoting.”

Bill Curry, who served as White House counsel under President Clinton, agrees with Nader in a recent Salon piece: “Democrats today defend the triage liberalism of social service spending but limit their populism to hollow phrase mongering…The rank and file seem oblivious to the party’s long Wall Street tryst.” If Curry is right, then ties to corporate interests may be the most that Democrats and Republicans have in common these days.

The fear of corporations heavily influencing or completely dominating our government resonates with young Americans. New York Magazine conducted a small poll of Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011, in which 60 percent of the participants were under 30 years old. That year, Paul Campos at the Daily Beast wrote on why older Americans do not understand the qualms of the young Occupiers. Sympathizing with the Millennials, he says, “Now as the protests spread across the country, the core of the Occupy Wall Street movement—young, overeducated, and underemployed—is beginning to find common cause with many other people disillusioned with a social system that continues to grant its privileged elite ever-greater rewards.”

It isn’t hard to understand why the youngest generation is skeptical of excessive government, big business, and America’s two parties. In the Salon article, Curry gives a scathing review of his own Democrats and criticizes the president for misunderstanding the recession of 2008. “Obama mistook massive fraud for faulty computer modeling and a middle-class meltdown for a mere turn of the business cycle… By buying into Bush’s bailout, Obama co-signed the biggest check ever cut by a government, made out to the culprits, not the victims,” he writes. Millennials grew up during a financial crisis created by predatory business actions and, arguably, endorsed by both parties in government.

Convergence, Not Contradiction

Are Millennials a generation especially equipped for convergence? Nader says yes, but simply because they are young and “only in the sense that they’re lacking hardened ideological rigidity.” Nader may be correct, but what seems unique is their waning trust in both government and business, in both Democrats and Republicans. It signals that Millennials’ ideologies would only calcify into an even more complex category.

Just as “Millennials simultaneously favor policies that limit and policies that expand government,” Nader’s book calls for policies that do not seem to match up at first glance. Unstoppable is carried by 25 of his suggestions including centrist, or unlabelable, reforms such as auditing the Department of Defense’s budget, expanding direct democracy, and reducing commercial influence over children.

The real triumph of Unstoppable, though, is that it rejects the notion that these proposals are impossible to reconcile. “A combination of populist conservatives, industrial unionists, and smart progressives could form the convergence alliance” and enact some real reforms, Nader argues. Not only are these reforms reciprocal, but the actors needed to make them happen are complementary. They are our best hope for some bipartisanship and comprise a prescription that falls in line with the Millennial ideology.

Nader told me his best guess for the next big convergence movement lies in the minimum wage. Listing conservative Republicans like Mitt Romney and Bill O’Reilly who actually support the idea, he believes that tying the minimum wage to inflation–number four on Unstoppable’s list of proposals–will come to fruition soon.

A New Millennium

“Millennials came of a politically impressionable age in the years shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, experiencing the steady erosion of civil liberties under two different parties, fighting in long and costly military interventions overseas, and bearing the heaviest brunt of one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression.”

– Millennials: The Unclaimed Generation, Reason-Rupe

At sixty-six years old, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader made his fifth presidential run in 2000. It is argued that he stole votes away from Gore, handing the election to Bush. Whether or not that is true, the election and the ensuing 14 years of turmoil handed Millennials an ideology that is tired of the government finding more bedfellows in big business than in bipartisanship; they also want a “left-right alliance to dismantle the corporate state.” As the 2000 election designed the Millennials’ complicated politics, it created the unlabelable constituents who Nader needed.

Sorry we’re late.

Jake Ephros (@JakeEphros)

Featured image courtesy of [soundfromwayout via Flickr]

Jake Ephros
Jake Ephros is a native of Montclair, New Jersey where he volunteered for political campaigns from a young age. He studies Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy at American University and looks forward to a career built around political activism, through journalism, organizing, or the government. Contact Jake at



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