The Internet "doesn't do a very good job of motivating action," Ralph
Nader told an audience of college students on Monday. And don't get
him started on Facebook.
By Matthew Lasar
May 12, 2009
For those of you who think that the Internet has heralded in a new
era of grass roots political opportunity, prepare to be challenged by
Mr. Participatory Politics himself.
"Are big corporations afraid of the public use of the Internet? Does
Congress fear the civic use of the Internet? Does the Pentagon fear
the civic use of the Internet? Those are the questions you want to
ask," Ralph Nader told an auditorium of college students in
Washington, DC on Monday. "My tentative conclusion," he continued,
"is that the Internet doesn't do a very good job of motivating action."
The former presidential candidate has a new book out, and spoke at
the University of California's Washington Center, where the left
coast's best and brightest undergraduates come to intern with
government agencies and nonprofits. I'm teaching there this quarter,
and during the question period I asked Nader whether he thought that
the 'Net had made a difference.
Cyberspace is "a work in progress, to be sure," he conceded. "It's a
great place to find out what's going on and to retrieve information
and to raise money." But beyond that, he isn't impressed.
The standard Ralph Nader stump speech is a contradictory affair,
especially when delivered to young people. First the famous consumer
advocate serves up a bitter tale of overwhelming defeat, then he
demands that his audience summon hope and lead the next revolution.
The synopsis goes like this: corporations are vastly more organized
than anyone else these days, and enjoy a level of power over Congress
that dwarfs any countervailing democratic force. "The asymmetry is
greater than the military asymmetry of the Israelis against the
Palestinians," Nader told the students. "They are organized to the
teeth. And the people get shafted again and again."
It wasn't always so. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, he explained, his
"Nader's Raiders" consumer movement won victory after victory: most
famously getting Congress to dramatically upgrade safety requirements
for cars. But globalization weakened unions, the right throttled
Congress, and the media abandoned the cause.
"The media used to cover the story," Nader lamented. "As a story, it
would unfold day after day. What we were doing on Capitol Hill,
Senate Commerce Committee hearing conferences, writeups, markups.
They would stay with us. Now they want to write features and win the
Pulitzer prize. Well, a feature doesn't help citizens groups very
much. It's a one-time thing."
And so: "we lost the element of surprise. We don't have the unions.
We don't have the media. We have the Internet, for whatever that's worth."
Too much Facebook
And to Nader's mind, it isn't worth much. The Internet has become
more of an extension of market life than civic culture, he warned,
the latter dwarfed by the shopping mall. Nader asked the students to
indicate by a show of hands how many had ever been to a city council
meeting or a court trial as an observer. Then, he queried, how many
had been to Wal-Mart or McDonalds? The audience was understandably
reluctant to cooperate with this rhetorical set-up, but everybody got
"In fact, it's worse now than ever," he scolded the students. "You
spend six times longer listening to music than we did when we were
your age. And last I knew there were only 24 hours in the day. And
you're always on the [at this point Nader mimicked a cell phone]
'Where are you? Two blocks away?' Massive trivialization of communications."
Sure, Nader conceded, there's moveon.org. "They generate a lot of
e-mails. But then it goes down fast after that, in terms of anything
else." And then there was the Obama online victory. But "they're
wondering why their 13 million e-mail list isn't translating into a
power force on Congress, to get his agenda through."
The problem, Nader warned, is that whatever benefits the Internet
offers, "it's a huge consumption of trivial time. That's the real
negative. You can just lose yourself."
He challenged the young crowd to project themselves years into the
future, talking to their grandchildren. "What are you going to say to
them?" he rhetorically asked.
"You know. The world is melting down. They're nine years old. They're
sitting on your lap. They've just become aware of things that are
wrong in the world: starvation, poverty, whatever. And they ask you,
what were you doing when all this was happening: Grandma? Grandpa?
That you were too busy updating your profile on Facebook?"
The audience laughed. The speaker then asked how many of them had
Facebook accounts. Quite a few raised their hands, but probably not
as many as actually use the service. In the end, Ralph Nader gave the
impression, at least to this writer, of someone who had long ago run
out of patience with the human race.
A few of the students seemed to sense this too. One pointedly asked
Nader "for something that you are optimistic about." It was towards
the end of the event. The man who had just told them that they were
to corporate America what Gaza is to Israel's IDF hurried out a list
of reasons to be cheerful: "solar energy, renewable energy, the peace
movement. All kinds of things. They just need to be bigger."
Throughout the evening, Nader seemed only dimly aware that many of
his young listeners were deeply committed to social causes, despite
their iPhones. He never bothered to ask them what they were actually
doing in Washington, DC. They, for their part, forgave his lack of
real curiosity about them, honored to be in the presence of this
historic advocate. Students surrounded his book table after the talk,
buying his latest opus and posing for cell phone pictures with him.
"You know what they're going to do with those photos, right?" one
cheerfully noted as we stood in the hall. "They're going to put them
up on their Facebook pages."