Ralph Nader to Patti Smith, Union Square Crowd: People Have the Power

.Mary Reinholz

Ralph Nader isn’t on the ballot this year, but the consumer advocate managed to fire up around 350 people, including rocker-writer Patti Smith, at Barnes and Noble in Union Square last night.

Introduced by former public advocate Mark Green, Mr. Nader touched on themes from his new paperback, “The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future,” and recalled how mass movements led by a handful of people produced radical change.

These days, Mr. Nader said, many everyday folks seem to have lost their passion for activism and have become far more narrowly focused – and with lame excuses to justify it. “They’ll tell you,” he said drily, “that they’re too busy changing their profile on Facebook.”

Others, he noted, fear being ostracized or crushed by the powers that be because of their belief that the “the big boys own the system and you can’t control it. There’s been a loss of nerve. But it took six women in 1840 to start the suffrage movement” in New York, he said. 

“All you need is a tiny group of people who want to look their grandchildren in the eye,” he said, adding, “I think shame is a good motivation.”

During a question-and-answer period, Mr. Nader, no fan of the Obama administration, attacked it for “prosecuting more whistleblowers” – including Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private now on trial for allegedly passing on to WikiLeaks thousands of classified war logs – than any other.

“I agree with Ron Paul who said we need more WikLeaks,” Mr. Nader thundered, to applause.

The lanky former presidential candidate also critized other high-level political candidates for failing to mention a Harvard Medical School study in 2009 showing that more than 800 Americans die each week “because they don’t have health insurance and can’t afford to get a diagnosis. That’s 45,000 deaths each year – 15  9/11s,” he said.

Mr. Nader has strongly supported Occupy Wall Street, but he faulted the loosely organized group for failing to “build leadership.”

At one point during his remarks, Mr. Nader a gave a shout-out to Ms. Smith, who sat in the audience with her daughter Jesse. In 2008, the songstress and author recited her poem, “People Have the Power,” at Cooper Union during Mr. Nader’s third presidential bid.

This post was revised on Oct. 5, 2012 to correct an editing error. The title of Ralph Nader’s new book is “The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future,” not “The Seventeen Traditions.”