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Ralph Nader has been one of the most important and enduring figures of the American Left since his emergence on the national stage in 1965 with the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. In this work, Nader argued that the American automobile industry paid insufficient attention to safety. The book sparked public outrage and congressional action, including the creation in 1966 of the National Highway Safety Bureau (now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and passage of many car safety regulations. Perhaps more enduringly, Nader persuaded the public to give more weight to safety concerns when purchasing cars. With his far-reaching advocacy work over the decades, Nader has firmly established his place in the radical American tradition as a critic of the concentration of corporate power. Nader views corporate power as a threat to consumer rights and health, the environment, government integrity, and, most importantly, a well-functioning democracy.
The son of immigrant parents from Lebanon who owned a modest restaurant in a small Connecticut town, Nader earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton University and a law degree at Harvard. His years after law school were spent traveling, dabbling in journalism, and practicing law in Connecticut. He relocated to Washington, D.C., when his work on auto safety caught the attention of policymakers, and he quickly established himself as the most effective “policy entrepreneur” of his generation.
The 1966 to 1976 period marks the height of Nader’s influence in American politics. With an innate talent for conducting exhaustive policy research, generating public attention, and manipulating the press, Nader’s advocacy pushed such legislation as the Wholesale Meat Act, the Wholesale Poultry Products Act, the National Gas Pipeline Safety Act, and the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act through to passage in the late 1960s. His stature in Washington grew to such proportions that Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern invited Nader to consider joining his ticket in the 1972 election.
Building on his successes and public acclaim, Nader established a consumer advocacy group in Washington, the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, in 1968. Staff lawyers, publicists, and grassroots activists, dubbed “Nader’s Raiders” for their proclivity to challenge the Washington and corporate establishment, investigated patronage practices at the Federal Trade Commission, special interest pressure in Congress, and the safety of the nuclear power industry, among other issues. Over the years, Nader would create a long list of not-for-profit advocacy groups, including the Public Interest Research Group, Public Citizen, and Democracy Rising.
Nader’s career, however, has been marred by his inability to accept compromise as the price of democratic politics. His intransigence derailed the effort to create a federal department of consumer affairs. He also turned against many of his protégés who served in the Jimmy Carter administration (1977–1981) because, in Nader’s view, they were too quick to compromise on matters of corporate regulation. Nader lost battles, allies, and influence as a consequence of his ideological purity.
By 1980 a concerted effort by American business to counter Nader’s consumer rights movement by increasing corporate lobbying paid off. Conservative Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) won election as president, and Congress and the country moved in a more conservative direction. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Nader and his allies fought to hold the advances in regulatory policy that they had made in the 1960s and 1970s.
Locked out of the newly conservative Washington establishment, Nader traveled and lectured throughout the country, seeding small citizen projects at the state and local level. Unhappy with the centrism of the Bill Clinton Democrats in the 1990s, Nader ran for U.S. president four times: in 1992 as a write-in candidate for the Democratic nomination in the early primary states; in 1996 as the Green Party nominee; in 2000 as the candidate of the Association of State Green Parties; and in 2004 as an independent candidate. Nader argued that both major parties were beholden to corporations, and he promised to enact campaign finance reform, limit free trade agreements, and extend government regulation of the environment and the economy. In all of his runs, Nader would win no more than 3 percent of the popular vote (in 2000).
The move into electoral politics embittered many former Nader’s Raiders, who thought that Nader’s run for the presidency jeopardized the Democratic Party’s chances. In 2000 these critics were proved right when Nader siphoned likely voters for the Democratic nominee, giving Republican candidate George W. Bush a narrow margin of victory in the state of Florida, a victory that provided Bush with enough electoral votes to win the presidency.
- Martin, J 2002. Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
- Nader, 1965. Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. New York: Grossman. Expanded ed., 1972.
- Nader, 2002. Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender. New York: St. Martin’s.
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