Nader, Ralph (1934 – ) American Consumer Advocate

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Ralph Nader (1934 )
American consumer advocate

Born in Connecticut, Ralph Nader is the son of Lebanese immigrants who emphasized citizenship and democracy and stressed the importance of justice rather than power. Nader earned his bachelor's degree in government and economics from Princeton University in 1955 and his law degree from Harvard University in 1958, having served as editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Record. Nader reads some 15 publications daily and speaks several languages, including Arabic, Chinese, and Russian.

Nader published his first article, "American Cars: Designed for Death," as editor of the Harvard Law Record. He later made his reputation with Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), a condemnation of the American automobile industry's record on safety. The book was initially commissioned by then-assistant secretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1963 as a report to congress, and was then brought out as a trade book by a small publisher. In the book Nader condemned U.S. automakers for valuing style over safety in developing their products and specifically targeted General Motors and its Chevrolet Corvair. General Motors hired a private investigator to dig dirt on Nader, resulting in a scandal that propelled the book to best-seller status. The controversy that Unsafe at Any Speed generated led to passage of the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which gave the government the right to enact and regulate safety standards for all automobiles sold in the United States.

With the money and fame generated by his book, Nader went on to champion a wide variety of causes. He played a key role in the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as well as the Consumer Product Safety Commission. One of his most important victories was the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, during the Nixon administration. He also worked to ensure passage of the Freedom of Information Act (1974). Nader got many young people to work on consumer and environmental issues through the Public Information Research Groups found on college campuses across the country. To assist him in his far-reaching investigative efforts, Nader created a watchdog team, known as Nader's Raiders. This group of lawyers was the core of what became the Center for Study of Responsive Law (CSRL), which has been Nader's headquarters since 1968. A network of public interest organizations branched off from CSRL, including Public Citizen, Health Research Group, Critical Mass Energy Project, and Congress Watch. Other groups have been established by Nader's associates, and though not run by Nader himself, they follow the same ideals as CSRL and work toward similar goals. Among these groups are: the Clean Water Action Project, the Center for Auto Safety, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest . A 1971 Harris poll placed Nader as the sixth most popular figure in the nation, and he is still recognized as the most important consumer advocate in the country.

Nader was at the height of his influence during the 1970s, but through the 1980s and early 1990s he was less in the public eye. The Reagan years saw a loosening of the regulations for which he had fought, and Nader himself suffered many personal setbacks, including the death of his brother and his own neurological illness. In 1987, Nader vigorously campaigned for Proposition 103 in California, which would roll back automobile insurance rates. The bill passed and exit polls showed that Nader's efforts had made the difference. Though he had been asked to run for president by the Beatles' John Lennon and by writer Gore Vidal in the early 1970s, Nader had always claimed that he needed to stay outside government in order to reform it. This changed in 1992, when Nader asked voters to write him in on the presidential ballot. He voiced his disgust at the two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, and asked to be considered as a "none-of-the-above" option. In 1996 he made a wider effort as the candidate for the Green Party. Nader was on the ballot in 21 states and polled a minuscule.68 percent of the vote (Reform Party candidate Ross Perot by contrast earned over 8 percent of the total national vote). Nader ran an informal campaign, mainly touring college campuses, and he did not appear to have much of an effect on the election. In 2000 Nader ran a much more concerted campaign, again as the Green Party candidate. He famously declared the leading candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore to be "tweedledum and tweedledee," meaning they were virtually indistinguishable because of their support for corporate interests. Late in the campaign, it appeared that Gore and Bush were tied, and the Democratic party began to excoriate Nader. Though it appeared that Nader might siphon crucial votes away from Gore and thus let Bush win, Nader refused to alter his position or throw his support to Gore. Environmentalism became a key issue in the three-way race. Though Gore had a strong record on the environment and Bush what might be called an abyssmal one, Nader continued to criticize Gore for not having done enough. Finally, Gore won the popular vote with 48.39%, Bush came in with 47.88%, and Nader with 2.72%. But the election went to Bush after the Supreme Court halted the recount of contested Florida ballots, and that state's electoral college votes put Bush in the White House. Nader had won some 97,000 votes in Florida, and arguably if these votes had all gone to Gore, the outcome of the presidential race would have been different.

After the election, Nader was anathemized in some circles, and blamed for Gore's loss. Nader claimed to have no regrets except that he had not gotten at least 5% of the vote, which would have qualified the Green Party for federal matching funds for an election campaign in 2004. Nader published a memoir about the campaign, called Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President. He refused to speculate about whether he would run for president again.

[Kimberley Peterson ]



Alterman, Eric. "Left in Shambles." Nation 271, no. 17 (November 27, 2000): 10.

Colapinto, John. "Ralph Nader Is Not Sorry." Rolling Stone, September 13, 2001, 6471.

Heilbrunn, Jacob. "Leftover." Commentary 113, no. 3 (March 2002): 74.

Kennedy, Robert F. "Nader's Threat to the Environment." New York Times, August 10, 2000, A21.

McLaughlin, Abraham. "Nader's Voters: Steadfast...Or Switchable?" Christian Science Monitor (October 30, 2000): 2.