Born February 27, 1934
Consumer advocate, lawyer, author
Best known for his role in shaping the consumer support movement of the 1960s, Ralph Nader was also the founder of the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). He was the man who remade the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the government agency charged with promoting business competition and protecting consumers from unfair or harmful business practices. Nader touched every aspect of American consumers' lives by demanding that companies provide safe products and by forcing the federal government to regulate corporations. He also created a new form of social activism in the 1960s that was very different from the sit-ins, rallies, and riots that marked the decade. Nader encouraged students to politely and persistently dig up the facts on corporate and governmental abuses and to use that information to create change through political means.
"It is clear Detroit today is designing automobiles for style, cost, performance and calculated obsolescence, but not—despite the 5,000,000 reported accidents, nearly 40,000 fatalities, 110,000 permanent disabilities and 1,500,000 injuries yearly—for safety."
An early calling to civic duties
Ralph Nader was born in 1934 to Lebanese immigrants Rose and Nathra Nader. His parents viewed their American citizenship as a blessing and a serious responsibility. They made sure that their children held the same view by talking about politics at the dinner table. Nader's civic duties were clear from the time he was a child, so it was natural for him to study related subjects in college. He majored in Far Eastern studies and economics at Princeton University in New Jersey, receiving a bachelor's degree with high grades in 1955.
At Princeton, Nader noticed several dead birds on the campus. He realized that the birds' deaths were caused by the use of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly called DDT (a poison that was later made illegal). Nader attempted to stop the use of the chemical, despite the school's claims that DDT was safe. Surely, according to the school paper, the well-respected scientists hired by Princeton University would know if DDT was a hazardous chemical.
Nader also had suspicions about the meat packing industry, ideas that he picked up from Upton Sinclair's famous 1906 novel, The Jungle. Nader later led an unpopular crusade against a local hot dog vendor. Sinclair described the unsafe and unsanitary conditions at meat packing plants, for workers and consumers alike. He detailed the ingredients used in secondary meats like sausages, bologna, and hot dogs. The book contributed to the passage of one of the nation's first consumer protection laws. Nader's enthusiasm for the safety of the consumer only increased following his first unsuccessful attempts to cause change. Although some saw Nader as an idealistic student at this stage in his life, his ideas gained wider approval in the following years, especially after the publication of his first book.
Ralph Nader battles General Motors
Nader entered Harvard University's school of law in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1955, graduating with honors in 1958. At Harvard, Nader studied the engineering design of automobiles. He wrote an article for the Nation titled "The Safe Car You Can't Buy," which was published in 1959. For several years after graduation from Harvard, Nader attempted to work as a conventional lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut. He also took extended leaves of absence to travel around the world, to Cuba, Russia, and Chile, writing freelance articles about international politics for the Harvard Law School Record. In 1963 Nader decided to shift his career to focus on politics. He hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., to start his new job as consultant to the U.S. Department of Labor and adviser to Senator Abraham Ribicoff (1910–1998). Senator Ribicoff chaired a Senate subcommittee that focused on the role of the government regarding automobile safety issues, a topic that already held Nader's interest.
The Rise of Consumerism
Before 1965 most consumer reforms only took place after some tragic accident occurred. Consumers themselves rarely instigated these reforms. Instead, when it suited them, congressmen and senators occasionally looked into their constituents' complaints. Journalists rarely investigated such stories. This made challenging wealthy and powerful corporations difficult.
But during the 1960s, news organizations began taking an interest in such stories. Investigative reporters became very popular with the public. It was at this time that Ralph Nader focused attention on how people's purchases affected their own and others' lives. He showed how corporations and government agencies helped or hurt consumers' abilities to make good buying decisions. Information became a very powerful tool in the hands of consumers. Armed with the facts about product safety and performance, consumers could make more informed decisions about the item being offered for sale. In 1971, the word consumerism first appeared in Webster's Third International Dictionary. Webster's defined the term as "the promotion of consumer's interests (as against false advertising or shoddy goods)."
Nader continued to research auto safety and began writing a book about the faulty construction of the General Motor's car, the Corvair. Nader's first big attack on corporate America, the book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (1965) did not sell well initially. Still, General Motors tried to discredit him. They hired private detectives to follow Nader to see if they could uncover anything negative about him. The press learned of this harassment and reported the story. Nader sued for invasion of privacy. The resulting publicity caused sales of the book to skyrocket. In 1966 Senator Ribicoff held a press conference to share the findings of Nader's investigations into the automobile industry.
Between 1960 and 1966, approximately one out of five cars was recalled for safety issues. However, consumers were not warned of faults immediately. In fact, even major problems were fixed only when customers happened to bring in their cars for regular maintenance. In Ribicoff's words, quoted by Justin Martin in Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon, "It shatters once and for all the myth that accidents are … caused by bad driving. From now on we must be concerned, not just with the 'nut behind the wheel' but with the nut in the wheel itself, with all parts of the car and its design." Nader won a personal apology from then-president of General Motors James Roche and a $425,000 settlement.
Nader's importance in American culture was increased after the settlement of this famous case. Nader received the Neiman Fellows award in 1956, and the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce named him one of ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year in 1967. He had gained the attention of the nation and motivated concerned consumers to demand adequate services from corporations and governments.
Nader's Public Interest Research Groups advocate consumer safety
With his newfound popularity and a full bank account, Nader started the first Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) in Washington, D.C. He supported automobile safety laws such as the Traffic Safety Act (1966) that made seat belts mandatory in American cars. A large number of young people wanted to work with Nader, including college students. This growing number of young volunteers was called "Nader's Raiders" by Washington Post reporter William Greider. Nader and his Raiders supported the passage of bills that included the Freedom of Information Act (1966) and related "Sunshine Laws," a group of laws geared to make government policy-making a more open and visible process. He also pushed for the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974). These acts helped improve citizen access to government information and reduced the amount of air and water pollution caused by American industries.
Nader released a highly critical report on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1969. The document caused Congress to investigate and reevaluate the functioning of the agency. The FTC was supposed to protect American consumers. However, from its beginnings in 1914, it had limited itself merely to regulating corporate mergers and controlling deceptive interstate advertising. Nader and his Raiders found in the FTC's own records that only 1 in 125 consumer complaints had ever resulted in action from the commission. In the report, Nader's Raiders rated the performance of the FTC as "shockingly poor," as quoted on the FTC's Web site. Senator Abraham Ribicoff praised the group's work. As noted on The Nader Page, the senator stated: "Bureaucracy being what it is, I am fascinated by your ability to get in so deep, and get so much information. I am sure that you gentlemen are the envy of the large number of reporters here." Commissioner Paul Rand Dixon, who was head of the FTC, resigned. After some major restructuring, the organization waged several successful cases against Coca-Cola and McDonald's for false advertising.
To increase corporate and government accountability to citizens, Nader opened the Center for Study of Responsive Law in 1969 and began Public Citizen in 1971. The groups monitored corporate and/or legal activities to better protect citizens. By 2004, Public Citizen was comprised of seven public action groups, including Auto Safety, Congress Watch, Health Research Group, Litigation Group, Global Trade Watch, Critical Mass Energy Project, and Buyers Up (a fuel purchasing cooperative). The Center for Study of Responsive Law continued its work to inform political and corporate institutions of the needs of citizens and consumers. Nader and his volunteers also helped push for the formation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (1970), the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (1971), and the Consumer Protection Agency (1978). These government agencies were designed to protect consumers from wrongdoing on the part of big business.
A bid for the presidency with the Green Party
Nader broadened his campaigns for the protection of consumers to include the public good as well. He formed public interest groups, including the Consumer Project on Technology (1995), Citizen Works (2001), and Democracy Rising (2001). During the 1990s Nader supported many of the ideals of the Green Party of the United States, including the conservation of natural resources through recycling and limits on usage and pollution. He also opposed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which regulated international commerce. In 2000 Nader ran for president of the United States on the Green Party ticket, receiving almost 3 percent of the vote. Some Democrats blamed him for taking away the slim margin of votes that Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore (1948–) would have needed to defeat Republican winner George W. Bush (1946–). Nader discounted the attacks, saying that "Gore beat Gore." He stated that those who voted for Nader would not have voted at all if he had not run for president, according to USA Today. On February 22, 2004, Nader announced his intention to run for president again, this time as an independent candidate. He stated in an interview with USA Today: "This campaign will help beat Bush because we can expose the Bush regime's vulnerabilities and failures in additional, effective ways that the Democrats are too cautious or too indentured to corporations to do by themselves."
For More Information
Bowen, Nancy. Ralph Nader: A Man with a Mission. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.
Martin, Justin. Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2002.
Nader, Ralph. Crashing the Party: How to Run for President and Still Tell the Truth. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Nader, Ralph. Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. New York: Grossman, 1965.
Nader, Ralph, and Barbara Ehrenreich. The Ralph Nader Reader. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2000.
Nader, Ralph. "The Safe Car You Can't Buy." Nation (April 1959).
Squitieri, Tom. "Ralph Nader Announces Run for Presidency." USA Today (February 22, 2004).
Center for Study of Responsive Law.http://www.csrl.org/ (accessed August 2004).
Citizen Works.http://www.citizenworks.org/ (accessed August 2004).
Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender.http://www.crashingtheparty.org/ (accessed August 2004).
Federal Trade Commission.http://www.ftc.gov (accessed August 2004).
The Nader Page.http://www.nader.org (accessed August 2004).
Public Citizen.http://www.citizen.org/ (accessed August 2004).
(b. 27 February 1934 in Winsted, Connecticut), reformer and public citizen whose landmark book on automobile safety, Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), helped launch the consumer movement of the 1960s.
Nader was the youngest of four children of the Lebanese immigrants Nathra, a baker and restaurant owner, and Rose Bouziane Nader. Nader graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University in 1955 and from Harvard Law School in 1958. In 1958 and 1959 he served as a cook in the U.S. Army. From his parents, Nader and his siblings learned that it was a citizen's duty to be educated about public affairs, to be engaged in community activities, and to speak out. Nader began that civic involvement early: at age eleven he was an avid reader of the Congressional Record. As a student at Princeton, he protested the use of the pesticide DDT, which he believed was killing birds. While in law school, he began researching automobile safety, a subject that occupied him for several years. His article, "The Safe Car You Can't Buy," appeared in the Nation in April 1959.
Nader opened a law office in Hartford, Connecticut, that same year, while continuing his advocacy journalism. A visit to the Scandinavian countries in 1961 left Nader impressed with their governments' responsiveness to citizen's complaints. Returning to the United States, he introduced both a concept and a word, ombudsman, a person who responds to citizens' complaints about government officials or agencies. He helped the Connecticut legislature draft an ombudsman bill, the nation's first. Nader moved to Washington, D.C., in 1963 and was soon hired as a consultant to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the assistant secretary of labor. He also served as an unpaid adviser to a Senate subcommittee that was investigating automobile safety.
During the twentieth century, 1.5 million Americans had died in automobile accidents—more than were killed in war. Conventional wisdom held that drivers were primarily to blame. Nader disagreed. In 1965 he published Unsafe at Any Speed, a scathing critique of the automobile industry. The book's subtitle, The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, reflected his central point: that the greatest threat to highway safety came not from reckless drivers but from the faulty designs of the cars themselves. Unencumbered by government regulation—there had never been federal oversight of automobile design—manufacturers built cars that were unnecessarily dangerous. Badly designed cars had a tendency to roll after a collision, increasing the risk of injury. Inside the car, there was often a deadly "second collision," when passengers hit unyielding steering columns, gear shifts, glove compartment doors, dashboards, or mirrors—all dangerous instruments in vehicles unequipped with safety belts.
Nader's chief target was the Corvair, a sporty car manufactured by General Motors (GM), whose faulty rear suspension system made it more likely than most models to skid and roll over. The car's design, he declared, was "one of the greatest acts of industrial irresponsibility in the present century." Nader charged that GM had designed and marketed a car that it knew to be unsafe. Corporate profit had taken precedence over consumer safety. By its neglect, the federal government was guilty of complicity. The result, in Nader's phrase, had been "highway carnage." Alarmed by Nader's charges, GM hired an investigator to find information that might be used to discredit him. The investigator trailed Nader and asked his friends and associates about his politics, sex life, and prejudices. He found nothing damaging. The escapade backfired on GM when outraged senators learned of the corporation's attempt to silence Nader. The company's president publicly apologized at a Senate hearing.
GM's harassment had three important results: First, it brought enormous publicity for Nader's book. Sales for Unsafe at Any Speed increased, and Nader became a national figure. GM's misguided attempt to discredit Nader gained him sympathy and a public forum he would not otherwise have had. Second, Congress became more determined than ever to regulate, for the first time, the design of automobiles. One result was passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. Third, Nader sued GM for invasion of privacy. The case was settled for $425,000, money that Nader used to help launch numerous consumer advocacy projects. Unsafe at Any Speed and the controversy surrounding it also helped doom the Corvair. GM stopped production in 1969. Nader later claimed that "tens of thousands of people" had been saved every year because of the highway safety program that began in the mid-1960s.
After Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader was much in demand as a public speaker. He funneled speaking fees, book royalties, and voluntary contributions to new consumer advocacy projects. He soon made it clear that his interests went well beyond a single issue. In 1967 he turned his attention from automobile safety to meat safety, working for passage of the Wholesome Meat Act, which brought intrastate meatpacking under inspection.
In 1968 Nader founded the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, which examined numerous issues, including food safety, corporate welfare, pensions, age discrimination, and air and water pollution. Young volunteers attracted to Washington by Nader's example began investigating federal agencies to verify that they were serving the public interest. The first group of "Nader's Raiders," as they were called, published a report in 1969 that was critical of the Federal Trade Commission. In 1970 Nader created the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) in Washington, D.C. Later in the year, state groups were founded in Oregon and Minnesota, the first of many across the country. With the national and state PIRGs, Nader sought to marry the energy and commitment of student volunteers to the expertise of full-time professional advocates, including lawyers, economists, and scientists. The PIRGs drew more than 500,000 college volunteers in the early 1970s. In 1971 Nader founded Public Citizen, an umbrella organization whose divisions worked for safe foods and drugs, consumer control over personal health decisions, universal access to quality health care, nuclear safety, conservation, and the use of renewable energy sources.
Nader was not without his critics. Some viewed him as a nuisance. Even his allies occasionally were frustrated by his incessant demands. Many in the business community claimed that the costs of government regulation often outweighed the benefits. Nader's fiercest opponents charged that his ultimate goal was to destroy the free enterprise system altogether. Even if his goals were not always realized in practice, and although Nader himself was frequently dissatisfied by the results of his efforts, few Americans of the 1960s had as much continuing impact as did he. In addition to his work on highway safety, his most obvious contribution, Nader was involved in passage of freedom of information laws (which provided greater public access to government information), mining safety laws, and work-place safety legislation. Many of these laws led to the creation of new federal agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Administration.
In 1980 Nader resigned from Public Citizen, but he continued his involvement in several areas of public policy. In the 1990s he was an outspoken opponent of free trade, arguing that the merger of governments and multinational corporations threatened workers' rights and the environment. Skeptical of globalization, he opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. In 2000 Nader was the Green Party candidate for president.
One of the central impulses of the 1960s, given voice by President John F. Kennedy when he invited Americans to ask what they could do for their country, was active citizenship tinged with idealism. A related impulse seen, for example, in the civil rights movement and the attempt of the Students for a Democratic Society to foster participatory democracy, was the conviction that responsive institutions—true democracy, in other words—required the full and equal participation of the many, not control by the few. Undergirding all of Nader's crusades in the 1960s were the same impulses. Whether going after GM, the Federal Trade Commission, or Congress itself, Nader was acting as he believed all American citizens should act.
He was also—and he was hardly alone in this in the 1960s—deeply suspicious of authority and of institutions. What the system needed, he maintained, was not good leaders at the top, but engaged citizens at all levels, or what he called "initiatory democracy." "Power," he insisted, "comes from the people." With Nader, such ordinary words, the stuff of civics textbooks, became real. His personal version of public citizenship—researching, speaking, writing books, lobbying—became his life. Nader lived frugally, owning neither an automobile nor a television set. He was not motivated by money. He worked long hours. He never married. A man in his thirties who wore conservative suits, Nader little resembled those members of a younger generation who demanded "power to the people." What he offered was not a slogan but a plan—one that required deep engagement with one's fellow citizens and promised to remake the world. Thousands of young Americans in the 1960s were uplifted by the message and answered the call.
Nader has written or sponsored dozens of books and reports. Unsafe at Any Speed (1965) remains the most significant. See also Ralph Nader and Donald Ross, with Brent English and Joseph Highland, Action for a Change: A Student's Manual for Public Interest Organizing (1971), which presents the philosophy behind his Public Interest Research Groups and offers guidelines for creating them. Charles McCarry, Citizen Nader (1972), covers Nader's life and career through the 1960s. Also useful is Robert F. Buckhorn, Nader: The People's Lawyer (1972). Thomas Whiteside, The Investigation of Ralph Nader (1972), provides a detailed discussion of General Motors' efforts to discredit Nader after the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed.
Nader, Ralph 1934 –
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, Justin. 2002. Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
Nader, Ralph. 1965. Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. New York: Grossman. Expanded ed., 1972.
Nader, Ralph. 2002. Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender. New York: St. Martin’s.
Richard M. Flanagan
Considered the father of the consumer protection movement, Ralph Nader has had a great effect on U.S. law and public policy of the late twentieth century. Nader's advocacy on behalf of consumers and workers hastened into reality many features of the contemporary political landscape. The work of this lawyer and irrepressible gadfly of the powers that be, which began in the mid-1960s, has led to the passage of numerous consumer-protection laws in such areas as automobiles, mining, insurance, gas pipelines, and meatpacking, as well as the creation of government agencies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the environmental protection agency, and the consumer product safety commission. Nader himself has founded many well-known consumer advocacy groups, including the Public Interest Research Group, the Clean Water Action Project, the Center for Auto Safety, and the Project on Corporate Responsibility. His goal in these efforts, he has said, is "nothing less than the qualitative reform of the industrial revolution."
Nader was born February 27, 1934, in Winsted, Connecticut, to Nadra Nader and Rose Bouziane Nader, Lebanese immigrants who owned and operated a restaurant and bakery. He is the youngest of five children. He attended the Gilbert School and Princeton University on scholarships. At Princeton, he entered the woodrow wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1955. During an era of conformity, his challenges to school authorities and procedures at Princeton made him stand out. At one point, he protested the use of the poisonous insecticide dichlorodipehnyl-trichloroethane (DDT) on campus trees.
"The most important office in America for anyone to achieve is full-time citizen."
After Princeton, Nader attended Harvard Law School, where he edited the Harvard Law Record, and graduated with distinction in 1958.
It was at Harvard that he first became interested in auto safety. After studying auto-injury cases, in 1958 he published his first article on the subject, "American Cars: Designed for Death," in the Harvard Law Record. It contained a thesis that he would bring to national attention in the mid-1960s: Auto fatalities result not just from driver error, as the auto industry had maintained, but also from poor vehicle design. Nader followed his law degree with six months of service in the Army and then a period of personal travel through Latin America, Europe, and Africa. Upon his return, he established a private law practice in Hartford, Connecticut created an informal legal aid society, and lectured from 1961 to 1963 at the University of Hartford.
Having worked at the local level for auto-safety regulations in the years subsequent to his graduation from Harvard, Nader decided to go to Washington, D.C., in 1964, where he hoped to have more influence. Through his friendship with Daniel P. Moynihan, who then was serving as assistant secretary of labor, Nader worked as a consultant at the department of labor and wrote a study that called for federal responsibility over auto safety.
Nader left the Department of Labor in May 1965 and devoted himself to completing what would become his most celebrated book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. The book was published later that year and quickly became a best-seller. In it, Nader painted a grim picture of motor vehicle injuries and fatalities, noting that 47,700 people were killed in auto accidents in 1964. He made an eloquent appeal for federal car-safety standards that would both prevent accidents from occurring and better protect passengers in the event of an accident. The book also communicated a philosophy regarding public regulation of technology that would cause him to do battle on many other issues. "A great problem of contemporary life," he wrote, "is how to control the power of economic interests which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology." Nader has devoted his life to solving this problem.
Taking some of his inspiration from the civil rights movement, Nader stood up to the
most powerful companies in the world. His book targeted the safety problems of the Chevrolet Corvair, a product of the world's largest company, General Motors (GM). He convincingly marshaled evidence that the driver could lose control of the Corvair even when it was moving slowly, thus making it "unsafe at any speed." The Goliath GM did not take kindly to the stones thrown by this David, and the company began a campaign of harassment and intimidation that was intended to abort Nader's efforts. Subsequent congressional committee hearings in 1966 revealed that GM's campaign against Nader had involved harassing phone calls and attempts to lure Nader into compromising situations with women. The company formally apologized before Congress for these tactics.
Many politicians in Washington, D.C., and many Americans were receptive to Nader's ideas. In 1966, in his State of the Union address, President lyndon b. johnson called for a national highway safety act. Later that year, Congress passed the Highway Safety Act (80 Stat. 731 [23 U.S.C.A. § 401 note]) and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (80 Stat. 718 [15 U.S.C.A. § 1381 note]). The latter created a new government body, later named the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that oversaw the creation of federal safety standards for automobiles and was also empowered to authorize recalls of unsafe vehicles. In subsequent years, these laws and others for which Nader had advocated helped to bring about a marked decrease in traffic fatalities per vehicle mile. As the Washington Post exclaimed, on August 30, 1966, "[A] one-man lobby for the public prevailed over the nation's most powerful industry."
Nader's first work in the area of auto safety remains his most famous consumer advocacy. However, he has remained a tireless proponent of consumers' and workers' rights on many different fronts. Shortly after his triumph with auto regulation, Nader initiated a publicity campaign that helped to pass the Wholesome Meat Act, 81 Stat. 584, 19 U.S.C.A. 1306 (1967), which established stricter federal guidelines for meatpacking plants. By the late 1960s, he began to mobilize college students who joined him in his investigations of public policy and the effectiveness of government regulations. These young forces came to be called "Nader's Raiders," and many of them eventually rose to positions of influence in the government and in public policy organizations. By the mid-1970s, the various groups that Nader had created, including Public Interest Research Groups in many states, were doing research and financing legal action in relation to myriad public policy issues, including tax reform, consumer-product safety, and corporate responsibility.
During Ronald Reagan's presidency in the 1980s, Nader's influence in Washington, D.C., declined, particularly as the Reagan administration dismantled much of the government regulation that Nader had helped to establish. He did not give up his cause, however. In the late 1980s, he was again in the media spotlight, this time through his attempts to lower car-insurance rates in California and to block a proposed congressional pay increase. During the 1980s and 1990s, he also addressed the savings-and-loan bailout problem, well before it became high on the nation's agenda; opposed the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which damage the ozone layer; and worked to prevent limitations on damages that consumers may receive from corporations through civil lawsuits.
Nader has run for president three times, including the 1992, 1996, and 2000 elections. In 1992, he entered the race as a write-in candidate. Four years later, he was nominated as a candidate by the green party, which has its strongest support in California. With political activist Winona LaDuke as his running mate, he ran a no-frills campaign, accepting no taxpayer money, eschewing advertising, and often traveling alone. He earned 684,902 votes that year, including two percent of the votes in California.
Nader ran again in the 2000 election. He raised more than $8 million for the campaign, some $30 million less than reform party candidate pat buchanan. Running again with LaDuke, Nader finished third in the election, with 2,882,955 votes, while Buchanan finished with 448,895. Several supporters have urged Nader to run again in the 2004 election.
Nader has written and edited dozens of books during his career, including Crashing the Party, which details his run during the 2000 presidential election. Other books include The Consumer and Corporate Accountability (1973), Corporate Power in America (1973), Working on the System: A Comprehensive Manual for Citizen Access to Federal Agencies (1974), Government Regulation: What Kind of Reform? (1976), The Big Boys: Power and Position in American Business (1986), and Collision Course: The Truthabout Airline Safety (1994). He also has founded or helped to found a number of consumer and other advocacy organizations.
Herrnson, Paul S., and John C. Green, eds. 1998. Multiparty Politics in America. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Little-field.
Martin, Justin. 2002. Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus.
Nader, Ralph. 2002. Crashing the Party: Taking on the Corporate Government in an Age of Surrender. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press.
——. 2000. The Ralph Nader Reader. New York: Seven Stories Press.
——. 1972. Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. Rev. ed. New York: Grossman.
Nader, Ralph, and Wesley J. Smith. 1996. No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America. New York: Random House.
Born: February 27, 1934
American activist, social crusader, and lawyer
American social crusader and lawyer Ralph Nader became a symbol of the public's concern over the business practices of large corporations. He inspired investigations that were meant to improve the operations of industries and government bureaus. He also ran for president and tried to bring about changes in the elective process to provide voters with more choices.
Dinner table discussions
Ralph Nader was born on February 27, 1934, in Winsted, Connecticut, the youngest of four children of Nadra and Rose (Bouziane) Nader, Lebanese immigrants who operated a local restaurant and bakery. His parents led the family in political discussions every night around the dinner table. His father was against any kind of injustice and insisted that every person had an obligation to try to make the world a better place.
Nader was interested in the law at an early age; he loved reading copies of the Congressional Record (printed speeches of members of Congress) that his high-school principal gave him. He graduated from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1955 and then went to Harvard Law School, receiving his degree in 1958. His role as an activist began developing during college. While at Princeton he attempted, but failed, to stop the spraying of campus trees with a pesticide (spray to kill insects) called DDT. He considered pesticides to be dangerous and harmful to the environment. Nader served briefly in the U.S. Army, traveled, then opened a law office in Hartford, Connecticut. He also lectured in history and government at the University of Hartford.
Auto safety watchdog
Nader was one among many concerned about safety in auto design. While still at Harvard, he had studied auto injury cases and came to believe that design flaws, rather than driver mistakes, were responsible for the large numbers of car accidents. He testified on the subject before state legislative committees and wrote articles for magazines. In 1964 Nader was appointed a consultant (a person who provides professional advice or services) to the Department of Labor and began to study auto safety in depth. He also worked with the Government Operations Subcommittee headed by Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff (1910–1998), providing it with data on auto accidents. In 1965 he left the department to prepare a book on the subject.
Nader's book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (1965) appeared while Ribicoff's committee was holding hearings on the subject of auto safety. Nader, after testifying before the committee, became a target of auto manufacturers then dealing with lawsuits by victims of auto accidents who blamed it on bad car designs. Although new safety laws would have eventually been established, the issue attracted public interest after Nader revealed that he had been personally harassed and his private life investigated by detectives working for General Motors. The admission in March 1966 by General Motors president James M. Roche that his firm had indeed had Nader investigated received national television coverage and made Nader a public figure. These events helped speed up the process of establishing new auto safety laws. In 1966, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed. Nader's book became a best-seller and a factor in the new safety legislation becoming law in September. He broadened his investigations of the auto industry and the National Traffic Safety Agency, which was responsible for enforcing the new law. In November he sued General Motors for $26 million for invasion of privacy.
Birth of "Nader's Raiders"
Nader then began a series of studies in various fields aimed at improving responsible industrial production. These included safety in mines and control of oil and gas pipes that were dangerous to people and the environment. Nader also worked on behalf of what became the 1967 Wholesome Meat Act. By being careful with his money, working efficiently, and using his income from book sales, article writing, and lectures, Nader attracted over a hundred young people—soon known as "Nader's Raiders"—from law schools and elsewhere. They helped him gather data about industries and government bureaus. In 1969 he founded his Center for the Study of Responsive Law (an organization that conducts research and publishes reports about consumer issues). In August 1970 Nader was awarded $425,000 from his lawsuit against General Motors, funds he promptly put into his crusade.
From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, Nader's public image faded from his Unsafe at Any Speed days. By 1988, however, he campaigned successfully to reduce California car-insurance rates and used public opinion to help block a proposed 50-percent pay hike for members of Congress. He gained notoriety in 1990 when a Forbes magazine story accused him of working together with trial lawyers for supporting Americans' right to sue. The criticism failed to stop him from looking into other issues; he soon turned his attention to investigating safety flaws in the airline industry. But his book on the subject, Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety, with Wesley J. Smith (1949–), was criticized by some for its questionable use of data.
After failing to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement (1993; an agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the United States to reduce tariffs and eliminate other barriers to trade), Nader was nominated as the 1996 Green Party (a political party that focuses mainly on ecological and environmental issues) candidate for president, winning some support in popular polls. Nader himself summed up his philosophy this way: "You've got to keep the pressure on, even if you lose." In 1997 Nader again teamed with Wesley J. Smith to write No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America. The book explored the business of law in which, the authors suggested, profit is more important than justice. In 1988 Nader launched Commercial Alert, an organization that fights against harmful and excessive advertising and marketing.
In June 2000 Nader again accepted the presidential nomination of the Green Party. He promised to run a campaign that focused on policies to address the gap between the rich and the poor, improve health insurance for all Americans, and challenge corporations to end practices that waste the country's resources and harm the environment. He argued that since he could see no real difference between George W. Bush (1946–) and Al Gore (1948–), the Republican and Democratic candidates, the two-party system did not give voters enough choice. Nader wound up with only 3 percent of the vote, but in one of the closest elections ever, Democrats criticized him for taking votes away from Gore and causing Bush to win key states and, therefore, the election. Nader shrugged off the criticism and went back to work to strengthen the Green Party and prepare for the next round of elections.
For More Information
Bowen, Nancy. Ralph Nader: Man with a Mission. Brookfield, CT: Twenty-First Century Books, 2002.
Graham, Kevin. Ralph Nader: Battling for Democracy. Denver: Windom, 2000.
Nader, Ralph. Crashing the Party. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2002.
The American social crusader and lawyer Ralph Nader (born 1934) became a symbol of the public's concern over corporate ethics and consumer interests. He inspired investigations that were intended to improve the operations of industries and government bureaus.
Ralph Nader was born on February 27, 1934, in Winsted, Connecticut, to Lebanese immigrants. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1955 and then went to Harvard Law School, receiving his degree in 1958. Nader served briefly in the U.S. Army, traveled, then opened a law office in Hartford, Connecticut. He also lectured in history and government at the University of Hartford.
Nader was one among many concerned for safety in auto design, but most writers and members of safety and auto associations saw the problem as one in engineering and individual preference in a consumers' market. Nader, while still at Harvard, had studied auto injury cases and was persuaded that faulty design, rather than driver incompetence, was responsible for the staggering accident statistics. He testified before state legislative committees on the subject and wrote articles for magazines.
In 1964 Nader was appointed a consultant to the Department of Labor and undertook to study auto safety in depth. He also worked with Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff's Government Operations Subcommittee, providing it with data on auto accidents. In 1965 he left the department to prepare a book on the subject.
Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (1965) appeared while Ribicoff's committee was holding hearings on the subject. Nader, a tall, attractive figure, testifying before the committee, became a target of auto manufacturers then coping with lawsuits by victims of auto accidents who were charging faulty car design. Although new safety laws were inevitable, their character was given new facets by Nader's revelations that he had been personally harassed and his private life investigated by detectives. The admission in March 1966 by General Motors president James M. Roche that his firm had indeed had Nader under surveillance received national television coverage and made Nader a public figure. Unsafe at Any Speed became a best seller and a factor in the legislation which in September became law.
Nader enlarged his investigations of the auto industry and the National Traffic Safety Agency, which was responsible for administering the new law. In November he sued General Motors for $26 million, alleging invasion of privacy. He also began a series of studies in various fields intended to upgrade responsible industrial production and human relations. These included safety in mines, control of oil and gas pipes dangerous to people and the environment, and justice for Native Americans. One cause which harked back to Upton Sinclair's 1905-1906 crusade was Nader's activity in behalf of what became the 1967 Wholesome Meat Act.
Living austerely, working with swiftness and economy, and supplementing with foundation grants his income from royalties, article writing, and lectures, Nader attracted over a hundred young people—soon known as "Nader's Raiders"—from law schools and elsewhere. They helped him gather data about industries and government bureaus. In 1969 he organized his Center for the Study of Responsive Law. Its work resulted in such publications as "The Nader Report" on the Federal Trade Commission (1969) and The Interstate Commerce Commission [sic]: The Public Interest and the ICC (1970), with more publications promised in all social fields. In August 1970 Nader was once more in the headlines, having been awarded $425,000 from General Motors, funds promptly put into his expanded crusade.
From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, Nader's public image faded from his Unsafe at Any Speed heyday. But by 1988, he successfully campaigned to roll back California car insurance rates, then ignited public opinion to block a proposed 50 percent pay hike for members of Congress.
He gained notoriety in 1990 when a Forbes magazine story accused him of working together with trial lawyers for supporting Americans' right to sue. The criticism didn't deter him from other investigations, including safety flaws in the airline industry because of financial instability following deregulation. But his book, Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety, with Wesley J. Smith, was panned by some for questionable use of statistics.
After failing to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement (1993), he was nominated as 1996 Green Party candidate for President, winning some support in popular polls. Nader himself had summed up his philosophy: "You've got to keep the pressure on, even if you lose. The essence of the citizens' movement is persistence."
Nader and his coworkers were patently in the Progressive tradition. However, their precise relation to public wants and preferences remained controversial. His critics held that he sought to impose his own standards of production rather than to help determine public interest. Nevertheless, he appeared to the public as a dedicated and valuable citizen whose full achievement was yet to be determined.
Nader and his crusades are treated in G.S. McClellan, ed., The Consuming Public (1968); G. De Bell, ed., The Voter's Guide to Environmental Politics (1970); J.G. Mitchell and C.L. Stallings, ed., Ecotactics (1970), with an introduction by Nader; J. Ridgeway, The Politics of Ecology (1970); A. A. Aaker and G. S. Day, eds., Consumerism (1971); and L. J. White, The Automobile Industry since 1945 (1971). Articles on Nader have appeared in the Ann Arbor News (March 31, 1996); the Nation (January 8, 1996); Business Week (March 6, 1989); and Fortune (May 22, 1989). □
By the 1960s Ralph Nader (1934–), a lawyer and social crusader, had become a symbol of the public's concern about corporate honesty and consumer safety. Largely beginning with the publication of his first book in 1965, Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed In Dangers of the American Automobile, Nader started to aggressively attack the design problems of consumer products. His documentation linked faulty car designs to a staggering number of automobile accidents and legislation was enacted to protect consumers. This inspired Nader to continue his investigations and efforts at legislation, which eventually led to increased safety standards in mines, federal regulations to control environmentally hazardous oil and gas pipes, and a more intense regulation of meat quality.
Ralph Nader was born in 1934 in Winsted, Connecticut, the son of immigrant Lebanese parents. He graduated with highest honors from Princeton University in 1955, and then went to Harvard Law School, where he received his degree in 1958. After briefly serving in the U.S. Army, and following a period of personal travel, Nader opened a law office in Hartford, Connecticut. There he also joined the University of Hartford faculty, teaching history and government while pursuing his law practice.
Nader became intensely interested in defective auto design largely through his law practice, where he dealt with auto injury cases. He became convinced that it was generally faulty design of automobiles, rather than driver incompetence, that led to the majority of automobile accidents. Certain that he had convincing statistics on his side, Nader began testifying before state legislative committees, and he frequently wrote magazine articles on the subject.
In 1964, when Nader was appointed as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Labor, he undertook a major study of automobile safety. Having all the data he needed, he left the Department of Labor in 1965 to write his first book, Unsafe At Any Speed. In March 1966, General Motors president James Roche admitted that his firm had Nader under surveillance in an effort to smear Nader with possible scandal. The admission received national television coverage and Nader became a public figure. Nader's book went on to become a national bestseller and prompted legislation proposals to regulate car safety, which ultimately became federal law in September 1965.
The mood of the country during the mid-1960s was dominated by progressive ideas and politics, and it was not long after the publication of his first book that Ralph Nader came to be known as the country's leading consumer advocate. Nader had made it his life's work to defend the public's well being. His relationship to business was often adversarial and critical. He often condemned businesses as overly profit-motivated and lacking in real concern for the safety of the consumer.
Nader's industry studies, including the coal mining, meat, poultry, and natural gas industries, all resulted in stricter health and safety laws. Nader also investigated hazards in the pesticide industry and alerted the public to the dangers of food additives, radiation from color television sets, and the excessive use of x-rays.
In 1996 Nader ran for the U.S. presidency as the Green Party candidate, winning support in popular polls. While running for president, Nader often summarized his philosophy, insisting: "You've got to keep the pressure on, even if you lose. The essence of the citizen's movement is persistence!" Nader was not elected president, and he continued to work for the consumer in the Progressive tradition. Though he remained a controversial figure, generally disliked by business, he was trusted by many consumers, and he persisted in his work for consumer advocacy and corporate accountability.
Buckhorn, Robert F. Nader: The People's Lawyer. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Burt, Dan M. Abuse of Treat: A Report on Ralph Nader's Network. Chicago: Regency Gateway, 1982.
Griffin, Kelley. Ralph Nader Presents More Action for a Change. New York: Dembner Books, 1987.
McCarey, Charles. Citizen Nader. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.
you've got to keep the pressure on, even if you lose. the essence of the citizen's movement is persistence!
Ralph Nader, the self-appointed “people's lawyer,” helped launch the consumer rights movement in the 1960s by exposing dangerous flaws in products such as automobiles, packaged meat, and synthetic fabrics. Decades later, he gained notoriety for his several campaigns for the U.S. presidency as an independent candidate.
Nader, the son of Lebanese immigrant parents, was born on February 27, 1934. He grew up speaking Arabic as well as English. Nader attended Princeton University, graduating with honors in 1955. After graduating with distinction from Harvard Law School, he opened a law practice in Hartford, Connecticut . He also taught history and government at the University of Hartford in the early 1960s; later in the decade, he taught at Princeton.
Collision with the auto industry
Prompted by auto accident cases he was handling in the early 1960s, Nader began an investigation into the auto industry's engineering practices. His findings convinced him that faulty car design, rather than poor driving, was responsible for the staggering number of car accidents. Nader testified about his findings on auto industry practices before legislative committees. In 1965, he published a book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile.
Nader's investigations angered auto manufacturers. In March 1966, General Motors president James Roche (1906–2004) admitted that his firm had Nader under surveillance. The incident made headlines and Unsafe at Any Speed quickly became a best-seller. The book significantly changed the practices in auto design.
Nader went on to identify new consumer safety issues, assigning topics to teams of young researchers who came to be called “Nader's Raiders.” He aired his findings at press conferences or turned them over to journalists or members of Congress. In this manner, he brought attention to health hazards in mining, inadequate gas-pipeline safety standards, inequities suffered by Native Americans, and dangers in dental X rays. He celebrated a major victory when Congress enacted the 1967 Wholesome Meat Act, which imposed federal inspection standards on nearly all meat processed in the United States. In the early 1970s, Nader's campaigns resulted in bills that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
During the administration of Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89), the regulatory agencies Nader had brought into being were gutted by funding cuts. Nader quietly continued his work, focusing on research institutes he had launched in the 1970s such as the Center for Responsive Law.
In the 1990s, Nader again came into the limelight, as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. In 1996, he ran for president on the Green Party ticket, focusing his campaign on the problems of a two-party political system and promising to give Americans a real alternative.
In June 2000, Nader again accepted the presidential nomination of the Green Party. He pledged to run a campaign that addressed the gap between the rich and the poor and to take on environmental issues and the problem of poor health care coverage. Nader lost the 2000 election, but many analysts claimed that he drew enough votes to have contributed to the narrow loss of the Democratic contender, Vice President Al Gore (1948–), to the Republican candidate, Texas governor George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) in one of the closest elections in the nation's history.
Nader announced in February 2004 that he would run for president again, this time as an independent. Democrats urged him not to run, because most votes for Nader would come from potentially Democratic voters. Votes for Nader in 2004 were too few to hurt any party. Nader vowed to continue in his role of shaking up both the Republican Party and Democratic Party with his independent campaigns. Indeed, in 2008, Nader announced his plans for another presidential run.
NADER, Ralph. American, b. 1934. Genres: Social commentary. Career: Consumer protection activitist. Lawyer: has practiced law in Hartford, Conn., since 1959. Lecturer in History and Government, University of Hartford, 1961-63; Lecturer, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1967-68. Publications: Unsafe at Any Speed: the Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, 1965, 1972; (with W. Taylor) The Big Boys: Styles of Corporate Power, 1986; Nader on Australia, 1986; Winning the Insurance Game, 1990; The Ralph Nader Reader, 2000. EDITOR/CO-EDITOR: The Consumer and Corporate Accountability, 1973; Taming the Giant Corporation, 1976; Who's Poisoning America, 1981; Eating Clean: Food Safety and the Chemical Harvest, 1982. Contributor to journals. Address: PO Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036, U.S.A.