Friday, October 23, 2009

In Search of an American Hero: The Mixed Legacy of Ralph Nader

I recently attended a lecture by Ralph Nader at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Ever since I first saw him speak at Wittenberg University in 1979, I have enjoyed listening to Nader. It is hard not to admire his fierce commitment to the public interest, one motivated by an adherence, not to a rigid ideology or political philosophy, but to a passion for right and wrong, a sense of justice, and a commitment to the facts. Love him or hate him, he speaks truth to power and backs it up with research, factual data, and hard work. Before dirtying himself in presidential politics, he was Sir Ralph, patron saint of the American consumer, spokesman for the public interest, a watchdog for the little guy. He has devoted his life to making the American economy safer, healthier, more competitive, more informed, and more open. A man of immense intellect – possessed of a near genius-level IQ, most people who have worked for Nader consider him the single most intelligent man they ever met – he has the ability to consume huge amounts of information and retain every word with near-encyclopedic accuracy. Not surprisingly, his positions and arguments are backed by extensive research and analysis.

Inspired by his talk, last week I watched An Unreasonable Man, a well crafted, entertaining documentary produced in 2007, which revealed Nader in all his complexity. Although part of me remains angry at Nader for costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000 (Nader received over 97,000 votes in Florida, a state Gore lost by 537 votes), the film helped resurrect my earlier view of Nader, the one that sees him not as presidential spoiler and naive politician, but as the citizen crusader. Unafraid of challenging wrongs perpetrated by the largest, most powerful institutions of American society, Nader has done battle with General Motors, the nuclear power industry, Congress, government bureaucracies, corporate fat cats, corrupt trade unions, huge media conglomerates, and both major political parties.

What makes Nader so endearing is his complete embrace of American virtues and founding principles. More than any other social critic and political activist in my lifetime, Nader believes uniquely in America’s most deeply treasured values – free enterprise, the genius of small business, competition, openness in government, the free flow of information. He has devoted his life to increasing citizen participation, advancing democracy, and laying the foundation for an informed consumer. Big business claims to favor free enterprise, but Nader fights for laws and regulations – and, where needed, a lack of regulation – that promote competition. Thus, where laissez faire policies fail to adequately protect the consumer, or all citizens, he advocates increased regulation that addresses the shortcomings of capitalism. Left to their own devices, corporate interests will not incur added costs to avoid polluting the air and water, or to provide a safe workplace or a safe product; only if forced to do so – by threat of lawsuits, or pursuant to regulation and law – will it happen. Conversely, where economic regulation of markets has artificially limited competition, such as occurred in the airline and trucking industries in the 1970’s, Nader was instrumental in achieving deregulation, thus enhancing price competition in industries that had become too cozy.

In 1965, Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed, a fact-based, thoroughly researched book which exposed the careless and negligent operation of the U.S. automobile industry. Nader demonstrated that the auto manufacturers, in the interest of mass production and increased sales, designed cars with an eye on style, cost, and performance with little regard for safety. To the (mostly) men in the C-suites, it seemed not to matter that every year cars were involved in five million accidents, 40,000 deaths, 110,000 permanent disabilities, and 1.5 million injuries on America’s roads and highways. Nader proved that auto crashes need not be deadly and that many injuries could easily be avoided by minor and inexpensive design changes. In the beginning, Nader was virtually alone in addressing the issue and, despite the best efforts of General Motors (whose covert efforts to dig up dirt on Nader failed miserably), he proved that one person, acting intelligently, honestly, armed with facts and persistence, can make a difference.

When Nader took on the U.S. auto industry in the early 1960’s, it was not to dismantle capitalism or the American corporation, but to make it better. He recognized that corporate decisions were made with an exclusive focus on the bottom line – profits – and that spending money on safety and health was treated as an expense that produced no revenue. Why would any rational businessman, motivated by the desire to maximize profits, spend money on safety or clean air unless required by law to do so? Nader’s self-avowed agenda was to bring about the “qualitative reform of the Industrial Revolution,” not to harm American economic enterprise, but to improve it, by making it more competitive and responsive to the consumer. Nader understood that safety was something consumers clearly wanted but were not offered, in part due to a lack of competition (in the 1960’s, the auto industry was dominated by the Big Three – General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler – for which competition in the true sense was mostly non-existent). As a result of Nader’s persistence and growing influence, motor vehicle safety laws were enacted that required seat belts and, eventually, air bags; shatterproof windshields; safer steering wheel designs; softer, more flexible visors; and many other safety features now taken for granted. Virtually every car on the market today – domestic and foreign – includes in its marketing efforts an emphasis on safety, as car manufacturers compete not just over price and design, but safety and crash worthiness as well. The auto industry fought Nader every step of the way, but in 1977, Henry Ford II conceded on Meet the Press, “We wouldn’t have the kinds of safety built into automobiles that we have had unless there had been a federal law.”

Following his success in transforming the American auto industry, Nader focused his attention on other forms of corporate abuse, from hazardous drugs to deceptive advertising, price fixing to product obsolescence, energy wasting appliances to unsafe food additives; the list goes on and on. Although his name is rarely uttered with glee in the C-suites and boardrooms of American corporations, Nader’s positive influence on corporate governance and responsible corporate citizenship is undeniable. Today, the concept of corporate social responsibility is a part of every major American business.

Nader by all accounts has led a priestly life. His personal life, if he has one, is secondary. He demands complete loyalty to his causes, most of which do not pay well. Yet he continues to have many devoted followers who greatly admire his ethical purity, independence, and commitment to justice. He bases his arguments and tactics on hard facts, solid research, and rational, sound arguments. This is why he has been so effective – no one questions his motives, or whether he possesses some hidden financial objective or conflict of interest.

Yet I cannot help but wonder if Nader is blinded by his purity. When he insisted on running for President in 2000 – costing the Democrats the White House – and then feebly repeating his mistake in 2004 – he did much damage to his reputation and his causes. The cadre of public interest organizations that he created, funded, and helped give wings to, were greatly harmed when he chose to muddy himself in the political arena. For regardless of the issues he hoped to advance, and the causes he espoused, he appeared to be advancing Ralph Nader at the expense of America; his independence and selfless sacrifices for justice were no longer his compelling traits. Although it is difficult to come up with a political position he took, or a statement he made, to which I vehemently disagreed, his mere presence in the political arena caused great, and very predictable damage. Some of his most loyal, dedicated public interest employees resigned, the influence of his many public interest organizations weakened, and funding dried up.

Most importantly, his candidacy made likely – some would say inevitable – exactly what he had spent his whole life fighting against, as he filtered votes away from the Democrats, helping Bush win in 2000. If not for Nader’s candidacy, the argument goes, we would not have had the War in Iraq, the degradation of the constitution, the ballooning federal deficits, the abuses at Guantanamo Bay. But to this day, Nader is unrepentant. He correctly notes that Gore failed to carry even his home state of Tennessee, and that his censorship of Bill Clinton contributed to his loss of Arkansas (had Gore won either of those states, he would have won the election). In An Unreasonable Man, Nader contends that Gore (and Bush) needed to earn their votes, and that Gore, by moderating his views on certain key issues and catering to the corporate interests so dominant in the Democratic Party today, became virtually indistinguishable from Bush. Gore lost on his own far more votes than Nader could possibly have taken from him.

Nader correctly notes that Gore ran a poor campaign, but to suggest there was no difference between the two candidates, and to take no responsibility for Bush’s win in Florida, is to ignore reality. As intelligent and ethical a man as Ralph Nader is, his insistence on democratic purity and saintliness harmed the nation. Nader insists that his running for president was not to advance his reputation or public profile – in fact, it had the opposite effect – but to pressure the two major parties to discuss the real issues that needed addressing. His fault lie not in his motives, but in his naive belief that it was his place to do so.

Politics is often referred to as the Art of the Possible. Compromise and negotiation are ever present; principles abide only so long as winning does not get in the way. For the Democrats, this usually means suppressing the advocacy of effective gun control laws, compromising on national health insurance or its lesser component, the public option, and failing to insist on fundamental principles of economic and social justice in the tax code and the allocation of federal resources. This is to avoid offending swing voters, investment bankers, and corporate contributors. Although frustrating, in the real world of American politics, it is a necessary component of a winning formula. As a Democrat, I accept that compromise and the bending of principle is necessary to win elections and govern; it is part of the process. If you disregard pragmatism, you risk losing and accomplishing nothing. Some principles – fundamental human rights, the pursuit of peace and security – cannot be compromised, but there are many others that, in the day-to-day reality of political life, require flexibility and accepting less than the ideal.

For Nader, however, principle is everything – the cause is what matters, and anything or anybody that stands in the way of advancing the cause is to be defeated, even at the expense of smaller advancements. American society – all societies – need their share of Ralph Naders, those who provide an independent and powerful voice for citizens who, for lack of money, power, and access, are dismissed as irrelevant. Nader has certainly left his mark on American society. He not only created the consumer movement in this country, attracting a large following without any significant organization, but he also inspired the creation of similar movements in many countries around the world. He is not, and never has been, a man of privilege; his father was an immigrant and self-made man, an entrepreneur, small businessman, one who embraced and was driven by the American work ethic. Nader embraced the values of his father. He is the ultimate altruist, humble, self-sacrificing, possessed of an arrogance that permits him not to care about what others think of him. Nader is a man of consistency, one who acts for what he believes to be the greater good with little concern for how others perceive him. In this and many ways, he is an unusual man. His legacy will endure in the everyday improvements he has made to American life, law, and public policy. But his insistence on saintly purity in the elections of 2000 and 2004, and possibly in ways yet to be determined, will forever taint that legacy.


  1. I think you are a hard on him with respect to the 2004 campaign. Lets face it, though there are clear differences, BOTH Ds and Rs are in the pockets of many industries. Financial industry? D Chris Dodd. No major legislation has been proposed yet to address the issues which took us to the brink last year. Health insurance . . . D Max Baucus.

    As you state, he is a genius, so he knew exactly what he was doing and did not care.

  2. Mike,

    Thanks for the comments. I agree that Nader was not really a factor in 2004, but it is a mystery as to why he ran again after all of the controversy in 2000, when he did make a real difference to the outcome.

  3. Mark,

    When Ralph Nader’s picture popped up on your blog, my immediate thought was, “Not another liberal lunatic!” But then I asked myself to justify that reaction, and although phrases like “hysterical anti-capitalist,” “car-hater” and “nutty third-party candidate” came to mind, I couldn’t articulate, let alone corroborate my dislike for Nader. As is often the case, opinions live on long after the facts that formed them have been forgotten. So I was forced to reeducate myself, and in the process, my opinion of Nader has become less definitive.

    I would love to start with his greatest achievement, but there seems to be some dispute as to whether or not he saved a September 12th America from being led by Al Gore, who surely would not have brought democracy to Iraq and probably would have settled for a few cruise missiles into Afghanistan (and on a related topic, please list the Americans who had their rights violated because of the Patriot Act and please list the Guantanamo detainees who were abused – and becoming obese and having cavities filled does not count). It seems undeserving to credit Nader when less than half of Nader voters were Democrats, nine million Democrats voted for Bush (a quarter of a million in Florida) and a CNN poll showed that had Nader not been in the Florida race, Bush would have gotten more votes than Gore, while lots would not have voted at all. If anyone besides Gore is to be saluted for electing Bush, it is Bill Clinton and Little Bill (who would salute right back), with an honorary mention for Monica.

    Now back to Saint Ralph.

    Two quotes that tell us much about Nader:

    “Innumerable precedents show that the consumer must be protected at times from his own indiscretion and vanity.”

    “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.”

    Two things are clear: Nader never got laid in the back seat of his parent’s car and President Obama should make him a czar, because he clearly knows what is best for us uneducated rubes.

    Thomas Sowell has a name for the Naders of the world: The Anointed. Those people who know better and who want to impose their knowledge on the rest of us. In 1965, Nader hit it big by slandering a little car called the Corvair, not to mention car executives who apparently sell their souls to climb the corporate ladder (“Why would any rational businessman, motivated by the desire to maximize profits, spend money on safety or clean air unless required by law to do so?”). Sowell makes short work of Nader in his fascinating book, “The Vision of the Anointed,” but here are a few facts for those who believe Nader is responsible for forcing those evil “C-suites” to care about the little people:

    From 1925 to 1965, motor vehicle death rates per million passenger miles fell from 17.9 to 5.5, even while the number of cars and average speeds were increasing. Five years after Nader’s book, the rate was 4.9. Nader was not honest enough to talk about trade-offs; that while, for example, the rear-engine design of the Corvair presented some safety problems, the very same design had safety advantages. In the end, extensive tests by the U.S. Department of Transportation demonstrated that the Corvair was as safe as other comparable vehicles. But it was too late for the little car and the American public was denied the right to exercise their own judgment (augmented by, to name one resource available at the time, Consumer’s Union, which had evaluated the Corvair and noted its advantages and disadvantages).

    As Sowell wrote, “consumer advocates” still use the same tactics pioneered by Ralph Nader in “Unsafe at Any Speed”: “sweeping charges, selective examples, selective quotes, purple prose, dismissals of trade-offs, and an attribution of malign or irresponsible behavior to others.”


  4. Nader was not “virtually alone” in valiantly battling malevolent monsters maliciously manufacturing motorist murdering machines. For many years before his immaculate birth, the C-suites were, indeed, “left to their own devices” and did “incur added costs to... provide a ... safe product.” They did not wait to be “forced to do so – by threat of lawsuits, or pursuant to regulation and law.” For example, ten years before Nader was born, safety glass windows were standard equipment on a Cadillac. When he was five years old, the first electric turn signals were developed. At 16 Nader might have driven a car with four-wheel disc brakes and seat belts! A year later, while he was failing miserably in the back seat, Mercedes-Benz was patenting the life saving “crumple zone” feature. While at Princeton, some of the pretty girls who thought him odd may have been driving cars with safety padding on the dashboard. A year after securing his law degree, Volvo was including lap-shoulder belts as standard equipment. In 1963, while hitchhiking to Washington, D.C., Nader may have ridden in a car with even safer brakes.

    What is a shame is that Nader had a chance to be someone else before he fully answered the call of the nanny-staters. Bruce Bartlett managed to unearth some earlier Nader writings, which seem to suggest that there was a time when he was not, as Nader’s colleague David Sanford described, “an authoritarian.” In 1962 a Connecticut neighborhood fought city hall that was planning to use federal money to build public housing. Nader argued that because the citizens would have to foot the bill to pay for the city services provided to the tenants and that since no local property tax could be assessed on the federal property, this would result in a vicious cycle in which “private property is undermined by public competition (and) private investment is discouraged by the threat of more public housing. As local property taxes increase, the prospects diminish for new or expanding industry.”

    But that was before he discovered the power of the courts. As Bartlett observed, “Indeed, there is an old-fashioned, small town aspect to Nader’s worldview that is conservative. The problem is that Nader long ago sold out that vision to the trial lawyers who bankroll his operations. And despite Nader’s repeated talk about empowering citizens and renewing democracy, he has consistently supported the totally non-democratic court system in making law and policy, against the elected representatives of the people.”

    His conservative moment was but a flicker of a long burning candle. The rest of his life has been that of a common litigious liberal, contemptuous of the legislative process that impedes his goals and slows his ability to impose his will. He looks down his nose at politicians who take money from corporations, while he funds many of his countless organizations with donations from trial lawyers, and in some cases acts as the pilot fish to their Great White.

    As Peter Brimelow pointed out, in the late 1980s Nader aided and abetted the trial lawyers in the fictitious claims of “sudden acceleration” by Audi 5000 automobiles.

    On another occasion, when plaintiff lawyers in California were up against Proposition 106, a popular contingent-fee limitation measure, they called on Nader who came to their rescue and helped defeat the bill, and they, in exchange, came to his, helping to pass Proposition 103, a comprehensive regulation of the insurance companies. Both measures had the potential to save the economy and the American people billions of dollars, but on Prop 106, Nader, as usual, sided with lawyers over consumers.


  5. Nader is a study in hypocrisy: He supports the right of people to unionize except when those people are his employees (“Amid a dispute with the staff of one of his flagship publications in 1984 over its editorial content and a bid by staff members to form a union, Nader responded with the same kind of tactics that he has elsewhere condemned: He fired the staff, changed the locks at the office, unsuccessfully tried to have one employee arrested, and hired permanent replacements.” John Maggs, National Journal, 06/05/04); Nader advocates a “living wage” only for those he doesn’t have to pay (“...when the minimum wage rose, he once cut back on the hours his technical staff would work. Despite the millions of dollars he commands, he historically paid his professional staff less than minimum wage.” Charles Pekow,, 04/27/04); he believes in corporate transparency but not into his empire (“The IRS says it has no record of Nader’s headquarters, ‘Center for Study of Responsive Law,’ founded in 1968, and has never received a Form 990, the appropriate disclosure filing, from it.” Forbes, 09/17/90, 1990, also, “...he maintained the utmost secrecy about his own organization’s finances. The National Information Bureau, which rated charities, reported that Nader’s organizations would not provide information.” Charles Pekow,, 04/27/04); he glorifies small business but demonizes big business without providing a rationale to determine when one becomes the other; Nader is against tort reform leaving only the biggest businesses with the ability to defend themselves against frivolous lawsuits (“Tort Reform Could Save $54 Billion, CBO Says,” Washington Post, 10/10/09); he defends the little people right up until he tries to have them arrested on trumped-up charges (“Nader charged that Shorrock had stolen proprietary information from the Monitor. Shorrock said he was interviewed by an assistant U.S. attorney who told him that there was no basis for the charges, which were not pursued further.” John Maggs, National Journal, 06/05/04), he excoriates politicians for being beholden to corporations that employ thousands, while accepting funding from lawyers who destroy those corporations while taking 30 to 40 percent off the top from settlements (“...three Nader affiliates were openly funded by plaintiff attorneys to the tune of almost $1 million.” Forbes, 09/17/90).

    In your post, while writing of Nader the Consumer Advocate, you use such words as “purity,” “saintly,” “ethical,” “priestly,” “principle” and “altruist,” while describing his political ambitions with such words as “dirtying,” “spoiler” and “muddy.” A better argument would be that his first taste of purity occurred when he stepped into the political arena and presented his beliefs to the American People, trusting in their judgment to make an informed decision. Only then did he capture the essence of this country; that it is made great by the countless decisions made by millions of Americans on a daily basis as to what is in their best interest. For the first time, Nader was not trying to control his fellow citizens, regulate their behavior, limit their choices, but instead was presenting the facts as he knew them and leaving the decision to the people.

    To describe an American’s desire to run for office as being a “spoiler” and suggesting that politics was beneath him is a terrible slight, not only to Nader but to all those who want to make this country better by serving, for a short time, in political office. Convincing the people that your ideas are right and earning their support, not asking a judge to impose your will or beating down your opponent with law suits, is in the true spirit of this country’s founding. In his right to run and that of fellow loon Ross Perot before him, Nader, for once, “speaks truth to power”: “...this ‘costing the election,’ ‘siphoning votes,’ it’s as if the two parties are entitled to votes and someone comes along and illicitly takes away votes from them?”


  6. Nader also has sound advice for both parties: “...when you don’t know who you are, when you don’t have a sense of your identity or your tradition, when you engage in protective imitation of your adversaries, when you define yourself by how much worse your adversary is than you when you’re challenged by liberals as a party, you’re going to make mistake after mistake after mistake, and you’re going to lose.”

    Considering the mixed success of activists: AIDS (we’re all going to catch it and die!), Corvairs (don’t turn the wheel or you’ll die!), DDT (don’t eat that apple or you’ll die!), over-population (they’re eating all the apples, now we’re all going to starve... and then die!), global warming (the polar bears are dying!), Alar (not the apples again!), swine flu (my nose is running! I must be dying!), PCBs (don’t eat the fish or you’ll die!), irradiated food (don’t eat or you’ll die!), nuclear power (is that China down there?), second-hand smoke (don’t exhale or I’ll die!), silicone implants (you're hot! but you're gonna die!), lead-asbestos-acid rain (die-die-die!), Nader may, after 70 years, have found a truly useful role to play: political gadfly. Socrates stated that his role as a gadfly was to “sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.”

    Nader knows how to do that, and in doing so he keeps the front runners honest and forces them to stake their territory and state their beliefs, something that both parties have failed to do recently.

    It appears, though, that Nader may be growing weary of running for president. This year, forty-four years after the publication of his first work of fiction, Nader has written another, “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!” It’s an alternate-reality tale of how Progressives got people to stop laughing at them and actually join them. The characters are real people like George Soros, characters based on real people with names like Bush Bimbaugh, a radio talk show host whose ratings fall because of the success of the Progressive Movement, and, I swear, a parrot named Patriotic Polly. Having not read the book, I am unable to reveal exactly what form of torture the Progressives used to get people to stop laughing at them, but it must have been particularly gruesome.

    This fiction certainly seems much less harmful than his past efforts, so we should be grateful. Still, I can’t help but think how much better it would have been for all independent Americans if he had just scored in that back seat so many years before.

    Rich R.

  7. Rich,

    Unsafe at Any Speed brought to public light the extent to which automobile design and engineering emphasized many things besides safety, even such things that have since become standard and very popular among consumers. It examined the Corvair and pointed out its very serious defects, many of which were shared by other makes and models (Nader had a very good friend from Harvard who was paralyzed for life when his Corvair rolled over in an accident). There were over 100 lawsuits pending against GM when Nader first started looking into the Corvair's safety defects. But much of what he wrote about the Corvair applied equally to other models.

    Nader's advocacy and publicity from Unsafe at Any Speed contributed to passage of the 1966 National Motor Vehicle Safety Act -- signed by President Johnson on September 9, 1966 -- which created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It also led to passage of the Highway Safety Act of 1966, which addressed state safety efforts. These laws led to enactment of mandatory seat belts (which had been merely optional, and which GM had fought hard against, even pressuring Ford a decade earlier to withdraw an ad campaign on safety features), safer windshields, and countless other safety features which are now mandated by law, or standard features in every car on the market. Thus, in this and the many other areas of economic life that Nader has since become involved (energy safety, food safety, water safety), he has worked very much through the legislative, political process -- using the tools of democracy that I am glad to see you are so fond of -- to accomplish his goals. He resorts to lawsuits to enforce the duly enacted laws -- taking advantage of the proper role of the courts -- to compel federal agencies to enforce the laws and regulations that it is their duty to uphold, and forcing corporations to comply with these same laws and regulations.

    You write as if auto safety was an issue that needed no examination -- after all, the car manufacturers were making progress on their own in safety features. Yet look at the facts. From 1965 - 1971, 330,000 Americans died in car fatalities, six times the number of Americans that died in Vietnam. According to the NHTSA, from 1994 to 2008, there were over 550,000 fatalities on America's highways. Auto safety is a very serious issue that affects virtually every American family who ever owned a car and had a loved one operate it. Yes, there are trade-offs, but we need more emphasis on safety, not less. Nader's efforts have in fact made cars much safer than they would be had government never addressed the issue. In the 1994-2008 period, for example, the number of fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled has declined from 1.73 to 1.27, and the rate of fatalities per 100,000 residents has declined from 15.64 to 12.25. And these figures are light years ahead of what they were before Nader became such a nuisance in the mid-1960's.

    One of the most significant aspects of Nader's efforts has been government provided information on auto safety. Nader's philosophy is summed up in Unsafe at Any Speed: "Giving consumers the know-how to help themselves is one of the most creative functions of government." Increasing consumer information makes the free market more perfect, not less. If you believe in the free market economy, you should agree with this.

    But don't take my word for all of the above. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta -- President Bush's cabinet member -- said on August 1, 2005: "Drivers are safer today on our nation's highways than they have ever been, in part because of the safer cars, higher safety belt use, and stronger safety laws that this Department has helped champion."

  8. Mark,

    Excellent rebuttal!

    You stayed on message, ignoring the red meat and red herrings, leaving me nothing but petty points to fire back with.

    Rich R.