Ralph Nader was a major figure. Along with John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, he was one of the leaders in a reform movement that reached its apogee around 1974. It was in many ways a revival of the Progressive movement exemplified by Louis Brandeis and Robert M. La Follette a half century earlier. All of the many groups that Nader founded and inspired had the following features:
The progressive revival spurred by Nixon’s malfeasance faltered by the later Carter years. It turned out that information was not enough; politics also requires motivation and organization. Far from motivating masses of people, the reforms of the 70s tended to undermine institutions (such as parties) that have the capacity to mobilize large numbers of people. Public Citizen and Common Cause pioneered a type of organization that provided relatively little for ordinary members to do beyond writing checks. Their heavy use of scientific studies and lawsuits helped to professionalize citizenship and reduce the role of ordinary people.
The reformers’ incessant attacks on regulators for being “captured” by special interests may have fed the anti-regulatory movement of Ronald Reagan. Finally, business lobbies learned to use the new political methods pioneered by Nader and Gardner in their own interests. They too could issue expert studies, organize petition drives, raise money via direct mail, and ask candidates to complete questionnaires. The public-interest style of politics increasingly served Nader’s enemies better than his friends.
Ralph Nader himself had entered the history books by 2000, but by then he had changed American politics more than many presidents. Some of his reforms were counter-productive or soon outlived their usefulness; but all were well-intentioned and many strengthened our democracy.