Ralph Nader, 1934-2000

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:

  • They fought for general or public interests. It is absolutely fine for groups of Americans to advocate in their own interests. In fact, we will never achieve justice unless the poor and marginal defend themselves effectively. However, there is also an important category of issues that affect everyone, although they are not at the top of anyone’s list of priorities. Consequently, people don’t mobilize on these issues, and small special interests often have their way. Around 1912 and again around 1974, there was a groundswell of concern about those general-interest questions. Nader is associated with three issue areas above all: the environment, consumer protection, and good government. Everyone lives in the natural environment, everyone buys consumer goods, and everyone benefits from a responsive, efficient, transparent government. These were perfect topics for public-interest politics.
  • They were independent of parties, governments, and funders. Although they were not deeply hostile to the political system, they were relentlessly non-partisan and kept all official institutions at an equal distance.
  • They believed in the power of information. Brandeis had said that there is no better disenfectant than sunlight, but it was Nader’s generation that won the Freedom of Information Act, open meeting laws, campaign finance disclosure, and public hearings for congressional committees. Nader and his allies collected previously private information and put it before the public, hoping and expecting that citizens would demand changes.
  • Their core constituents were highly educated, older, White Americans, most often from mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations. However, Nader and his allies brought these constituents into coalitions with poor people, immigrants, and people of color.
  • 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.

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