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Ralph Nader > History > Citizen Action > Citizen Action and Other Big Ideas By David Bollier — Chapter One The Beginnings

“It’s of the same order of the hula hoop — a fad. Six months from now, we’ll probably be on another kick.”
— W.R. Murphy, President of Campbell Soup Co. and member of the Business Council, 1966, dismissing Ralph Nader’s campaign for auto safety.

In 1963, Ralph Nader, then an unknown twenty-nine-year old attorney, abandoned a conventional law practice in Hartford, Connecticut, and hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., to begin a long odyssey of professional citizenship. “I had one suitcase,” he recalled. “I stayed in the YMCA. Walked across a little street and had a hot dog, my last.” (A few years later he would expose the repulsive ingredients that go into hot dogs.) Taking a job as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Labor, working for Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nader moonlighted as a freelance writer for The Nation and The Christian Science Monitor. He also acted as an unpaid adviser to a Senate subcommittee, chaired by Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, which was exploring what role the federal government might play in auto safety.

If such circumstances seemed an unlikely springboard for launching one of the great citizen movements of the late 20th century, one must look more closely at the man himself, his values, his upbringing, his intellect — all of which find some personal imprint in the many citizen organizations he has founded.

Born in 1934 to Lebanese immigrants Rose and Nathra Nader, Ralph always took the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship to heart. “When I went past the Statue of Liberty,” his father once said, “I took it seriously.” Civic duty had a special meaning in Winsted, the small town in northwestern Connecticut where Nathra ran the Highland Arms Restaurant and engaged his customers in spirited debate about public affairs. Studious, bright and intense, Ralph followed the Yankees, played with David Halberstam, the future journalist, and read back issues of the Congressional Record with equal enthusiasm. By age 14 he had read the early muckrakers — Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair and George Seldes — who were to inspire his thinking about the distribution of power in American society and the possibilities of citizenship.

Entering Princeton in 1951 as Dwight Eisenhower presided over the conformist “silent generation,” Nader was never one for fitting in. “At Princeton the chief act of rebellion was to refuse to wear white buck shoes,” he once recalled. After finding dead birds on the campus lawns, he tried to ban the spraying of DDT on the trees; the editors of the Daily Princetonian scoffed, claiming that the university’s chemistry and biology professors would surely have objected if DDT posed any danger. When local restaurants challenged the license of a popular hot dog vendor, Nader tried to rally fellow students to protest and was appalled at the lukewarm response. Apart from such breaches of Princeton’s civic torpor, Nader used most of his time there indulging his voracious and eclectic mind, spending hours in the library and learning Chinese and other languages.

After, graduating from Princeton in 1955, Nader went on to Harvard Law School where he developed an intense distaste for its narrow intellectualism and moral complacency. “It was a high-priced tool factory, only instead of tools and dies, they were producing hired advocates for corporate law firms and corporations,” Nader later complained. “If you were worried about issues of right and wrong and justice and injustice, you were considered soft intellectually.” Nader once asked a law professor why, given the abundance of courses and seminars in the catalog, there was no course on “food and the law.” As he tells the story,


The professor, nonplussed for an instant, blurted, ‘Food?’ Recovering his composure, he allowed that the reason was simply that the subject had not developed to a suitable intensity to qualify as an adequate intellectual challenge at the School. Searching for a frame of reference, I asked him what course would so qualify. He looked up at the sky and then a definite glow crossed his face as he responded: ‘Tax.’


It was at Harvard where Nader first explored another unorthodox legal topic: the engineering design of automobiles. His research resulted in an April 1959 article published in The Nation, “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy,” in which he declared, “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.”

After several years of lawyering in Hartford and footloose world travelling as a freelance writer, Nader arrived in Washington and began work on a book elaborating on the themes of his Nation article. His rendezvous with history was nearly derailed when he left part of his completed manuscript in a New York City taxicab. With customary determination, however, he rewrote the book in breakneck speed and published Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (Grossman) in November 1965.

The chief target of the book was General Motors’ “sporty” Corvair, whose faulty rear suspension system made it possible to skid violently and roll over. The corporate negligence that had produced the various Corvair defects, said Nader, was “one of the greatest acts of industrial irresponsibility in the present century.” More generally, Nader’s book documented how Detroit habitually subordinated safety to style and marketing concerns. The main cause of car injuries, Nader demonstrated, was not the “nut behind the wheel” so often blamed by the auto industry, but the inherent engineering and design deficiencies of the motor vehicle that was woefully uncrashworthy. Solutions must focus, accordingly, on the vehicle itself.

This pioneering insight, that blame often lies not with hapless individual consumers but unresponsive oligopolistic sellers, would become a recurring theme in Nader’s many investigations. As he wrote in Unsafe:


A great problem of contemporary life is how to control the power of economic interests which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology. The automobile tragedy is one of the most serious of these man-made assaults on the human body….Our society’s obligation to protect the ‘body rights’ of its citizens with vigorous resolve and ample resources requires the precise, authoritative articulation and front-rank support which is being devoted to civil rights.


Despite reviews in national publications, initial sales of the book were modest. If the public did not immediately appreciate the import of Nader’s book, its chief target, General Motors, did. Worried about litigation challenging the Corvair’s safety, GM hired private detectives to tail Nader in an attempt to dig up information that might discredit him, and even had women accost him in an apparent seduction/blackmail scheme. Instead, journalist James Ridgeway broke the story about GM’s snooping and dirty tricks in The New Republic, prompting Senator Ribicoff’s subcommittee to summon James Roche, president of General Motors, to explain his company’s harassment — and apologize.

The remarkable incident catapulted auto safety into the public spotlight and helped send Unsafe at Any Speed to the top of the bestseller lists. More importantly, as one Nader biographer, Charles McCarry, wrote, “It certified [Nader’s] virtue, gave birth to him as a public figure, and equipped him with an image that has remained a combination of the best qualities of Lincoln of Illinois and David of 1 Samuel 17.” The incident also served as a proof of a core Nader conviction: that one person, acting with intelligence and persistence, can make a difference — even if the target is the largest corporation in the world.

The 32-year-old Nader — acclaimed as a David slaying a Goliath, an underdog hero in the age of impersonal, unaccountable bureaucracies — did not see his newfound celebrity status as a ticket to riches, political gain or respectability in the Establishment. He saw it instead as a tool for advancing an expansive new form of citizenship in shaping the economy and civic life. For Nader, there was no virtue in being a passive member of the “Silent Majority” that Richard Nixon would later celebrate. Real patriotism, Nader asserted, is caring enough about your country to roll up your sleeves and do something to make it more humane, moral and caring. Forget the idea of being an inconsequential private citizen, Nader counseled; one should be an engaged, questioning “public citizen.”


The Campaign for Auto Safety

The first real test of Nader’s “public citizenship” was the fight to institutionalize the safety lessons exemplified by the Corvair. With Nader’s prodding, Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington helped push through a new federal law that would force Detroit to devote more of its considerable resources to auto safety. (In 1964, GM spent only $1 million of its $1.7 billion in profits to fund external automobile accident research.) Nader’s chief task was to publicize and popularize the arcane technical facts held by the auto industry — that auto crashes need not be deadly and crippling — and to foster a more competitive marketplace. As Nader explained in Unsafe at Any Speed:

A principal reason why the automobile has remained the only transportation vehicle to escape being called to meaningful public account is that the public has never been supplied the information nor offered the quality of competition to enable it to make effective demands through the marketplace and through government for a safe, non-polluting and efficient automobile that can be produced economically….The specialists and researchers outside the industry who could have provided the leadership to stimulate this flow of information by and large chose to remain silent, as did government officials.

Shrewdly anticipating Detroit’s resistance to any federal regulation, Nader persuaded a friend, Iowa Attorney General Lawrence Scalise, to hold auto safety hearings in January 1966. It was a brilliant tactical maneuver for two reasons. First, it attracted national attention, spurring Ribicoff to launch his own major hearings two months later. Second, it put automakers on record in opposition to state regulation of auto safety so that when they appeared before Ribicoff’s subcommittee, they could not try to shirk federal regulation by arguing disingenuously that only the states could handle the job.

Senator Ribicoff’s March 1966 hearings opened amidst intense public interest, and, with Nader’s lobbying, led to Warren Magnuson’s celebrated hearings a few weeks later and eventually two new laws to promote auto and highway safety. A new federal agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (so named in 1970), instituted a series of reforms that Americans now accept as commonplace: federal safety performance standards for all motor vehicles; federal authority to conduct investigations into safety defects and order to recalls; federal research and development of new safety technologies; a highway safety program; and many other safety programs. For the first time, the federal government was affecting the investment decisions, research priorities and technological independence of automakers. More engineering talent and funds would have to be committed to improving vehicle safety and less to inconsequential stylistic changes.

Speaking for many of his Detroit colleagues, Henry Ford II complained that the new auto safety standards were “unreasonable, arbitrary and technically unfeasible….if we can’t meet them when they are published we’ll have to close down.” But in 1977, an older and wiser Henry Ford 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.” [A fuller story of auto safety reforms is told in Chapter 5.]


How Nader Reinvigorated the Consumer Movement

While Nader did not invent the idea of consumer advocacy, he and his associates did radically transform its meaning. Before Nader’s appearance, “consumerism” was often a trivialized concept that dealt with shopping for the best bargains and redeeming supermarket cents-off coupons; it did not put forth an analysis of corporate or governmental power. Nor did it constitute an independent “countervailing force” to the enormous power wielded by business in the marketplace and government policymaking.

To be sure, there had been many significant consumer crusades over the decades. The activist chemist, Dr. Harvey Wylie, was the chief catalyst for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in 1906 — a campaign that received a welcome assist from Upton Sinclair’s devastating, fact-based novel, The Jungle. Frederick Schlink and Stuart Chase’s 1927 book, Your Money’s Worth, became a bestseller by extolling scientific testing of products as a means to pierce the deceptions of modern advertising. With similar revelations of sellers’ abuse of consumers, Schlink and Arthur Kallet’s 1933 book, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics, fueled the movement for independent product testing. Three years later, Colston Warne and others founded Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, to provide consumers with reliable, scientifically valid product information. Another landmark event was the publication, in 1962, of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s well-documented account of the environmental and health risks of pesticides.

Apart from such occasional exposes and sporadic reforms, consumers did not exert a significant, ongoing force in the conduct of economic or governmental affairs. A few bold politicians with a sense of justice — among them Senators Hubert Humphrey, Estes Kefauver, Philip Hart, Gaylord Nelson, and President Lyndon Johnson — were responsible for some new consumer protection laws and programs. But most of their reforms were achieved through happenstance of tragedy (highly flammable sweaters prompted the Flammable Fabrics Act of 1953; the thalidomide drug tragedy pushed through the 1962 drug effectiveness amendments) or chance legislative opportunity.

From the start, Nader had grander ambitions than becoming a one-book wonder. Following passage of the new auto safety law in 1966, he set out to investigate and expose other varieties of corporate abuse. His assumption was that few people would begin to understand the structural problems of the American society until they first confronted the symptoms. While most political activists of that era focussed their energies on the Vietnam War and racial injustice, Nader concentrated on obvious yet subtle injustices woven into the fabric of the American economy and law. The injustices were obvious insofar as they were palpable, documentable harms; they were subtle in how they illuminated the structural machinations of power.

With a working method which he once described as “documenting your intuition,” Nader spent the next several years investigating a host of festering, unreported scandals in American business and government. Between 1966 and 1969, his findings helped spur passage of new laws dealing with the unsanitary conditions of meatpacking and poultry production, the first significant reform of those industries since 1907; the dangers of natural gas pipelines; radiation emissions from television sets and X-rays; and hazardous working conditions in coal mines.

In June 1968, Nader formed his first task force of crusading students. Comprised of seven law student volunteers (including Edward Cox, later to marry Richard Nixon’s daughter, Tricia), the group began looking into the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a sleepy bureaucracy entrusted with protecting consumers from shoddy products, fraudulent business practices and deceptive advertising. The young but resourceful task force members prowled the hallways of the Commission talking with staffers and top officials, and discovered an agency “fat with cronyism, torpid through an inbreeding unusual even for Washington, manipulated by the agents of commercial predators, impervious to governmental and citizen monitoring.”

When the Nader FTC report was released in January 1969, Senator Abraham Ribicoff praised its youthful authors (and implicitly indicted the press and his own institution, the Congress): “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.” The report eventually triggered a major revamping of the FTC headquarters and its field offices. As if to signal its transformation, the Commission soon thereafter launched a major investigation of the structure and practices of the food industry.

By 1969, Nader had become a known, trusted and admired presence in the nation’s political life. Inspired by the success of the FTC report, thousands of idealistic students clamored to work for him. Out of the crush of admirers, Nader began hiring a handful of dedicated, bright young people to amplify his efforts. Charged with looking into the performance of key government agencies and researching ignored social problems, Nader’s ad hoc task forces were soon turning out explosive reports that made official Washington sit up and notice. Journalist William Greider, then a reporter for the Washington Post, dubbed the investigative SWAT teams “Nader’s Raiders,” a tagline that stuck. It was a term that Nader initially disliked, believing that it trivialized the study groups and prompted a cult of personality. He later conceded that Greider’s coinage gave the students’ exposes a certain panache and publicity-draw.

By the summer of 1969, Nader decided he needed a standing institutional home for his special brand of citizen action. Through several foundation grants, Nader founded his first group, the Center for Study of Responsive Law. Work at “the Center” — described by one journalist as “a cross between a political campaign headquarters and a college fraternity house” — was intense, and the pay modest ($150 to $300 a month). Yet few summer jobs in Washington in the late 1960s and early 1970s had as much cachet and challenge.

By the second summer, 200 “Nader’s Raiders” were selected from among 30,000 applicants. “I think one-third of Harvard Law School applied,” Harrison Wellford, then the director of the Center, told a reporter. The task forces were charged with investigating corruption and incompetence at the Interstate Commerce Commission, the now-defunct agency which regulated trucking and railroad rates (The Interstate Commerce Omission, by Robert C. Fellmeth, 1970); documenting the health hazards of air pollution made worse by irresponsible businesses and complicit politicians (Vanishing Air, by John Esposito, 1970); and exposing the Food and Drug Administration’s lax oversight of the food industry (The Chemical Feast, by James Turner, 1971). It is a measure of the Raiders’ impact that their first four reports had combined sales of over 450,000.

Nader introduced the reports he sponsored as exemplary exercises of citizenship designed to inspire others to do the same. “Can we diminish or lose our rights,” he asked rhetorically, “if we do not use them with some degree of constancy?” Besides exposing unseemly conduct, Nader considered the task forces a model for transforming society — “a social innovation that will produce just and lasting benefits for the country as these young people generate new values and create new roles for their professions.” For the generation that earnestly exhorted its peers to “give a damn,” Nader proposed a means by which one person could make a difference. “Almost every significant breakthrough has come from the spark, the drive, the initiative of one person,” Nader declared. “You must believe this.”

In subsequent summers, new “raids” were launched against the nation’s worsening water pollution and the lack of an effective federal response (Water Wasteland, by David Zwick and Marcy Benstock, 1971); the secrecy, conflicts-of-interest and concentration of power held by First National City Bank (Citibank, by David Leinsdorf and Donald Etra, 1971); the indignities and frauds practiced by nursing homes (Old Age: The Last Segregation, by Claire Townsend, 1971); the dangerous use of pesticides on agricultural crops (Sowing the Wind, by Harrison Wellford, 1972); the rampant despoliation of land in California by developers and speculators (Politics of Land, by Robert C. Fellmeth, 1972); and the degeneration of the Community Mental Health Centers Act into a mismanaged, ineffective bureaucratic boondoggle (The Madness Establishment, by Franklin D. Chu and Sharland Trotter, 1972). Seventeen books had been completed by 1972.

What made the early Nader investigations so riveting and newsworthy was the limited nature of mainstream American journalism at the time. Investigative journalism was hardly practiced at most daily newspapers, and few legislators cared to look very closely at the performance of federal agencies from the perspective of the average citizen. By naming names and providing meticulous documentation, the Nader study groups made for hot copy. The spectacle of greenhorn students exposing one instance after another of government footdragging, special-interest collusion, corporate malfeasance and outright corruption made the reports all the more compelling. In light of future revelations of environmental pollution and government scandal in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, Nader reflected in 1989 that the early reports were actually “quite understated.”

Since Nader had modest funds with which to finance the proliferating study groups, he paid people in psychic instead of real income. The students received their own bylines, participated in their own press conferences, and were given the opportunity to develop their own expertise and reputations. “Ralph replicated himself through his own selflessness,” is how Mark Green, one of Nader’s first proteges and closest collaborators, described it; he helped new leaders to be born.

By 1970, Nader had founded three additional groups to expand the scope of citizen action. Working out of a small room in the National Press Building, the Center for Auto Safety began to sift through consumer mail (some 350 letters a week) to spot defects trends and notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The new group, a joint project of Consumers Union and Nader’s (and now wholly independent), evolved into a fierce watchdog of the new federal auto safety agency — filing petitions for new safety standards, poring over the agency’s safety statistics, suing to obtain recalls of defective vehicles.

Another early Nader group, the Project on Corporate Responsibility, with a staff of eight and an annual budget of only $60,000, began agitating for a larger voice for consumers and shareholders in corporate policymaking. One focus of the new project was to support Campaign GM, aimed at placing three public representatives on the GM Board of Directors. The Project mobilized students to pressure the nation’s major universities to vote their GM stock proxies for Nader-backed “social responsibility” resolutions — one of the earliest such campaigns to make corporate managers more accountable to shareholders.

Finally, Nader also established the Public Interest Research Group, a group of 13 attorneys, each earning $4,500 a year, who undertook assorted projects. One petitioned the FDA to require disclosures of the phosphate content of laundry detergent. Another waged a lawsuit to have the FDA require better health warnings on birth control pills. Two PIRG attorneys moved to West Virginia to mobilize community opposition to Union Carbide’s stifling air pollution.

Five years after Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader was busy diversifying his groups, spawning new leaders, investigating new abuses. But where was it leading? By 1970, “Naderism” was still more of a novelty than an institution. It was not entirely clear whether “Nader’s Raiders” would be a passing media sideshow or whether it would mature into something bigger, more sophisticated, more enduring. Would transient cadres of enterprising students have the staying power to make a difference over the long haul? Would the American public rally to support this sort of citizen action?

Unlike muckrakers of the past who took satisfaction in unmasking scandal and then moving on, Nader wanted to experiment with new strategies of citizen action and establish organizations that could empower “the little guy.” As for his political agenda, he once described his hopes for “nothing less than the qualitative reform of the Industrial Revolution.” As a Harvard-trained attorney with a encyclopedic memory and stern moral conviction, Nader had a keen appreciation for the dynamics of unaccountable power in American society. Equally important, he saw that the consumer — active, informed, questioning — could play a critical, transforming role in making business, government and other powerful institutions more accountable to the American people.

But no transformation could occur until consumers first recognized their very identities as consumers. They needed to realize the immense latent power they could wield, if only they would choose to use it. How could the great potential of a consumer-driven economy be illustrated and dramatized? This would become one of the central challenges facing Nader and the consumer movement in the years ahead.