Ralph Nader has been called one of America's most effective social critics. He also has been called everything from Muckraker to Consumer Crusader to Public Defender. His documented criticism of government and industry has had widespread effect on public awareness and bureaucratic power. He is the "U.S.'s toughest customer" as Time magazine noted. His inspiration and example have galvanized a whole population of consumer advocates, citizen activists, and public interest lawyers who in turn have established their own organizations throughout the country.
The crusading attorney first made headlines in 1965 with his book Unsafe at Any Speed, a scathing indictment that lambasted the auto industry for producing unsafe vehicles. The book led to congressional hearings and a series of automobile safety laws passed in 1966.
Since 1966, Nader has been responsible for: at least eight major federal consumer protection laws such as the motor vehicle safety laws, Safe Drinking Water Act; the launching of federal regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Consumer Product Safety Administration; the recall of millions of defective motor vehicles; access to government through the Freedom of Information Act of 1974; and for many lives saved.
It is hard to keep up with Nader. Long ago he passed beyond simple concerns with seat belts and hot dogs. He has built an effective national network of citizen groups that have had a major impact in areas ranging from tax reform to nuclear energy to health and safety programs. The ultimate goal of this movement is to give all citizens more rights and remedies for resolving their grievances and for achieving a better society. As the New York Times said, "What sets Nader apart is that he has moved beyond social criticism to effective political action."
Nader's original research organization is the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Study of Responsive Law. Since 1969, the Center has produced innumerable reports on wide-ranging subjects such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, food safety, pensions, corporate welfare, and government procurement.
Other Nader inspired groups include the Aviation Consumer Action Project, Center for Auto Safety, Clean Water Action Project, Disability Rights Center, Pension Rights Center, Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, and the Congressional Accountability Project.
Nader also helped establish the PIRGs-- Public Interest Research Groups-- the student-funded and controlled organizations which function on college campuses in 23 states. Their impact alone has been tremendous. The groups have published hundreds of ground-breaking reports and guides, lobbied for laws in their state legislatures, and called the media's attention to environmental and energy problems.
The largest of the Nader organizations is Public Citizen, founded in 1971. The groups under the Public Citizen umbrella include Congress Watch, Health Research Group, Critical Mass Energy Project, Global Trade Watch, and the Litigation Group. Public Citizen's nationwide membership has grown to over 100,000.
In November 1980, Nader resigned as director of Public Citizen in order to devote his energy toward other projects. The organization is now headed by Joan Claybrook, former head of Congress Watch and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Today Nader lectures on the growing "imperialism" of multinational corporations and of a dangerous convergence of corporate and government power. With the passage of autocratic trade treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), this merger of corporate and government interests is escalating. A magazine founded by Nader in 1980, the Multinational Monitor, tracks the global intrusion of multinational corporations and their impact on developing nations, labor, and the environment.
Nader's overriding concern and vision is presently focused on empowering citizens to create a responsive government sensitive to citizens' needs. The top of Nader's agenda has been defending the U.S. civil justice system. Corporate lobbyists and certain legislators have worked on both the federal and state levels to restrain consumers' rights to seek justice in court against wrongdoers in the area of product liability, securities fraud, and medical negligence. Nader recently co-authored a book on corporate lawyers and the perils of the legal system entitled No Contest.
The Savings and Loan bailout is also a large concern of Nader's; the de-regulation of the banking industry in the early 1980s led to speculative real estate deals which taxpayers must now unfairly finance. This is one of many examples of corporate subsides taxpayers finance through a system Nader calls "corporate welfare." Nader is also an advocate of insurance reform including loss-prevention activity and insurance consumer education. He co-authored the book Winning the Insurance Game, and has been working with consumer activists in Massachusetts and California on improving the cost and coverage of automobile and health insurance in those states.
Nader seems undaunted by the de-regulatory setbacks posed by the Reagan and Bush administrations and perpetuated by Clinton. He says, "You've got to keep the pressure on, even if you lose. The essence of the citizen's movement is persistence." Nader certainly has remarkable tenacity, as well as an unshakable commitment to his mission. When asked to define himself, he always responds, "Full-time citizen, the most important office in America for anyone to achieve."
Nader's impact on the American political spectrum is enduring. As former U.S. Senator James Abourezk observed, "For the first time in U.S. history, a movement exists whose sole purpose is to keep large corporations and the government honest."