It is hard to imagine the rise of the modern consumer movement without the leadership, resourcefulness, and sheer persistence of Ralph Nader, a self-described “public citizen” who has been at the forefront of scores of progressive campaigns over the past thirty years.
Born in Winsted, Connecticut, and educated at Princeton and Harvard Law School, Nader first gained national attention in 1965 as the thirty-one-year-old author of Unsafe at Any Speed. The book indicted unsafe automobile design in general and General Motors’ Corvair in particular. When it became publicly known that General Motors had hired private detectives in an attempt to dig up information that might discredit Nader, a Senate subcommittee looking into auto safety summoned the president of General Motors to explain his company’s harassment and personally apologize to Nader.
This incident catapulted auto safety into the public spotlight, leading to a series of landmark laws that have prevented hundreds of thousands of motor vehicle-related deaths and injuries. The episode also certified Nader in the public mind as the fierce, incorruptible advocate for the “little guy,” a reputation that has parlayed into one of the most singular and enduring careers in American politics. Without ever holding public office, Nader has used his considerable talents as an organizer, activist, legal analyst, and pamphleteer to rally public opinion to push through dozens of reforms in business, government, and various professions.
The range of issues that Nader has addressed is broad: consumer protection, congressional reform, openness in government, nuclear power safety and renewable energy, food and drug safety, air and water pollution, fair taxation, product liability protection, union democracy, and consumer reforms in insurance, banking, pension law, and telecommunications. Nader has even sponsored consumer initiatives to reform university governance, educational testing, daily newspapers, women’s health care, legal services, and professional sports.
More than anyone, Nader transformed “consumerism” into a movement that could effectively counter the power wielded by business in the marketplace and by government policymakers. Before 1965, most consumer reforms were prompted by tragedy and sporadic congressional leadership (Hubert Humphrey, Estes Kefauver, Philip Hart, Gaylord Nelson); they were rarely instigated by consumers themselves. Nader’s leadership gave the consumer movement a proactive, visionary dimension. Through a process that he once described as “documenting your intuition,” Nader spent the latter half of the 1960s investigating a host of abuses against individuals by American business and government. His reports spurred passage of new laws addressing unsanitary conditions in meatpacking and poultry production, the dangers of natural gas pipelines, radiation emissions from television sets and X rays, and hazardous working conditions in coal mines.
In 1968, to expand his efforts Nader recruited a task force of law students to investigate the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency charged by Congress with protecting consumers from shoddy products, fraudulent business practices, and deceptive advertising. The Nader team found the FTC “fat with cronyism, torpid through an inbreeding unusual even for Washington, manipulated by the agents of commercial predators, [and] impervious to governmental and citizen monitoring.” The Nader report, released in 1968, sparked a congressional investigation and a major overhaul of the FTC. It also produced admiring publicity for the resourceful citizen-investigators, burnishing Nader’s public image even further.
Flush with this success, Nader hired several dozen undergraduate and law students in the summer of 1969 to investigate a still-wider array of government and corporate abuses: incompetence and corruption at the now defunct Interstate Commerce Commission, the health hazards of air pollution, and the Food and Drug Administration’s lax oversight of the food industry, among other abuses. It is a measure of Nader’s cachet that in 1970 more than 30,000 students – and one-third of the Harvard Law School – applied for 200 summer jobs that Nader created from the proceeds of his publishing and paid appearances. Journalist William Greider, then a Washington Post reporter, dubbed the crusading students “Nader’s Raiders,” a tagline that stuck.
In subsequent summers, new “raids” were launched against the nation’s worsening water pollution; the secrecy, conflicts of interest, and concentration of power at First National City Bank (now Citibank); the indignities and frauds practiced by nursing homes; the dangerous use of pesticides on agricultural crops; and the despoliation of land in California by developers and speculators. By 1972, seventeen Nader books had been published.
The early Nader investigations were influential primarily because of the deficiencies of mainstream journalism at the time. Investigative journalism was hardly practiced at most daily newspapers, and few legislators scrutinized federal agencies from the perspective of the average citizen. Nor did many journalists or legislators name names, assemble meticulous documentation, and propose ambitious yet practical remedies–an activist strategy that has since become commonplace.
Unlike muckrakers of the early 1900s who took satisfaction in unmasking scandal and then moving on, Nader wanted to experiment with new strategies of citizen action and to establish organizations that could empower ordinary consumers. In the marketplace, Nader’s self-avowed agenda was “nothing less than the qualitative reform of the Industrial Revolution.” In the civic sphere, Nader’s ambition was to reinvigorate the possibilities of citizenship in a modern society dominated by institutional giants – multinational corporations, government bureaucracies, labor unions, bar associations, universities.
Nader argued that Thomas Jefferson did not envision how monied special interests, official secrecy, procedural complexities, and the sheer size of the nation would, by the mid-twentieth century, erode the sinews of government accountability. Nor, said Nader, could James Madison, author of the famous Federalist No. 10 essay, have predicted how competing special interest factions might not yield the public good. In this sense, Nader’s creation of a loose agglomeration of citizen groups to represent the people as a whole – “the public interest” – was a bold, innovative development in American politics. By demonstrating that an individual armed with facts, fortitude, and creative zeal could actually achieve important reforms, Nader sought to demonstrate the relevance of citizenship in modern mass society.
Nader’s chief vehicle for advancing his reform agenda has been the citizen advocacy group – modestly funded organizations of a few researchers and sometimes an attorney who investigate a given field, publish reports, organize citizens and other allies, lobby Congress, petition regulatory agencies, and litigate in court. From his Washington, D.C. headquarters, the Center for Study of Responsive Law, Nader has provided the moral leadership, political and legal advice, and seed financial support for a sprawling network of more than four dozen groups that he has founded. While most of them are now formally independent of Nader, they frequently collaborate as the occasion arises. Perhaps the most significant of Nader’s institutional creations is Public Citizen, a membership organization founded in 1972 that now consists of five quasi-autonomous groups: Congress Watch, the Health Research Group, the Litigation Group, Critical Mass Energy Project, and Buyers Up, a fuel-buying cooperative.
A few recurrent themes tend to animate most of Nader’s campaigns. The first is challenging the “seller-sovereign” economy with a “consumer-side” vision. Nader has believed that a “seller-sovereign” marketplace, unchecked by meaningful mechanisms of accountability, naturally tends to generate anti-consumer abuses. Accordingly, much of Nader’s activism has sought to document the many harms of a seller-sovereign economy: price-fixed products and services; “product fixing” to thwart innovation that could generate competition; deceptive packaging and false advertisements; wholly ineffective and hazardous drugs; product obsolescence; energy-wasting vehicles and appliances; unsafely designed cars and products; junk food; serious product side effects such as air pollution and poor land use; adulterated products; and overselling of credit, insurance, and health care.
“A seller-sovereign economy,” Nader once wrote, “includes sellers who are monopolistic or oligopolistic without being confronted by the ultimate consumers who are organized in monopsonistic (a single buyer) or ologopsonistic (a few buyers) modes. It is an economy where enormous skill, artifice, and resources are used in getting consumers to buy what the sellers want to sell, notwithstanding the availability of more efficient, safe, economical, durable and effective alternatives, including that of buying nothing at all.”
These insights prompted Nader to launch a nine-member task force of law students in 1970 to document the concentration of corporate power in America and its anticompetitive effects. This research has been followed with campaigns against the legal profession’s price fixing and ban on advertising, the anticompetitive effects of industry standard-setting groups, the territorial monopolies of beer brewers, and the special antitrust exemption that allows two newspapers in a single city to share facilities, among many other anticompetitive practices.
To help stimulate competition in the marketplace, Nader has also sought to generate greater quantities of reliable consumer information about products and services. Developing and publicizing such information – particularly when sponsored by the government – can transform markets and induce new, more socially beneficial forms of competition. This impact has in fact occurred after the consumer movement won mandatory disclosures of the crashworthiness of cars; the tar and nicotine levels of cigarettes; the energy efficiency of appliances; the levels of sodium, sulfites, vitamin, and additives in food products; the terms of consumer loans; and the health hazards of prescription drugs (thus required to be accompanied by warnings).
When economic regulation of markets has artificially limited competition, Nader has vigorously supported deregulation. His advocacy played a critical role in the deregulation of the trucking and airline industries in the late 1970s, for example. Nader has always, however, opposed deregulation of health, safety, and environmental protections; he has always contended that, in these areas, laissez-faire competition results in less protection for consumers, workers, and the public.
Because government subsidies can inflate prices and retard innovation in the marketplace, Nader has been a staunch critic of various government subsidy programs – for nuclear power, supersonic jets, agribusiness interests, synthetic fuels development, and dozens of obscure tax subsidies. “Ours is a system of corporate socialism,” Nader has asserted, “where companies capitalize their profits and socialize their losses …. In effect, they tax you for their accidents, bungling, boondoggles and mismanagement, just like a government. We should be able to dis-elect them.”
To gain greater influence over corporate decision-making, in the 1970s Nader sought to secure formal consumer representation in corporate governance. “Project GM” agitated for three seats for public representatives on the company’s board of directors. Although the effort failed, it did illustrate the value of mounting dissident shareholder campaigns, a tactic later adopted by dozens of other citizen advocates. It also prompted many major corporations to begin to take “social responsibility” more seriously. The 1976 book by Nader, Green, and Seligman, The Taming of the Giant Corporation, was Nader’s most ambitious effort to achieve greater public accountability in corporate governance, through federal chartering of corporations.
A common thread in many Nader crusades has been a concern with empowering the “consumer side” of the economy. Adam Smith, the seminal economist of free market economics, declared, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.” Nader has taken this injunction to heart, promoting innovative vehicles by which consumers can express their common interests.
In the 1970s, Nader was one of the leading champions of consumer cooperatives as a way to assert greater consumer autonomy in the marketplace. When the co-op movement did not achieve the heights that Nader envisioned for it, he characteristically modified his tactics by promoting “group buying” experiments that aggregated consumer purchasing power without the organizational overhead of a co-op. One such Nader-launched innovations, Buyers Up, a purchasing organization for home heating oil, continues to serve consumers in several East Coast cities. Another consumer-side innovation promoted by Nader has been the “Time Dollars” barter-service model, which allows people with little money but much free time to exchange volunteer services using a “one hour, one time dollar” currency system.
In the 1990s, Nader applied the lessons of group buying to the nation’s largest consumer, the federal government. If the purchasing powers of government procurement could be leveraged – so that markets could develop for environmentally benign products, for example – the ripple effects could be huge, Nader reasoned. This tactic, in fact, finally convinced automakers to offer airbags in automobiles: Nader had persuaded the U.S. General Services Administration to let a contract requiring airbags in part of the federal fleet of cars By the mid-1990s, a Nader project was pressing the federal government to adopt “green” principles in its purchases of paper, cars, lighting, and other products.
A second theme in Nader’s campaigns has been developing new mechanisms to foster government accountability. Nader’s original campaigns against corporate abuses in the marketplace usually called on government to pass legislation or issue regulations. But Nader’s groups found that corporate abuses were often ignored or even defended by legislators and regulators representing big interests. Accordingly, Nader launched a series of initiatives to ensure that the procedures of the democratic process – in Congress, the executive branch, and the judiciary – were open to public scrutiny and not corrupted by influence-peddling and conflicts of interest.
The first major crusade to reform government was the Congress Project, a 1971 attempt by hundreds of college students to profile every member of Congress and six key congressional committees. The project exposed the little-known world of “protocol, alcohol and Geritol” to an American public that barely knew how Congress operated. A subsequent book based on the research, Who Runs Congress?, eventually went through four editions and a print run of more than one million copies, making it the best-selling book ever written about Congress.
The Congress Project, soon institutionalized as Congress Watch, successfully advocated “sunshine laws” that opened up congressional committees to the public and new procedural reforms that weakened the power of entrenched committee chairpersons. Over the past two decades, Nader and Congress Watch have been leading advocates for campaign finance reform, ethics reforms, and bans on lobbyist-paid gifts and travel. Whenever members of Congress have sought to raise their own pay over the past twenty years, Nader has personally waged highly vocal campaigns seeking to shame them into freezing their compensation.
Within the executive branch, Nader has repeatedly sought to ensure the integrity of decision-making by prohibiting secret deliberations, the withholding of public documents, and the stacking of advisory panels with industry representatives. Nader forces played a critical role in winning passage of the landmark 1974 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, which has been a significant tool for rooting out waste, abuse, and other wrongdoing in government and industry.
A widespread practice that Nader and his associates have fought is the private taking of what Nader calls “taxpayer assets” – federally owned forests, minerals, grazing lands, waterways, coastal lands, airwaves used for television and radio, and government-generated research and information. Even though these capital assets nominally belong to the public, in practice the government has often colluded with corporate interests to give them away at fire-sale prices. Over the years, Nader and his associates have documented these practices in the development of California lands, the exploitation of Alaska’s natural wealth, the commercialization of basic drug research, the “privitization” of government databases, and the commercialization of the public’s airwaves.
A third focus of Nader’s campaigns has been to mobilize the energies of key constituencies to serve a public interest agenda. One example is Nader’s influence on American journalism, whose watchdog capacities Nader repeatedly sought to invigorate. His groups’ research and reports have acted as agenda-setters for reporters, suggesting fruitful lines of inquiry and promising sources. His influence has also been felt, and absorbed into professional journalism, through the Nader-founded Capitol Hill News Service, which in the early 1970s pioneered investigative reporting about Congress. By founding the Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, Nader has also tried to educate journalists about how they can obtain government documents under the Freedom of Information Act, providing litigation support when necessary.
In the legal profession, Nader has mobilized plaintiffs’ attorneys to form Trial Lawyers for Public Justice in order to advocate legal reforms. Recently, Nader has also been a leading champion of public interest law, securing various new funding mechanisms to support such advocacy and exhorting a generation of law students to pursue such jobs. To help spur the idealism of young people, over the years Nader has helped found a network of more than twenty student-run Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) on college campuses. Some PIRGs, such as New York PIRG, have been major forces in their states for consumer and environmental reforms. Within the past five years, Nader has also mobilized a number of Ivy League alumni organizations, starting with his own Princeton Class of 1955 and Harvard Law School Class of 1958, to help college students obtain internships and jobs with public advocacy organizations working for systemic change.
Nader’s crusades for citizenship range from the local to the global. In Elmhurst, Illinois, and in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut, a foundation he helped launch retained a “Community Lawyer” in 1990 to help citizens exercise their rights and participate in local government – a demonstration project that he hopes will be replicated elsewhere. Internationally, he has helped export many lessons of the U.S. consumer movement to foreign activists, particularly in less-developed nations. One vehicle has been the monthly magazine he founded in 1980, The Multinational Monitor, a singular source of investigative reporting about international corporate behavior. In 1990, Nader encouraged activists to oppose GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) negotiations, which he felt would degrade health, safety, and environmental protections; undermine democratic processes; and give multinational corporations greater control over Third World markets and resources.
The legacy that Nader has achieved over thirty years of advocacy is considerable. It can be seen in entirely new bodies of legislation and case law, dozens of new governmental programs designed to protect the public, industries whose competition is more robust and performance more innovative than previously, and far more plentiful consumer-oriented information. He has also helped bring into being a national network of activists and supporters, whose careers, strategies, and ideals he has strongly influenced. Paradoxically, a large number of Nader’s most significant triumphs – for new consumer rights, open government, and more humane business practices – have been so integrated into the culture that they are now taken for granted.
Gorey, Hays (1975). Nader and the Power of Everyman. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
McCarry, Charles (1972). Citizen Nader. New York: Saturday Review Press.
© Stephen Brobeck, editor (1997), Encyclopedia of the Consumer Movement. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Pp 383-388.