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Rabble-rouser

In seeking the presidency, consumer advocate says corporate government is shutting down civil society

Ralph Nader is an American icon, noted historically for a lifetime of consumer activism. Born in 1934, a son of Lebanese immigrants, his father, a local populist, owned Nadra Nader's Highland Sweet Shop, a restaurant and bakery in Winsted, Conn. Allegedly, the senior Nader frequently ranted to his customers over the iniquities and injustices of the American system.

Apparently, he passed on his rabble-rousing genes to his youngest son, Ralph, who at 14 became a regular reader of the Congressional Record. He won a scholarship to Princeton, and he graduated magna cum laude, then went to Harvard Law School, which he later described as "a high-priced tool factory" turning out servants of power. He was known for his puritanical ways — he never read novels or went to plays, he allowed himself only two movies a year and he shunned tobacco, alcohol, girls and parties.

At Harvard, he quit driving cars because his research taught him they were "designed for death," and he wrote an article about it for the Harvard Law Record. Not only did he continue to worry about cars but anything else that might be harmful to the human body, such as food additives, tainted meat, pollution, mining health hazards, herbicides, unwholesome poultry and radiation emission from color TVs.

While practicing law in Hartford, he continually urged stronger car safety. When he was hired as a consultant to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of Labor, he got a platform. He developed a number of secret contacts in industry, including a General Motors engineer who told him about the Corvair's tendency to flip over. In December of 1965 he published his first book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," in which he called the Corvair "one of the nastiest-handling cars ever built."

The book sold 450,000 copies in cloth and paper and turned Nader into an expert witness on hazardous automobiles. When General Motors harassed him and tracked him with private detectives, Nader filed suit for $26 million and collected $280,000 in a court judgment. When the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed, a number of analysts gave Nader most of the credit.

Thereafter, he used the GM money to start a consumer movement. He broadened his attack to include Union Carbide smokestacks, pulp and paper mills, property taxes, bureaucrats, consumer credit, banks and supermarkets.

He acquired a group of volunteers, nicknamed "Nader's Raiders," placed them in cubbyhole offices in the National Press Building furnished with secondhand desks and apple crate files and shelves made from planks and bricks.

Nader himself lived in an $80-a-month furnished room near Dupont Circle, wore a gray rumpled suit, frayed white shirts and unstylish narrow ties. The only things he spent big money on were telephone calls to keep him in touch with spies from industry. Most of his income came from lecture fees, and he gave about 150 lectures a year, charging as much as $2,000 a pop. He was long-winded, often speaking as long as an hour and 45 minutes.

Newsweek christened him "a Jimmy Stewart hero in a Frank Capra movie."

His ultimate goal, he said, was "nothing less than the qualitative reform of the industrial revolution." When Nicholas von Hoffman and Gore Vidal suggested he run for president, he said, "I'm not interested in public office. The biggest job in this country is citizen action. Politics follows that."

Moreover, Nader often said that if he were to run for political office, it would ruin his credibility as a consumer advocate.

So why, in 2000, is the 66-year-old Nader making a serious run for the presidency of the United States as the nominee of the environmentally based Green Party?

In an articulate telephone interview with the Deseret News, Nader said, "Because the corporate government is shutting down the civil society. We can't get done what we did in the 1960s and 1970s. Basically, we now have one corporate political party with two heads. We either work harder and harder for less justice, or we go into the political arena and clean it up and let it reflect public sentiments. We need accountable government that applies law and order to big business."

Nader proclaims "a second progressive movement," like the late-19th century Populists and the early 20th century Progressives who fought for governmental reform. The standard then was to rid the country of "control by the few at the expense of the many."

Nader repeats that historic line today. "The inequities are staggering. In 1940, the top CEOs made 12 times the entry level wage; in 1980, it was 40 times; today it is 400 times. Five percent of the richest people have 77% of the stock. Millions of Americans are broke from paycheck to paycheck. The final stunner is that a majority of workers are making less in inflation-adjusted dollars than they made in 1979, and they're working 160 hours a year longer."

When told that historically third parties in the United States tend to focus on a couple of major issues that are in turn co-opted by one of the two major parties by the next election, Nader said, "I don't see either Bush or Gore co-opting any of my issues. That used to happen. FDR took Social Security and unemployment compensation from Norman Thomas. Today, both nominees are corporate politicians. People don't have a place to go. A significant third party will forever change the Democratic Party."

Nader said, "People have lost control over what matters to them. Labor has never been weaker. People in the marketplace are told to sign on the dotted line and wait for recorded announcements. They have lost control of their privacy — their human genes — and their kids are being seduced at a younger age by corporate hucksters. The bargaining power of the politicians over consumers and workers is significantly greater than it was 30 years ago. Companies are running people's lives in the workplace. The government was supposed to counteract what Jefferson called the excesses of the moneyed interests."

Nader very much wants to be included with Al Gore and George W. Bush in this year's presidential debates, but the rules say a third party candidate needs 15 percent in the polls, whereas his standing currently is in the 8-10 percent range.

Nader insisted he is not running to lose. "If I get in the debates, I can win. I have a track record. I'm not coming out of nowhere. My positions are tested. We mean what we say. We don't campaign in front of people around the country, we campaign with them. When an authentic new political movement rises, it marches arm in arm with the movements for social change. We'll be on the ballot in 45 states for sure, including Utah, and we're litigating for the remaining five."

Nader is distressed that the major parties put up so many barriers against third parties. Twelve states, he said, "have nasty obstacles. In North Carolina, you need 52,000 names by May 17. When you qualify, they just up the barrier. This is not just a nuisance, it is a direct attack on our democracy. I talked to the House majority leader in Atlanta, and he said, 'What are we doing supporting legislation that will increase our competition?' Can you believe he said that to me?"

Nader said the important thing for a new party is to present a cohesive platform then build a post-November strategy that will constantly increase the party's membership. "Our party will stay around. The Democratic Party will be confronted for the first time in decades with a meaningful party."

What kind of style would Nader use in governing? "I will not be heavy on rhetoric and ceremony. I'll roll up my sleeves and work with people, developing facilities so people can band together as consumers. I will be frugal in spending with the public purse. If you talk about waste in government, there is nobody who knows more about it over the decades than I do."