Monday, February 27, 2006

Oh, Not Him Again!

Consumer activist and presidential candidate Ralph Nader, known as "St. Ralph," was born on this day in 1934 in Winsted, Connecticut.

Although the concept of consumer advocacy had existed before Ralph Nader exploded onto the scene in the 1960s, it had lain in atrophy. Muckrakers like Ida Tarbell or Upton Sinclair managed to raise enough of a fuss about monopolies or meat-packing to bring about reforms in the early part of the 20th century. After World War II, however, a rise in the seductive power of advertising through radio and TV, a period of general economic stability, advances in domestic technology and significant disposable household income converged to create an atmosphere in which, to some degree, consumers had become complacent about the benefits of goods, and manufacturers had become complacent about the level of product quality required in order to achieve financial success.

Nader had read all the muckraking books by the time he was a student at Princeton and Harvard, and after law school in 1959 he entered the bar to exact "the qualitative reform of the Industrial Revolution," working briefly as an aide to assistant secretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

In 1965, Nader published Unsafe at any Speed, which accused General Motors of covering-up safety defects in the early models of the Chevrolet Corvair. The book turned out to be a high-pitched siren above the whir of normalcy; no one had so publicly and dramatically shifted the blame for the extent of road accident injuries motorists to manufacturers, and it made GM so uncomfortable that it hired a private detective to find some dirt on Nader. The detective was unsuccessful (Nader worked late into the night and seemed to have no vices), but Nader found out and broke the story to the U.S. Senate committee on auto safety, culminating in an apology from the president of GM and the passage of the Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. GM discontinued the Corvair in 1969.

Meanwhile, the GM matter sketched the outlines of the Nader mythology: he was singularly uncharismatic, lived in an $85 per month rooming house, wore cheap, unfashionable clothing, didn't own a TV or a car, and he worked so much on good deeds that he didn't have time for vacations or dating; and by 1971, his monk-like dedication to the consumers' best interests had made him (according to one poll) the 6th most popular figure in the U.S. The notoriety assisted Nader in fundraising and recruiting, and he assembled an army of lawyers and activists known as "Nader's Raiders" (formally called "Public Citizen") to confront the bosses on such matters as insurance, the environment, labor practices, safety standards, corporate influence over government and fair access to the courts for injured parties. Their activities contributed to the creation of, among other things, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Products Safety Administration and the Freedom of Information Act.

During the Reagan years, Nader fell out of favor for a time and was portrayed as the source of trade-snarling regulations and litigious climate which caused the U.S. to lose its competitive edge in the global marketplace. In the wake of Reagan era deregulation, Nader's public image subtly shifted back from hoary anachronism to Socratic, truth-telling survivor.

Since the 1970s, populist voices had urged him to run for office, and his refusal to do so always seemed to confirm his independence, but in 1992 he permitted his name to be used in a largely ignored write-in campaign during the New Hampshire primary. As the nominee of the Green Party in 1996 and 2000, Nader campaigned actively. Contrary to his own opinion that "information is the currency of democracy [and] its denial must always be suspect," Nader squirmed his way out of campaign disclosure laws and refused to make his personal financial statements available as the major candidates did, giving some rhetorical credence to the claims (no doubt flushed out by his corporate enemies) that he secretly lived in a posh Washington townhouse and made millions on speaking engagements and by "selling short" on the stocks of the corporations he was attacking.

In 2000 (his peak vote-getting year, coming in 3rd place with 2,882,955 votes and 2.74% of the popular vote), he earned the wrath of moderate liberals when it turned out that the 97,000 votes he received in Florida ended up making the difference in the entire election, throwing it to George W. Bush, whereas if Nader had stepped aside Al Gore, the lesser evil, would have received his votes. Nader was unrepentant, observing of his critics, "I think they have lower expectations and are therefore willing to settle for a stagnant, indentured corporate Democratic Party that can't even save our legislature from control by the extreme right wing of the Republican Party." While the sentiment was brutally consistent with the themes he had developed over the prior 40 years of crusading, it was possible that the clarity of his principles was beginning to be lost on some of his former supporters. In 2004, he did not receive the support of the Green Party, appeared on only about 35 state ballots, and came in a more distant 3rd place with only 404,285 votes.

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