The American social crusader and lawyer Ralph Nader (born 1934) became a symbol of the public's concern over corporate ethics and consumer interests. He inspired investigations that were intended to improve the operations of industries and government bureaus.
Ralph Nader was born on February 27, 1934, in Winsted, Connecticut, to Lebanese immigrants. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1955 and then went to Harvard Law School, receiving his degree in 1958. Nader served briefly in the U.S. Army, traveled, then opened a law office in Hartford, Connecticut. He also lectured in history and government at the University of Hartford.
Nader was one among many concerned for safety in auto design, but most writers and members of safety and auto associations saw the problem as one in engineering and individual preference in a consumers' market. Nader, while still at Harvard, had studied auto injury cases and was persuaded that faulty design, rather than driver incompetence, was responsible for the staggering accident statistics. He testified before state legislative committees on the subject and wrote articles for magazines.
In 1964 Nader was appointed a consultant to the Department of Labor and undertook to study auto safety in depth. He also worked with Senator Abraham A. Ribicoff's Government Operations Subcommittee, providing it with data on auto accidents. In 1965 he left the department to prepare a book on the subject.
Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (1965) appeared while Ribicoff's committee was holding hearings on the subject. Nader, a tall, attractive figure, testifying before the committee, became a target of auto manufacturers then coping with lawsuits by victims of auto accidents who were charging faulty car design. Although new safety laws were inevitable, their character was given new facets by Nader's revelations that he had been personally harassed and his private life investigated by detectives. The admission in March 1966 by General Motors president James M. Roche that his firm had indeed had Nader under surveillance received national television coverage and made Nader a public figure. Unsafe at Any Speed became a best seller and a factor in the legislation which in September became law.
Nader enlarged his investigations of the auto industry and the National Traffic Safety Agency, which was responsible for administering the new law. In November he sued General Motors for $26 million, alleging invasion of privacy. He also began a series of studies in various fields intended to upgrade responsible industrial production and human relations. These included safety in mines, control of oil and gas pipes dangerous to people and the environment, and justice for Native Americans. One cause which harked back to Upton Sinclair's 1905-1906 crusade was Nader's activity in behalf of what became the 1967 Wholesome Meat Act.
Living austerely, working with swiftness and economy, and supplementing with foundation grants his income from royalties, article writing, and lectures, Nader attracted over a hundred young people—soon known as "Nader's Raiders"—from law schools and elsewhere. They helped him gather data about industries and government bureaus. In 1969 he organized his Center for the Study of Responsive Law. Its work resulted in such publications as "The Nader Report" on the Federal Trade Commission (1969) and The Interstate Commerce Commission [sic]: The Public Interest and the ICC (1970), with more publications promised in all social fields. In August 1970 Nader was once more in the headlines, having been awarded $425,000 from General Motors, funds promptly put into his expanded crusade.
From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, Nader's public image faded from his Unsafe at Any Speed heyday. But by 1988, he successfully campaigned to roll back California car insurance rates, then ignited public opinion to block a proposed 50 percent pay hike for members of Congress.
He gained notoriety in 1990 when a Forbes magazine story accused him of working together with trial lawyers for supporting Americans' right to sue. The criticism didn't deter him from other investigations, including safety flaws in the airline industry because of financial instability following deregulation. But his book, Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety, with Wesley J. Smith, was panned by some for questionable use of statistics.
After failing to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement (1993), he was nominated as 1996 Green Party candidate for President, winning some support in popular polls. Nader himself had summed up his philosophy: "You've got to keep the pressure on, even if you lose. The essence of the citizens' movement is persistence."
Nader and his coworkers were patently in the Progressive tradition. However, their precise relation to public wants and preferences remained controversial. His critics held that he sought to impose his own standards of production rather than to help determine public interest. Nevertheless, he appeared to the public as a dedicated and valuable citizen whose full achievement was yet to be determined.
Further Reading on Ralph Nader
Nader and his crusades are treated in G.S. McClellan, ed., The Consuming Public (1968); G. De Bell, ed., The Voter's Guide to Environmental Politics (1970); J.G. Mitchell and C.L. Stallings, ed., Ecotactics (1970), with an introduction by Nader; J. Ridgeway, The Politics of Ecology (1970); A. A. Aaker and G. S. Day, eds., Consumerism (1971); and L. J. White, The Automobile Industry since 1945 (1971). Articles on Nader have appeared in the Ann Arbor News (March 31, 1996); the Nation (January 8, 1996); Business Week (March 6, 1989); and Fortune (May 22, 1989).