Citizen Nader, what have you done for me lately?
If you're like me, you've taken a lot of flack for not following in line during recent political campaigns. The bad news is that we're gonna catch hell again this time. The good news is that we're not alone. We've got good company. So, please, take heart.
Ralph Nader ran for president four times, but most people only remember when he ran against Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. As the Green Party nominee Nader got nearly 3 million votes, 97,421 of them in Florida — a pivotal state where, after a contentious recount and a Supreme Court decision, Bush beat Gore by 537 votes. Democrats excoriated Nader, calling him a spoiler. He lost many friends. Even Public Citizen, the advocacy group he founded in 1971, distanced itself from him. Nader has no regrets about running and has remained steadfast in his belief that democracy requires multiparty elections: it is not good enough to have people cast votes for the candidate they find less distasteful than the other one.
Before that election, Nader was among the most trusted people in the U.S. To some he was known as Saint Ralph. A ubiquitous consumer advocate, he’d gained a reputation for being a vigilant citizen. His coworkers remember the copious amount of mail that poured into his D.C. office: letters from fans and admirers; desperate pleas for help. Someone sent the driveshaft from a car, asking if it was defective; someone else sent a box of dry ice containing one of his lungs. Deemed cancerous, it had been surgically removed, and the man wondered if the operation had been necessary. But all that was forgotten.
Consider this letter to the editor:
It was difficult to read David Barsamian’s interview with Ralph Nader, not because of what was said but because of who said it. Though I agree with Nader, I couldn’t help but remember that he was instrumental in helping George W. Bush get elected president: had Nader not been on the
ballot in Florida, Al Gore would have won the state, taken office, and most likely never ordered the invasion of Iraq. Gore would also have led in the battle against climate change. Yet Nader states he has no regrets. I take this to mean that, knowing what we know now, he would have run anyway. Rather than put a presidential spoiler on the ballot every four years, a viable third party should focus on
local or statewide elections. Unfortunately we saw key states go to Donald Trump in 2016 because of a third-party candidate. I wonder how a man who says the things Nader says can support third-party politics upending elections.
A second subscriber echoes the sentiment:
I am impressed with Ralph Nader’s lifelong service to society, but as someone who sees climate change as a top priority, I find his good work pales in comparison to the harm he caused
in the 2000 presidential election. Two points are undeniable: he had no chance of winning the election, and in a razor-thin race between a Texas oilman and one of the first major-party politicians to recognize the urgency of climate change, Nader swung the election to the former. This set the planet back considerably, which will cause the death and displacement of millions of people
and the loss of thousands of species. I appreciate Nader’s work on auto safety and many other things, but on balance, his reckless foray into presidential politics makes him an unmitigated disaster for humanity.
Read Nader's response below the fold.
Citizen Nader replies:
Thomas and Aaron blame the Green Party for having delusions of power in the 2000 election. But exercising our First Amendment right to speak, assemble, and petition is in the
tradition of America’s progressive third parties that first opposed slavery and demanded women’s right to vote, farmer and worker protections, and so on. No, they say, shut up let the two parties drive our country deeper into militarism, imperialism, corporatism, and gerrymandering districts to favor one party. Gore, who won the popular vote, did not become president for afew reasons: the antiquated Electoral College; vote theft in Florida; 300,000 Florida Democrats voting for Bush; and the Supreme Court coup d’état by Scalia that stopped the recount. Absent any one of these, Gore would have been in the White House. Moreover, was anything stopping the Democrats from adopting the Green Party’s proposals — living wage, full Medicare, fairer taxation, being tough on corporate crime — and thereby shrinking the small Green vote to a trickle? What prevented Congressional
Democrats from blocking the Iraq War and the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, or taking vigorous action against climate disruption? The two-party system should not be allowed to own all the voters. Those who want to stop the Democratic Party’s chronic scapegoating should work to revamp our voting system and abolish the Electoral College
Both passionate letters were written in response THE SUN INTERVIEW, from the May 2019 issue.
The Great Work: Ralph Nader On Taking Back Power From The Corporate State (BY DAVID BARSAMIAN)
Every major advance for justice in our country took no more than 1 percent of adults — around 2.5 million people — with public opinion behind them, mobilizing to change government policy. If you’ve got 2.5 million people, you can recover our country, recover our government, recover our hopes and dreams.
Nader remembers his childhood fondly. “I was very lucky,” he says, “with my parents.” Immigrants from Lebanon, they raised four children in the mill town of Winsted, Connecticut. Nader’s mother, Rose, was a civic gadfly who once convinced Senator Prescott Bush to build a dam so the town wouldn’t keep flooding. His father, Nathra, ran a restaurant and bakery, where he presided over political debates with his customers; Nader worked there when he wasn’t at the library. At fourteen he was reading copies of the Congressional Record. Rose once asked her son Ralph if he loved his country, and when he said yes, she told him to work hard to make it even more lovable. The Naders frequently attended Winsted’s boisterous town meetings, where locals aired their grievances. In retrospect it seems inevitable that all four Nader children would grow up to become advocates for the greater good.
A shy, bookish student, Nader knew early on that he wanted to be a lawyer — specifically the kind who helped the downtrodden. At Princeton he studied Far East politics and four languages and sent feisty letters to the school paper, some of which concerned the dead birds he kept finding around campus: he blamed the school’s use of the pesticide DDT. When the paper didn’t publish his letters, he carried a dead bird to the editor’s office and gave it to him; the editor’s naive response was that the university’s scientists would never allow the use of DDT if it were unsafe.
After graduating, Nader hitchhiked across the country, picked apricots in California with migrant workers, and served food to tourists in Yosemite. Then he headed to law school at Harvard. He disapproved of the school’s emphasis on corporate law and sometimes skipped classes to explore issues that interested him: the exploitation of migrant workers, the plight of Native Americans, the need for third parties in U.S. elections. In his final year at Harvard he plunged into the subject that would make him famous: the ways in which automakers knowingly cut corners on safety features in their cars, causing millions of unnecessary fatalities. He published an essay about it in the Harvard Law Record titled “The American Automobile: Designed for Death?”
In 1964, after passing the bar, traveling around the world, and serving as a cook in the Army, Nader took a job in D.C. with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the assistant labor secretary. One year later, in November 1965, he published Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. The exposé of the automobile industry was packed with information about easily fixed design flaws: loose seats, poor brakes, weak frames, hazardous glove boxes (he’d witnessed an accident in which a little girl’s head had been severed by a glove-box door), steering columns that could impale drivers. The book became a best seller; Nader testified before Congress; auto-safety bills were signed into law; and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was established. Thanks to Nader we have seat belts and air bags, vehicles that don’t flip over because of suspension defects, engines that won’t explode in a crash. He was featured on the cover of Time in 1969 under the headline “The Consumer Revolt.”
It’s estimated that at least 3.5 million lives were saved between 1966 and 2014 because of Nader’s campaign against dangerous automobiles, and many more lives were saved or improved by his other investigations. He and the idealistic people who worked with him, called “Nader’s Raiders,” helped provide us with clean air and water; less-toxic foods; nutritional labels; cigarette warning labels; protective X-ray aprons; workplace-safety laws; toys that don’t choke kids; and medical devices that don’t electrocute patients. Nader is the country’s safety inspector, keeping an eye on the leaking roof, the cracked pipes, the seep of sewage into our daily lives.
A tall, solitary man with no wife or children (and apparently no car, cellphone, or romantic partners), Nader has founded more than fifty public-interest groups and watchdog agencies. Now eighty-five, he still resembles the somber, youthful David who battled Detroit’s mighty Goliath with a slingshot made of hard facts. Though Nader has never been a fan of computers or electronic gadgets, he does maintain an active Twitter feed (@RalphNader) and podcast (The Ralph Nader Radio Hour) dedicated to dastardly deeds committed by powerful people. His most recent books are To the Ramparts and the novel How the Rats Re-Formed the Congress. He recently called out the major airlines for unsafe practices and political favors — and a few days later, in a sad irony, his twenty-four-year-old grandniece, Samya Stumo, was killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash caused by design flaws in the Boeing 737 MAX 8.
Underneath his serious demeanor, Nader is said to love humor, which perhaps explains his four appearances (including a stint as host) on Saturday Night Live. In one skit he inspected blow-up sex dolls; in another his own personal air bag failed to detonate when he was hugged. He’s a good straight man. Once there are no more injustices, Nader says, the ultimate purpose of life is laughter.
Nader wants us to realize our own power and to understand that a few determined citizens can change almost anything. These words he wrote in 1972 still feel relevant today: “Let it not be said by a future, forlorn generation that we wasted and lost our great potential because our despair was so deep we didn’t even try, or because each of us thought someone else was worrying about our problems.”
Citizen Nader has taken Dylan Thomas's advice and stubbornly refuses to go meekly into "that good night"
He has been in conversation with fellow paria, Chris Hedges: