Best known as an anti-capitalist, pro-big government crusader, Ralph Nader says that his chief passion in life is to constantly seek new ways “to correct some social injustice.”
Nader was born in February 1934 in Winsted, Connecticut. His parents were Nathra and Rose Nader, Maronite Catholic immigrants from Lebanon. Nader graduated from Princeton University in 1955 and from Harvard Law School in 1958. The following year he served six months in the U.S. Army, and from 1961 to 1963 he was a Professor of History and Government at the University of Hartford. In 1964 he worked for Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan and also advised a U.S. Senate subcommittee on car safety.
In 1965 Nader published his breakout book, Unsafe at Any Speed, a one-sided indictment of the automobile industry generally and of the Corvair, a car manufactured by General Motors, specifically. The book’s central argument, based on anecdotes rather than statistical evidence, held that American auto makers put profits ahead of consumer safety and accordingly sold cars that were dangerous to drive. Despite its thin substance, the book ignited widespread public outrage. In his 2002 autobiography, Crashing the Party, Nader would credit the book with facilitating the Lyndon Johnson presidential administration’s passage of the Motor Vehicle and Highway Safety Acts, which brought the automotive industry under federal regulation.
But Unsafe at Any Speed was rife with inaccuracies. Although automobile fatalities were indeed rising at the time of the book’s publication, so too was America’s driving-age population and the number of cars in use. Controlling for these variables, auto fatality rates actually had been declining steadily for a number of years; in 1965 those rates were half of what they had been in the 1920s. Nor was the Corvair itself “unsafe at any speed,” as a Congressional investigation would determine in 1972. This finding was corroborated by a 1972 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study that examined the 1960-1963 Corvair models which Nader had targeted with his criticisms, and found them to be at least as safe as other comparable car models sold in those years.
It was now clear that Nader, in his quest to make a name for himself as America’s foremost “consumer advocate,” had papered over evidence that contradicted his thesis. He had used the issue of auto safety to extend the reach of the federal government.
In 1971 Nader founded Public Citizen, an advocacy organization claiming to represent the interests of American consumers by fighting for their right “to seek redress in the courts.” Toward this end, Public Citizen generally favors increased government intervention in industry and the constant threat of litigation against corporations. These ideals are founded on the premise that American corporations, like the capitalist system of which they are a part, are inherently more inclined toward corruption than is government.
In addition to Public Citizen, over the years Nader has been instrumental in founding more than 40 nonprofit groups and advocacy campaigns, including: the Aviation Consumer Action Project; the Center for Justice and Democracy; the Center for Study of Responsive Law; the Center for Women’s Policy Studies; the Consumer Task Force For Automotive Issues; the Corporate Accountability Research Project; Democracy Rising; the Equal Justice Foundation; the Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights; and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. These groups largely share Nader’s commitment to ever-increasing government control over the private sector.
In 1971 Nader founded the first of numerous state-level Public Interest Research Groups, which ultimately coalesced into the umbrella organization U.S. Public Interest Research Group in 1983.
In 1996 and 2000, Nader ran for the office of U.S. President on the Green Party ticket. Many election observers believe that his success in siphoning leftwing voters away from Democratic nominee Al Gore ultimately cost Gore the tightly contested 2000 election. Following a divorce from the Green Party in 2003, reportedly over the unwillingness of the party’s leadership to mount an aggressive presidential campaign, Nader again made a bid for the presidency in 2004 on the Reform Party ticket. This time he garnered just 463,653 votes, a notable decline from the 2.9 million votes he had received in 2000.
Nader also has taken up the cause of anti-war activism. At a 2003 press conference, he claimed that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was motivated primarily by a lust for oil which was emblematic of “the perverse priorities of the Bush/Cheney oligarchy.”
A staunch enemy of free trade, especially as epitomized by institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, Nader contends that the greatest threat to American democracy is posed not by rogue states or Islamic terrorists but by the institution of free-market capitalism. In his 2004 book The Good Fight, he writes that “[o]ur beloved country is being taken over by large multinational commercial powers.” Moreover, he rails against “the widening corporatization” of the media, universities, political parties, and law firms.
Though he denounces moneyed interests, Nader himself has a long record of financial ties to powerful and wealthy trial lawyers. He claims to subsist on a meager annual income (as recently as 1990 he placed the figure at $15,000), but he reportedly commands five-figure speaking fees, resides in a $1.5 million townhouse, and commonly stays at luxury hotels.
Nader is an outspoken critic of Israel. He has expressed support for the anti-Israel NGO Betselem and the founder of Tikkun, Michael Lerner. In June 2001 Nader served as a keynote speaker at a Washington-area Islamic convention where the emcee asked those in attendance to join him in a moment of silence “in honor of all the heroes and martyrs” of the 2000 Palestinian Intifada. In a June 2004 interview with the United Arab Emirates’ Al-Khaleej newspaper, Nader called on the Bush administration to withdraw its support for Israel and asserted that Israeli officials “control” the White House.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Nader attended an Islamic convention in Baltimore where he accused the FBI of using McCarthyite tactics to question Arab immigrants. “They used to be called communists,” Nader said, “Now they are called terrorists.” At this event, which was sponsored by the Islamic Circle of North America, Nader shared the stage with Imam Siraj Wahhaj (an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) and Anwar Aulaqi (the Wahhabi imam who ministered to two of the 9/11 hijackers in closed-door sessions.)
In Nader’s view, most of America’s post-9/11 anti-terrorist measures have been assaults on people’s civil liberties. “I am aware of all the Patriot Act arrests without charges, stereotyping, harassing and dragnetting of Arab-American immigrants,” he told the Village Voice upon announcing his 2004 bid for the White House. “There is a civil liberties crisis in those communities.”
Seeking “compensatory damages, punitive damages and injunctive relief,” Nader filed a lawsuit against the Democratic Party in October 2007, claiming that Party officials and pro-Democrat activist groups had conspired to force him off the ballot in 18 states — to prevent him from siphoning votes away from presidential hopeful John Kerry — in the 2004 election. The co-defendants named in the suit included Kerry’s campaign, the Service Employees International Union, and several so-called “527” organizations such as America Coming Together, whose purpose was to “promote voter turnout on behalf of the Democratic ticket.”
“The Democratic Party is going after anyone who presents a credible challenge to their monopoly over their perceived voters,” said Nader. “This lawsuit was filed to help advance a free and open electoral process for all candidates and voters. Candidate rights and voter rights nourish each other for more voices, choices, and a more open and competitive democracy.”
Despite a global energy crisis, Nader today believes that the U.S. should drastically limit its energy production and he opposes the development of nuclear energy, the use of coal energy, and domestic oil drilling. Instead he advocates ever-greater reliance on wind and solar technologies.
On the February 24, 2008 edition of Meet the Press, Nader announced that in November he again would run for U.S. President. “Dissent is the mother of ascent,” he said. “And in that context I’ve decided to run for President.” Some of the issues on which Nader based his platform included: strengthening affirmative action policies; eliminating fossil fuel consumption; adopting a carbon pollution tax to halt the global warming that Nader depicted as a matter of great concern; withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq; opening channels of diplomatic communication with Muslim terrorist organizations; and impeaching President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
“There’s only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He’s half African-American. Whether that will make any difference, I don’t know. I haven’t heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What’s keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white?”
In addition to Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader has authored and co-authored a number of books, including: Whistle-Blowing (1972); Taming the Giant Corporation (1977); Menace of Atomic Energy (1979); Who’s Poisoning America (1982); and No Contest: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America (1996).