|Ralph Nader and the Consumer Movement
|Digital History ID 3351|
Ralph Nader has been called the nation's nag. He denounced soft drinks for containing excessive amounts of sugar (more than nine teaspoons a can). He warned Americans about the health hazards of red dyes used as food colorings and of nitrates used as preservatives in hot dogs. He even denounced high heels: "It is part of the whole tyranny of fashion, where women will inflict pain on themselves ... for what, to please men." Since the mid-1960s, Ralph Nader has been the nation's leading consumer advocate.
An extraordinarily frugal and committed crusader on behalf of the nation's consumers, Nader lived for years in an $80-a-month rooming house and earned about $15,000 a year. He eats in cheap restaurants, has never owned a car, has almost no social life, avoids all junk food, and dresses plainly. In 1983, he was still wearing shoes he had bought while he was in the Army in 1959.
His parents came to the United States from Lebanon and settled in Winsted, Connecticut, where they ran a restaurant. Nader credits his parents with instilling the sense of justice and civic duty that has inspired his career.
He was born on February 27, 1934, and speaks at least five foreign languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. He received his bachelor's degree from Princeton (he once wore a bathrobe to class to protest conformity in dress) and earned a law degree from Harvard. At law school, he found his initial cause: automobile safety. After learning that auto accidents were the fourth leading cause of death (behind heart disease, cancer, and strokes), he launched a study of auto injury cases. His research convinced him that the law placed too much emphasis on driver mistakes and not enough on the unsafe design of cars.
In 1963, Nader hitchhiked from Hartford, Connecticut, where he had practiced law, to Washington, D.C., to devote his life to consumer protection. In 1965, he published a bestseller, Unsafe at Any Speed, which charged that automakers stressed styling, comfort, speed, power, and a desire to cut costs at the expense of safety. The book sold 60,000 copies in hardcover and 400,000 copies in paperback.
Nader gained public celebrity status when the General Motors Corporation hired a detective to investigate his politics, religion, and sex life. General Motors's chairman was forced to apologize for this invasion of privacy before a Senate subcommittee, and eventually paid Nader a $425,000 settlement. Nader used the money to establish more than two dozen public interest groups. The people who work for these groups are known as "Nader's Raiders."
During the 1960s and 1970s, Nader was the driving force behind the passage of more than two dozen landmark consumer protection laws, including the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (which set up a federal agency to establish auto-safety standards and order recalls of cars that failed to meet them), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (which established another agency to set standards for on-the-job safety), the Consumer Products Safety Act, and the Freedom of Information Act (which allows citizens to request and see government records). His efforts have been instrumental in attaining job protection for whistle-blowers (employees who expose corrupt or abusive business practices) and federal financing of presidential elections, and in creating the Environmental Protection Agency. Few Americans have ever compiled such a long and impressive list of legislative accomplishment.
Nader’s ultimate goal was not simply to protect consumers from shoddy or dangerous products. It was to reinvigorate the nation's ideal of democracy by encouraging active grass-roots citizen participation in politics. The best answer to society's problems, he believed, was for ordinary citizens to campaign for safer consumer products, better schools, a cleaner environment, and safer workplaces.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, his influence seemed to wane. In 1978, Congress defeated his proposal for a Consumer Protection Agency. Critics dismissed him as a "scold." Said Newsweek magazine: "An optimistic society wearies of his endless discontents." In a decade of deregulation, Nader's call for greater regulations seemed out of step with the beat of the times.
As the 1980s ended and the 1990s began, however, it was clear that Nader remained a major force in American politics. He played a central role in passing a California initiative that rolled back the cost of auto insurance. He led a bitter fight against a proposed 51 percent congressional pay raise. Plus, his long campaign for auto safety achieved an important breakthrough when the major automobile manufacturers agreed to install air bags in most of their cars.
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