I just finished watching An Unreasonable Man, a documentary about Ralph Nader. What’s interesting is how his image has changed so much with time. His actions from the 60s to the 90s have been eclipsed by his work in the 21st century. For most people of my generation, the sole memory of Nader is the story of how his bid in 2000 handed Gore’s victory to Bush, and to that he disrupted Kerry’s run as well, albeit to a lesser extent. I myself didn’t even now about Nader’s prior work until I got to college. But the true work of Ralph Nader was to work within government to protect Americans from corporations. I decided to watch the documentary just to learn a bit more about this time, but it also has quite a bit dedicated to the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Ralph Nader began his crusade for automobile safety after a colleague of his was rendered quadriplegic in a car crash. In the 1950s, automobile manufacturers were hesitant about the costs of implementing safety measures on their own, but they were even more worried about the government trying to impose regulations on them. Nader quickly became the center of the automobile safety push.
Up to then, car companies tended to blame drivers for operating vehicles in unsafe ways when in reality the vehicles were structurally dangerous to drive. Reporters, advocates and whistle blowers all gravitated to Nader. And the more they rallied to him, the more opponents accosted and threatened him. General Motors even sent people after Nader to try to find out if he was involved in any illegal activities, calling his friends and trying to seduce him in grocery stores. GM ultimately apologized in a Congressional hearing. At the same congressional hearing, Nader said that “I think the thing that has persuaded me to continue in this area is that I don’t want to have a climate in this country where one has to have an ascetic existence and steely determination in order to speak truthfully and candidly and critically of American industry.”
Nader would soon open a case for invasion of privacy, and the money he won in that case helped fund his subsequent campaigns in the name of consumer protection. After a few students reached out to Nader, a movement formed with students working in small groups on different commissions and revealing the problems in each one. Especially in the 60s and 70s this was a huge change in the way that people tried to alter the system – it was a testament to the power of the individual citizens not just in protesting on the streets but also in the corridors of power.
After several decades of dealing with Republicans that opposed his efforts and Democrats that failed to sacrifice any political capitol to support him as they turned more and more to corporate interests, Nader decided to finally step forwards. His involvement in the 2000 election would ultimately overshadow the huge success of what he had done for consumer protection. But his success goes beyond seat belts and airbags.
Nader began his work in a time when people had utterly rejected working within Washington to bring about change and had taken to the streets. People were demonstrating against war, racism, and poverty everywhere. And it worked in many instances. But what Nader did was stay in the system and work hard to get the truth out, and he made huge gains for consumer protection and for citizen organizing.