Ralph Nader: Ally of the American Citizen-Consumer

Ralph Nader is the best known consumer advocate of the 20th century. Nader is a tireless and single-minded organizer and activist. In addition to increasing the accountability of carmakers to the American people, his work over the past forty years has improved the quality of life for Americans in areas as diverse as the environment, healthcare, insurance, and pension and disability rights. Through his efforts, consumers now realize their own power as social activists to make change through collective action.

Biographical Highlights

Ralph Nader is the best known consumer advocate of the 20th century. Believing deeply in the right of American citizens to be treated fairly by big business, to be protected by their government, and to be buffered from the excesses of organized institutions of all kinds, Nader is a tireless and single minded organizer and activist. Beginning in the 1960s with efforts to promote the first car safety legislation, he has dedicated his substantial energies to protecting the constitutional rights of American citizen-consumers. In addition to increasing the accountability of carmakers to the American people, his work has improved the quality of life for Americans in areas as diverse as the environment, healthcare, insurance, and pension and disability rights. He is also the founder of numerous nonprofit organizations which carry out this important work. Nader's other great accomplishment is the education of America's consumers. Through his efforts over the past forty years, consumers now realize their own power as social activists to make change through collective action.

Historic Roots

Ralph Nader was born on February 27, 1934, to Nathra and Rose Nader, immigrants from Lebanon. The family lived in Winsted, Connecticut, where they owned and operated the Highland Arms, a restaurant and gathering place for members of their small community. Ralph and his three siblings grew up in an environment where current events and politics were discussed both around the dinner table and with customers at the family restaurant. Taught to value social justice, the children learned from a young age to be active participants in the American democratic system (The Nader Page).

Nader, an outstanding student, read voraciously. By the age of fourteen, he explored the classic muckraking exposes (Bollier 1991) including Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Lincoln Steffens' The Shame of the Cities, and George Seldes' In Fact. After finishing high school, Ralph left Winsted for Princeton University, where he earned a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs. Following a path chosen in childhood, Nader completed his formal education with a law degree from Harvard University.

Nader entered the public eye in 1965. In a televised congressional hearing, the chief executive of GM admitted that his company hired detectives to follow the young lawyer with the intention of discrediting his work and personal integrity. Nader, then a consultant to the Labor Department on car safety, prompted the hire of GM upper management by serving as an informal advisor to Chevrolet Corvair, owners involved in legal proceedings with the company. They were also incensed by his book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed in Dangers of the American Automobile (1965), blaming the lax safety standards of American auto giants for the rising number of injuries and fatalities on the nation's highways. The hearing and accusations made Unsafe at Any Speed a bestseller and its author a celebrity. Meanwhile, working behind the scenes, Nader played a critical role in the passage of the National Traffic and Vehicle Safety Act which went into effect in 1968 with the enactment of a set of standards for automobiles enforced by the newly created National Traffic Safety Agency (Jensen 2000; Klebanow and Jonas 2003).

Nader believes that much of what is wrong with American society is the fault of big business and unfettered corporate greed, manipulation, and domination. His method of effecting social change and curbing corporate power has three components. First, he focuses on government, advocating for better enforcement of existing legislation to encourage corporate competition. Secondly, in relation to government, he advocates for the creation of new regulatory agencies to protect consumers. Finally, he encourages consumers to take action, come together, and fight for what is due to them (Klebanow and Jonas 2003). To carry out his three-part plan, Nader employs a variety of tactics. He spreads the word through writing, lectures, and interviews. With the formation of numerous educational nonprofits as well as public interest law firms, information clearinghouses, membership organizations, and research centers he and his supporters educate, empower, and assist consumers, train new leaders, and disseminate data of all kinds to the public. Also, Nader's voice, and those of his followers, is heard by policy-makers through his network of advocacy and lobbying organizations.

Car safety was just the first of Nader's many crusades on behalf of the American citizen-consumer. His official Web page, The Nader Page, provides the following list of career highlights and accomplishments:

Since 1966, Nader has been responsible for at least eight major federal consumer protection laws such as the motor vehicle safety laws, Safe Drinking Water Act; the launching of federal regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Environment Protection Agency (EPA), and Consumer Product Safety Administration; the recall of millions of defective motor vehicles; access to government through the Freedom of Information Act of 1974; and for many lives saved.

Probably the only way one man could be involved in so many public service activities is through complete focus and dedication to the detriment of a well-rounded life. Indeed, since the 1960s, Nader has devoted his impressive energies to promoting his vision of democracy through the protection of consumers. Nader never married and lives an ascetic life. He has not owned a car in forty years, lived in the same modest apartment in Washington for two decades, wears simple clothing, works long hours seven days a week, does not watch television, sees few films, has no credit cards, and returns the vast majority of his earnings to the work of his various nonprofits.

Still, Nader's career and lifestyle have not been without controversy. He has been called monomaniacal, authoritarian, obsessive, intimidating, seductive, furtive, manipulative, hypocritical, self-serving and more (McCarry 1972; Sanford 1976; Real People for Real Change).

Nader believes that the two-party system is failing American citizens and was a candidate for president in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 elections. In 2000, as the Green Party candidate, Nader was accused by Democrats of tipping the scales, ruining their chances, and causing the Republican candidate (George W. Bush) to win the election. Faced with criticism from the Democratic Party, Nader replied in a New York Times, 18 February 2001 interview, "I say there must be 20 spoilers...There were too many spoilers to single out one for his [Gore] alleged defeat." Later in the same interview when asked if he was a "pariah to the Democratic Party," Nader replied with characteristic aplomb, "That assumes I care about that." Nader is yet to either be elected or appointed to public office, but manages to cause quite a stir never the less (Nieves, 2001).


Unsafe at Any Speed has been called the book that changed America and Nader the single person who has improved American society more than any other individual (Jensen 2000). Nader was the catalyst for a consumer rights movement whereby American citizens realized that corporations are accountable to their customers. Before he came along, the idea of "consumerism" was limited in scope to individual's pursuit of better prices (Bollier 1991).

In addition to his well-known interest in car-safety, Nader's involvement in citizen and consumer rights has ranged from the law, food safety, aviation, pollution, pension rights, federal regulation agencies, anti-trust legislation, insurance and more. Through his activism and that of legions of his followers Americans benefit from, "seatbelts, crash-worthy cars, better labeling on food, lower levels of lead in the environment, reduced auto insurance rates, non-smoking sections, cleaner water" (Jensen 2000, 222-223).

Through numerous books, lectures, articles, and a variety of organizations, Nader has transformed American shoppers into active citizen-consumers and his ideas have spread in ever-widening circles. Likewise, he is the driving force behind a strong network of nonprofits which not only do work of their own, but have inspired the creation of innumerable similar organizations. By teaching Americans how to parlay their own power and influence as consumers into action and giving them the structure to do so, he has radically affected society's institutions. His legacy is assured because American consumers now know how to make corporate and governmental change without his leadership. Inspired and guided by Nader's ideas, values and methods, his followers include Americans of all sorts including lobbyists and advocates, nonprofit leaders, lawyers and even political appointees.

Finally, he regulates the regulators by enforcing existing laws and encouraging the creation of new policies in relation to big business. Put simply, Ralph Nader and his organizations attempt to ensure that government does its job. To Nader, both government and business are accountable as stewards of a public trust, and he does not hesitate to hold both kinds of entities to this important responsibility.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Nader is the founder of numerous philanthropic organizations. The first, the Center for Study of Responsive Law, was established in 1969. To provide lawyers with an avenue to confer with other professionals, its ultimate goal was to make the legal system more citizen-friendly. The Center also serves as the headquarters for "Nader's Raiders," student interns who work on special projects during the summers and generate "Nader Reports" on each subject. Beginning with the Center, by committing the majority of his income from lecturing and writing and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, Nader has founded and supported many nonprofit organizations. They include Public Interest Research Group (1970), Public Citizen (1971), Litigation Group (1971), Health Research Group (1971), Congress Watch (1973), Critical Mass Energy Project (1974), Essential Information (1982), and Citizen Works (2001).

Nader's nonprofits have changed government policy and regulation, and changed the way Americans think about their rights and corporate responsibilities. His grassroots organizations have spawned many similar groups across the country, protecting consumer rights in a variety of areas. Nader began a consumer rights movement which dramatically changed American society through volunteerism, activism and philanthropy.

Key Related Ideas

Activism is the practice or doctrine of direct involvement with the hope of promoting one side of an issue. Ralph Nader is an activist who took his beliefs about the rights of consumers, democracy, and the public good and translated them into action. Collective action occurs when people with similar beliefs on a certain issue band together and use the power of numbers to increase their impact.

Advocacy, defined as the act of supporting a cause or proposal, is often used to describe lobbying or other political activism undertaken with the hope of influencing legislative, judicial, or executive policy. Advocacy organizations such as Public Citizen represent the interests of a particular group of citizens to government at the local, state, and/or national levels.

Consumer rights, the idea that customers are entitled to certain treatment by corporations and government and have certain expectations about the products they purchase and services they receive, is a cornerstone of Ralph Nader's message. Closely related to consumer rights is corporate responsibility. That is, businesses should feel a sense of obligation toward their customers and community, and their standards, products, and policies should reflect this concern.

Ralph Nader defines his work as in the public interest, that is, his intent is to improve the quality of life for all citizens and is in their best interest. There may be differing opinions, however, of what defines public interest. For example, the Democratic and Republican Parties have different ideologies, but both believe their policies are in the public interest and best for American citizens.

Social justice, according to Black's Law Dictionary, is "...justice that conforms to a moral principle, such as that all people are equal." It might also be defined as the work involved in a vision of a society that is equitable for all of its diverse participants. Nader, a believer in the idea of social justice since childhood, aims his efforts on behalf of citizen-consumers at recreating America as a culture where all people are respected and relevant.

Important People Related to the Topic

Nader's Raiders: In 1968, Nader began recruiting law students and young attorneys to conduct research on various projects. These twenty-something volunteers were labeled Nader's Raiders and became an army of hundreds. The Raiders worked on topics such as the Federal Trade Commission and the United States Congress, investigated government corruption intending to spur reform, and typically published findings as Nader Reports. In the subsequent years, the Raiders wrote numerous reports and have gone on to careers in government, private practice, public interest law, etc.

Winona LaDuke: LaDuke, a Native American activist and an environmentalist, ran for election to the office of Vice President of the United States as the nominee of the United States Green Party in 1996 and 2000. She is the daughter of an Anishinabeg (Ojibwe) ("Chippewa") father and Jewish mother, an art professor.

Peter Miguel Camejo (1939- ): Camejo, a first generation American of Venezuelan decent, is a financier, businessman, political activist, environmentalist, author and one of the founders of the socially responsible investing movement.

Related Organizations1

Center for the Study of Responsive Law is an organization founded by Ralph Nader that, since 1969, has been involved in numerous research and educational projects to raise awareness of and responsiveness to the needs and rights of the citizen-consumer. The Center also serves as the home to "Nader's Raiders," and publishes their reports on a variety of topics (http://www.csrl.org).

Citizen Works is a nonpartisan nonprofit founded by Nader in 2001 to encourage increased citizen involvement in the democratic process. The organization works in three ways: by helping existing public interest organizations share information and collaborate, by recruiting and training new volunteers, and by forming new groups (http://www.citizenworks.org).

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is an agency of the federal government which protects consumers from harm by monitoring American markets. The FTC enforces federal consumer protection laws and federal antitrust laws and conducts research with the aim of improving its own practices and those of other government agencies and independent organizations (http://www.ftc.gov).

Public Citizen, according to its website, "is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts." In addition to protecting democratic principles, this Ralph Nader organization focuses on issues of health and safety, and among other efforts, lobbying for legislation on air bags, building
coalitions to promote auto safety, and working for campaign finance reform (http://www.citizen.org).

Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) was originally founded in 1971 by Nader as a law firm, albeit without clients, to bring suit against government and business in the public interest (Klebenow and Jonas 2003, 437). Today, it is a network of locally operated advocacy organizations and student groups that function independently in each state, coming together to work on issues of regional or national interest (http://www.pirg.org).

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), aka the National Traffic Safety Agency, is a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation that was created as a part of the National Traffic and Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. Nader is credited with playing an integral role in the passage of the act and its regulatory agency which devised and enforced the first safety standards for American automakers and their automobiles (http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov).

Today there are numerous regional and national nonprofit organizations not founded by Nader but working to protect the rights of consumers:

  • The Coalition for Consumer Rights
  • The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights
  • DigitalConsumer.org
  • Citizen Action
  • Center for Corporate Policy
  • Public WebWorks
  • Consumer Action
  • The Aviation Consumer Action Project,
  • Call for Action

1 Ralph Nader has either founded or helped found some forty organizations. Also, he has been instrumental in the formation of various governmental regulatory agencies including Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). This list is only a sampling because it was not feasible to include all of them. Further information can be found at http://www.nader.org .

Related Web Sites

The First Gov for Consumers Web site, at http://www.ftc.gov, provides automobile and transportation safety and product information including recalls and "buying smart."

The Nader Page Web site, at http://www.nader.org, contains a variety of information about and writings by Ralph Nader. Included in the site are extensive biographical information, a listing of books written or produced by Nader and of organizations which Nader founded or helped found. Also provided are copies of his weekly column, "In the Public Interest," dating back to 1999, his editorial and opinion writings, and copies of his monthly newsletter, testimony, and letters.

The Nader for President Web site, at http://www.votenader.org, contains information about Ralph Nader's 2004 presidential candidacy including his platform, public and media appearances and political ideologies.

The Real People for Real Change Web site, at http://www.realchange.org/nader.htm, offers information from the "skeleton closets" of the 2004 presidential candidates including those of Ralph Nader. Using what appear to be legitimate sources as evidence, this organization claims that Nader is not as altruistic as portrayals suggest. Among other things, they argue that, although Nader has done well for the consumer, he has also taken advantage of his position, living luxuriously and as a celebrity and is a politician like any other.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Bollier, David. Citizen Action and Other Big Ideas: A History of Ralph Nader and the Modern Consumer Movement. Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Responsive Law, 1991. Available online at https://nader.org/history.

The Center for Study of Responsive Law. [cited 27 March 2004]. http://www.csrl.org.

Citizen Works. About Citizen Works. [cited 27 March 2004]. https://www.citizenworks.org/admin/about.php.

The Federal Trade Commission. For The Consumer. [updated 26 March 2004; cited 28 March 2004. Available from https://www.consumer.ftc.gov.

The Federal Trade Commission. First Gov for Consumers. [updated 24 March 2004; cited 28 March 2004]. Available from http://www.consumer.gov.

Jensen, Carl. Stories That Changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th Century. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2000. ISBN: 158322517x.

Klebanow, Diana and Franklin L. Jonas. People's Lawyers: Crusaders for Justice in American History. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2003. ISBN: 0765606739.

McCarry, Charles. Citizen Nader. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972. ISBN: 0841501637.

The Nader Page. [cited 27 March 2004]. http://www.nader.org.

Nader for President. Declare Your Independence: Vote Nader. [cited 27 March 2004]. http://www.votenader.org.

Nader, Ralph. Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed in Dangers of the American Automobile. New York: Grossman, 1965. ISBN: 1583220356.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). [cited 28 March 2004]. http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

Nieves, Evelyn. "A Party Crasher's Lone Regret: That He Didn't Get More Votes." New York Times, 18 February 2001, sec. WK, p. 7.

Public Citizen. Protecting Health, Safety, and Democracy. [cited 27 March 2004]. http://www.citizen.org.

Public Interest Research Group. State PIRGs Working Together. [cited 27 March 2004]. http://www.pirg.org.

Real People for Real Change. Ralph Nader's Skeleton Closet. [cited 27 March 2004]. http://www.realchange.org/nader.htm.

Sanford, David. Me & Ralph: Is Nader Unsafe for America? Washington, D.C.: The New Republic Book Company, 1976. ISBN: 0915220172.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Indiana University at Bloomington. It is offered by Learning To Give and Indiana University at Bloomington.