Fifty years ago, Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed, the book that exposed General Motors, changed the government’s approach to auto safety, and launched a thousand public-interest crusades.
Smart college grads who could have made big bucks on Wall Street or in corporate law firms were inspired, instead, to become Nader’s Raiders, going to work ferreting out corporate abuse and government failure, sparking Congressional hearings, lawsuits, and major changes in national policy.
A progressive activist I once interviewed in Vermont described how working for one of Nader’s public interest research groups when he was in his twenties changed his life. He walked into the office thinking he’d volunteer to do drudge work. Instead, they sat him down at a phone and had him call a big corporation. He went up the chain of command until he was talking to an executive and saying, “You are in violation of the law and, if you don’t stop what you’re doing, we are going to sue you.” He laughed with delight remembering how empowering that experience was.
Persuading people that they can face down power, grab the levers of democracy, and make change is still Nader’s cause.
To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his groundbreaking book, Nader has organized a four-day “Breaking Through Power” conference of public interest advocates, experts, and citizens at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in the hopes of kick-starting a movement to revitalize civic life. The event runs May 23 through 26, and will be streamed online.
A tumultuous election season, the outpouring from young people inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign, Fight for $15, #BlackLivesMatter, and a renaissance of student activism of all kinds makes it a propitious moment for the kind of bottom-up politics Nader has spent his life advocating.
I covered Nader’s presidential campaign in 2000, and watched him generate the same kind of enthusiasm among young people and progressives that Bernie Sanders has galvanized this year. Many people still have not forgiven Nader for the outcome of the 2000 race. Had he not run, the country might not have elected George W. Bush. That’s one reason Sanders elected to run in the Democratic primary, instead of mounting a challenge that might siphon votes from the Democrats in the general election.
But whatever you think of the wisdom of Nader’s third-party bid, or how much blame for the 2000 result can be laid at his feet (as opposed to the lackluster campaign of Al Gore), Nader knows a great deal about how to build a national progressive political infrastructure. He has done it before, with his public interest research groups.
Nader did not do it through the Green Party after he ran for President. But neither, to be fair, did Barack Obama, whose Organizing for America became not a progressive pressure group, as it was originally conceived, but a mere fundraising vehicle for the national Democratic Party. The Bernie Sanders campaign just might grow into something more lasting. Naturally, Nader himself has some thoughts on Sanders’s next steps.
“What Bernie Sanders should do if he doesn’t win is turn himself into a civic mobilizer,” Nader says.
Nader has some specific ideas for how to do that. It should start, he says, with a big rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., after the primary is over, followed by a rollout of further rallies across the country.
“He has to avoid allowing himself to be turned into a toady for Hillary Clinton,” Nader says of Sanders. “The Democrats are going to try to absorb him and neutralize him and turn him into a ditto-head.”
And that, Nader says, would be “a shattering blow to everything he built up so marvelously in the last nine months.”
Instead, Sanders and his supporters should focus on a new civic movement to create what Nader calls “the other 1 percent.”
“Let’s say 1 percent of people in every Congressional district organized at the level of a hobby,” says Nader, citing statistics that show Americans spend a few hours a week and between $300 and $500 a year on their hobbies.
Nader calculates that 2,000 civic hobbyists in each Congressional district could open offices staffed by two or three people.
“You’d get almost every progressive agenda item changed within thirty months,” he declares, reeling off a list that includes tax reform, Medicare for all, corporate crime enforcement, and investment in public works.
It’s an impressive vision, modeled on something Nader and the people who are speaking at the Breaking Through Power conference in Washington have actually done—making change with very little money and a lot of focused, civic work.
The biggest problem we have as a society, Nader says, is not corporate power or money in politics. It’s that “people don’t show up.”
A movement that focuses on holding members of Congress accountable and demanding policies in areas of broad public agreement—increasing the minimum wage, reducing wasteful military spending, and criminal justice reform—could make a big difference.
The reason these popular initiatives have not gained traction in Congress is that all the organizing is on the other side, Nader says. Powerful lobby groups like AIPAC and the NRA don’t spend time holding big rallies. Why should they? “They know everything about every member of Congress except the color of their underwear.”
Why bother with marches and demonstrations when you can skip all that and influence policy through your close relationships with lawmakers?
But ordinary people have access to lawmakers, too. And they have something politicians need even more than money: votes. A Nader-like organization that holds members of Congress accountable could have a big impact.
This pragmatic, populist vision is particularly appealing in a moment when commercialism has overrun politics as never before and the nation has its first presidential nominee who comes straight out of reality TV. Nader has an interesting perspective on that, too.
Back in the 1970s, when he was remaking America’s views on consumer protection and corporate malfeasance, Nader and other progressives used to get significant air time even on primetime entertainment shows. (For example, Gore Vidal was Johnny Carson’s guest seven times, talking about empire.) That was largely because commercial TV and radio stations were worried about getting on the wrong side of FCC rules that required them to devote 10 percent of their programming to serious content in the public interest. Not anymore.
Nader blames progressives for their “surrender” by no longer filing petitions with the FCC to demand public interest programming. Worse, in the age of Trump, the media have moved in the opposite direction—handing over control of political coverage and even the debates to a master of self-marketing who brings in big audiences and big ad revenue.
“Can you imagine commercialization like that?” Nader asks. “We used to beg for debates. Now it’s big business—and they’re horrendous—shouting, swearing, ‘Lying Ted,’ ‘Little Marco.’ ” Television executives, with their record audience share and record advertising revenue, are laughing all the way to the bank.
But we don’t have to be a passive audience for the market-driven decline of our civic and political life. Besides forming a group of “1 percent” civic engagement hobbyists, Nader’s Breaking Through Power conference aims to pull together a rapid-response team of military veterans to speak out against U.S. military adventurism; a coalition to push for more serious content in commercial media; and citizens’ summits, where constituents will meet their members of Congress in town halls and present demands on energy policy, electoral reform, and other issues.
“You want to encourage people who think you need a majority, when 1 percent will take care of it,” Nader says. “We’ve got to tell people: ‘1 percent, that’s all you need.’ ”