Tag Archives: Ralph Nader

Criticizing Government Was What They Knew How To Do


Paul Sabin, Public Citizen:

The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

(W.W. Norton & Co., 2021)

1965 marked the highpoint for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, an ambitious set of policy and legislative initiatives which envisioned using the machinery of the federal government to alleviate poverty, combat racial injustice and address other pressing national needs.  Johnson was coming off a landslide victory in the November 1964 presidential election, having carried 44 states and the District of Columbia with the highest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate in over a century.  Yet a decade and a half later, in January 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan, after soundly defeating Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter,  took the presidential oath of office declaring “government is not the solution, it is the problem.”

How did government in the United States go in a fifteen-year period from being the solution to society’s ills to the cause of its problems?  How, for that matter, did the Democratic Party go from dominating the national political debate up through the mid-1960s to surrendering the White House to a former actor who had been considered too extreme to be a viable presidential candidate?  These are questions Yale University professor Paul Sabin poses at the outset of his absorbing Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism.  Focusing on the fifteen-year period 1965-1980, Sabin proffers answers centered on Ralph Nader and the “public interest” movement which Nader spawned.

1965 was also the year Nader rocketed to national prominence with his assault on automobile safety, Unsafe at Any Speed.  General Motors notoriously assisted Nader in his rise by conducting a concerted campaign to harass the previously obscure author.  From there, Nader and the lawyers and activists in his movement – often called “Nader’s Raiders” — turned to such matters as environmentalism, consumer safety and consumer rights, arguing that the government agencies charged with regulating these matters invariably came to be captured by the very industries they were designed to regulate, without the voice of the consumer or end user being heard.  “Why has business been able to boss around the umpire” (p.86) was one of Nader’s favorite rhetorical questions.

Because of both industry influence and bureaucratic ineffectiveness, government regulatory authority operated in the public interest only when pushed and prodded from the outside, Nader reasoned.  In Nader’s world, moreover, the Democratic and Republican parties were two sides of the same corrupt coin, indistinguishable in the degree to which they were both beholden to special corporate interests — “Tweddle Dee and Tweddle Dum,” as he liked to put it.

Reagan viewed government regulation from an altogether different angle.  Whereas Nader believed that government, through effective regulation of the private sector, could help make consumer goods safer, and air and water cleaner, Reagan sought to liberate the private sector from regulation.  He championed a market-oriented capitalism designed to “undermine, rather than invigorate, federal oversight” (p.167).  Yet, Sabin’s broadest argument is that Nader’s insistence over the course of a decade and a half that federal agencies used their powers for “nefarious and destructive purposes” (p.167) — — the “attack on big government” portion of his  title – rendered plausible Reagan’s superficially similar attack.

The “remaking of American liberalism” portion of Sabin’s sub-title might have better been termed “unmaking,” specifically the unmaking of the political liberalism rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – the liberalism which Johnson sought to emulate and build upon in his Great Society, based on a strong and active federal government. Following in the New Deal tradition, Roosevelt’s Democratic party controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1933 and 1969.  Yet, when Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, New Deal liberalism had clearly surrendered its claim to national dominance.

Most interpretations of how and why New Deal liberalism lost its clout are rooted in the 1960s, with the decade’s anti-Vietnam war and Civil Rights movements as the principal actors.  The Vietnam war separated older blue-collar Democrats, who often saw the war in the same patriotic terms as World War II, from a younger generation of anti-war activists who perceived no genuine US interests in the conflict and no meaningful difference in defense and foreign policy between Democrats and Republicans.  The Civil Rights movement witnessed the defection of millions of white Democrats, unenthusiastic about the party’s endorsement of full equality for African Americans, to the Republican Party.

Nader and the young activists following him were also “radicalized by the historical events of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War” (p. p.48), Sabin writes.  These were their “defining issues,” shaping “their view of the government and their ambitions for their own lives” (p.51).   We cannot imagine Nader’s movement “emerging in the form that it did separate from civil rights and the war” (p.48).  But by elaborating upon the role of the public interest movement in the breakdown of New Deal liberalism and giving more attention to the 1970s, Sabin adds nuance to conventional interpretations of that breakdown.

The enigmatic Nader is the central figure in Sabin’s narrative.  Much of the book analyzes how Nader and his public interest movement interacted with the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, along with brief treatment of the Reagan presidency and that of Bill Clinton.  The Carter years, 1977-1981, revealed the public interest movement’s most glaring weakness: its “inability to come to terms with the compromises inherent in running the executive branch” (p.142), as Sabin artfully puts it.

Carter was elected in 1976, when the stain of the Watergate affair and the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon hovered over American politics, with trust in government at a low point.  Carter believed in making government regulation more efficient and effective, which he saw as a means of rebuilding public trust.   Yet, he failed to craft what Sabin terms a “new liberalism” that could “champion federal action while also recognizing government’s flaws and limitations” (p.156).

That failure was due in no small measure to frequent and harsh criticism emanating from public interest advocates, whose critique of the Carter administration, Sabin writes, “held those in power up against a model of what they might be, rather than what the push and pull of political compromise and struggle allowed” (p.160).  Criticizing government power was “what they knew how to do, and it was the role that they had defined for themselves”  (p.156). Metaphorically, it was “as if liberals took a bicycle apart to fix it but never quite figured out how to get it running again” (p.xvii).

 * * *

Sabin starts by laying out the general parameters of New Deal liberalism: a technocratic faith that newly created administrative agencies and the bureaucrats leading them would act in the public interest by serving as a counterpoint to the power of private, especially corporate, interests.  By the mid-1950s, the liberal New Deal conception of “managed capitalism” had evolved into a model based on what prominent economist John Kenneth Galbraith termed “countervailing powers,” in which large corporations, held in balance by the federal regulatory state, “would check each other’s excesses through competition, and powerful unions would represent the interests of workers.  Government would play a crucial role, ensuring that the system did not tilt too far in one direction or the other” (p.7-8).

Nader’s public interest movement was built around a rejection of Galbraith’s countervailing power model.  The model failed to account for the interests of consumers and end users, as the economist himself admitted later in his career.  If there was to be a countervailing power, Nader theorized, it would have to come through the creation of “independent, nonbureaucratic, citizen-led organizations that existed somewhat outside the traditional American power structure” (p.59).  Only such organizations provided the means to keep power “insecure” (p.59), as Nader liked to say.

Nader’s vision could be described broadly as “ensuring safety in every setting where Americans might find themselves: workplace, home, doctor’s office, highway, or just outside, breathing the air”  (p.36).  In a 1969 essay in the Nation, Nader termed car crashes, workplace accidents, and diseases the “primary forms of violence that threatened Americans” (p.75), far exceeding street crime and urban unrest.  For Nader, environmental and consumer threats revealed the “pervasive failures and corruption of American industry and government” (p.76).

Nader was no collectivist, neither a socialist nor a New Dealer.  He emphasized open and competitive markets, small private businesses, and especially an activated citizenry — the “public citizens” of his title.  More than any peer, Nader sought to “create institutions that would mobilize and nurture other citizen activists” (p.35).  To that end, Nader founded dozens of public interest organizations, which were able to attract idealistic young people — lawyers, engineers, scientists, and others, overwhelmingly white, largely male — to dedicate their early careers to opposing the “powerful alliance between business and government” (p.24).

Nader envisioned citizen-led public interest organizations serving as a counterbalance not only to business and government but also to labor.  Although Nader believed in the power of unions to represent workers, he was “deeply skeptical that union leaders would be reliable agents for progressive reform”  (p.59).  Union bosses in Nader’s view “too often positioned themselves as partners with industry and government, striking bargains that yielded economic growth, higher wages, and unions jobs at the expense of the health and well-being of workers, communities, and the environment” (p.59).   Nader therefore “forcefully attacked the unions for not doing enough to protect worker safety and health or to allow worker participation in governance” (p.64).

Nader‘s Unsafe at Any Speed was modeled after Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking environmental tract Silent Spring, to the point that it was termed the “Silent Spring of traffic safety”  (p.23).  Nader’s auto safety advocacy, Sabin writes, emerged from “some of the same wellsprings as the environmental movement, part of an increasingly shared postwar concern about the harmful and insidious impacts of new technologies and processes” (p.23).  In 1966, a year after publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. Congress passed two landmark pieces of legislation, the Traffic Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which forced manufacturers to design safer cars and pressed states to carry out highway safety programs.  Nader then branched out beyond auto safety to tackle issues like meat inspection, natural-gas pipelines, and radiation safety.

Paradoxically, the Nixon years were among the most fruitful for Nader and the public interest movement.  Ostensibly pro-business and friendly with blue-collar Democrats, Nixon presided over a breathtaking expansion of federal regulatory authority until his presidency was pretermitted by the Watergate affair.  The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, consolidating several smaller federal units.  New legislation which Nixon signed regulated air and water pollution, energy production, endangered species, toxic substances, and land use — “virtually every sector of the US economy” (p.114), Sabin writes.

The key characteristics of Nader-influenced legislation were deadlines and detailed mandates, along with authority for citizen suits and judicial review, a clear break from earlier regulatory strategies.  The tough legislation signaled a “profound and pervasive distrust of government even as it expanded federal regulatory powers” (p.82).   Nader and the public interest movement went after Democrats in Congress with a fervor at least equal to that with which they attacked Republican-led regulatory agencies.  Nader believed that “you didn’t attack your enemy if you wanted to accomplish something, you attacked your friend”  (p.82).

In the early 1970s, the public interest movement targeted Democratic Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, the party’s nominee for Vice-President in 1968, whose support for the environmental movement had earned him the moniker “Mr. Pollution Control.” Declaring his environmental halo unwarranted, the movement sought to take down a man who clearly wanted to ride the environmental issue to the White House.  Nader’s group also went after long-time liberal Democrat Jennings Randolph of West Virginia over coal-mining health and safety regulations.  The adversarial posture toward everyone in power, Democrat as well as Republican, continued into the short interim administration of Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.  And it continued unabated during the administration of Jimmy Carter.

As the Democratic nominee for president, Carter had conferred with Nader during the 1976 campaign and thought he had the support of the public interest movement when he entered the White House in January 1977.  Many members of the movement took positions in the new administration, where they could shape the agencies they had been pressuring.  The new president sought to incorporate the public interest movement’s critiques of government into a “positive vision for government reform,” promoting regulatory approaches that “cut cost and red tape without sacrificing legitimate regulatory goals” (p.186).

Hoping to introduce more flexible regulatory strategies that could achieve environmental and health protection goals at lower economic cost, Carter sacrificed valuable political capital by clashing with powerful congressional Democrats over wasteful and environmentally destructive federal projects. Yet, public interest advocates faulted Carter for his purported lack of will more than they credited him for sacrificing his political capital for their causes.  They saw the administration’s questioning of regulatory costs and the redesign of government programs as “simply ways to undermine those agencies.” (p.154).   Their lack of enthusiasm for Carter severely undermined his reelection bid in the 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s victory “definitively marked the end of the New Deal liberal period, during which Americans had optimistically looked to the federal government for solutions” (p.165), Sabin observes.  Reagan and his advisors “vocally rejected, and distanced themselves from, Carter’s nuanced approach to regulation”  (p.172). To his critics, Reagan appeared to be “trying to shut down the government’s regulatory apparatus” (p.173).

But in considering the demise of New Deal liberalism, Sabin persuasively demonstrates that the focus on Reagan overlooks how the post-World War II administrative state “lost its footing during the 1970s” (p.165).    The attack on the New Deal regulatory state that culminated in Reagan’s election, usually attributed to a rising conservative movement, was also “driven by an ascendant liberal public interest movement” (p.166).   Sabin’s bottom line: blaming conservatives alone for the end of the New Deal is “far too simplistic” (p.165).

* * *

Sabin mentions Nader’s 2000 presidential run on the Green Party ticket only at the end and only in passing.  Although the Nader-inspired public interest movement had wound down by then, Nader gained widespread notoriety that year when he gathered about 95,000 votes in Florida, a state which Democratic nominee Al Gore lost officially by 537 votes out of roughly six million cast (with no small amount of assistance from a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision).  Nader’s entire career had been a rebellion against the Democratic Party in all its iterations, and his quixotic run in 2000 demonstrated that he had not outgrown that rebellion.  His presidential campaign took his “lifelong criticism of establishment liberalism to its logical extreme” (p.192).

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

May 13, 2022



Filed under American Politics, Political Theory, Politics, United States History

Working on the Left, Writing About the Left Out


Martin Duberman, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left

          Howard Zinn was a prominent voice of dissent and for radical change in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death in 2010. In Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, Martin Duberman provides an easy-to-read biography of Zinn, which focuses on three different but related aspects to Zinn’s professional life: his political activism, concentrated on his support for Civil Rights and an unwavering opposition to the Vietnam war; his career as a university teacher, in which he clashed with university presidents in two very different institutions, Spelman College in Atlanta in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and Boston University from the mid-60s up to his retirement in 1988; and his approach to the writing of history, as illustrated in his best known work, A People’s History of the United States, which emphasized contributions to American history which Zinn thought conventional histories ignored. Zinn burned most of his personal papers prior to his death. Although Duberman cannot therefore delve too deeply into Zinn’s personal life, he does not neglect this side of the man.

            Duberman shares Zinn’s progressive outlook and provides his own comments on the issues of the day that were galvanizing Zinn. He occasionally provides balance to Zinn’s views, often by noting omissions, but more frequently engages in gratuitous jeremiads likely to infuriate political conservatives. Yet, conservatives willing to venture outside their comfort zone to try to get inside Zinn’s mind may actually enjoy some of Duberman’s commentaries. He consistently bashes traditional liberals, whom he considers weak-willed and way too quick to jettison core principles (Duberman refers to traditional liberals as “liberal gradualists” (p.66); Zinn described them as believers in the “self-correcting character of American democracy” (p.9); my unsolicited definition: those who think it is more important to keep a Republican out of the White House than to feel good about voting for Ralph Nader).

            Zinn was born in New York in 1922 to hardscrabble Russian Jewish immigrants. He was a mediocre high school student, but enlisted in the war effort and served as an airman, flying bombing missions over Germany and France. He later recoiled from the violence he had perpetrated during the war, but never fully worked out how his later commitment to non-violence and his anti-war positions could be reconciled with combating raw evils such as those represented by Hitler and the Nazis. After the war, Zinn earned an undergraduate degree from New York University on the GI Bill, then received Master’s and Ph.D degrees at Columbia University. His master’s thesis addressed the 1914 Ludlow Coal Miner’s strike, where workers in a mine owned by John D. Rockefeller Sr. clashed violently with the Colorado State National Guard. He wrote his PhD thesis on Fiorella LaGuardia’s career in Congress, from 1917 to 1933, later published by Cornell University Press under the title La Guardia in Congress.

            Zinn’s radical views were not rooted in traditional Marxism and he never flirted with the Communist Party. Zinn considered Marx “needlessly ‘dogmatic” (p.199), and throughout his career refused commitment to any form of ideology, which he thought led to “an enclosed circle of ideas impermeable to doubt” (p.9). Zinn was quite content to let business make money, and let big business make big money. He wanted to assure that the contributions of the people who worked in these business be recognized: that such persons be paid a living and fair wage for their contributions and protected to the extent possible from the dangers to which their work exposed them. Zinn was even willing to acknowledge now and then that capitalism had “developed the economy in an enormously impressive way,” increasing “geometrically the number of goods available” but failed to distribute them justly (p.158). Zinn liked the Marxist idea of redistributing wealth, but in his later years also felt considerable attraction to the anti-authoritarian stance of anarchism as “still more potent, especially in its dismissal of nation-states as a barrier to the development of human values” (p.199).

            Duberman notes at several points that Zinn never extended his intellectual or emotional passion to the women and gay rights movements that emerged in the latter third of the 20th century and were in many ways modeled after the Civil Rights struggles in which Zinn was so vested. Zinn didn’t oppose these movements. But in his heart of hearts, Duberman surmises, Zinn “couldn’t imagine comparing the deprivation of African Americans and the poor to that of essentially white middle-class women and gay people” (p.197). He could “never wrap his mind around the importance of an individual’s search for his or her ‘specialness.’ For Howard, whether the focus was on gay rights or Polish rights, such emphasis was mostly diversionary” (p.198).

         Zinn’s confrontations with Spelman College President Albert Manley and Boston University’s John Silber constitute a major portion of Duberman’s story. At both institutions, Zinn’s activism – Civil Rights at Spelman and anti-Vietnam war agitation at Boston University –earned the ire of the school’s president. Zinn arrived at Spelman in 1956 and “started at the top,” as chairman of the history and social science department. Spelman was then a black women’s college, modeled after Northern “finishing schools.” Ideal Spelman graduates were “sedate, quiet [and] careful,” with a “capacity to pour tea gracefully” (p.30). President Manly came from a “particular generation of black college presidents, forced to walk a tightrope between a limited endowment and white racist power” (p.31). In Manly’s view, the best way forward for his students was not to challenge the racial status quo head on. This view was diametrically opposed to that of Zinn.

            Although Atlanta in 1956 was a rigidly segregated city, it was also a hotbed of Civil Rights activism. Spelman was not far from Morehouse College, where Martin Luther King had studied and future activist Julian Bond was enrolled. Further, Zinn’s students at Spelman included writer Alice Walker and another future activist, Marian Wright, now better known as Marian Wright Adelman. Zinn can be credited with encouraging activism among Spelman students and altering its image as a finishing school for polite young Negro women. He became the faculty advisor to the school’s Social Science Club and in that capacity helped his students desegregate Atlanta’s public libraries. Zinn later became an advisor to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, probably the leading student organization in organizing “sit ins” challenging segregated eating establishments.

            Some of the student protests at Spelman turned inward, toward the school’s administration, which infuriated President Manly more than his students’ challenges to segregation in the community. In the spring of 1963, Manly informed Zinn that he did not intend to renew his contract, even though Zinn was a tenured faculty member. Zinn fought back but, in the end, the Spelman Board of Trustees backed Manley, and Zinn and his family headed north. He ended up at Boston University, where he would stay for the remainder of his professional career, until his retirement in 1988. Just as the Civil Rights cause dominated Zinn’s time at Spelman, his opposition to the Vietnam War coincided with his early years at Boston University. During this time, Zinn helped hide Father Daniel Berrigan, a fugitive from justice wanted by the FBI for a break-in at a Selective Service office in Pennsylvania. Later, Zinn retained a large number of purloined documents provided to him by Daniel Ellsberg, which subsequently surfaced as The Pentagon Papers.

          John Silber, Zinn’s protagonist at Boston University, arrived as President in 1971. If Manly was an old-style, Southern educational autocrat, Silber presaged the modern, corporate CEO-type of campus autocrat, an early model of what all too many university presidents in the United States seem to have become today: high-profile, prodigious fund-raisers with eye-popping salaries who would appear equally comfortable promoting soap products or university education. An outstanding fund raiser, Silber was notoriously stingy with faculty salaries, and on several occasions overrode faculty recommendations for modest salary increases for Zinn. Silber was also conservative politically, and very conservative by Massachusetts standards (in 1990, he ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Democrat). The issues that separated the two men included not only Zinn’s anti-Vietnam War activities but also his approach to the writing of history, especially as manifested in A People’s History of the United States. Although Zinn’s best-known work, Silber considered A People’s History slanted.

           Zinn’s overriding theme in A People’s History is that the American experience from start to finish has been the story of how the powerful few have deceived and dominated the many. A People’s History overtly sought to tell the history of our country from the perspective of those under-included or excluded from most conventional American history texts. In contrast to more conventional histories which emphasized the contributions to American history of Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt, Zinn chose to emphasize those working for these “titans of industry,” as the texts like to call them. This of course included the workers who contributed their labor (and sometimes their lives) to the great industrial expansion of the second half of the 19th century and much of the 20th century. But A People’s History also featured lesser known contributors to American history, such as the farmers of Shay’s Rebellion, black abolitionists, draft resisters, and Vietnam veterans against the war.

            Zinn looked at his approach not as a substitute for more traditional accounts but as a supplement to them. He did not want people to stop learning about George Washington but to start learning, as well, about the Ludlow Massacre of striking coal workers in 1914. A People’s History received two enormous jolts of free publicity, first in 1996 when actor Matt Damon, who had grown up next door to the Zinn household, mentioned the book in the film Good Will Hunting. Then, in 2002, in an episode of the TV Series The Sopranos, Soprano’s son cited A People’s History to support his argument that that the good Italian Christopher Columbus had tortured and murdered Native Americans, an argument that outraged his father,

            Duberman acknowledges that A People’s History sometimes lacks nuance, treating the nation’s past mainly as the story of “relentless exploitation and deceit” (p.228), with the world divided between good guys and bad guys, oppressors and oppressed, villains and heroes. “The middle ground disappears in A People’s History,” (p.228), Duberman concludes. Zinn dismissed Abraham Lincoln as indifferent to slavery, for example, overlooking what Duberman considers Lincoln’s complex evolution on the slavery question. A book which conservatives love to hate, A People’s History has had real staying power and still sells briskly.

           Duberman’s discussion of A People’s History leads him to consider the nature of the historian’s craft: how should history be written? In writing history, Zinn insisted that objectivity – scrupulous accuracy when researching and reporting historical data – must remain the historian’s goal, even as he warned that this goal could only be approximate, never reached. “The closest we can come to that elusive ‘objectivity,’” Zinn argued in The Politics of History, another of his major works, “is to report accurately all the subjectivities of a situation” (p.167). The historian’s values, both buried and conscious, plus the incomplete nature of surviving historical evidence, always stand in the way of a fully dispassionate or intact reproduction of the past. Every historian of every stripe makes decisions on what evidence to use, what evidence to emphasize, what evidence to discount or exclude. Because in general only the most privileged members of society leave behind substantial records, the evidence that comes down from the past is frequently skewed and fragmentary even before historians begin the process of selecting and emphasizing (often unconsciously) certain material and not others from the limited stockpile, thereby inevitably distorting any reconstruction of “what actually happened.”

            Given Zinn’s destruction of his personal papers prior to his death, Duberman must of necessity tread lightly on Zinn’s personal side. Still, he provides some insights into Zinn’s life with Roslyn (Roz) Schechter, whom he married during World War II. The couple stayed together, despite some difficult moments, until she died in 2008. They had two baby boomer children, Myla and Jeff. Zinn’s clashes with two university presidents might suggest an intractably abrasive personality. But the personal Howard Zinn who emerges from these pages is a genuinely likeable, perpetually upbeat, self-effacing man. There is no hint of the stereotypical hard-charging progressive radical who fights for humanity while remaining contemptuous of all too many human beings. Duberman’s portrait of Zinn opens up a window on an interesting American perspective and an interesting American life.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
March 7, 2015


Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History