The November midterm elections might signify a major watershed to most social analysts, but not to Ralph Nader.
"It's probably the most vapid issue list in years," he says of the national campaigns. "It just shows you the voters are not organized to shape the agenda."
Partisan battles don't interest him since he considers both political parties to be fossils. "Just remember they have no membership, they have no grass-roots--it's all electronic combat--raising money, writing checks and putting these absolutely ridiculous 30-second ads on TV."
In conversation, Nader, a towering 6 feet, 4 inches, is soft-spoken, but he's as intense as any politician.
He arrives at a neighborhood bookstore/coffeehouse (a Nader hangout he dubs "democracy center") for an interview loaded with supplemental reading--a Harvard Business Review essay on "Economics and the Oval Office," a flyer for his "Civics for Democracy Textbook" and other Nader-issued materials, all feeding into his overriding goal: to see consumers shaping the political agenda.
"Look at all we own as people, but don't control," he says. "We own the public airways, we own $4 trillion of pension funds, trillions of dollars in savings deposits and mutual insurance assets, all the public lands in America.
"These are enormous wealth, but we don't grow up saying, 'Gee, we own this together.' All we think about is owning a car, or a house."
Sipping cranberry juice and eating an oatmeal cookie (he is a semi-vegetarian), he discusses the gaps in the '94 campaign rhetoric.
Not only had health care disappeared from the national agenda, he notes, the candidates campaigning on the "crime issue" were talking about street crime, ignoring the kind of corporate crime Nader wants to hear critiqued: "The looting of pension funds, the bank debacle, occupational hazards, consumer frauds--these are all taboo campaign issues.
"I think commercialism is more rampant today than any time in our history," he says. "It's attacking our other value systems--our health and our safety."
At 60, Ralph Nader, the founder of modern consumerism, remains a full-time activist. Heading the Center for Study of Responsive Law, a few blocks up 16th Street from the White House, he reads, speaks, writes and travels nonstop.
"He's had an enormous influence historically," says Steve Brobeck, a consumer historian and director of the Consumer Federation of America. "He occupies a special place, both as a symbol and, frankly, a celebrity. No one else in the consumer movement would be thought of as a guest on 'Saturday Night Live,' but he was."
As the crusader who built his David-and-Goliath career taking on major corporations--automobiles, airlines, insurance--Nader is accustomed to being simultaneously loved and maligned, and often accused of grandstanding.
"He doesn't represent consumers--he just represents consumers who want a handout," charged insurance lawyer George Bernstein during a particularly bitter debate several years ago over insurance regulation.
And Nader sometimes finds himself fighting lonely battles. He was the only major witness last summer to oppose the nomination of Stephen G. Breyer to the Supreme Court, saying Breyer's opinions showed a pro-business, anti-consumer bent.
Nader attributes his passion for activism to his father, a Lebanese immigrant who ran a restaurant in Winstead, Conn., and imbued his son with the importance of civic responsibility in a democracy.
"What did you learn in school today?" his father would ask. "Did you learn how to believe? Did you learn how to think?" Nader was reading the Congressional Record by 14, and his list of heroes ranges from Pericles to Thomas Jefferson and such muckrakers as Upton Sinclair and journalist Ida Tarbell.
He selects an anecdote from his youth. As a Princeton undergraduate, Nader questioned the spraying of the pesticide DDT on campus. "The groundskeepers would spray it on with huge hoses--we'd even wipe it off our faces it was so thick. The next morning there would be dead birds on the sidewalk."
Nader made the connection, but when he approached the editors of the Princeton newspaper with the story, he was brushed off.
"They told me that we had brilliant biology professors and chemists at Princeton and if there was a connection between DDT and the birds' deaths, they would know about it.
"That was one of the best lessons I had at Princeton."
"You know what he's done for us? He has raised our expectations," says Nader protege Harvey Rosenfield, head of California's Proposition 103 Enforcement Project. "People trust that man because they know he's not for sale."
Nader began to earn that reputation 30 years ago, when he was catapulted into the national spotlight as a young Harvard law graduate whose stinging book "Unsafe at Any Speed" challenged the safety of the Chevrolet Corvair and American cars in general.
When General Motors unwisely hired a private detective to try to discredit him, the ploy backfired. A Senate subcommittee looked into GM's snooping, and the national publicity made Nader a media star.
"It could have been scripted in Hollywood," says John Richard of Nader's Center for Study of Responsive Law. "GM overreacted and got caught. Ralph got all that exposure on the evening news and made the most of it. He was lucky in many ways."
Nader's next moves laid the groundwork for the contemporary consumer movement, Richard says.
He attracted waves of young activists to Washington as "Nader's Raiders," investigating government foot-dragging (starting with the Federal Trade Commission) and business fraud, and instigating reform in everything from water pollution to nursing-home abuse.
New laws were enacted--the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Freedom of Information Act and many more.
Nader and his associates began forming advocacy groups (more than 50 at last count) to oversee enforcement and lobby for more. "I like to think of myself as a Johnny Appleseed, getting consumer groups started and letting them grow on their own," Nader says.
The Nader-led activity pumped life into a Washington vacuum, says Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, Nader's largest watchdog group, formed in 1971.
"There were no citizen groups in 1965 that lobbied, when he started investigating the automobile industry," she says. "There were government officials and industry representatives and Ralph."
Nader's emphasis has gradually switched from exposes to long-range networks of public interest research groups (PIRGs) and Citizen Utility Boards (CUBs), which are statewide citizen action groups.
Any conversation with Ralph Nader gravitates back to the theme of citizen power. He whips out a little green CUB flyer that is mailed to all Illinois utility customers. "In Illinois they helped pass a utility reform package and saved ratepayers $3 billion," he says. "Every state needs something like this."
Asked for his basic advice for today's consumer, he doesn't pause. "Read.
"We can show any family how to save a third of their food budget and improve their nutrition," he says. "We can show them how to save hundreds of dollars on their insurance bills."
As Nader's empire has blossomed into a sophisticated network of consumer organizations, he has stuck to the no-frills lifestyle that earned him the title of "St. Ralph" in the 1970s.
He rents a small apartment, owns no car (his frugality is legendary) and has never married. "Not having a family was clearly a choice, a sacrifice," he once told David Frost in a television interview. "If you want to deal with these corporate abuses, you have to give up things."
There is no Nader successor waiting in the wings. The field is too complex today, Brobeck says, and furthermore, "Most people in the country wouldn't want to lead their lives the way he does."
"Ralph's work is what he is ," Harvey Rosenfield says. "It's his joy, his purpose in life."
Rosenfield, a 1976 Nader's Raider, was sent to California to work on lower utility rates and, in 1986, on Proposition 103, the initiative to roll back insurance premiums. Nader stumped the state successfully for the initiative.
Rosenfield recalls winding up an intensive 10-day campaign swing. "Ralph was getting on the plane back to D.C. and he was still giving Proposition 103 cards to the flight attendants and crew members.
"You know how they say, 'He can drink anybody under the table?' Well, Ralph could work anybody under the table."
Nader, who has been labeled everything from prophetic to the "national nag" over the years, acknowledges his passion for work, but he objects to suggestions that his life is monastic. Asked what he does for fun, he replies: "What I do is fun.
"I do enjoy life," he says. "I just don't enjoy conspicuous consumption. I like reading and conversing with friends. When I'm traveling, I like to visit things. I like to see a meat-processing plant or a coal mine."
Having already tackled the most obvious consumer issues, Nader is taking some different paths in the '90s. He campaigned in two 1992 New England presidential primaries, encouraging voters to write "None of the Above" on the ballot. Many wrote his name instead, and "interestingly, they were divided between Republicans and Democrats," he says.
His motive was to generate public discussion of his "Concord Principles," which outline tools for his new democracy. "We had no television, it was just 300 or 400 people in auditorium after auditorium," he says. "They would stay until 11 at night for big discussions. This business of the media pandering to the lowest common sensibility of the audience is a self-fulfilling prophecy."
In the unlikely company of such political conservatives as Patrick Buchanan, Nader has vigorously opposed both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), maintaining they will undercut environmental and minimum wage standards in the United States.
He has been getting Congressional flak for his unexpected stance--during one heated debate, House Minority Leader Rep. Robert H. Michel (D-Ill.), called Ross Perot, Buchanan and Nader the "Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx" of the trade issue.
He was scolded even more publicly last summer in Newsweek magazine. Noting that "many of Nader's crusades these days verge on the bizarre," the magazine's Rich Thomas wondered aloud if Nader's views are losing their influence. But Thomas concluded that, despite losing some battles, Nader remains a "powerful player."
NAFTA has already passed and GATT--which faces a Senate vote in December--is expected to be approved, but Nader's opposition is unswerving.
Asked to enumerate his most important accomplishments, Nader first offers a checklist of what he calls "transient victories," items such as seat belts, air bags, crash-worthy cars, better labeling on food, lower levels of lead in the environment.
And there have been the victories of what he calls "silent revolutions," in America's smoking and eating habits that have occurred despite the pressures of the marketplace. "The decline of tobacco and the improvement of nutrition are the consumer movement, but people don't see it that way. They see the consumer movement as the compulsory recall of cars."
Looking ahead, he sees health care remaining on the agenda, along with "the Big Brother aspects of a credit-card economy with all those electronic data bases floating around," and making the new technology accessible to everyone. (Although he's still writing on an Underwood typewriter, his office uses Internet to mobilize campaigns around the world.)
And he foresees the emergence of a third party. "Ross Perot broke the myth of the two-party system and proved that 19 million voters can wave bye-bye to political parties."
And, no, Nader wouldn't be a candidate. "I have a different role, on the outside, to build a democratic infrastructure."
For the last 30 years, Ralph Nader has planted the seeds of the contemporary consumer movement by launching citizen action groups with various interests and encouraging their development. Here is a partial list of the public-interest organizations founded by Nader and his associates since 1969.
Center for Study of Responsive Law: Nader's headquarters for 20 years
U.S. Public Interest Research Group: Est. 1988, umbrella for 26 state PIRGs
Corporate Accountability Research Group: Est. 1970, now relatively inactive
Essential Information: Est. 1980, monitors corporations outside the U.S.
PIRGs: Most active in N.Y., N.J., Mass., Calif.
Public Citizens: Est. 1971, advocacy group supported by 50,000 dues paying members
Health Research Group: Est. 1971, tracks health issues from pills to pollution
Critical Mass Energy Group: Est. 1974, opposes nuclear power
Buyers Up: Est. 1983, group buying organization 12,000 members
Congress Watch: Est. 1973, lobbying arm
Litigation Group: Est. 1972, sues companies and government agencies
COLLEAGUE PUBLIC INTEREST GROUP*
Aviation Consumer Action Project: Est. 1971, advocates safety, passengers rights
Center for Auto Safety: Est. 1970, promotes auto and highway safety
Center for Science on the Public Interest: Est. 1971, concentrates on health and nutrition
Clean Water Action Project: Est. 1972, monitors EPA water pollution
Disability Rights Center: est. 1976, supports legislation for the disabled
National Insurance Consumer Organization: Est. 1980, insurance watchdog
Pension Rights Center: Est. 1976, promotes pension reform
Telecommunications Research and Action Center: Est. 1972, watches FCC
* Some founded by Nader and spun off, others started by Naders Raiders
Source: Fortune Magazine