Ralph Nader (/ˈneɪdər/; born February 27, 1934) is an American political activist, author, lecturer, and attorney, noted for his involvement in consumer protection, environmentalism, and government reform causes. The son of Lebanese immigrants to the United States, Nader was educated at Princeton and Harvard and first came to prominence in 1965 with the publication of the bestselling book Unsafe at Any Speed, a critique of the safety record of American automobile manufacturers that became known as one of the most important journalistic pieces of the 20th century. Following the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader led a group of volunteer law students – dubbed “Nader’s Raiders” – in a groundbreaking investigation of the Federal Trade Commission, leading directly to that agency’s overhaul and reform. In the 1970s, Nader leveraged his growing popularity to establish a number of advocacy and watchdog groups including the Public Interest Research Group, the Center for Auto Safety, and Public Citizen.
Nader’s activism has been directly credited with the passage of several landmark pieces of American consumer protection legislation including the Clean Water Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, and he has been repeatedly named to lists of the “100 Most Influential Americans”, including those published by Life Magazine, Time Magazine, and The Atlantic, among others. He has run for President of the United States on several occasions as an independent and third party candidate, using the campaigns to highlight under-reported issues and a perceived need for electoral reform.
A two-time Nieman Fellow, Nader is the author or co-author of more than two dozen books, and was the subject of a documentary film on his life and work, An Unreasonable Man, which debuted at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
Ralph Nader was born in Winsted, Connecticut, to Nathra and Rose (née Bouziane) Nader, both of whom were immigrants from Lebanon. After settling in Connecticut, Nathra Nader worked in a textile mill before opening a bakery and restaurant. Ralph Nader occasionally helped at his father’s restaurant, as well as worked as a newspaper delivery boy for the local paper, the Winsted Register Citizen.
Nader graduated from The Gilbert School in 1951, going on to attend Princeton University. Though offered a scholarship to Princeton, Nader’s father forced him to decline the offer on the grounds that the family was able to pay Nader’s tuition and the funds should go to a student who could not afford it. Nader graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1955.
After graduating from Princeton, Nader began studying at Harvard Law School, though he quickly became bored by his courses. While at Harvard, Nader would frequently skip classes to hitchhike across the U.S. where he would engage in field research on Native American issues and migrant worker rights. He earned a LL.B. from Harvard in 1958.
After graduating from Harvard, Nader served in the U.S. Army as a cook and was posted to Fort Dix.
In 1959 Nader was admitted to the bar and began practice as a lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut, while also lecturing at the University of Hartford and traveling to the Soviet Union, Chile, and Cuba, where he filed dispatches for the Christian Science Monitor and The Nation. In 1964, he moved to Washington, D.C., taking a position as a consultant to Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Nader was first propelled into the national spotlight with the 1965 publication of his journalistic expose Unsafe at Any Speed. Though he had previously expressed an interest in issues of automobile safety while a law student, Unsafe at Any Speed presented a critical dissection of the automotive industry by claiming that many American automobiles were generally unsafe to operate. Nader researched case files from more than 100 lawsuits then pending against General Motors’ Chevrolet Corvair to support his assertions.
The book became an immediate bestseller but also prompted a vicious backlash from General Motors (GM) who attempted to discredit Nader by tapping his phone in an attempt to uncover salacious information and, when that failed, hiring prostitutes in an attempt to catch him in a compromising situation. Nader, by then working as an unpaid consultant to United States SenatorAbe Ribicoff, reported to the senator that he suspected he was being followed. Ribicoff convened an inquiry that called GM CEO James Roche who admitted, when placed under oath, that the company had hired a private detective agency to investigate Nader. Nader sued GM for invasion of privacy, settling the case for $425,000 and using the proceeds to found the activist organization the Center for the Study of Responsive Law.
A year following the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, Congress unanimously enacted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Speaker of the United States House of Representatives John William McCormack said the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was due to the “crusading spirit of one individual who believed he could do something: Ralph Nader”.
In 1968 Nader recruited seven volunteer law students, dubbed “Nader’s Raiders” by the Washington press corps, to evaluate the efficacy and operation of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The group’s ensuing report, which criticized the body as “ineffective” and “passive” led to an American Bar Association investigation of the FTC. Based on the results of that second study, Richard Nixon revitalized the agency and sent it on a path of vigorous consumer protection and antitrust enforcement for the rest of the 1970s.
Following the publication of the report, in 1971, Nader founded the watchdog group Public Citizen to engage in public interest lobbying and activism on issues of consumer rights, serving on its board of directors until 1980.
By the early 1970s Nader had established himself as a household name. In a critical memo written by Lewis Powell to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Powell warned business representatives that Nader “has become a legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans”.
Ralph Nader’s name appeared in the press as a potential candidate for president for the first time in 1971, when he was offered the opportunity to run as the presidential candidate for the New Party, a progressive split-off from the Democratic Party. Chief among his advocates was author Gore Vidal, who touted a 1972 Nader presidential campaign in a front-page article in Esquire magazine in 1971. Nader declined the advances.
In 1974 he received the S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen.
In the 1970s, Nader turned his attention to environmental activism, becoming a key leader in the antinuclear power movement, described by one observer as the “titular head of opposition to nuclear energy”. The Critical Mass Energy Project was formed by Nader in 1974 as a national anti-nuclear umbrella group, growing to become the largest national anti-nuclear group in the United States, with several hundred local affiliates and an estimated 200,000 supporters. The organization’s main efforts were directed at lobbying activities and providing local groups with scientific and other resources to campaign against nuclear power.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, through his ongoing work with Public Citizen, Nader continued to be involved in issues of consumer rights and public accountability. His work testifying before Congress, drafting model legislation, and organizing citizen letter-writing and protest efforts, earned him direct credit for the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Clean Water Act, Consumer Product Safety Act, and Whistleblower Protection Act.
Ralph Nader’s name appeared in the press as a potential candidate for president for the first time in 1971, when he was offered the opportunity to run as the presidential candidate for the New Party, a progressive split-off from the Democratic Party in 1972. Chief among his advocates was author Gore Vidal, who touted a 1972 Nader presidential campaign in a front-page article in Esquire magazine in 1971. Psychologist Alan Rockway organized a “draft Ralph Nader for President” campaign in Florida on the New Party’s behalf. Nader declined their offer to run that year; the New Party ultimately joined with the People’s Party in running Benjamin Spock in the 1972 presidential election. Spock had hoped Nader in particular would run, getting “some of the loudest applause of the evening” when mentioning him at the University of Alabama. Spock went on to try to recruit Nader for the party among over 100 others, and indicated he would be “delighted” to be replaced by any of them even after he accepted the nomination himself. Nader received one vote for the vice-presidential nomination at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
Nader stood in as a write-in for “none of the above” in both the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic and Republican Primaries and received 3,054 of the 170,333 Democratic votes and 3,258 of the 177,970 Republican votes cast. He was also a candidate in the 1992 Massachusetts Democratic Primary, where he appeared at the top of the ballot (in some areas, he appeared on the ballot as an independent).
Nader was drafted as a candidate for President of the United States on the Green Party ticket during the 1996 presidential election. He was not formally nominated by the Green Party USA, which was, at the time, the largest national Green group; instead he was nominated independently by various state Green parties (in some states, he appeared on the ballot as an independent). However, many activists in the Green Party USA worked actively to campaign for Nader that year. Nader qualified for ballot status in 22 states, garnering 685,297 votes or 0.71% of the popular vote (fourth place overall), although the effort did make significant organizational gains for the party. He refused to raise or spend more than $5,000 on his campaign, presumably to avoid meeting the threshold for Federal Elections Commission reporting requirements; the unofficial Draft Nader committee could (and did) spend more than that, but the committee was legally prevented from coordinating in any way with Nader himself.
Nader received some criticism from gay rights supporters for calling gay rights “gonad politics” and stating that he was not interested in dealing with such matters. However, more recently, Nader has come out in support of same-sex marriage.
His 1996 running mates included: Anne Goeke (nine states), Deborah Howes (Oregon), Muriel Tillinghast (New York), Krista Paradise (Colorado), Madelyn Hoffman (New Jersey), Bill Boteler (Washington, D.C.), and Winona LaDuke (California and Texas).
In the 2006 documentary An Unreasonable Man, Nader describes how he was unable to get the views of his public interest groups heard in Washington, even by the Clinton Administration. Nader cites this as one of the primary reasons that he decided to actively run in the 2000 election as candidate of the Green Party, which had been formed in the wake of his 1996 campaign.
In June 2000, The Association of State Green Parties (ASGP) organized the national nominating convention that took place in Denver, Colorado, at which Green party delegates nominated Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke to be their party’s candidates for president and vice president.
On July 9, the Vermont Progressive Party nominated Nader, giving him ballot access in the state. On August 12, the United Citizens Party of South Carolina chose Ralph Nader as its presidential nominee, giving him a ballot line in the state.
In October 2000, at the largest Super Rally of his campaign, held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, 15,000 people paid $20 each to hear Nader speak. Nader’s campaign rejected both parties as institutions dominated by corporate interests, stating that Al Gore and George W. Bush were “Tweedledee and Tweedledum”. A long list of notable celebrities spoke and performed at the event including Susan Sarandon, Ani DiFranco, Ben Harper, Tim Robbins, Michael Moore, Eddie Vedder and Patti Smith. The campaign also had some prominent union help: The California Nurses Association and the United Electrical Workers endorsed his candidacy and campaigned for him.
In 2000, Nader and his running mate Winona LaDuke received 2,883,105 votes, for 2.74 percent of the popular vote (third place overall), missing the 5 percent needed to qualify the Green Party for federally distributed public funding in the next election, yet qualifying the Greens for ballot status in many states.
Nader often openly expressed his hope for Bush’s victory over Gore, saying it “would mobilize us”, and that environmental and consumer regulatory agencies would fare better under Bush than Gore. When asked which of the two he’d vote for if forced, Nader answered “Bush… If you want the parties to diverge from one another, have Bush win.” As to whether he would feel regret if he caused Gore’s defeat, Nader replied “I would not — not at all. I’d rather have a provocateur than an anesthetizer in the White House.” On another occasion, Nader answered this question with: “No, not at all… There may be a cold shower for four years that would help the Democratic Party… It doesn’t matter who is in the White House.”
The spoiler controversy
A common claim is that Nader’s candidacy acted as a spoiler in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, in which 537 votes gave George W. Bush a crucial and controversial victory in Florida (Nader received almost 100,000 votes in Florida, from which a slight decrease in favor of Gore would have altered the outcome). Others, including Nader, dispute this claim.
In the 2000 presidential election in Florida, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by 537 votes. Nader received 97,421 votes, which led to claims that he was responsible for Gore’s defeat. Nader, both in his book Crashing the Party and on his website, states: “In the year 2000, exit polls reported that 25% of my voters would have voted for Bush, 38% would have voted for Gore and the rest would not have voted at all.” Michael Moore at first argued that Florida was so close that votes for any of seven other candidates could also have switched the results, but in 2004 joined the view that Nader had helped make Bush president. When asked about claims of being a spoiler, Nader typically points to the controversial Supreme Court ruling that halted a Florida recount, Gore’s loss in his home state of Tennessee, and the “quarter million Democrats who voted for Bush in Florida.”
A study in 2002 by the Progressive Review, found no correlation in pre-election polling numbers for Nader when compared to those for Gore. In other words, most of the changes in pre-election polling reflect movement between Bush and Gore rather than Gore and Nader, and they conclude from this that Nader was not responsible for Gore’s loss.
An analysis conducted by Harvard Professor B.C. Burden in 2005 showed Nader did “play a pivotal role in determining who would become president following the 2000 election”, but that:
Contrary to Democrats’ complaints, Nader was not intentionally trying to throw the election. A spoiler strategy would have caused him to focus disproportionately on the most competitive states and markets with the hopes of being a key player in the outcome. There is no evidence that his appearances responded to closeness. He did, apparently, pursue voter support, however, in a quest to receive 5% of the popular vote.
However, Jonathan Chait of The American Prospect and The New Republic notes that Nader did indeed focus on swing states disproportionately during the waning days of the campaign, and by doing so jeopardized his own chances of achieving the 5% of the vote he was aiming for.
Then there was the debate within the Nader campaign over where to travel in the waning days of the campaign. Some Nader advisers urged him to spend his time in uncontested states such as New York and California. These states – where liberals and leftists could entertain the thought of voting Nader without fear of aiding Bush – offered the richest harvest of potential votes. But, Martin writes, Nader – who emerges from this account as the house radical of his own campaign – insisted on spending the final days of the campaign on a whirlwind tour of battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida. In other words, he chose to go where the votes were scarcest, jeopardizing his own chances of winning 5 percent of the vote, which he needed to gain federal funds in 2004.
When Nader, in a letter to environmentalists, attacked Gore for “his role as broker of environmental voters for corporate cash,” and “the prototype for the bankable, Green corporate politician,” and what he called a string of broken promises to the environmental movement, Sierra Club president Carl Pope sent an open letter to Nader, dated 27 October 2000, defending Al Gore’s environmental record and calling Nader’s strategy “irresponsible.” He wrote:
You have also broken your word to your followers who signed the petitions that got you on the ballot in many states. You pledged you would not campaign as a spoiler and would avoid the swing states. Your recent campaign rhetoric and campaign schedule make it clear that you have broken this pledge… Please accept that I, and the overwhelming majority of the environmental movement in this country, genuinely believe that your strategy is flawed, dangerous and reckless.
Nader announced on December 24, 2003, that he would not seek the Green Party’s nomination for president in 2004, but did not rule out running as an independent candidate.
Ralph Nader and Democratic candidate John Kerry held a widely publicized meeting early in the 2004 presidential campaign. Nader said that John Kerry wanted to work to win Nader’s support and the support of Nader’s voters, prompting Nader to provide Kerry more than 20 pages of issues that he felt were important. According to Nader, he asked John Kerry to choose any three of the issues and highlight them in his campaign; should Kerry meet these conditions Nader would not contest the election. On February 22, 2004, having not heard back from Kerry, Nader announced that he would run for president as an independent.
Due to concerns about a possible spoiler effect, many Democrats urged Nader to abandon his 2004 candidacy. Terry McAuliffe stated that Nader had a “distinguished career, fighting for working families”, and that McAuliffe “would hate to see part of his legacy being that he got us eight years of George Bush”. Theresa Amato, Nader’s national campaign manager in 2000 and 2004, later alleged that McAuliffe offered to pay-off Nader if he would not campaign in certain states, an allegation confirmed by Nader and undisputed by McAuliffe.
Nader received 463,655 votes, for 0.38 percent of the popular vote, placing him in third place overall.
In February 2007, Nader criticized Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton as “a panderer and a flatterer”, later describing her as someone who had “no political fortitude”. During a February 2008 appearance on Meet the Press, Nader announced his intention to run for president as an independent, later naming Matt Gonzalez as his running-mate. Nader was endorsed by Howard Zinn, Jesse Ventura, Justin Jeffre, Tom Morello, Val Kilmer, Rocky Anderson, James Abourezk, Patti Smith, and Jello Biafra. The Nader campaign raised $8.4 million in campaign funds, primarily from small, individual donations. Nader/Gonzalez earned 738,475 votes and a third-place finish in the United States presidential election, 2008.
D.C. Library Renaissance Project
In 2002, Nader founded the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, which has sought to halt the development of the West End Library in Washington, D.C., alleging that it “violated affordable housing guidelines, undervalued the land, and didn’t conform to the city’s Comprehensive Plan.” The legal obstacles presented by the Library Renaissance Project have cost the D.C. government over one million dollars in legal fees. Nader has opposed the privatized development of D.C. libraries despite community support, citing a lack of oversight and competitive bidding process.
Only the Super Rich Can Save Us
In 2009 Nader published his first work of fiction, Only the Super Rich Can Save Us. Many of the characters were fictionalized versions of real-life persons including Ted Turner and Warren Buffett. The book’s principal villain, a “conservative evil genius” named Brovar Dortwist, represents Grover Norquist. According to Norquist, Nader had called him prior to the book’s publication and said he “wouldn’t be too unhappy, because the character was principled”.
The novel met with mixed reviews with the Wall Street Journal noting that the book “reads less like a novel … than a dream journal” with a plot that victoriously concludes with “American society thoroughly Naderized”, though the Globe and Mail called it “a powerful idea by the perfect person at a fortuitous time”.
2012 debate moderator
During the United States presidential election, 2012, Nader moderated a debate for third party candidates at Washington D.C.’s Busboys and Poets, what USA Today described as a “hipster coffeehouse/bookstore”. The debate was attended by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, Libertarian Gary Johnson, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode. He later moderated a similar debate in a studio appearance broadcast by Russia Today.
Ralph Nader Radio Hour
Since March 2014, Nader has co-hosted the weekly Ralph Nader Radio Hour, produced at the KPFK studios in the Los Angeles area and distributed via the Pacifica Radio Network. The program features “interviews with some of the nation’s most influential movers and shakers” and discussion of current events. Nader co-hosts with Steve Skrovan and David Feldman.
American Museum of Tort Law
In 2015, after a decade planning, Nader founded the American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, Connecticut. The opening ceremonies were emceed by Phil Donahue. Nader personally donated $150,000 to the establishment of the museum, which was sited on two parcels of land rezoned by the town of Winsted to host it. At the time of its opening, some expressed skepticism that a museum dedicated to tort would have much interest to the general public, though Nader responded that he was “astounded how a country can go over 200 years and not have a law museum”.
Campaign for Harvard admissions reform
Nader unsuccessfully sought a seat on the Harvard University Board of Overseers in 2016 as part of an insurgent candidate slate operating under the name “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” which called for increased transparency by the university as to how it made athletic and legacy admissions decisions. In February of that year he expressed support for Donald Trump making a third-party run for president, saying that such a move might help break-up the two party system.
Nader was raised in the Eastern Orthodox Church. His siblings are Laura (a professor of social and cultural anthropology at U.C. Berkeley), Claire, and brother Shafeek.
He has lived in Washington, DC since the 1960s, but is domiciled in Connecticut, where he is registered to vote.
In addition to English, Nader also speaks Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Nader suffers from Bell’s Palsy.
Personality and character traits
Nader has been described as an “ascetic … bordering on self-righteous”. Despite access to respectable financial assets, he famously lives in a modest apartment and spends $25,000 on personal bills, conducting most of his writing on a typewriter. According to popular accounts of his personal life, he does not own a television, relies primarily on public transportation, and over a 25-year period, until 1983, exclusively wore one of a dozen pairs of shoes he had purchased at a clearance sale in 1959. His suits, which he reports he purchases at sales and outlet stores, have been the repeated subject of public scrutiny, being variously described as “wrinkled”, “rumpled”, and “styleless”. A newspaper story once described Nader as a “conscientious objector to fashion”.
Nader has never married. Karen Croft, a writer who worked for Nader in the late 1970s at the Center for Study of Responsive Law, once asked him if he had ever considered getting married, to which he reportedly responded that he had made a choice to dedicate his life to career rather than family.
According to the mandatory fiscal disclosure report that he filed with the Federal Election Commission in 2000, Nader owned more than $3 million worth of stocks and mutual fund shares; his single largest holding was more than $1 million worth of stock in Cisco Systems, Inc. He also held between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of shares in the Magellan Fund. Nader said he owned no car and owned no real estate directly in 2000, and said that he lived on $25,000 a year, giving most of his stock earnings to many of the over four dozen non-profit organizations he had founded.
In the 2005 Jim Carrey film Fun with Dick and Jane, Nader makes a cameo appearance as himself.
The Steve Skrovan documentary film An Unreasonable Man is about the life of Ralph Nader and uses both archival footage and original interviews. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006.
Nader has been featured on the cover of the January 22, 1968 issue of Newsweek; the December 12, 1969 issue of TIME; the June 1971 issue of Esquire; and the August 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.
Nader has been a guest on multiple episodes of Saturday Night Live, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, The O’Reilly Factor, Meet the Press, Democracy Now!, and The Late Show with David Letterman. In 2003 he appeared on Da Ali G Show and, in 2008, was interviewed by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
In 1988, Nader made an historic appearance on Sesame Street as “a person in your neighborhood”, the episode also featuring Barbara Walters and Martina Navratilova. Nader’s appearance on the show was memorable because it was the only time that the grammar of the last line of the song – “a person who you meet each day” – was questioned and changed. Nader refused to sing a line which he deemed grammatically improper, so a compromise was reached by which Nader sang the last line solo, with the modified words: “a person whom you meet each day.”
- In 1967 Nader was named one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year” by the United States Junior Chamber.
- In 1990 Nader was listed one of the “100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th century by Life Magazine.
- In 1999 Time Magazine named Nader one of the “100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century”.
- In 1999 a New York University panel of journalists ranked Unsafe at Any Speed 38th among the top 100 pieces of journalism of the 20th century.
- In 2006 Nader was named one of the “100 Most Influential Americans” by The Atlantic.
- In 2008 Nader was listed among the “100 Most Influential Americans” in the Britannica Guide to 100 Most Influential Americans.
- In 2016 Nader was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
- In 2016 Nader received that year’s Gandhi Peace Award from Promoting Enduring Peace.