Ralph Nader, Consumer Crusader : Throughline Whether it's pesticides in your cereal or the door plug flying off your airplane, consumers today have plenty of reasons to feel like corporations might not have their best interests at heart. At a moment where we're seeing unprecedented product recalls, and when trust in the government is near historic lows, we're going to revisit a time when a generation of people felt empowered to demand accountability from both companies and elected leaders — and got results. Today on the show, the story of the U.S. consumer movement and its controversial leader: the once famous, now infamous Ralph Nader.

Ralph Nader, Consumer Crusader

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi. Nice to meet you. Come on in.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

The year is 1960.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Now, what kind of car are we looking for today?

ARABLOUEI: You've got an urge to hit the open road, to touch the black asphalt of the nation's new interstate highways that are being built all around the country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think you're going to love this.

ARABLOUEI: Now, all you need is the perfect car.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They just released this model.

ARABLOUEI: Compact, sleek, a thing of beauty.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Have a safe drive.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERCY FAITH SONG, “THEME FROM A SUMMER PLACE”)

ARABLOUEI: You turn on your car radio, and that iconic "Summer Place" song starts playing. When you hit the highway, you roll your window down, letting the wind rush through your hair. This is the American dream - riding in an American car on an American road, boundless and free.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: When you come up across a slight turn, you keep your foot on the gas, cruising along.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIRES SCREECHING)

ARABLOUEI: For a moment, you feel the wheels slip, the car no longer in your control. But then it comes back again.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERSON SIGHING)

ARABLOUEI: You think, it's fine. It's a brand-new car right off the dealership block.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)

ARABLOUEI: You come up on another turn - this time, a wider one. You stay the course, when, all of a sudden, your wheels lose traction with the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIRES SCREECHING)

ARABLOUEI: The paramedics will later tell you you're a lucky one. As you crawl out of the driver's window, you think to yourself, what happened? How could driving a brand-new car end up with me lying on the road?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RALPH NADER: This is my point - either it's sheer callousness or indifference, or they don't bother to find out how their cars behave.

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

That's a young Ralph Nader talking about car safety.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER #1: Ralph Nader has announced he will run for president as a third-party candidate again.

ABDELFATAH: Yes - that Ralph Nader. He's made four runs for the presidency as a third-party candidate, most infamously in the year 2000, when some people felt that his run led to Democratic candidate Al Gore losing to Republican candidate George W. Bush.

ARABLOUEI: So if you're feeling skeptical, we get it. But bear with us, because before Ralph Nader was infamous, he was famous.

NADER: I was better known by more people in the United States than Taylor Swift is today.

ABDELFATAH: OK, so that's definitely an exaggeration. But he's right that for a long time, he was one of the most trusted people in America. Some people even called him Saint Ralph. He's the reason any new car that gets sold today has to comply with a set of federal safety standards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NADER: This is a bill for the vast number of - millions of unrepresented American consumers who need representation before federal regulatory agencies.

ABDELFATAH: And car safety was only the beginning, because Nader felt that in a country increasingly dominated by corporations controlling our access to basic goods, the people who use those goods - the consumers - had rights. He fought to guarantee them. And in many cases, he won.

ARABLOUEI: The right to clean drinking water, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, whistleblower protections, the Freedom of Information Act and more - Nader was instrumental in all of them. His activism and efforts spurred the modern consumer movement, a movement fueled by the idea that public citizens, consumers, people like you and me can and should hold governments and corporations accountable to our needs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER #2: Several brands of ground cinnamon containing elevated levels of lead. It now recommends recalls of ground cinnamon from six distributors.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER #3: Toyota recalling 1 million vehicles worldwide over potential airbag issues.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER #4: FDA is reporting another baby formula recall.

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER #5: Some of Boeing's 737 MAX 9 planes are grounded right now, triggering cancellations nationwide.

ABDELFATAH: And today, at a moment where we're seeing unprecedented product recalls, when our own expectations of safety and government trust are eroding, we're going to revisit a time where a generation of people felt activated and empowered to take matters into their own hands, to demand the government back them up so they could stand up to corporations and say, enough is enough. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And I'm Ramtin Arablouei. Today on the show, the story of consumer activism in the U.S., and what we can learn from Ralph Nader's wins and losses.

ABDELFATAH: Coming up, Nader opens up the dream of the American car and takes a look under the hood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAITH GARRISET: Hi, I'm Faith Garriset (ph). I'm from Harrisburg, Pa., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE.

ABDELFATAH: Part 1 - Life is a Highway.

NADER: It was certainly freedom of the road. When you were in the car driving, you were the queen or king of the car.

ABDELFATAH: In the 1950s, the car was becoming as much a symbol of American freedom as the bald eagle.

NADER: And what you did in the backseat was no one else's business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: And listen...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Outside a Rambler...

NADER: Horsepower.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: The pound, pound, pound as the wheels hit the ground.

NADER: Domination.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: With the famous rocket engine, new hydramatic drive and futuramic body.

NADER: Hey, they love it. These dream boats, psychosexual vehicles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUCILLE BALL: Sing it now.

MEL TORME: (Singing) What a thrill to take the wheel of a rocket Oldsmobile and performance it's a star...

NADER: It was all revolting to me.

ABDELFATAH: Ralph Nader was born in 1934.

NADER: Well, my parents were immigrants from Lebanon, and they sailed past the Statue of Liberty. They took it seriously. Which means that it isn't just freedom they were after, they wanted freedom to make a difference.

ABDELFATAH: Nader came of age during the postwar era, a time when peace and economic prosperity collided with looming fears of nuclear war. His parents wanted Nader and his siblings to trust their own instincts instead of blindly accepting what they were told by other authority figures.

NADER: One time, I came home from school, and my dad said what did you learn today? Did you learn how to believe, or did you learn how to think?

ABDELFATAH: In the heyday of automobiles, amid all these commercials with gleaming tail fins and chrome bumpers, Nader saw through the romanticism of the open road straight to its dark underbelly. The American Dream was more of an American massacre.

NADER: I lost a lot of friends in car crashes. They were killed or they were permanently disabled. It's far, far worse then than it is today.

ABDELFATAH: Fatal car crashes were nearly five times more common back then, and it seemed like everyone knew someone who'd been in a serious accident. But the prevailing narrative was that this was a matter of user error, people were being reckless drivers. And that didn't make sense to Nader. How could it be that commuting to work or going grocery shopping could amount to a death sentence for so many people?

NADER: I kept thinking of people who could be living productive lives today and who were killed in totally survivable crashes. You know, I began looking at the cars and how they were crushed in. And when I was at law school...

ABDELFATAH: He set out to bust the myth of the open road.

ARABLOUEI: As glamorous as that may sound, solving the mystery of these grisly car crash deaths mostly involved a lot of reading of very wonky documents, and I mean a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Nader sifted through court documents and case law. He dug into a whole series of research studies from Cornell Medical College, funded by Ford, Chrysler and the Pentagon that looked into what could make cars safer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: This is a CBS report about that research.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We're at the scene of a pretty bad smash-up here on U.S. Highway Number 1 near Laurel, Md.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Push that out. Now, there were three people in this car, and the driver stayed in the car. But now the other two people hit the windshield. And then apparently, they went out of the right-hand door.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Oh, the right-hand door?

ARABLOUEI: Like any good detective, Nader even pounded the pavement. What he found was that the auto industry knew that it was cars themselves that were unsafe. Doctors and researchers had repeatedly recommended features to add to the cars to make them safe - seat belts, padded dash panels, rollover bars. But the carmakers often shied away from putting these features into cars on the market.

NADER: It punctured the advertising fantasy of these auto companies.

ARABLOUEI: So Nader set out to take down the auto industry. To do that, he knew he was going to need to harness the power of the consumer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN F KENNEDY: I've sent to the Congress today a special message on protecting the consumer interests. All of us are consumers.

ARABLOUEI: That's President John F. Kennedy speaking in 1962. And he was identifying a powerful new current in American life.

PAUL SABIN: Across the American consumer landscape of this time period is the question of, can companies and governments that have become increasingly powerful - can they be trusted to look out for the interests of the individual?

ARABLOUEI: This is Paul Sabin. He's a professor of history and American studies at Yale University.

SABIN: There's a sense that there really - there needs to be someone looking out for this consumer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: All of us deserve the right to be protected against fraudulent or misleading advertisements and labels.

ARABLOUEI: There was a growing call for consumers to take up that charge themselves, and Nader was at the front of the line.

SABIN: I think for Nader, the consumer citizen is a is an active citizen, one that is investigating, learning and engaging in political processes. And so he wanted the informed citizen.

ABDELFATAH: But that informed consumer citizen first had to be awakened. And so Nader threw up his bat signal to concerned consumers across the nation. It came in the form of a book that he started to write after graduating law school, and the book opened with the case of one car in particular.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: You are about to meet a true international beauty - Corvair.

NADER: And the Corvair was a unique design because it had its engine in the rear. Someone once said you were the bumper on the Corvair.

ABDELFATAH: (Reading) Mrs. Pierini's vehicle was traveling about 35 miles per hour in a 35-mile-per-hour zone.

These are excerpts from that book, "Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers Of The American Automobile."

(Reading) And then, all of a sudden, the vehicle made a sharp cut to the left and swerved over.

NADER: It would veer out of control and roll over and kill people.

ABDELFATAH: (Reading) He rushed over to the wreck and saw an arm with a wedding band and a wristwatch lying on the ground. Mrs. Pierini was very calm, only saying that something went wrong with my steering.

NADER: I knew it was a book that had dynamite potential.

ABDELFATAH: (Reading) The tragedy was overwhelmingly the fault of cutting corners to shave costs. This happens all the time in the automobile industry. What was there for General Motors to say?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Publicly, General Motors had nothing to say, but the allegations hit hard because GM was a titan. At the time the book was published, they were the world's largest car manufacturer, responsible for nearly half of all U.S. automotive sales.

ARABLOUEI: Years later, a government study found that the Corvair wasn't any more dangerous than other similar cars. Nader disputed the study, but by that time there was no turning back the movement Nader had started. In response to the criticism, GM created a position for a coordinator of auto safety. But Nader's book wasn't just about exposing a problem with the Corvair or even with General Motors. It was about revealing failures across the entire auto industry.

ABDELFATAH: It didn't take long for "Unsafe At Any Speed" to start drawing the attention of important people in the Capitol, including a young woman who would be instrumental in turning Ralph's words into action.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: My name is Joan Claybrook, C-L-A-Y-B-R-O-O-K.

ABDELFATAH: At the time, Joan was in Washington, D.C., on a fellowship, working with James A. MacKay, a U.S. representative from Georgia.

CLAYBROOK: He said he wanted me to work on auto safety, which totally dumbfounded me because I didn't know anything about it at all. He gave me Ralph Nader's book "Unsafe At Any Speed," which had just come out a month before.

ABDELFATAH: The book hit home for Joan.

CLAYBROOK: My boss had a Corvair, and she had a car crash shortly after I got to Washington. She was very badly injured.

ABDELFATAH: Joan knew that Nader's allegations against the auto industry were monumental, and Representative MacKay tasked her with tracking down Nader and getting him into the office for a discussion.

CLAYBROOK: That was easier said than done because no one knew where he lived.

ABDELFATAH: All she had to go off of was a phone number.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIALING ROTARY PHONE)

CLAYBROOK: And I called him, you know, like, 20 times in the next week - never answered the phone. And finally, in total anger, one evening at midnight I called him, and he answered the phone.

NADER: Ralph Nader.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: She convinces him to visit Representative MacKay's office. When he walks in, he's a towering presence.

CLAYBROOK: He's 6 feet 4, and lanky.

ABDELFATAH: But when he sits down...

CLAYBROOK: He kind of goes into this mode where you think he's not so tall. He's very shy. Unless you ask him something, he's not going to interrupt you or start the conversation. And, Mr. MacKay was a very talkative Southerner, and so he talked for about 45 minutes.

ABDELFATAH: Just a straight monologue.

CLAYBROOK: And then he looked at his watch and he said, oh, my goodness, I have to go to a meeting in 15 minutes. Mr. Nader, what should we do?

ABDELFATAH: And so Nader said his piece - write a bill with teeth that wrangles this Wild West auto industry and saves lives in the process.

CLAYBROOK: And so then he left, and I suddenly realized I only had the rooming house phone number. So I ran down the hall and I said, Mr. Nader, is there a better phone number to reach you? And he said, no. So I knew I was going to be calling him at midnight a lot (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: And with that, their work together really began.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: And so did the pushback.

CLAYBROOK: General Motors decided this was a great threat.

NADER: They had been unleashing private detectives month after month, following me everywhere.

ABDELFATAH: Nader suspected they were wiretapping his phone. He says he'd get strange calls in the middle of the night, threatening and harassing him.

NADER: They used ex-FBI agents often for their so-called investigation of critics. They tried to seduce me with young ladies.

CLAYBROOK: They followed him into the Safeway.

NADER: I would be shopping.

CLAYBROOK: And he was there at the cookie counter. And he loved sweets. And this woman approached him and said would he like to come up to her apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NADER: Another time, a young lady came up, and she said, you look like a studious fellow. We're forming a study group to study foreign affairs. How would you like to join us?

CLAYBROOK: And he said, no thank you.

ABDELFATAH: A private detective who investigated Nader later denied making any attempt to put him in a compromising position with these women, but he did admit to surveilling Nader and trying to dig up dirt on his private life.

CLAYBROOK: There were just, you know, endless attempts to kind of document that he was a, you know, a bad person or he was taking money from somebody to do this.

ARABLOUEI: The press got wind of the story, along with Congress.

CLAYBROOK: And so Senator Ribicoff decided to have a public hearing.

NADER: And I was invited to testify.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NADER: I don't want to have a climate in this country where one has to have an ascetic existence and steely determination in order to speak truthfully and candidly and critically of American industry.

CLAYBROOK: And he commanded the president of General Motors, whose name was Roche. I love the name Roche. He asked Mr. Roche - told Mr. Roche to come and testify.

ARABLOUEI: Roche got up and said that when he first heard of the allegations against GM, he was shocked. He immediately ordered a statement to be released denying GM's involvement. But he discovered, quote, "to my dismay, we were indeed involved."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABRAHAM RIBICOFF: Let us assume that you found something wrong with his sex life. What would that have to do with whether or not he was right or wrong on the Corvair?

JAMES ROCHE: Nothing.

ARABLOUEI: Senator Ribicoff declared in front of the Senate committee that Ralph Nader was squeaky clean. He said, quote, "they put you through the mill, and they haven't found a damn thing out against you."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RIBICOFF: I want to apologize here and now to the members of this subcommittee and Mr. Nader.

ARABLOUEI: This public apology couldn't have been a better press moment for Nader's crusade. Try to imagine how monumental this would have been. It would be like if Elon Musk apologized for harassing a critic of Tesla. It would be front-page news, and it was. People were outraged that a major American corporation would attempt to intimidate a whistleblower. GM's plan to discredit Nader had backfired.

CLAYBROOK: Ralph became suddenly this national figure. Unlike a lot of people who would just be happy to sell some more books, Ralph wanted this law passed, so he then lobbied.

NADER: And that's what I did every day in Washington, D.C.

CLAYBROOK: It was hard for him to lobby because he is shy. He had to push himself to go do that.

ARABLOUEI: But he kept at it. And Joan Claybrook and Representative MacKay introduced their bill. And within a few short months, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act passed into law.

NADER: Just think of how fast Congress acted compared to the sluggish, indentured corporate gridlock of today. Within six months, from March 1966, and in September, I was invited to the signing ceremony at the White House, among others, where he handed out the signature pens - six months.

ARABLOUEI: Ralph Nader had won his first victory on behalf of the American consumer, and he was just getting started.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: That's coming up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JUSTIN MISCH: This is Justin Misch (ph) from Indianapolis, Ind., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: Hey. It's Rund. For our THROUGHLINE+ episode for this week, we're taking you behind the scenes of our recent episode on the U.S. labor movement and letting you hear about a story that we actually had to cut from the episode. As always, these bonus episodes are just for our THROUGHLINE+ supporters, who make a huge difference by supporting our work. You can learn more about THROUGHLINE+ by heading to plus.npr.org/throughline. And thanks to everyone who has already signed up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Part 2 - Raider Nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

MIKE DOUGLAS: He's an attorney. He's from the nation's capital. And recently, he's been called the man who makes waves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: What indeed makes Ralph Nader run?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DICK CAVETT SHOW")

DICK CAVETT: The incomparable Mr. Ralph Nader.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Ralph Nader.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Ralph Nader.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Ralph Nader.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Ralph Nader.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: Ralph Nader.

NADER: I became very famous.

ABDELFATAH: For years after Nader's very public victory against the auto industry, he seemed to be everywhere.

NADER: I was on the cover of Time and Newsweek when that meant something.

ABDELFATAH: Newsweek depicted him like a knight in shining armor - the consumer crusader.

SABIN: He's seen as this honest, good guy who is representing the people.

ABDELFATAH: He's on "Saturday Night Live" as a parody of himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

NADER: (As self) What's this - a hot dog you're eating?

GARRETT MORRIS: (As character) Mm-hmm.

NADER: (As self) A hot dog?

MORRIS: (As character) Mm-hmm.

NADER: (As self) Do you enjoy eating rat excrement and rodent hairs?

(LAUGHTER)

ABDELFATAH: And he's on all the popular interview shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DICK CAVETT SHOW")

NADER: So you sue it, and you hit it for all it's worth, but it isn't worth anything.

SANDY DUNCAN: Mr. Nader, I want you to work on this.

(LAUGHTER)

ABDELFATAH: Including one that was briefly co-hosted by the countercultural icons of the era.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

DOUGLAS: Welcome to "The Mike Douglas Show." This is John Lennon.

YOKO ONO: And Yoko Ono. We're Mike's co-hosts this week.

ABDELFATAH: Who asked him to weigh in on the power of voting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

NADER: Democracy means, in a word, self-government. And any time we delegate our responsibilities, it's for convenience - to government agencies and other institutions. And I think - I don't think we can afford that convenience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: If people didn't know Ralph Nader's name before, by the 1970s, Nader was a household name.

NADER: And my parents said to me in their own folksy way - said, well, Ralph, now you're very famous. So let's see how you endure it.

ABDELFATAH: For Nader, his fame served one purpose and one purpose only - to continue demanding more protections for consumers.

CLAYBROOK: He just called all the time. I mean, he'd love to use the telephone. So he was checking with me all the time. What's going on? Who's doing this? What's happening?

ABDELFATAH: This is Joan Claybrook again. She stayed in touch with Ralph and continued working on car safety issues.

CLAYBROOK: I was his inside voice, you know, and so I would tell him what was going on. So that's how he kept up with the auto safety stuff, because now he was on to other tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: All around him, Nader could see how people were being sold shoddy goods.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER #6: The safety of additives in some baby foods was questioned today by Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate.

ARABLOUEI: And expected to live and work in unsafe conditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NADER: Even if we stop all mercury dumping into the water and onto the land, the existing amount of mercury will stay with us for up to a hundred years.

ARABLOUEI: So Nader used his newly found fame to bring these issues to the forefront and galvanize people into taking action as consumers - and form a movement.

NADER: I didn't want to be a lone ranger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Stop, look and see what was happening...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Slow down. Slow down.

NADER: So where do I go for help? Well, law students.

ARABLOUEI: It started off small, with Nader calling law students, including from his alma mater, Harvard, in search of people eager to make change.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As law student) Hey. Ralph Nader's on the phone.

ARABLOUEI: It worked. These students knew who he was, and they wanted in.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: (As Mark Green) I couldn't have been more excited if he'd said it was the Queen of England.

ARABLOUEI: Nader had plenty of work for them. And thanks to his settlement with GM, he had money to fund it.

NADER: It was a perfect opportunity to get some student interns during the summer, put them on projects investigating the Food and Drug Administration, the Interstate Commerce Commission and on. And they would have press conferences, and it would get great press coverage. And that would get the attention, again, of members of Congress, and you have that virtuous circle.

ARABLOUEI: These young, idealistic lawyers and students came to be called Nader's Raiders.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYBOARD CLACKING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #3: Come spring, Nader's Raiders will be swooping down. For now, they're lying back in the shadows of Ivy League universities, gathering ammo.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #4: Funds are low. Hours are long, and only intense dedication, determination and idealism keeps Nader's Raiders going.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #5: (As character) Can you get me that other box?

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

CLAYBROOK: It was hot. I mean, Ralph would call each one of these staff people every other day, and then he would ask them to write memos on what they'd found, and he would sort of guide them onto what to investigate.

ARABLOUEI: Joan Claybrook, looking to get out of government work for a while, believed in Nader and joined.

CLAYBROOK: Oh, definitely. I was one of the Raiders. These government agencies weren't doing their job, and we wanted them to do their job. They had authority to do things and weren't paying any attention to it, which was the case in many cases. We were there to badger them and to push them.

ARABLOUEI: They started with the Federal Trade Commission.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: The commission does not view American industry as a wild horse at all, but rather as a docile beast who now and then needs a mild whoa.

ARABLOUEI: Then they went after the Food and Drug Administration.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: The FDA has so minimized the dangers from food additives that it has effectively destroyed the letter and spirit of the Food Additives Amendment.

ARABLOUEI: And kept going all the way to the halls of Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Nader and his citizen army of over 1,000 are out to awaken the country to Congress' crying need for reform.

SABIN: He publishes what's effectively a consumer guide to Congress, and this was a broadening of his definition of consumer.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: The responsibility for good government does not rest with our politicians, according to Ralph Nader. It rests with each private citizen.

ARABLOUEI: The driving force of the consumer movement was a reinvigorated view of democracy, where everyone was a consumer and everyone participated. People really responded to this message. Across the country, local consumer groups popped up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: Today, the buying public has awakened and increasingly demands more information about the American marketplace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: It wasn't long before Congress began to respond to Ralph Nader and the public's demands for change.

NADER: We got lead out of gasoline and paint.

ARABLOUEI: They got what now might seem like common sense protections passed.

SABIN: These are things that include, you know, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. But it's also things like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration getting created.

ARABLOUEI: OSHA, the Clean Air Act, laws that have made American life healthier and safer. And it wasn't just environmental protections. Nader also fought to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act to increase the public's access to federal data and records.

NADER: It's a law for the people.

ABDELFATAH: The winds were stacking up for Nader and the consumer movement throughout the 1970s, but not everyone was on board with this growing consumer movement and Ralph Nader's vision of an energized consumer citizen.

SABIN: I think you see an immediate backlash to him from, you know, corporate interests.

ABDELFATAH: Business leaders and, of course, the car industry had long been wary of Nader.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: I have some very serious reservations about some of his positions and some of the levels of expertise that he professes to have.

ABDELFATAH: But as the power of the consumer movement grew, a conservative political backlash started to take shape, spearheaded by a soon-to-be U.S. Supreme Court justice named Lewis Powell.

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SABIN: There's a very famous memo that gets written by Lewis Powell, the Powell memo. Lewis Powell, who becomes a justice. But at the time, he is working with the Chamber of Commerce, and he publishes this sort of confidential memo at the time, which later gets leaked, in which he is warning of these threats on the horizon. And Nader is very prominent in that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: Perhaps the single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader, who, thanks largely to the media, has become a legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans.

SABIN: The Powell memo is really a calling to action to conservatives and to business that they need to develop an ideological counterbalance to this new public interest and citizen movement.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: Business must learn the lesson long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary, that such power must be assiduously cultivated, and that, when necessary, it must be used aggressively.

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ABDELFATAH: Coming up, big business strikes back.

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BAILEY: Hi, I'm Bailey (ph). I'm calling from Austin, Texas, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: Part 3 - We the Consumer.

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ABDELFATAH: It's the summer of 1976. The country is celebrating the nation's bicentennial anniversary, and the mood is especially festive in Plains, Ga.

SABIN: Carter and his brother, they're all playing softball.

ABDELFATAH: Where Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, a self-proclaimed consumer advocate, is playing a game of softball with family, Secret Service agents and...

SABIN: Nader is appointed to be the umpire.

ABDELFATAH: Ralph Nader.

SABIN: And Nader's behind the base, you know, in a suit, in a tie - jacket and tie. He's a lifelong Yankees fan, you know, calling balls and strikes and things like that.

ABDELFATAH: Nader had traveled down to Georgia to outline what he thought needed to be done to further consumer rights. Number one on that list - create a consumer protection agency.

SABIN: Carter is cultivating Nader, as a candidate would, to try to, you know, win over his constituency. And Carter, you know, declares that he wants to be the great representative of the consumer. And he's going to sweep - you know, sweep the halls of, you know, Washington, D.C., clean. And Nader, you know, supports him and is very excited.

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ABDELFATAH: So back to the ball game.

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UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #6: Play ball.

ABDELFATAH: Carter doesn't always agree with Nader's calls. It's a spirited game. And in many ways, it's a symbolic one, too.

SABIN: Is Nader going to be an umpire, or is he going to be a player? You know, so he's going to join the administration, or is he going to stay on the outside watching over the administration and judging it?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. Not subtle.

SABIN: And this is, you know, was a real question.

ARABLOUEI: A few months after their softball game in Georgia, Jimmy Carter wins the presidential election. At the election celebration, he promised to be a president for the people.

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JIMMY CARTER: If we can just have a government - as I've said a thousand times - as good as our people are, that's all we can hope for, and that's all we can expect. And that's enough. We're going to have a great government, a great nation, and it's because of you, not me.

ARABLOUEI: And it looked like a real win for the consumer rights movement. Many former Nader's Raiders actually joined Carter's administration, but not Nader.

SABIN: He would have easily had a high-level appointment in the Carter administration. He decides he's going to be an umpire. He believes in the permanence of this whole sector that he's been involved in creating, and they need to stay outside the government, and they need to watch over the agencies and hold even their allies accountable.

ARABLOUEI: Former allies like Joan Claybrook, who he publicly accused of going too easy on the car industry's rollout of airbags.

CLAYBROOK: He blasted me for having betrayed my own personal standards. And so I didn't talk to Ralph for quite some time after that.

ARABLOUEI: Nader wasn't going to hold back against friends or foes. He was still fighting for the consumer, and his No. 1 goal was to finally get the Consumer Protection Agency he'd been fighting for, for years, created.

NADER: This little agency that could take other regulatory agencies to court and make them change their behavior, make them go from inaction to action, or make them strengthen weak standards into stronger standards. And it would be the voice and the muscle of the consumer movement.

ARABLOUEI: The bill to create it had come close several times but never quite made it through. The hope was that Carter would be able to push it through.

NADER: But unfortunately, the crown jewel of the consumer movement never made it into law.

ARABLOUEI: In 1978, the effort to create the Consumer Protection Agency came to a grinding end.

NADER: Looking back on it, that was the high-water mark.

SABIN: The failure of the Consumer Protection Agency, you know, that is his life's work. And it fails, and it's a sign that he's no longer on the ascendance, and you're starting to move to a more defensive positioning to try to protect the gains.

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PAUL MOYER: People who want to work but can't find jobs are part of today's other bad economic news.

ABDELFATAH: By the late '70s, early '80s, the political climate was beginning to change as high inflation, unemployment and gas shortages rattled the country.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: Isn't this disgusting? Why doesn't anybody contact the president? Why is he letting this happen to us?

SABIN: So you have inflation and issues about employment. And, you know, these things start to get blamed on environmental regulation and safety. Like, if only we would get rid of these regulations, you know, things would be cheaper; the economy would be doing better.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: Basically, it boils down to the country is going to the pits.

ABDELFATAH: But it was too late. Carter had lost the trust of the people, and Nader's call for more regulations wasn't resonating anymore. In their stead was a new voice.

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RONALD REAGAN: Many Americans today, just as they did 200 years ago, feel burdened, stifled and sometimes even oppressed by government that has grown too large, too bureaucratic, too wasteful, too unresponsive, too uncaring about people and their problems.

SABIN: You start to see the emergence of ideas that would be held more, that would be articulated by the Reagan Republicans in the early '80s. But, you know, this includes attack on sort of socialistic nanny state, you know, government interventions, out-of-control, you know, government agencies, out-of-control public interest.

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REAGAN: Americans who have always known that excessive bureaucracy is the enemy of excellence and compassion want a change in public life.

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ABDELFATAH: In 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president, he immediately started to roll back many of the regulatory protections that Nader and the consumer movement had fought for, including gutting the EPA's budget and refocusing OSHA to benefit small businesses rather than workers.

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REAGAN: I've put a freeze on pending regulations and set up a task force under Vice President Bush to review regulations, with an eye toward getting rid of as many as possible.

ABDELFATAH: The heyday of the consumer movement was over.

ARABLOUEI: But Ralph Nader wasn't gone from the public eye. Throughout the '80s and '90s, he won some key fights for consumers, like finally making airbags a federal requirement, and rolling back steep car insurance rates in California.

ABDELFATAH: And in 2000, he tried to take on an even more public role.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: Ralph Nader campaigning in Madison today, despite mounting criticism that he might cost Al Gore the election. His top priority is creating a viable third party for the future.

ARABLOUEI: Today, Nader is mostly known for his run for president in the year 2000, which many Democrats say cost Al Gore the election against George W. Bush. From Raiders to Jimmy Carter, many of Nader's longstanding allies turned on him.

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CARTER: Ralph, go back to examining the rear end of automobiles and don't risk costing the Democrats the White House this year as you did four years ago.

ARABLOUEI: People were angry.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq War. Thank you, Ralph, for the tax cuts. Thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the environment. Thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the Constitution.

ABDELFATAH: Once hailed as a knight in shining armor, Nader was no longer the heroic consumer crusader - far from it. He was now the country's nag, the irresponsible spoiler.

ARABLOUEI: And even now, more than 20 years later, Ralph Nader's presidential ambitions still continue to eclipse his past work as a consumer advocate for many people. So when we interviewed him for this episode, we had to ask him about it.

You ran for president in 2000. You got a lot of criticism for, quote-unquote, and I'm putting air quotes here, "ruining the election" - right? - for the Democrats, et cetera. Since that time, we've seen similar attacks to other third-party candidates or people who are running outside of the Republican and Democratic system. Do you feel like the results of the elections we've seen ever since, where we are today, validates your run, or further gives weight to the people who criticized you?

NADER: Scapegoating by the two parties is a form of political bigotry that says to reform-minded third-party candidates, no, we're not going to let you appeal to the voters. We want the voters. The two parties have got to earn their votes. They don't own the votes. They have to earn them.

ABDELFATAH: Whatever you think of his decision to run for president, that belief that politicians, like corporations, should be accountable to us, the citizens, it's a big part of Nader's legacy.

CLAYBROOK: He made it acceptable to criticize big companies.

ABDELFATAH: Again, Nader's longtime friend and onetime enemy, Joan Claybrook.

CLAYBROOK: I think it's imbued politics in that way that people absolutely do see themselves as consumers.

ABDELFATAH: And with or without him, we're still living in a world that calls for this kind of consumer advocacy.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: Consumer Reports is pushing for a recall of two bassinets. They say the bassinet may tilt, causing the infant to roll over and possibly suffocate.

ARABLOUEI: Product recalls reached a seven-year high in the U.S. in 2023.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: Health officials say there's a possibility of salmonella contaminations.

ARABLOUEI: Almost 50% of the U.S.'s tap water could contain forever chemicals, which have been linked to certain cancers and decreased fertility.

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SHELLEY MEGQUIER: With PFAs, if you look for it, you will find it.

ARABLOUEI: So as we head into an election year, it's worth revisiting the question that Ralph Nader and the consumer movement posed for all of us - what kind of government do we want and what role do we play in it?

NADER: Anybody who thinks that our democracy has not deteriorated in so many ways over the last 50 years ought to study how things got through Congress and state legislators in the 1960s, 1970. It was because a fraction of the citizenry decided to be active, decided to organize communities, decided to buttonhole their members of Congress, decided to march, to demonstrate, to file lawsuits, to lobby, to get the Environmental Protection Agency created, the Occupational Safety Health Administration created, to get the critical air and water pollution laws through, the Drinking Water Safety Law. This was done by less than 1% of the public.

ARABLOUEI: How much of it do you think has to do with the zeitgeist, the culture at that time in the 1960s and '70s, where there was a kind of - what we would call now a kind of punk rock anti-establishment, we're tired of tradition, we're trying to push through and create a new world culture, 'cause to me, it feels like I - I didn't grow up as a millennial. I didn't grow up with that similar kind of broader culture. There's a lot more cynicism now towards what's - toward what is capable of being done, how much change can actually be made. How much of it had to do with the culture of that time?

NADER: You just mentioned the word cynicism, didn't you? That's a cop-out. That's an indulgence. That's an indulgence of quitters that makes them feel good. Because when you're cynical, you're obviously smart, aren't you? You think you're smart. No, you're not smart. You're playing into the hands of the corporate supremacists. You're playing into the hands of the few who want to control the many who could easily outvote the few and make the corporations our servants, not our masters.

ARABLOUEI: Paul Sabin says Nader's legacy is complicated, and not just because of his political ambitions.

SABIN: There's a little bit of lack of accountability about the ways in which the public interest movement itself might be flawed and limited.

ARABLOUEI: By becoming the nation's critic, he also helped to sow a mistrust in the government that Reagan seized on, and which we live with today.

SABIN: People are looking to the government to try to do big things, and there's a question of like, why can't we do these big things?

ABDELFATAH: Trust in the government is near record lows. A recent Pew study found that only 15% of Americans believe in Washington to do the right thing most of the time.

ARABLOUEI: So where do we go from here?

ABDELFATAH: To this day, at 90 years old, Ralph Nader still believes that the answer to a democracy that works lies in us, the consumer citizens of America.

NADER: Nothing can suppress the impact of organized citizenry. Year after year, the young generation forgets on how there was a time when Congress worked for us to some degree. There was a time when citizen action was worthwhile and produced results. So as we get - a younger generation doesn't have the historical context. The preamble of the Constitution starts with we, the people. It doesn't start with we, the corporation. It doesn't start with we, the Congress. It starts with we, the people.

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ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me, and...

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

ANYA STEINBERG, BYLINE: Anya Steinberg.

CASEY MINER, BYLINE: Casey Miner.

CRISTINA KIM, BYLINE: Cristina Kim.

DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: Devin Katayama.

PETER BALONON-ROSEN, BYLINE: Peter Balonon-Rosen.

IRENE NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Irene Noguchi.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl. The episode was mixed by Josh Newell.

ABDELFATAH: We reached out to General Motors for comment on this episode, but did not receive a response.

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ABDELFATAH: Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you to Brandon Ong-Sy, Phil Harrell, Dan Girma, Adrian Martinez, Devin Katayama, Cristina Kim, Anya Steinberg, Peter Balonon-Rosen and Lawrence Wu for their voiceover work.

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ABDELFATAH: Special thanks also to the producers of the upcoming documentary "Daytime Revolution," Global Image Works and Steve Skrovan for providing us with archival footage of Ralph Nader, as well as Yoshikazu Fujimoto of KODO, Sarah Gilbert, and the North American Taiko Taikai.

ARABLOUEI: And as always, thank you to Johannes Doerge, Edith Chapin, and Collin Campbell.

ABDELFATAH: And finally, if you have an idea or liked something you heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.

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