HOW THE CORPORATIONS BROKE
RALPH NADER AND AMERICA, TOO
by Chris Hedges
Ralph Nader’s descent from being one of the most respected and powerful men in the country to being a pariah illustrates the totality of the corporate coup. Nader’s marginalization was not accidental. It was orchestrated to thwart the legislation that Nader and his allies—who once consisted of many in the Democratic Party—enacted to prevent corporate abuse, fraud and control. He was targeted to be destroyed. And by the time he was shut out of the political process with the election of Ronald Reagan, the government was in the hands of corporations. Nader’s fate mirrors our own.
“The press discovered citizen investigators around the mid-1960s,” Nader told me when we spoke a few days ago. “I was one of them. I would go down with the press releases, the findings, the story suggestions and the internal documents and give it to a variety of reporters. I would go to Congress and generate hearings. Oftentimes I would be the lead witness. What was interesting was the novelty; the press gravitates to novelty. They achieved great things. There was collaboration. We provided the newsworthy material. They covered it. The legislation passed. Regulations were issued. Lives were saved. Other civic movements began to flower.”
Nader was singled out for destruction, as Henriette Mantel and Stephen Skrovan point out in their engaging documentary movie on Nader, “An Unreasonable Man.” General Motors had him followed in an attempt to blackmail him. It sent an attractive woman to his neighborhood Safeway supermarket in a bid to meet him while he was shopping and then seduce him; the attempt failed, and GM, when exposed, had to issue a public apology.
But far from ending their effort to destroy Nader, corporations unleashed a much more sophisticated and well-funded attack. In 1971, the corporate lawyer and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote an eight-page memo, titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” in which he named Nader as the chief nemesis of corporations. It became the blueprint for corporate resurgence. Powell’s memo led to the establishment of the Business Roundtable, which amassed enough money and power to direct government policy and mold public opinion. The Powell memo outlined ways corporations could shut out those who, in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals,” were hostile to corporate interests. Powell called for the establishment of lavishly funded think tanks and conservative institutes to churn out ideological tracts that attacked government regulation and environmental protection. His memo led to the successful effort to place corporate-friendly academics and economists in universities and on the airwaves, as well as drive out those in the public sphere who questioned the rise of unchecked corporate power and deregulation. It saw the establishment of organizations to monitor and pressure the media to report favorably on issues that furthered corporate interests. And it led to the building of legal organizations to promote corporate interests in the courts and appointment of sympathetic judges to the bench.
“It was off to the races,” Nader said. “You could hardly keep count of the number of right-wing corporate-funded think tanks. These think tanks specialized, especially against the tort system. We struggled through the Nixon and early Ford years, when inflation was a big issue. Nixon did things that horrified conservatives. He signed into law OSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency and air and water pollution acts because he was afraid of the people from the rumble that came out of the 1960s. He was the last Republican president to be afraid of liberals.”
The corporations carefully studied and emulated the tactics of the consumer advocate they wanted to destroy. “Ralph Nader came along and did serious journalism; that is what his early stuff was, such as ‘Unsafe at Any Speed,’ ” the investigative journalist David Cay Johnston told me. “The big books they [Nader and associates] put out were serious, first-rate journalism. Corporate America was terrified by this. They went to school on Nader. They said, ‘We see how you do this.’ You gather material, you get people who are articulate, you hone how you present this and the corporations copy-catted him with one big difference—they had no regard for the truth. Nader may have had a consumer ideology, but he was not trying to sell you a product. He is trying to tell the truth as best as he can determine it. It does not mean it is the truth. It means it is the truth as best as he and his people can determine the truth. And he told you where he was coming from.”
The Congress, between 1966 and 1973, passed 25 pieces of consumer legislation, nearly all of which Nader had a hand in authoring. The auto and highway safety laws, the meat and poultry inspection laws, the oil pipeline safety laws, the product safety laws, the update on flammable fabric laws, the air pollution control act, the water pollution control act, the EPA, OSHA and the Environmental Council in the White House transformed the political landscape. Nader by 1973 was named the fourth most influential person in the country after Richard Nixon, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and the labor leader George Meany.
“Then something very interesting happened,” Nader said. “The pressure of these meetings by the corporations like General Motors, the oil companies and the drug companies with the editorial people, and probably with the publishers, coincided with the emergence of the most destructive force to the citizen movement—Abe Rosenthal, the editor of The New York Times. Rosenthal was a right-winger from Canada who hated communism, came here and hated progressivism. The Times was not doing that well at the time. Rosenthal was commissioned to expand his suburban sections, which required a lot of advertising. He was very receptive to the entreaties of corporations, and he did not like me. I would give material to Jack Morris in the Washington bureau and it would not get in the paper.”
Rosenthal, who banned social critics such as Noam Chomsky from being quoted in the paper and met frequently for lunch with conservative icon William F. Buckley, demanded that no story built around Nader’s research could be published unless there was a corporate response. Corporations, informed of Rosenthal’s dictate, refused to comment on Nader’s research. This tactic meant the stories were never published. The authority of the Times set the agenda for national news coverage. Once Nader disappeared from the Times, other major papers and the networks did not feel compelled to report on his investigations. It was harder and harder to be heard.
“There was, before we were silenced, a brief, golden age of journalism,” Nader lamented. “We worked with the press to expose corporate abuse on behalf of the public. We saved lives. This is what journalism should be about; it should be about making the world a better and safer place for our families and our children, but then it ended and we were shut out.”
“We were thrown on the defensive, and once we were on the defensive it was difficult to recover,” Nader said. “The break came in 1979 when they deregulated natural gas. Our last national stand was for the Consumer Protection Agency. We put everything we had on that. We would pass it during the 1970s in the House on one year, then the Senate during the next session, then the House later on. It ping-ponged. Each time we would lose ground. We lost it because Carter, although he campaigned on it, did not lift a finger compared to what he did to deregulate natural gas. We lost it by 20 votes in the House, although we had a two-thirds majority in the Senate waiting for it. That was the real beginning of the decline. Then Reagan was elected. We tried to be the watchdog. We put out investigative reports. They would not be covered.”
“The press in the 1980s would say ‘why should we cover you?’ ” Nader went on. “ ‘Who is your base in Congress?’ I used to be known as someone who could trigger a congressional hearing pretty fast in the House and Senate. They started looking towards the neoliberals and neocons and the deregulation mania. We put out two reports on the benefits of regulation and they too disappeared. They did not get covered at all. This was about the same the time that [former U.S. Rep.] Tony Coelho taught the Democrats, starting in 1979 when he was head of the House Campaign Finance Committee, to start raising big-time money from corporate interests. And they did. It had a magical influence. It is the best example I have of the impact of money. The more money they raised the less interested they were in any of these popular issues. They made more money when they screwed up the tax system. There were a few little gains here and there; we got the Freedom of Information law through in 1974. And even in the 1980s we would get some things done, GSA, buying air bag-equipped cars, the drive for standardized air bags. We would defeat some things here and there, block a tax loophole and defeat a deregulatory move. We were successful in staunching some of the deregulatory efforts.”
Nader, locked out of the legislative process, decided to send a message to the Democrats. He went to New Hampshire and Massachusetts during the 1992 primaries and ran as “none of the above.” In 1996 he allowed the Green Party to put his name on the ballot before running hard in 2000 in an effort that spooked the Democratic Party. The Democrats, fearful of his grass-roots campaign, blamed him for the election of George W. Bush, an absurdity that found fertile ground among those who had abandoned rational inquiry for the thought-terminating clichés of television.
Nader’s status as a pariah corresponded with an unchecked assault by corporations on the working class. The long-term unemployment rate, which in reality is close to 20 percent, the millions of foreclosures, the crippling personal debts that plague households, the personal bankruptcies, Wall Street’s looting of the U.S. Treasury, the evaporation of savings and retirement accounts and the crumbling of the country’s vital infrastructure are taking place as billions in taxpayer subsidies, obscene profits, bonuses and compensation are enjoyed by the corporate overlords. We will soon be forced to buy the defective products of the government-subsidized drug and health insurance companies, which will remain free to raise co-payments and premiums, especially if policyholders get seriously ill. The oil, gas, coal and nuclear power companies have made a mockery of Barack Obama’s promises to promote clean, renewal energy. And we are rapidly becoming a third-world country, cannibalized by corporations, with two-thirds of the population facing financial difficulty and poverty.
The system is broken. And the consumer advocate who represented the best of our democracy was broken with it. As Nader pointed out after he published “Unsafe at Any Speed” in 1965, it took nine months to federally regulate the auto industry for safety and fuel efficiency. Two years after the collapse of Bear Stearns there is still no financial reform. The large hedge funds and banks are using billions in taxpayer subsidies to once again engage in the speculative games that triggered the first financial crisis and will almost certainly trigger a second. The corporate press, which abets our vast historical amnesia, does nothing to remind us how we got here. It speaks in the hollow and empty slogans handed to it by public relations firms, its corporate paymasters and the sound-bite society.
“If you organize 1 percent of the people in this country along progressive lines you can turn the country around, as long as you give them infrastructure,” Nader said. “They represent a large percentage of the population. Take all the conservatives who work in Wal-Mart: How many would be against a living wage? Take all the conservatives who have pre-existing conditions: How many would be for single-payer not-for-profit health insurance? When you get down to the concrete, when you have an active movement that is visible and media-savvy, when you have a community, a lot of people will join. And lots more will support it. The problem is that most liberals are estranged from the working class. They largely have the good jobs. They are not hurting.”
“The real tragedy is that citizens’ movements should not have to rely on the commercial media, and public television and radio are disgraceful—if anything they are worse,” Nader said. “In 30-some years [Bill] Moyers has had me on [only] twice. We can’t rely on the public media. We do what we can with Amy [Goodman] on “Democracy Now!” and Pacifica stations. When I go to local areas I get very good press, TV and newspapers, but that doesn’t have the impact, even locally. The national press has enormous impact on the issues. It is not pleasant having to say this. You don’t want to telegraph that you have been blacked out, but on the other hand you can’t keep it quiet. The right wing has won through intimidation.”
Chris Hedges is a graduate of Colgate University and Harvard Divinity School. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of The New York Times (where he shared a Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism for coverage of terrorism) and has also reported on current events in Latin America, Europe, and Africa. In 2002 he was the recipient of an Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism and in 2009 the Los Angeles Press Club named him the Online Journalist of the Year. He is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute and the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University. Hedges is the author of nine books including War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2003) which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
This piece was first published in Truthdig on April 5, 2010.