As the nation’s leading advocate and protector of consumer interests, Ralph Nader has bent the ear of many U.S. Presidents, including then-Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter (left), whose home he visited in August 1976.
In 1965, Nader published the bestselling book Unsafe at Any Speed, which criticized the safety measures of car manufacturers. Its publication led to the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, which established federal safety standards for American-made vehicles, including seatbelts. After the book’s release, General Motors (GM) hired private detectives to investigate and discredit him as a congressional witness. Nader sued GM, and the company reportedly settled out of court for $425,000.
President Lyndon Johnson greets Ralph Nader at a bill-signing ceremony in 1966. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nader and his “Nader’s Raiders” reported on numerous consumer safety issues and were subsequently credited with spurring passage of reform laws, including the Wholesome Meat Act (1967), Natural Gas Pipeline Safety Act (1968), Occupational Safety (1970), and the Health Act and the Clean Air Act (1970).
Nader appeared on The Dick Cavett Show on Sept. 9, 1969, to discuss a critique by the Nader’s Raiders of the Federal Trade Commission, which detailed systemic problems including a lack of diversity, favoritism, withholding reports from the public, and unwillingness to go after big advertising offenders. Nader’s report, followed by a similar one from the American Bar Association, prompted President Nixon to call for widespread changes at the commission.
In 1972, after being bumped from a flight, Nader sued Allegheny Airlines (later US Airways), alleging fraud for failure to disclose its overbooking policy. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, and although the original $25,000 award Nader won was significantly reduced, the court decided in his favor. After the case, airlines were forced to change their booking methods and implement what is now known as the auction policy. During these auctions, customers who have been bumped are offered later flights in exchange for consolation prizes, such as credit for a round trip.
Along with other consumer advocates, Nader played a lead role in pushing for the passage of California’s Proposition 103 in 1988. The proposition sought to reform the state’s health insurance industry by reducing insurance rates and requiring that insurers obtain approval from the Department of Insurance before changing their rates. Under the law, insurance companies must justify any changes in rates to the insurance commissioner, and consumers are allowed to challenge any possible rate increases. The law also made the California Insurance Commissioner an elected position and broadened the office of the Department of Insurance oversight to include insurance for property, life, and automobiles.
Nader was nominated four times as a third-party candidate for the U.S. presidency: twice for the Green Party in 1996 and 2000, and twice for the Independent Party in 2004 and 2008. Many Democrats still believe his candidacy in 2000 cost Al Gore crucial votes in both New Hampshire and Florida, states that would have given Gore the election had he won them.