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How the Corporations Broke Ralph Nader and America, Too
Posted on Apr 5, 2010
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.”
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