Tom Robbins’ best selling 1980 novel, Still Life with Woodpecker, features a princess, and that princess is in love with Ralph Nader. She pins posters of him to her bedroom wall and fantasises about “driving off together into the Haleakala sunset with their seatbelts fastened”.
Robbins’ novel is obsessed with the “last quarter of the 20th century” and Nader is, in the eyes of the Princess at least, the posterboy for that heyday of post-modernity. A firebrand activist, environmentalist and consumer rights advocate, Nader, now aged 89, built a reputation as that rare American politician: someone who could get things done.
Through letter writing, tireless campaigning and sheer bloody-mindedness, he is credited with forcing through bills including the Freedom of Information Act, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Clean Water Act, Consumer Product Safety Act, and Whistleblower Protection Act.
Today, of course, he is most remembered as a perennial Presidential candidate, running in the 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 elections. More specifically, he is remembered as the man who cost Al Gore the 2000 election, his Green Party blamed for spoiling the Democrat vote, especially in Florida where Bush triumphed by just 537 votes. This earned him the distinction of being one of the few politicians to unite both sides of the American divide: Democrats and Republicans despise him equally.
This unfortunate legacy overlooks the achievements of a genuine political maverick, a man who hosted the first political ‘super rally’ when Donald Trump still worked in real estate, put slogans on buses when Boris Johnson was wearing short trousers, and mobilised students in a way that puts Jeremy Corbyn to shame.
“Ralph doesn’t use technology,” sighs a publicist in a tone that suggests he’s had this conversation many times before.
I’m supposed to be speaking to Nader via Zoom about his new book, The Rebellious CEO, but that’s proving… tricky. In the end I’m connected to his landline in Washington DC, where the combination of a poor connection, my British accent, and his hearing not being what it once was, leads to a strange, disjointed conversation, veering from fascinating insights into US politics to dense monologues about corporate lobbying, often in the same sentence.
The Rebellious CEO, one of more than two dozen books written by Nader, is a collection of essays about company heads he has met and respects, most of them now deceased. It’s made up of anecdotes and memories, as well as musings on how today’s leaders could stand to learn a thing or two.
“It’s about the way business should operate,” he says. “The strategies they should use to make a good profit… by first treating workers right and consumers right and the environment respectfully. The overall thrust of the book is to answer the question ‘How do we judge the behaviour of giant CEOs running multinationals?’ What’s the standard? If you don’t know about CEOs who did it right, you don’t have a standard of comparison.”
This is an area in which Nader has some expertise. He rose to fame off the back of his 1965 book Unsafe At Any Speed, which uncovered the “designed-in dangers of the American automobile” (a kind of heresy during that golden age of American manufacturing), exposing corporate leaders for not only selling cars with glaring safety flaws, but doing so knowingly.
Have you ever wondered why cars today look so dull compared to those louche, shapely things of the fifties and sixties? That’s because of Nader.
He was responsible for the introduction of safety features from improvements in bodywork to the mandatory inclusion of seatbelts and airbags. General Motors responded with a smear campaign, bringing in private investigators and setting honey traps. Nader sued, walking away with $425,000 in damages, at the time the highest settlement for privacy infringement in US history.
The case catapulted him from a fringe consumer rights journalist to the national face of the everyday, put-upon American. And it was a good face, his serious personality offset by his Old Hollywood looks, which, alongside his tall, gangly frame, recalled Anthony Perkins. You can see why Robbins’ princess was smitten.
The most recognisable name in The Rebellious CEO, at least to a British millennial, is Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, a company that last month changed hands for £207m.
“She’s the most spectacular of them all,” says Nader. “She was such a multivariate human being with a tremendous grasp of injustice and what needs to be done by business. She would push her employees to pick an injustice and work on it on company time.”
Has she inspired the CEOs of today?
“She paved the way but not many followed.” The problem, according to Nader, is that corporations have become too powerful and globalisation has made it virtually impossible for governments to hold them to account. And that’s if those working for the government aren’t already in the pockets of corporate interests…
Once Nader gets started on a topic like this, it’s hard to stop him. He riffs on the military-industrial complex and the pharmaceutical industry and big tech, and how they are all contributing to the “perilous” situation in which we find ourselves.
At one point he catches himself: “I’m sorry, am I over-burdening you?”
It is, I admit, a lot to take in. You sound pessimistic, I say.
“No, no, that’s not functional,” he replies. “Years ago, I studied the philosophers of pessimism like Schopenhauer and I realised that it has no function. There’s no purpose other than an indulgent vanity. So even though these are perilous times, you have to confront it with civic energy in the direction of resurgence of the human spirit and compassion, and a resurgence of democracy.”
Nader is still an activist today. He says he is tentatively backing the Democrats in the upcoming election but stresses “I’m not supporting Biden. I’m supporting the Democratic Party over the Trump Republican Party. That’s different. They always try to seduce you into an endorsement. I don’t endorse politicians. If you endorse, you lose your ability to dissent. I don’t care who picks up our agenda, whether it’s the GOP or the Democrats. The GOP will never do it, of course, but with the Democrats there’s hope.”
He seems unable to decide for whom he holds the most contempt, Trump, who he describes as “the most repulsive, ignorant, bigoted, narcissistic, lying president in history,” or the Democrats who came close to losing to him in the last election.
“It should have been a landslide against the worst Republican Party in history, one that makes no pretence about opposing workers and consumers. But the Democrats refuse to look themselves in the mirror. Instead they love to blame these tiny Green candidates.”
They certainly blamed him: after the 2000 election defeat, then-senator Joe Biden said Nader “is not going to be welcome anywhere near the corridors” of Capitol Hill again, while former President Jimmy Carter suggested he “go back to examining the rear end of automobiles”.
I ask if Nader accepts some responsibility for that famous defeat but he bats the question away, as he has for the last 23 years.
“If Al Gore had won his home state of Tennessee, he’d have been President. If he’d paid attention to the low wage debate in Florida, he’d be President. It’s easy to scapegoat the Greens.”
Nader will turn 90 next year – you would think his passion for all this would have dulled, that the criticism would have ground him down or the scale of the challenge he has set himself taken its toll. Yet here he is, still campaigning, still writing letters, still churning out book after book. What keeps the posterboy for the “last quarter of the 20th century” hungry in the first quarter of the 21st?
“When you have a passion for justice, you have stamina. The only real ageing is the erosion of one’s ideals. So you don’t fret and wring your hands in despair. That’s not good for the metabolism. You just have to keep going.