Review: Paul Sabin’s “Public Citizens”
A book review of Paul Sabin’s Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism (W.W. Norton & Co., 2021)
1965 marked the highpoint for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, an ambitious set of policy and legislative initiatives which envisioned using the machinery of the federal government to alleviate poverty, combat racial injustice and address other pressing national needs. Johnson was coming off a landslide victory in the November 1964 presidential election, having carried 44 states and the District of Columbia with the highest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate in over a century. Yet a decade and a half later, in January 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan took the presidential oath of office declaring “government is not the solution, it is the problem.”
How did government in the United States go in a fifteen-year period from being seen as the solution to society’s ills to the cause of its problems? How, for that matter, did the Democratic Party go from dominating the national political debate up through the mid-1960s to surrendering the White House to a former actor who had been considered too extreme to be a viable presidential candidate? These are questions Yale University professor Paul Sabin poses at the outset of his absorbing Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism. Focusing on the fifteen-year period 1965-1980, Sabin proffers answers centered on Ralph Nader and the “public interest” movement which Nader spawned.
1965 was also the year Nader rocketed to national prominence with his assault on automobile safety, Unsafe at Any Speed. General Motors notoriously assisted Nader in his rise by conducting a concerted campaign to harass the previously obscure author. From there, Nader and the lawyers and activists in his movement – often called “Nader’s Raiders” — turned to such matters as environmentalism, consumer safety and consumer rights, arguing that the government agencies charged with regulating these matters invariably came to be captured by the very industries they were designed to regulate, without the voice of the consumer or end user being heard. “Why has business been able to boss around the umpire” was one of Nader’s favorite rhetorical questions.
Because of both industry influence and bureaucratic ineffectiveness, government regulatory authority operated in the public interest only when pushed and prodded from the outside, Nader reasoned. In Nader’s world, moreover, the Democratic and Republican parties were two sides of the same corrupt coin, indistinguishable in the degree to which they were both beholden to special corporate interests — “Tweddle Dee and Tweddle Dum,” as he liked to put it.
Reagan viewed government regulation from an altogether different angle. Whereas Nader believed that government, through effective regulation of the private sector, could help make consumer goods safer, and air and water cleaner, Reagan sought to liberate the private sector from regulation. He championed a market-oriented capitalism designed to “undermine, rather than invigorate, federal oversight.” Yet, Sabin’s broadest argument is that Nader’s insistence over the course of a decade and a half that federal agencies used their powers for “nefarious and destructive purposes” rendered plausible Reagan’s superficially similar attack.
The “remaking of American liberalism” portion of Sabin’s sub-title might have better been termed “unmaking,” specifically the unmaking of the political liberalism rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – the liberalism which Johnson sought to emulate and build upon in his Great Society, based on a strong and active federal government. Following in the New Deal tradition, Roosevelt’s Democratic party controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1933 and 1969. Yet, when Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, New Deal liberalism had clearly surrendered its claim to national dominance.
Most interpretations of how and why New Deal liberalism lost its clout are rooted in the 1960s, with the decade’s anti-Vietnam war and Civil Rights movements as the principal actors. The Vietnam war separated older blue-collar Democrats, who often saw the war in the same patriotic terms as World War II, from a younger generation of anti-war activists who perceived no genuine US interests in the conflict and no meaningful difference in defense and foreign policy between Democrats and Republicans. The Civil Rights movement witnessed the defection of millions of white Democrats, unenthusiastic about the party’s endorsement of full equality for African Americans, to the Republican Party.
Nader and the young activists following him were also “radicalized by the historical events of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War,” Sabin writes. These were their “defining issues,” shaping “their view of the government and their ambitions for their own lives.” We cannot imagine Nader’s movement “emerging in the form that it did separate from civil rights and the war.” But by elaborating upon the role of the public interest movement in the breakdown of New Deal liberalism and giving more attention to the 1970s, Sabin adds nuance to conventional interpretations of that breakdown.
The enigmatic Nader is the central figure in Sabin’s narrative. Much of the book analyzes how Nader and his public interest movement interacted with the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, along with brief treatment of the Reagan presidency and that of Bill Clinton. The Carter years, 1977-1981, revealed the public interest movement’s most glaring weakness: its “inability to come to terms with the compromises inherent in running the executive branch,” as Sabin artfully puts it.
Carter was elected in 1976, when the stain of the Watergate affair and the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon hovered over American politics, with trust in government at a low point. Carter believed in making government regulation more efficient and effective, which he saw as a means of rebuilding public trust. Yet, he failed to craft what Sabin terms a “new liberalism” that could “champion federal action while also recognizing government’s flaws and limitations.”
That failure was due in no small measure to frequent and harsh criticism emanating from public interest advocates, whose critique of the Carter administration, Sabin writes, “held those in power up against a model of what they might be, rather than what the push and pull of political compromise and struggle allowed.” Criticizing government power was “what they knew how to do, and it was the role that they had defined for themselves.” Metaphorically, it was “as if liberals took a bicycle apart to fix it but never quite figured out how to get it running again.”
Sabin starts by laying out the general parameters of New Deal liberalism: a technocratic faith that newly created administrative agencies and the bureaucrats leading them would act in the public interest by serving as a counterpoint to the power of private, especially corporate, interests. By the mid-1950s, the liberal New Deal conception of “managed capitalism” had evolved into a model based of what prominent economist John Kenneth Galbraith termed “countervailing powers,” in which large corporations, held in balance by the federal regulatory state, “would check each other’s excesses through competition, and powerful unions would represent the interests of workers. Government would play a crucial role, ensuring that the system did not tilt too far in one direction or the other.”
Nader’s public interest movement was built around a rejection of Galbraith’s “countervailing power” model. The model failed to account for the interests of consumers and end users, as the economist himself admitted later in his career. If there was to be a countervailing power, Nader theorized, it would have to come through the creation of “independent, nonbureaucratic, citizen-led organizations that existed somewhat outside the traditional American power structure.” Only such organizations provided the means to keep power “insecure,” as Nader liked to say.
Nader’s vision could be described broadly as “ensuring safety in every setting where Americans might find themselves: workplace, home, doctor’s office, highway, or just outside, breathing the air.” In a 1969 essay in the Nation, Nader termed car crashes, workplace accidents, and diseases the “primary forms of violence that threatened Americans,” far exceeding street crime and urban unrest. For Nader, environmental and consumer threats revealed the “pervasive failures and corruption of American industry and government.”
Nader was no collectivist, neither a socialist nor a New Dealer. He emphasized open and competitive markets, small private businesses, and especially an activated citizenry — the “public citizens” of his title. More than any peer, Nader sought to “create institutions that would mobilize and nurture other citizen activists.” To that end, Nader founded dozens of public interest organizations, which were able to attract idealistic young people — lawyers, engineers, scientists, and others, overwhelmingly white, largely male — to dedicate their early careers to opposing the “powerful alliance between business and government.”
Nader envisioned citizen-led public interest organizations serving as a counterbalance not only to business and government but also to labor. Although Nader believed in the power of unions to represent workers, he was “deeply skeptical that union leaders would be reliable agents for progressive reform.” Union bosses in Nader’s view “too often positioned themselves as partners with industry and government, striking bargains that yielded economic growth, higher wages, and unions jobs at the expense of the health and well-being of workers, communities, and the environment.” Nader therefore “forcefully attacked the unions for not doing enough to protect worker safety and health or to allow worker participation in governance.”
Nader‘s Unsafe at Any Speed was modeled after Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking environmental tract Silent Spring, to the point that it was termed the “Silent Spring of traffic safety.” Nader’s auto safety advocacy, Sabin writes, emerged from “some of the same wellsprings as the environmental movement, part of an increasingly shared postwar concern about the harmful and insidious impacts of new technologies and processes.” In 1966, a year after publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. Congress passed two landmark pieces of legislation, the Traffic Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which forced manufacturers to design safer cars and pressed states to carry out highway safety programs. Nader then branched out beyond auto safety to tackle issues like meat inspection, natural-gas pipelines, and radiation safety.
Paradoxically, the Nixon years were among the most fruitful for Nader and the public interest movement. Ostensibly pro-business and friendly with blue-collar Democrats, Nixon presided over a breathtaking expansion of federal regulatory authority until his presidency was pretermitted by the Watergate affair. The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, consolidating several smaller federal units. New legislation which Nixon signed regulated air and water pollution, energy production, endangered species, toxic substances, and land use — “virtually every sector of the US economy,” Sabin writes.
The key characteristics of Nader-influenced legislation were deadlines and detailed mandates, along with authority for citizen suits and judicial review, a clear break from earlier regulatory strategies. The tough legislation signaled a “profound and pervasive distrust of government even as it expanded federal regulatory powers.” Nader and the public interest movement went after Democrats in Congress with a fervor at least equal to that with which they attacked Republican-led regulatory agencies. Nader believed that “you didn’t attack your enemy if you wanted to accomplish something, you attacked your friend.”
In the early 1970s, the public interest movement targeted Democratic Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, the party’s nominee for Vice-President in 1968, whose support for the environmental movement had earned him the moniker “Mr. Pollution Control.” Declaring his environmental halo unwarranted, the movement sought to take down a man who clearly wanted to ride the environmental issue to the White House. Nader’s group also went after long-time liberal Democrat Jennings Randolph of West Virginia over coal-mining health and safety regulations. The adversarial posture toward everyone in power, Democrat as well as Republican, continued into the short interim administration of Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal. And it continued unabated during the administration of Jimmy Carter.
As the Democratic nominee for president, Carter had conferred with Nader during the 1976 campaign and thought he had the support of the public interest movement when he entered the White House in January 1977. Many members of the movement took positions in the new administration, where they could shape the agencies they had been pressuring. The new president sought to incorporate the public interest movement’s critiques of government into a “positive vision for government reform,” promoting regulatory approaches that “cut cost and red tape without sacrificing legitimate regulatory goals.”
Hoping to introduce more flexible regulatory strategies that could achieve environmental and health protection goals at lower economic cost, Carter sacrificed valuable political capital by clashing with powerful congressional Democrats over wasteful and environmentally destructive federal projects. Yet, public interest advocates faulted Carter for his purported lack of will more than they credited him for sacrificing his political capital for their causes. They saw the administration’s questioning of regulatory costs and the redesign of government programs as “simply ways to undermine those agencies.” Their lack of enthusiasm for Carter severely undermined his reelection bid in the 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan.
Reagan’s victory “definitively marked the end of the New Deal liberal period, during which Americans had optimistically looked to the federal government for solutions,” Sabin observes. Reagan and his advisors “vocally rejected, and distanced themselves from, Carter’s nuanced approach to regulation.” To his critics, Reagan “appeared to be trying to shut down the government’s regulatory apparatus.”
But in considering the demise of New Deal liberalism, Sabin persuasively demonstrates that the focus on Reagan overlooks how the post-World War II administrative state “lost its footing during the 1970s.” The attack on the New Deal regulatory state that culminated in Reagan’s election, usually attributed to a rising conservative movement, was also “driven by an ascendant liberal public interest movement.” Sabin’s bottom line: blaming conservatives alone for the end of the New Deal is “far too simplistic.”
Sabin mentions Nader’s 2000 presidential run on the Green Party ticket only at the end and only in passing. Although the Nader-inspired public interest movement had wound down by then, Nader gained widespread notoriety that year when he gathered about 95,000 votes in Florida, a state which Democratic nominee Al Gore lost officially by 537 votes out of roughly six million cast (with no small amount of assistance from a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision). Nader’s entire career had been a rebellion against the Democratic Party in all its iterations, and his quixotic run in 2000 demonstrated that he had not outgrown that rebellion. His presidential campaign took his “lifelong criticism of establishment liberalism to its logical extreme.”