Public Citizens : The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism by Paul Sabin.

Beyond Nader the spoiler :When you are a household name for 56 years, you acquire more than one reputation. Ralph Nader has three.

Nader first came to public attention in 1965 when he published ''Unsafe at any Speed,'' a best seller that said auto companies were building dangerous cars. That's Nader - the consumer advocate. Nader leveraged his fame into a network of nonprofit government watchdog groups staffed by idealistic young ''Nader's Raiders'' recruited from top universities.

That's Nader - the public citizen. In 2000, having concluded the two major parties were really ''one corporate party wearing two heads and different makeup,'' Nader waged a third-party presidential bid and took enough Florida votes away from AI Gore to cost him the election.

That's Nader the spoiler, still reviled by many liberals for making George W. Bush president.

It's past time to put this grievance to rest. Gore's defeat by a mere 537 Florida votes was so narrow that it can be attributed to any stray breeze.

Paul Sabin, a professor of History at Yale, suggests in ''Public Citizens'' that if you want to blame a Democratic debacle on Nader, consider President Jimmy Carter's defeat in 1980, even though Nader wasn't a candidate that year.

''Public Citizens'' is an elegantly argued and meticulously documented attempt to place Nader within the liberal tradition. Sabin's thesis is that Nader the public citizen was a principal architect of the adversarial liberalism that succeeded New Deal liberalism.

Birthed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, adversarial liberalism was defeated in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, whose anti government message [Sabin argues] required legitimacy partly through Nader's spirited attacks on the federal government. ''It was as if liberals took a bicycle apart to fix it,'' Sabin writes, ''but never quite figured out how to get it running properly again.''

''Let us never forget that government is ourselves,'' President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1938, ''and not an alien power over us.'' That's New Deal liberalism. In practice it came to mean, in the 1940s and 1950s, that powerful government agencies knocked heads with powerful industries and labor unions [still powerful then] to divine the public interest.

The liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith called this tripartite process, approvingly, ''countervailing power''.

Countervailing power brought admirable stability to the postwar political economy, and a widely shared prosperity that liberals now pine for. But Nader [and, before him, Rachel Carson, Jane Jacbos, and Betty Friedan] identified important concerns left out of the tripartite model : a clean environment, vibrant urban neighborhoods, consumer safety, worker safety [about which labor unions were often careless] and gender equality.

Nader was the most influential of these figures because he was able, in effect, to franchise himself through his watchdog groups. These groups issued reports, lobbied Congress and took advantage of judicial review provisions they helped write by suing agencies over delayed or inadequate regulations.

This became an influential model for the formation of other liberal public interest groups, especially environmental ones, that operated outside Nader's orbit.

The result, Sabin argues, was liberalism that perceived government not as ''ourselves'', but as the  untrustworthy Other, and countervailing power a mere fig leaf for regulatory capture by industry. From there, Sabin argues, it was a hop, skip and a jump to Regan declaring that ''government is the problem.''

Sabin makes his case intelligently and forcefully, but I have a few reservations. This may not matter, but Nader himself isn't easily classifiable as a liberal; he's on record opposing ''government intrusion into the economy,'' for instance. The adversarial liberalism that Sabin associates with Nader seems more obviously a furious response to government lies about the Vietnam War and Watergate.

[Lionel Trilling coined the phrase ''adversary culture,'' a related concept, years before Nader published ''Unsafe at Any Speed,'' liberals would have been feral through the 1970s even if Nader had never come along.

Sabin is certainly right that Nader played rough with the federal government, saying his harshest blows for his friends [on the theory that you can actually influence them]. But that's tactics.

Ideologically if Nader is a liberal, he's a New Deal liberal whose vigorous engagement with the  government is premised on the conviction that government really is ourselves.

Nader's solution to weaknesses in the countervailing power model was to become a countervailing power himself, alongside labor and industry. His clout peaked four decades ago, but Nader continues to operate on the principle that ordinary citizens can make government better. He's still at it today.

The World Students Society thanks review author Timothy Noah, a staff writer for The New Republic and is the author of ''The Great Divergence : America's growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About it.''


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