The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism By Paul Sabin – NYT Book Review

Aug. 10, 2021

The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

By Paul Sabin

“When you’re 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 Al 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 antigovernment message (Sabin argues) acquired 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.” “

Paul Sabin | How Liberals Can Attack From the Left — and Win – The New York Times

“. . .   Rachel Carson, the author of the environmental classic “Silent Spring,” attributed the rampant use of pesticides in part to government “propaganda” and “the authoritarian control that has been vested in the agricultural agencies.” Like Mr. Nader, she urged Americans to stop trusting the government to act responsibly.

Today, with an onslaught of attacks on the regulatory state coming from the right, it may seem counterintuitive to study how Mr. Nader, Ms. Carson and their allies contributed — from the left — to criticizing government. But in the 1970s, it was as if liberals took the big-government bicycle apart to fix it and then couldn’t figure out how to get it running properly again.

Now, as Democrats double down on using the government to address the urgent problems of our era, like climate change and economic inequality, they should absorb the lessons of this history. If you attack government but still want to wield its power for social good, you have to show you can make it work better.” . . .