70s throwback Ralph Nader ruins everything again | Bleader

70s throwback Ralph Nader ruins everything again


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The season of blaming things on Ralph Nader would seem to be long past, which makes it startling to see Jonathan Alter so comprehensively lose his mind in his National Memo column, which is headlined “How Ralph Nader’s Sins Set Trayvon Martin’s Killer Free” so that it will draw traffic.

Nader actually isn’t given very much more than a parenthetical treatment in the text proper, in which Alter hazards a “butterfly effect” analysis of political history. Neither is Trayvon Martin. But behold Alter's theory: In the 1960s and ’70s Ralph Nader was a high-profile consumer activist. In 1971 Lewis Powell, shortly before joining the Supreme Court, wrote a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce entitled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” In it he singled out Nader as the “single most effective antagonist of American business.”

So then some people started groups like the Heritage Foundation. The conservative movement was ascendant. Think tanks started writing laws. Three and a half decades later the NRA helped push the Stand Your Ground law through the Florida legislature. And then . . . Trayvon Martin? There are some words in between this and that, but I’ve read them three times and I’m still not sure what the point is.

Martin is just one piece of the argument. Alter also writes, "If Ralph Nader hadn’t gotten under Lewis Powell’s skin, we wouldn’t be having these arguments over whether the individual mandate in Obamacare is unconstitutional." These claims are what historians call "counterfactual," and logicians call "bullshit." Alter understands historical causation here like Alanis Morissette understands irony, which is to say not really—trying to draw out some unified decades-long narrative of How Nader Ruins Everything is just really batty. So is suggesting that activists are responsible for every instance of wacky backlash that they provoke. So is suggesting that the rise of the conservative movement is the sole responsibility of one unelected dude. It’s like blaming Betty Friedan for those transvaginal-ultrasound-loving Virginia legislators. Or like blaming protesters for getting beaten up by cops. Or, hell, like blaming Lauren Viera’s cranky essay on Scofflaw on the fact that Danny Shapiro decided to open the bar in the first place. It’s like a lot of things, really, but not much like logic.