Ralph Nader: The Political Psychology of a Puritanical Perfectionist

Ted Goertzel


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Regular readers of Clio's Psyche will be familiar with Ralph Nader's childhood history from Peter Habenczius and Aubrey Immelman, "Childhood Denied: The Roots of Ralph Nader's Righteousness," in the March 2001 issue. More details about Nader�s childhood are available in several published biographies; his mother�s book, It All Happened in the Kitchen: Recipes for Food and Thought (1991); and on the Internet in a paper, "Ralph Nader�s Childhood Roots" by Annie Birdsong (http://squawk.ca/lbo-talk/0008/0394.html). All draw on a very limited amount of information because Nader places great value on personal privacy and has not shared many childhood anecdotes.

Born in 1934 to parents who had emigrated from Lebanon to Connecticut, Ralph had two older sisters and an older brother, with whom he is described as being very close. His parents were ideal in many ways: socially concerned, health conscious, and valuing education and civic activism. His father, Nathra, coached him to think independently and went out of his way to praise people who spoke up as dissenters in town meetings. Rose, his mother, told the children stories that were full of politically correct heroes and morals. She gave them raw chickpeas for snacks instead of chocolate. [Biographer Justin Martin (Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2002, p. 8) reports that:

Whenever the Nader children invited someone over for a birthday party, Rose would dutifully prepare a perfect cake- chocolate frosting, candles, the works. But it was only for display. Before anyone co0uld take a bite, she would strip away all the frosting, asking "You don�t really want that, do you?"

As a child, Ralph never rebelled against this "goody-goody" upbringing. As an adult he has lived the life his parents wanted him to live. As he puts it: "I was brought up to aspire to advance justice as an active citizen, not as an elected politician. Not that there was anything wrong with running for office. It was just that my parents instilled in me a sense of social justice that wore no party or political brand" (Nader, Crashing the Party, 2002, p. 18). He graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School, but eschewed a conventional legal career. Instead, he devoted himself to travel and journalism, with only modest success until a crusading publisher helped him to write Unsafe at Any Speed (1966) and General Motors foolishly hired private detectives to follow him and try to lure him into illicit sexual affairs. The ensuing scandal made him a celebrity and led to remarkable advances in auto safety and economy. Nader invented the consumer movement as a force for social change.

It's an admirable history, and Ralph could have lived the rest of his life as the respected elder statesman of the consumer and environmentalist movements. He might have even settled down a bit, married, and raised a family. But Ralph was not a man to rest on his laurels. He lives an austere, celibate existence, with no time for any of life's luxuries. He struggles seven days a week, 18 hours a day, against the powerful demon that threatens us all: Corporate America. He's not against capitalism in the form of small businesses such as his father's Highland Arms Diner in Connecticut. He's against businesses that become large, successful, and enjoy the fruits of their enterprise.

Psychologically, Nader is a remarkable example of the Puritanical Compulsive type as described in Theodore Millon and Roger Davis, Personality Disorders in Modern Life (2000). He is austere, self-righteous, dogmatic, zealous, uncompromising, indignant, and judgmental, with a grim and prudish sense of morality. Psychoanalytic theorists such as Sandor Rado and Wilhelm Reich believed that "all compulsives experience a deep ambivalence between obedience and defiance which they resolve through sublimation, reaction formation, and displacement. Those who sublimate this conflict seem more normal, those who displace their aggression seem more sadistic, and those who react strongly against their internal anger become self-righteous" (Millon and Davis, Personality Disorders, p. 178).

Nader clearly falls into the self-righteous category. Of course, there is much in the world to be critical of and, as Millon and Davis observe, "the final assessment of the puritanical compulsive often depends on which side of the fence you find yourself. One person's orator is another person's idiot." But as Ralph Nader has grown older, the unconscious roots of his behavior have become more and more apparent.

His campaigns for auto safety and better gasoline mileage made sense and did a great deal of good, yet his rhetoric makes it clear that psychologically he was fighting a holy war against the "reckless, unsafe hyper-horsepower-minded automobile industry" (Nader, Party, p. 8). Even after winning the war, he has denied himself the fruits of victory. He has never owned an automobile, not even an air-bagged, crash zone-protected Volvo or a gas miserly little Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid car.

His assertion that celibacy is forced on him because he is simply too busy for a family is unconvincing. He is not, in fact, the active manager of many of the causes he has inspired, such as the Public Interest Research Groups in every state. There is no objective reason to believe that his causes would suffer inordinately if he set aside a little time for a personal life. Millon and Davis say most Puritanical Compulsives "feel the persistent press of irrational and repugnant aggressive and sexual drives and adopt an ascetic and austere lifestyle to prohibit their own dark impulses and fantasies" (Millon and Davis, Personality Disorders, p 178, Nader fits this pattern well, although he has shared nothing of his inner impulses and fantasies.

His persistence in running for president suggests that his psychological needs are stronger than his desire to advance his causes. His response to critics who point out that his candidacy helped to elect George W. Bush in 2000, and may do so again in 2004, is to point to the Democratic Party's failures to enact the full range of reforms advocated by the Greens. Politically, the puritanical compulsive becomes the puritanical perfectionist, the activist who refuses to enjoy modest success by supporting a candidate with a realistic chance of winning. Crashing the Party is Nader's book about the 2000 campaign. His greatest fear is that he will succumb to the invitation to join the "party," thus losing the target for his anger.

Nader's childhood suggests that even the most liberal and well-meaning parents may be too controlling and moralistic. A child who is not even allowed to taste the icing on his birthday cake may grow up into an overly austere, self-punishing adult, sadly unable to enjoy the small or even major victories that life brings him. Furthermore, his uncompromising approach causes him to weaken the causes he has devoted himself to supporting and makes him a de facto ally of his lifelong opponents.

Ted Goertzel, PhD, is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers in Camden, a Research Associate of the Psychohistory Forum, and a prolific author. Among his books are Fernando Henrique Cardoso: Reinventing Democracy in Brazil (1999), Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics (1995), and Turncoats and True Believers: The Dynamics of Political Belief and Disillusionment (1992). In 2004 he updated and co-edited his parents� 1962 book, Cradles of Eminence: Childhoods of More Than 700 Famous Men and Women. Prof. Goertzel may be contacted at < goertzel@camden.rutgers.edu>.