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Childhood Denied: The Roots of Ralph Nader's Righteousness

Peter Habenczius and Aubrey Immelman
Saint John’s University, Minnesota

Reprinted from the March 2001 issue 
of Clio’s Psyche, journal of the Psychohistory Forum

Ralph Nader failed to accomplish the ostensive goals of his presidential bid in the 2000 election—to stop the shift to the right in American politics that began with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and to gain the five percent of the national popular vote required to qualify the Green Party for Federal matching funds in 2004. Still, his campaign could be considered the most consequential crusade of his public life; in retrospect, Nader may well have played a “spoiler” role that handed the presidency to Republican nominee George W. Bush. That is the opinion of many political commentators, and of several political scientists in a forthcoming issue of the journal American Politics Research, who cite “the Nader factor” for the failure of their statistical election-outcome forecasting models, which predicted a convincing win for Democratic nominee Al Gore.

Ralph Nader must have been aware that his candidacy had the potential to determine the election outcome, given that the margin separating the two major-party candidates on the eve of the election was within the five percentage points that he hoped to garner on Election Day. Indeed, significant numbers of Nader’s own supporters implored him to drop out of the race when it became clear that the nation was headed for one of its closest presidential contests in decades.

Why did Nader persist in his crusade when it should have been clear to him that his personal political values, goals, and ideals stood to suffer most under a President Bush? Nader knew that a Bush administration might move to privatize Social Security and Medicare, making seniors more dependent on HMOs and insurance companies; drag its feet in the fight against global warming and other environmental concerns near and dear to Nader; introduce sweeping tax cuts that would benefit the rich and reward corporate America; jeopardize constitutional protections for women’s reproductive rights; and back away from affirmative action programs. In spite of that, Nader chose to remain in a race in which undeniably he would siphon a significant segment of his support from voters who would otherwise back Gore, the only viable candidate with realistic prospects to make a difference in these matters.

Prior to the 2000 election, Nader clearly had strong feelings against both the vice president and President Clinton. On August 6, 2000, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he acknowledged that he would have voted to impeach and convict Bill Clinton. When asked why, he told moderator Tim Russert, “Well, first, he disgraced the office, dragged the country through it for a year. He could have owned up to it. He stole a year of journalism from the American people. Think of all the stories about things going on in this country that never made it on the news. And then he lied about it!” There also is little love lost between Ralph Nader and Al Gore, of whom Nader has said, “Gore changes his clothes three times a day. He has absolutely no idea who he is” (Ruth Conniff, “On the road with Ralph Nader,” The Nation, July 17, 2000). Most revealingly, on November 12, 2000, on the CNN program “Late Edition,” Nader sardonically denied that he had stolen the election from Gore, countering that Gore was the one who stole the election from him.

In choosing to run against his own core values, undermining principles he had pursued throughout his career, Nader, in effect, chose to run against his own self—thus turning on its head the ancient Chinese proverb he so often quotes in his speeches: “To be and not to do is not to be at all.” In his campaign, beyond not doing, Nader in a fanatic denial of political reality chose to undo.

Our evaluation of Ralph Nader’s personality reveals that Nader has a highly conscientious personality pattern with strong retiring characteristics, imbued with distinctive distrusting elements. The conscientious style is displayed in utter dedication to work and deeply held convictions of conscience and moral principle. At 66, Nader “continues to work seven days a week, often putting in as many as 80 hours” (Ken Silverstein, “Candidate Nader,” Mother Jones magazine, July/August 2000). Nader once said he had to decide whether to have a family or a career, that he couldn’t have both. Adulterating the Freudian notion of lieben und arbeiten, for Nader work is love.

The retiring style is reflected in the observation that Nader “may be the most intensely private man ever to run for public office. He has never married, and only a handful of close friends know the address of his apartment in Washington, D.C.” His distrust and efforts to control others are evident in the assertion that few of Nader’s acquaintances “will speak about him for publication, saying they respect his privacy—and fear the anger he often directs at those he feels have wronged him.” (Silverstein, cited previously)

With his controlling, distrusting qualities, social aloofness, and extreme conscientiousness, Nader closely matches the profile of the “puritanical compulsive” syndrome, if in attenuated form. These individuals are “austere, self-righteous, [and] highly controlled.” Their “intense anger and resentment . . . is given sanction, at least as they see it, by virtue of their being on the side of righteousness and morality.” (Theodore Millon, Disorders of Personality, 1996, p. 520)

The world of puritanical compulsives is dichotomized into good and evil, saints and sinners—and they arrogate for themselves the role of savior. They seek out common enemies in their relentless pursuit of mission. This might account for Nader’s apparent inability to draw a clear ideological distinction between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and his description of Gore as “the lesser of two evils.” But certainly, it is hard to imagine a personal orientation better suited to the “spoiler” role in politics; puritanical compulsives are prone to vent their hostility through “sadistic displacements” and their “puritanical’s wrath becomes the vengeful sword of righteousness, descended from heaven to lay waste to sin and iniquity.” Of greater concern in politics, puritanicals instinctively seek ever-greater degrees of fundamentalism, “because literalism makes it much easier to find someone who deserves not only to be punished but to be punished absolutely.” (Theodore Millon and Roger Davis, Personality Disorders in Modern Life, 2000, p. 178)

From a psychodynamic perspective, parental overcontrol in early childhood is the critical influence in the formation of compulsive character structures. Ralph Nader evidently had a strict, traditional upbringing steeped in discipline, with no small measure of parental control.

Ralph Nader was born in 1934, in Winsted, Conn., to immigrant parents from Lebanon, Rose and Nathra Nader. He had two older sisters, Claire and Laura, and an older brother, Shafeek, now deceased. According to one idealized account of Ralph Nader’s childhood, young Ralph’s mother “always did exercises” with her children before bed and only allowed her children “to go to a movie if it had a moral” and—quoting Nader’s sister Claire—“often told the children hero stories for the ‘examples of strong character traits.’ ” Nader recalls his mother’s stories as “ ‘full of lessons, homilies, things to be concerned about and self improvement.’ ” For snacks, Rose “gave the children raw chick peas instead of chocolate” and “[w]hen the children did not want to eat nutritious food, she would ask, ‘What does your tongue have against your heart, kidney and liver?’ ” Despite their parents’ firm injunctions and restrictive childrearing practices, the Nader children, peculiarly, “never rebelled against their parents because corrections were given in the form of ‘advice’ rather than ‘demands.’ ” (Annie Birdsong, Ralph Nader’s Childhood Roots,, undated; link inactive Feb. 23, 2004) This raises the question: What happened to tension and anger in the Nader family?

A brilliant student, Nader graduated magna cum laude from Princeton in 1955, going on to Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1958. He burst upon the political scene in 1965 with his book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, which was instrumental in the passage of the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. Thus, he became the founder of the modern consumer movement, attracting a following of dedicated activists, the famous “Nader’s Raiders”—some of whom would later plead with Nader to drop out of the 2000 presidential race to prevent a Republican victory.

            Nathra Nader, a restaurant owner, clearly had a powerful influence on his son, actively coaching him to think critically and independently, and raising his awareness of public affairs and social justice issues—“decrying,” for example, colonialism and the “stifling of small business by big business.” After the death of the Nader patriarch at age 98, Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law published Rose Nader’s book, It Happened in the Kitchen: Recipes for Food and Thought (1991). The book included her philosophy on childrearing and some of Nathra’s many sayings, including such rare insights as “Every time I hear someone say ‘dumb animal,’ I have to laugh. Dumb animals . . . don’t kill their own, they don’t wage organized war, they don’t soil their own nests.” (Birdsong, cited elsewhere)

Nader’s righteousness is rooted in a caring but controlling, virtuous but moralistic upbringing. Such child-rearing practices can breed adults who “displace anger and insecurity by seeking out some position of power that allows them to become a socially sanctioned superego for others,” whose “swift judgment . . . conceals a sadistic and self-righteous joy behind a mask of maturity” (Millon and Davis, cited elsewhere, p. 184).

Ralph Nader is not merely one of the great voices of the past century in American public life; to many he is America’s social conscience personified. The brilliant mind of a dedicated scholar and the uncompromising single-mindedness of a crusader helped Nader achieve remarkable success as a consumer advocate. But his moral certitude as an unrelenting crusader may make him unsafe in any position of substantial political power, where his puritanical rigidity and sense of righteousness undercut precisely those values he had so effectively advocated throughout his prior career in Washington.

Peter Habenczius is a junior political science major at St. John’s University, from Budapest, Hungary.  Aubrey Immelman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at St. John’s University, Minn., where he directs the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics [], a facultystudent collaborative research project with the mission of studying the impact of personality on political leadership and disseminating the findings to the public.


This paper was published in Clio’s Psyche (Journal of the Psychohistory Forum), vol. 7, no. 4 (March 2001), pp. 198200.

For more information about Clio’s Psyche, contact Paul H. Elovitz, Editor, 627 Dakota Trail, Franklin Lakes, NJ 07417; telephone (201) 891-7486.

Additional Reading

"It isn't easy being Green with Nader" by Aubrey Immelman. St. Cloud Times, February 11, 2001, p. 9B.

Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman

Last updated February 24, 2004