Whatever the criticisms of Ralph Nader in recent years, he reminded Americans of something about themselves when they needed it most. He showed them that the old tradition of individuals making a difference could be carried into the age of the corporate state, contrary to those who pictured the citizenry running a poor third against big business and big government. Though Mr. Nader's own umbrella organization has been faltering in this 10th anniversary year, Americans face new challenges requiring no less individual energy and determination.
These challenges derive not only from the impact on people of social, economic, and technological change, but from the Reagan "revolution." The cuts in government services and business regulations intensify a challenge that has always been there. It is to recognize that big business and still big government are made up of individuals as much as the inadequately named consumer movement is -- and that all of them have the potentiality to prove that individuals can make a difference. Individuals in a business can ensure that safety goals are met whether or not enforced by the government. Individuals in government can ensure that authorized operations are carried out to a T. Individuals in all walks can do their part for the needy people and useful activities losing federal support.
The good news is that already a trend toward self-help, neighborhood action, action community cooperation has been noted in everything from home repairs to food production to energy independence to political reform.
Mr. Nader's share of credit for spurring citizen activity goes back several years before the decade of his Public Citizen Inc. He was already known as one-man lobby of laws for auto safety and meat inspection standards. His legal and other reform groups brought state and local offshots.
Some people simply give money to these groups and let them identify the issues and carry the ball. For all Mr. Nader's skill in organizing for such purposes, it would be more in his spirit for members to maintain the input to make sure their views are represented.
People are not just consumers en masse. And this is not so much a time to tot up the gains and losses for "consumerism" as for Americans to note in their daily lives where some product, some law, has made a difference because individuals somewhere stuck up for what they thought was right.