Ten Miles Square


March 30, 2012 8:19 AM How Ralph Nader’s Sins Set Trayvon Martin’s Killer Free

By Jonathan Alter

Oh, Ralph. 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.

And “stand your ground” laws — like the one at issue in the Trayvon Martin case — wouldn’t stand a chance in the rest of the country.

And free market conservatives would not be unconsciously defying police and doing the bidding of the National Rifle Association.

Yes, like Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” (where the course of a tornado can be traced all the way back to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings thousands of miles away), it’s all connected, and in ways that should make us more conscious of how we associate ourselves with other political insects.

The butterfly flapping was Powell’s seminal Aug. 23, 1971, “confidential memorandum” to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.”

No More Appeasement

Powell, two months before he was appointed to the Supreme Court, argued that 1960s-style attacks on free enterprise from college campuses, the pulpit, the news media, liberal politicians and consumer advocates like Nader (whom he singled out as “the single most effective antagonist of American business”) were “quite new in the history of America.” He found it bewildering that “the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.” Business, he wrote, had responded, if at all, by “appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem.”

Powell’s recommendation of a “more aggressive attitude” toward generating conservative books, articles, institutes and television programs bore fruit beyond his wildest dreams. His memo kicked off a sustained conversation among business leaders that led to the creation of hundreds of conservative legal foundations, think tanks and university programs.

Among them were the Heritage Foundation (where, ironically, the idea of an individual mandate was popularized in the 1990s) and the Federalist Society, which has been instrumental in adopting out-of-the-mainstream legal ideas such as a narrow, pre-New Deal interpretation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. Justices Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are all former Federalist Society members.

Families like the Coorses, Kochs, Olins and Scaifes subsidize the spread of conservative ideas with hundreds of millions of dollars. “Appeasement” has given way to fierce and sustained counterattack that has already shifted the center of political debate far to the right and may soon invalidate the centerpiece of a president’s domestic program for the first time in seven decades.

But has this principled support for free enterprise created a gun-toting Frankenstein?

One of the Koch brothers’ causes is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which was founded in 1973 by Illinois State Representative Henry Hyde, conservative activist Paul Weyrich and others to share legislative ideas in “task forces” made up of legislators, conservative foundations and corporations. Over the years, ALEC and its corporate lobbyists have written hundreds of “model bills” and used their muscle to enact them, sometimes verbatim, in dozens of states.

Under the Radar

Because fewer reporters cover state government these days, ALEC has mostly operated under the radar. But there’s nothing subtle about it: Corporations seeking contracts, deregulation or other favors from state government fund the campaigns of Republican politicians, and then write the bills with ALEC’s help. All the state legislators need to do is show up and sign before heading off for poker or golf, often with the same lobbyists who just did their jobs for them.

Many national Republicans are also connected to ALEC. Recently, Representative Eric Cantor admitted that he hadn’t reported a $1,350 gift from the organization.

ALEC began with a pro-business agenda but soon started to write bills for the whole right-wing wish list. Now, with the help of the Center for Media and Democracy, people are connecting the dots.

Anyone following the Martin case should learn this chronology: In 2005, an NRA dynamo named Marion Hammer pushed through a “stand your ground” statute in Florida that basically provides a legal justification for anyone to kill anyone if he or she feels threatened. The statute says explicitly that one need not retreat in dangerous situations, though police have long recommended doing just that. The NRA invoked the principle of the so-called “castle doctrine,” though the Florida law does not limit the use of deadly force to the defense of one’s home.

Previously, if you shot and killed someone and claimed self-defense, you nonetheless were usually arrested for at least involuntary manslaughter. You might eventually get off, but the presumption was there was at least cause to interview possible witnesses and investigate.

Hundreds of years of common law and common sense were about to be upended. Shortly after passage, Hammer persuaded ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force (led at the time by a Texas state representative and executives from Wal-Mart and the Heritage Foundation) to adopt the Florida statute as a model bill. Today 24 other states have “stand your ground” statutes, many of them verbatim copies of the Florida law.

So even though police are opposed to empowering vigilantes, would-be George Zimmermans in half the country are entitled to do what he did to Trayvon Martin and escape arrest. No wonder critics call them “Kill at Will” bills.

The chances of repealing the Florida law after the Martin shooting are slim to none. In fact, the NRA-ALEC alliance is still pushing hard to expand its reach.

ALEC has succeeded in restricting voter registration in Florida and other states (hurting Democrats, of course). And the NRA is fighting a group that wants to prevent employees from keeping weapons locked in their cars in company parking lots.

That group is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the recipients of Powell’s famous memo nearly 40 years ago. What goes around comes around.

Jonathan Alter a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is the author of one book on Franklin D. Roosevelt and two on Barack Obama.


  • zandru on March 31, 2012 1:14 PM:

    Ralph Nader's "Sins"?!?

    So it's all Ralph's fault because some wingnutters were angered by his crusades for corporate responsibility, among the innumerable other things that angered them? Is that your thesis?

    Moreover, considering the bulk of Nader's career, pre-Bush v Gore, calling his work a "sin" is just plain crazy.

  • Amy on March 31, 2012 3:44 PM:

    Nader's sin was claiming that there were no real differences between Bush and Gore, leading to too close a vote in Florida, such that the Supreme Court determined the winner.

    I hold him responsible for the fruits of the Bush presidency, from the war in Iraq to the current Court. We can only imagine how different our lives would have been without Nader as the 2000 protest candidate.

  • N. Bates on March 31, 2012 5:13 PM:

    Oh! I thought you were going to get after him, and well-deservedly, for screwing up the 2000 Election and making it possible for GWB to win. I hadn't heard this bit of gossip, tx,

  • Andy Olsen on March 31, 2012 6:31 PM:

    So, Mr. Alter, you are somehow blaming liberals for George Zimmerman getting away with murder? Really? You waive responsibility for Republicans going back 40 years and say it's Nader's fault?

    You know this makes no sense, right? The part after where you lay blame on Nader and the butterflies is a good description of bad things being done by the right wing - of their own volition and under no pressure from Ralph Nader or anyone else to do so.

    Is it against some code to actually hold Republicans responsible for their own wrongdoing? That would help us avoid things like the people who sold us the Iraq invasion selling us a new war with Iran.

  • Marc Montefusco on April 01, 2012 8:01 AM:

    I was listening to Alter the other day on NPR explaining why the Democrats were essentially doomed in the coming elections and thought to myself, "I thought this guy was supposed to be liberal." After reading this tripe, and reading his essay on torture highlighted over at Digby, I realized that I was very, very wrong, and that the consequences of my mistake will lead to the institution of the Hunger Games in the year 2037.

  • Shokai on April 01, 2012 10:57 AM:

    Johnny Alter needs to give up writing and start doing this: http://youtu.be/fXrrDsiSzKA

  • Gzoref on April 01, 2012 12:54 PM:

    Ooh oh! Can I play too?! OK!

    If FDR weren't so successful at solving the nation's economic problems and creating popular laws we wouldn't have had a backlash against the New Deal Era. Then Reagan may not have been elected and we wouldn't have intervened in Afghanastan, thus arming the Mujahadeen and UBL, and so 9/11 wouldn't have happened.

    So clearly 9/11 is FDR's fault. It's almost too simple. Though I'm sure we can figure out a way to lay the blame for 9/11 at Nader's feet as well. After all, if he hand't....

  • winner on April 01, 2012 1:10 PM:

    This is pretty sad. If you have an incredibly weak argument you just invoke the "butterfly effect"? Really?

  • Arrest Nader! on April 01, 2012 4:43 PM:

    Here here, mr. Alter

    Charge Ralph Nader with manslaughter for the death of Trayvon Martin

  • axel foley on April 01, 2012 11:11 PM:

    Please tell me this is satire (as poorly written as it is) to confirm my hopes that TWM doesn't publish this kind of tripe without it otherwise being so.

    Though, Nader is a great scape-goat for the lazy liberal.

  • markg8 on April 02, 2012 10:39 AM:

    I agree with most commentators here that the sensationalist headline about Nader is over the top but OTH it sure got alot of people to read the story didn't it?

    But don't let the important facts get lost talking about that nonsense. The Powell memo was a seminal moment in the rightwing crusade to turn the USA into a social darwinist nightmare. ALEC has been writing legislation for legislators all over the country for years, most of it awful.

    We need to counter this stuff not distract ourselves with arguing over Ralph Nader. He can take care of himself.

  • toowearyforoutrage on April 02, 2012 1:18 PM:

    First, a historical note: FAR more Democrats voted for Bush than voted for Nader. Democrats can share in the blame for the close outcome.

    Now, a thank you to Ralph Nader:
    1) If Gore had won in 2000, does any sane person think we'd have a black man from Chicago as president after three white Southern crackers in a row won the White House?

    2) Bush's hard core suicidal efforts towards a "permanent Republican majority" produced a backlash SO powerful that we got a 60 member Senate majority that got universal health care passed.

    Hey, folks, take the good with the bad and even Ralph Nader has an expiration date. Enough with the whining already.

  • Perpiring Minds Want to Know on April 03, 2012 3:07 AM:

    Astounding that the fall of civilization (I mean the 2000 Presidential election) is still laid at the feet of Ralph Nader. A fair 2000 Florida ballot would have resulted in a fair Florida vote and a fair Florida outcome. See the following analysis:


    This analysis also strongly suggests that an electoral mistake on the order of 1500 votes occurred in this county. As has been pointed out repeatedly in the media, this over-vote for Buchanan may be due to the confusing structure of the presidential ballot used in Palm Beach county. This margin is more than large enough to turn the popular vote in the State of Florida as well as the Electoral College vote for the entire election.

  • Crissa on April 04, 2012 2:03 AM:

    Please, Naderites, when was the last time Nader affected public policy positively?

    This is an example of an organization designed specifically to oppose him - that he did not personally oppose. If you're going to push, push back. Nader has twiddled his thumbs in the last fifteen years.

  • florida sandy on April 08, 2012 8:00 PM:

    it's nader's fault?

    wow, that's twisty logic, even for a liberal.

    i guess it's getting harder to blame everything on bush or the arab spring.

  • Kevin Ray on April 12, 2012 10:29 AM:

    In 1860, Lincoln was elected on a platform of not allowing slavery to spread, but not to interfere with it where it exists. This was not enough for elements in certain slaveholding states. They declared themselves no longer part of the United States, and seized federal property. Over four years, Lincoln put down the insurrection with federal troops, and freed their slaves. However, the doctrine they claimed, of states having rights and powers that supercede that of the national government, lives on in many ares, such as resistance to "Obamacare". In addition, throughout the years, there has been a segment of this population who retains the idea of African-American inferiority. This has manifested itself, sometimes extremely violently, in efforts to relegate African-Americans to second class citizenship. None of this would have happened, had Lincoln not chosen to be inflexible in his stance.

    Wow! This IS fun!

  • Kevin Ray on April 12, 2012 10:36 AM:

    Also, to a poster above: Its true that the statute of limitations for whining about 2000 is long gone. It's also true that we'll never know if Gore would have won without Nader in the race. Same with there being no Obama if Gore had won, and no 60 seat majority.

    In addition, if Gore had won, we wouldn't have the deficit today that the GOP uses as a cudgel every time someone tries something slightly left of center. Thousand of people who are dead would still be alive, and millions would still have their jobs and homes. New Orleans would be in better shape, as would the Supreme Court. But hey, we got Obama, so I guess it evens out.

  • wvmcl on April 16, 2012 10:53 PM:

    Don't expect me to "get over" the disaster to my country of the 2000 election.

    I never, ever will get over it.

    The old Naderites can nitpick and equivocate till doomsday, but there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Gore would have become president if not for Ralph Nader and his ego. Don't give me that "plenty of blame to go around" cop out. The bottom line is: without Nader, Gore would have been elected.

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