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The Remaking of American Liberalism/Nairn on Afghanistan

In a fascinating interview, where the historian gets questioned by one of the main subjects of his history, Ralph welcomes professor Paul Sabin to discuss his history of the public interest movement, “Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism.” Plus, intrepid investigative reporter, Allan Nairn joins us to give us his take on U.S. culpability in the violent history of Afghanistan.

Paul Sabin is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, where he coordinates the Yale Environmental History working group and the Yale Environmental Humanities Program. He is the author of Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism. 


If you look at that period from 1968 to 72… [there was] a huge outpouring of legislative action. That was very impressive and successful, and then a wave of litigation that follows is successful. But I think that even some of the people who I interviewed, looking back at this time, have thought “Well, actually, we made a bit of a strategic error. We went for these easier tactical wins, but we neglected to build a larger social movement. And we neglected to develop a rhetorical strategy that would win over the public and build a broader constituency.”

Paul Sabin, author of Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

When I go back and look at the writings from the early 1970s and read what activists were saying, there’s a lot of disparagement and a sense of distaste about politics. The sense that politicians, the institutions of politics were corrupted and would corrupt. Even good people who went into the government or into elected office would be corrupted by the situation. And I think that really led to an idea that there was something pure outside, in the nonprofit sector, where the true public interest could be identified and articulated. And there was a bit of a reluctance to make some of the compromises and wade into the institutional challenges of, whether it’s the Democratic Party or other settings, to try to change those. And to wield the actual institutions of power.

Paul Sabin, author of Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism


Here’s what we were thinking [in the 1960s and 1970s]… One: we had a very short time span. We were very aware [of] American history, where you have spurts of progressivism and then the counterattack comes– largely from corporations and their influential allies in government. The second thing is that we weren’t about to compromise because our definition of compromise is “let your adversary, like General Motors, force you to compromise.” Don’t help them along the way.

Ralph Nader


I put [the liberals’ Carter-era struggle] as the struggle to articulate a vision of government that was more nuanced. that both asserted a positive vision of government that could act to protect the public interest, that could that could do big significant things. But that also acknowledged the criticisms of the government, and the ways that the government could be destructive, could be wasteful, and needed to be reformed.

Paul Sabin, author of Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism


I think that the challenge– and this goes back to what you’re saying about being able to articulate a broader philosophy and one that compels people and motivates them and leads to action– is how to translate that research and those ideas and those discoveries into policy or regulatory action… How do you both build trust in the government and create a mandate for the government to act, while also being aware of the criticisms of the government and the need to reform?

Paul Sabin, author of Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism


The big mistake we made isn’t in your book. The biggest mistake we made was that we didn’t move out and develop afterschool civic skill courses for middle school and high school. And getting more colleges to engage in not just Policy Studies but the ways and means of practicing democracy. That was the biggest failure [of the public interest movement].

Ralph Nader

Allan Nairn is an award-winning investigative journalist, who has reported on death squads in Central America, mass killings in Indonesia, and brutal paramilitary activity in Haiti. He has been jailed. He has been beaten. He has risked his life to tell the stories of brutal regimes, many of which have been backed by the United States. He has seen on the ground the bloody effects of those policies. Noam Chomsky called him one of the only true investigative journalists working today.


It’s an odd discussion (between the U.S. and the Taliban) because it’s a dialog between two mass killers: the locally- based mass killers of the Taliban, and the global mass killers [of] the United States military and security forces.

Allan Nairn, investigative journalist


[Since 1979] the US [has] viewed all the people of Afghanistan as pawns. [President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski] viewed their lives as pieces to be easily sacrificed for US whim. For his view of the game of empire. And that resulted in more than a quarter of a million deaths over the years that followed, the deaths in Afghanistan. And now we’re seeing the final endgame of Brzezinski and Carter’s move.

Allan Nairn, investigative journalist


Now, a policy that from the start was criminal, that included a willingness to violate international law by staging aggression, a willingness to violate international law and the local murder laws by killing civilians and engaging in war crimes and crimes against humanity… That US initiative, which involved really massive criminality, has now after so many deaths resulted in a final situation where there actually are real tragic choices and legitimate questions involved.

Allan Nairn, investigative journalist

Ralph Nader Radio Hour Ep 390 Transcript (Right click to download)


  1. Afdal Shahanshah says:

    Adding on to David’s question about a Marxist analysis, I find it interesting how Ralph could think that his and others’ work in the ’60s and ’70s was trying its best to be non-ideological. Does he not realize that his entire strategy was deeply based in liberal ideology? Ideology that says capitalism can work for everyone and it can be tamed by working within the very same apparatuses of power that were formed by and for capitalism in the first place? Our thoughts and actions are often ruled by ideology even when we don’t realize it. Marxists begin at the point of production when approaching organizing, because only workers have the power to confront capitalists by withdrawing the labor that is the source of those capitalists’ power.

    It’s very interesting to compare and contrast how things were won during the Great Depression through raw worker organizing with the things that were won through non-profit organizing and legalistic challenges in the ’60s and ’70s. I feel like many people searching for change (including myself) since the modern Depression initiated in 2008 have been grappling with the ineffectiveness of traditional non-profit activism and struggling to return to a more deeply threatening form of organizing along class lines. It’s been a slow process of transformation but things are changing.

    Also I had no idea Public Citizen drafted HR1. Are they aware of the many things that have been inserted into it to suppress and block third parties? Have they made a statement on those?

    • Skro35 says:

      What are those things that suppress third parties, Afdal? Thanks.

      • Afdal Shahanshah says:

        The big things are increasing the requirements for federal matching campaign funds, eliminating the block grants when a party’s candidate gets some % of the vote, and reducing various restrictions on donations and expenditures. The Green Party has them listed on their website here:

  2. John Puma says:

    Re first segment: Can the function of government (according to it proclaimed, lofty, purpose) be “influenced” by an economic system based on glorification of maximal individual avarice? Now really!!! (Sarcasm aside, thanks for the question I taken the liberty to “paraphrase.”)

  3. Donald Klepack says:

    Allan Nairn is a great guest to discuss the history of the Afghan war but it was extremely disappointing that last weeks events, specifically to the Biden administration withdrawal and Trump administration decisions and agreements in the last 4 years. Maybe it’s just to soon to go into the details of the current mess that is Afghanistan. Please invite Allan Nairn back for the full hour to discuss the future of Afghanistan based on current events and lessons learned. As I said last week you show is extremely important because you have relevant guests that do not have a voice on main stream media.

  4. Paul Levy says:

    thank you for your great shows.
    Sometime you had a guest on that has a website that
    relates to airline malfeasance.
    What is the name of that website, please?
    thank you
    Paul Levy

  5. Nicholas Donofrio says:

    Who is an example of a secular anti corporate progressive uninvited to a lecture due to “political correctness” and what did they say?
    It’d be nice if people treated bootlicking or classist corporate statements somewhere on par with racist/sexist/phobic ones but there was no ideology created by progressives in the past to help buttress this kind of thinking.
    I can’t recall Ralph having made such statements in the past so it’s not like it’s a high bar to get over.
    Progressives just weren’t as well funded as the right wing and that has far more to do with a lack of progressive wins than political correctness as a force.