The rise of public interest advocacy — and the attack on big government

Paul Sabin.
Paul Sabin (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

In the fall of 1968, as a third-year student at Yale Law School, James Gustave Speth, who would later become dean of Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (now the School of the Environment), proposed that he and fellow law students establish a legal action organization aimed at protecting the environment from human harm. Joining forces with established lawyers with ties to the Sierra Club and with the support of the Ford Foundation, the law students cofounded the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group intent on creating change via legal action.

In his new book “Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism” (W.W. Norton) Paul Sabin, professor of history and American studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, explores citizen-led efforts to rein in and challenge government by advocacy groups such as the NRDC and the activism of individuals such as Ralph Nader during the 1960s and 1970s. Sabin particularly examines the tensions between these new efforts, by liberals and from the left, and the big government liberalism of the decades that followed the New Deal and World War II.

In an interview, Sabin, who also directs the Yale Environmental Humanities Program, discusses the emergence of the public interest movement and its impact on today’s politics. The interview is edited and condensed.

What inspired you to write “Public Citizens”?

Paul Sabin: I had written “The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future,” which is about debates over resource scarcity and population growth during the 1960s and 1970s. It was more of an intellectual history. I decided that I wanted to look more closely at the legal and regulatory heart of the environmental movement, the origins of some of the laws of that period, and new organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund.

In the book you describe the proliferation in the 1960s and 1970s of citizen-led nonprofit organizations and entities, as well as law firms, that took on government in the “public interest.” But who gets to define the “public interest”?

Sabin: I looked back at competing definitions of what the “public interest” is and, more to the point, who was defining and protecting it. That’s part of what the book is about: the shift from the idea that federal agencies were the repository of the public interest, and that they could represent it using their expertise, to a new idea — that those agencies were no longer representing the public interest and that citizen groups needed to force the government agencies to do the right thing.

Did the alliance between government, business, and labor impede the government’s ability to represent the public interest?

Sabin: Yes. It really goes to the heart of the post-war administrative state and the evolution of the state’s role in becoming a broker between business and labor and having a somewhat managerial role in the economy.

There was a sense among citizen activists that the regulatory agencies had become captive to those industries that they were supposed to be regulating or that the agencies themselves had become bureaucratic fortresses that had their own ideas about what should be happening. The citizen activists wanted to represent the other side, the unrepresented voices.

Many of these citizens’ groups had liberal political interests. Were you surprised by the extent of their criticism of government, including Democratic administrations?

Sabin: I was surprised by how explicit the new environmental law organizations were in their goal to sue the government. I had thought they would focus primarily on challenging industry. What was interesting was how both the organizers themselves and their funders, such as the Ford Foundation, really talked about the need to watch over the government and create a “counter force” and “antagonist” to government. That was partly against the government as a proxy for industry, of course, since the government was giving permits to industry to do things and it was easier to sue the government. But the government also served as a direct target for its own activities, including highway construction, dam-building, and land management.

If you look at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in the early 1970s, in 90% of its docket of legal cases the government was the party on the other side. That was also true of the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council. That was quite surprising to me.

Ralph Nader in 1975.
Ralph Nader in 1975 (Photo by Thomas J. O’Halloran)

How much was the growth of citizen groups and public interest law inspired by the work of Ralph Nader?

Sabin: One reason Nader is so interesting is that he bridges the public intellectuals of the earlier 1960s, people like Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs and others who wrote influential books that criticized establishment liberalism in a variety of ways, and the organizational leaders of the 1970s. At one point, Nader said he could turn out a book a year focusing on a different issue and try to get a law passed around that. But he didn’t just want to be an independent operator. He wanted to train a whole new generation of young people to bring them into the causes that mattered to him and to mobilize a citizen army essentially to play its role. He was a fount of energy for creating new organizations.

Overall, have these citizen groups had a positive role in our society?

Sabin: They’ve had tremendous accomplishments that Americans enjoy every day, whether it's the safety of their automobiles and other consumer products, cleaner air and water, or the safety of workplaces. There are so many different ways in which this movement has really tried to contain some of the worst excesses of capitalism that we might otherwise be experiencing.

You can go back and look at the scale, for instance, of highway deaths in the mid-60s compared to today and what it means to get into an accident today compared with in the past, when you might have been thrown out of a car with no seatbelt and the door might open in the crash. There are lots of ways in which these groups led to efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to make workplaces safer. There is now a culture around the safety and protection of the human body.

What have been their limitations?

Sabin: In the early 1970s, there was a lot of energy put into legal reform and litigation. But then it turned out that the courts were not a reliable partner. And conservatives created their own public interest organizations that also claimed to represent the public interest.

These public interest lawyers, scientists, and others failed to create a social movement and engage in politics in a fundamental way. They had the idea that expertise, rational action, technical interventions, and the spreading of correct information could have good consequences. But they neglected to be part of something larger, something more social and political.

Right now, there’s also a very interesting tension within liberal circles about some of the major accomplishments of the early 1970s, such as the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA], which mandates environmental review. You can see recent criticisms from the left of NEPA and of state environmental quality acts as being among the reasons that we can’t build housing, renewable energy, or mass transit. So some of the rules facilitating citizen participation may have now become obstacles to the public interest.

Does the American two-party political system contribute to liberals’ dissatisfaction with government?

Sabin: I think it reflects one of the weaknesses of the public interest movement, which is its occasional unwillingness to recognize the compromised, imperfect reality of the world that we actually live in, as opposed to the world that some wish we lived in. A prime example of that is the attraction to the idea of third parties in a system that really is a two-party structure, where a winner takes all, and a third party can easily undermine the party that’s actually most closely aligned with their cause.

One can be sympathetic to the idea that third parties should have a voice, that there are interests and perspectives that aren’t represented by the two-party system. The two-party system sometimes pushes the parties towards the center, or it pushes them not to be adequately representative even if it’s pushing them to the sides. But at the same time, the system is the system that we have.

Why is an understanding of the public interest movement relevant to today’s politics?

Sabin: Looking back at this history highlights a dilemma that liberals continue to face: that the government needs to use its institutional power to advance the common good and the public interest, and that at the same time, the government in wielding that power can do terrible things and needs to be watched over and challenged.

Liberals have struggled to craft a message that combines those two truths. And I think that's really been a struggle — how to take the lessons of the public interest movement and integrate them into an effective way of acting in the public interest through large, powerful, bureaucratic institutions. Conservatives have had it easier in the sense that they have chosen a simpler criticism, which is that big government is bad and the market is good.

There is no such thing, really, as a free market; government, of course, has to play a role. To act like it doesn’t is misleading. But liberals struggle with this. I think the Biden administration’s slogan of “Build Back Better” is an effort to remedy this. The message is that we’re going to build back, we’re going to wield the power of government and do things, but we’re going to try to do it better than what went before. And the “better” is an acknowledgement that what went before was problematic. So, we don’t want to build the pipelines and the highways that got us into problems that we have now. We’re trying to do something different, and we need to act but also to improve how we act.

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