The story of the dramatic postwar struggle over the proper role of citizens and government in American society.
In the 1960s and 1970s, an insurgent attack on traditional liberalism took shape in America. It was built on new ideals of citizen advocacy and the public interest. Environmentalists, social critics, and consumer advocates like Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, and Ralph Nader crusaded against what they saw as a misguided and often corrupt government. Drawing energy from civil rights protests and opposition to the Vietnam War, the new citizens’ movement drew legions of followers and scored major victories. Citizen advocates disrupted government plans for urban highways and new hydroelectric dams and got Congress to pass tough legislation to protect clean air and clean water. They helped lead a revolution in safety that forced companies and governments to better protect consumers and workers from dangerous products and hazardous work conditions.
And yet, in the process, citizen advocates also helped to undermine big government liberalism—the powerful alliance between government, business, and labor that dominated the United States politically in the decades following the New Deal and World War II. Public interest advocates exposed that alliance’s secret bargains and unintended consequences. They showed how government power often was used to advance private interests rather than restrain them. In the process of attacking government for its failings and its dangers, the public interest movement struggled to replace traditional liberalism with a new approach to governing. The citizen critique of government power instead helped clear the way for their antagonists: Reagan-era conservatives seeking to slash regulations and enrich corporations.
Public Citizens traces the history of the public interest movement and explores its tangled legacy, showing the ways in which American liberalism has been at war with itself. The book forces us to reckon with the challenges of regaining our faith in government’s ability to advance the common good.
About the Author
Paul Sabin is a professor of history at Yale University and director of the Yale Environmental Humanities Program. He is the author of Public Citizens and The Bet. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Elegantly argued and meticulously documented…Sabin makes his case intelligently and forcefully.
— Timothy Noah, New York Times Book Review
Crisp, clear, eloquent, and carefully focused on the political changes of the 1970s.
— Kim Phillips-Fein, The New Republic
Carefully researched and patiently argued.
— Louis Menand, New Yorker
There is a stereotype of the cleavage in American politics, which is that Democrats want to use the government to do big things, and Republicans don’t, and that is the fight. But if you look more deeply…there’s a bit of a divided Democratic soul here…There’s a great new book on this called Public Citizens by Paul Sabin.
— Ezra Klein on The Ezra Klein Show
[Sabin's] cogent history is timely and likely to be enduring. An insightful and squirm-inducing account of how the good guys won and then lost.
— Kirkus Reviews (starred)
Sabin crafts a coherent historical narrative out of the alphabet soup of government agencies and public interest groups, and sheds light on major developments in American politics. This deep dive delivers plenty of rewards.
— Publishers Weekly
This book could not be more timely. Paul Sabin powerfully demonstrates that the liberal postwar order was not only undercut by the rise of the right, but also by an activist left that for good reason decried government’s deafness to citizens’ needs and participation. How best to serve the public interest is the greatest challenge of our time, and we could have no better guide through the historical thicket than Sabin.
— Lizabeth Cohen, author of Saving America's Cities
Paul Sabin’s history of America’s 1960s and ’70s is directly relevant to the country’s civic, political, and ethical choices in the decades ahead. This is a surprising, insightful, and lastingly useful book.
— James Fallows, author of Our Towns
Astute and nuanced, Paul Sabin uses Ralph Nader and the public interest movement he helped spawn to tell a fascinating story of American governance and the limits of markets, regulation, and citizen action.
— Richard White, author of Railroaded
Paul Sabin has written a fascinating account of the forgotten history of public interest liberalism. Looking back at Ralph Nader and allied good government warriors, Sabin offers a powerful reminder that the attack on big government didn’t just come from the right but the left as well.
— Julian Zelizer, author of Burning Down the House
Long before 'the Reagan Revolution,' an army of citizen activists launched a searing attack on liberalism, big government, and the administrative state—and helped pave the way for market-oriented conservatism. Paul Sabin’s timely, provocative, and deeply ironic account should be required reading for everyone interested in environmentalism, consumerism, political economy, and the 1970s.
— Laura Kalman, author of The Long Reach of the Sixties