Every four years, commentators who support the Democratic Party reflexively invoke the candidacy of Ralph Nader in 2000. They use Nader to shut down debate about support for alternatives to who the establishment picks in the two most prominent political parties in the United States. Nader is also mentioned to stymie discussion of how to democratize elections.
Nader’s 2000 campaign has once again been raised because pundits, who support the Democratic Party establishment, contend Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination is analogous. His supporters may “spoil” the election by refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election.
What is remarkable is how this tired, old, and erroneous argument against Nader is surfacing in April. It is well before the time one typically reads commentary scolding voters daring to vote their conscience for a Green Party, Libertarian Party or independent presidential candidate. Usually, “spoiler” arguments do not make the rounds in an election cycle until September or October.
The invocation of Nader by a coterie of liberal and establishment Democrats matters because it constrains the possible in America’s democratic republic. It stifles advocacy for changes to ballot access law, instant run-off voting, open debates, and even campaign finance reform. It marginalizes the idealists, who break from the failed and disastrous political pragmatism of the Democratic Party because they believe the records of Democratic candidates are just as, if not more, significant than the speculative fears of what a Republican presidential administration may or may not do.
According to pundits, voters must anoint Hillary Clinton the next President of the United States because “votes cast for the fantasy of Ralph Nader were enough to cost [Al] Gore the presidency.” (Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone). Nader “delayed action against global warming, brought the unspeakable carnage and ongoing quagmire in Iraq, and helped set the stage for a financial crisis unmatched since the Great Depression.” (Paul Fanlund, The Capital Times) John Roberts and Samuel Alito were confirmed to the Supreme Court, and the Afghanistan War was launched. (Charles Blow, New York Times)
The former Ohio political director for the Democratic National Committee in 2000, Edward Joseph, blames Nader for the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and “other disastrous consequences of the Bush presidency.”
Following this logic, Nader isn’t just responsible for the Iraq War and the economic collapse. He is also responsible for the September 11th attacks. Gore obviously would not have missed the threat Osama bin Laden posed to the U.S. Also, Gore would have never botched the response to Hurricane Katrina so Nader is responsible for that too. However, if Nader brought us Bush and Bush brought us President Barack Obama, then Nader is responsible for helping Americans elect the first black president.
The only problem is the facts show Nader did not “spoil” the election for Bush. Gore “spoiled” his election.
Former Democratic Party officials like Cliston Brown (who now writes for The Observer) claim, “By bleeding away liberal votes from Al Gore, Mr. Nader ensured Mr. Bush’s disputed victory. Had just a third of Mr. Nader’s votes in New Hampshire gone to Mr. Gore instead, the Democrat would have won the Granite State’s four electoral votes and the election; the epic meltdown in Florida would have been a mere historical footnote.”
This ignores how tens of thousands of voters were disenfranchised, voting systems and procedures failed (i.e. the butterfly ballot), the U.S. Supreme Court declared Bush the winner, and there were Democrats who voted for Bush or did not vote in the election at all. Not to mention, Gore did not win his home state of Tennessee.
Nevertheless, the myth of “How Nader Cost Gore the Election” pervades debate and is a model for anti-democratic narratives in election coverage.
Why do pundits focus on Sanders’ refusal to quit attacking Clinton so she can pivot to the general election, even though she has not clinched the nomination? Because educating voters about her record may tarnish her in the eyes of voters she needs to win if she is the nominee in November. Donald Trump will likely be the Republican nominee, so Sanders is compared to Nader.
Even when it is still possible for Sanders to win the Democratic nomination, the same pundits who invoke Nader demand Sanders instruct supporters to vote for Clinton in November to prevent all manner of nightmarish scenarios from happening if Trump wins.
Discussion around the “Bernie Or Bust” gambit, largely fueled by media uproar against the very notion, is a sideshow. Yet, the disdain directed at actress and Sanders surrogate Susan Sarandon (who never said she would vote for Trump but was smeared as if she did) is a product of the political and pundit class in the country, which expect voters to tolerate the despicable lack of democracy in their elections.
For example, consider David Roberts of Vox, who put forward the following argument on Twitter:
The U.S. has a two-party system. There will be two viable candidates for president. One of them will win. As a voter, you effectively have two powers. You can give your vote to one candidate; you can deny a vote to the other candidate. If you vote for one candidate, you’re exercising both powers. If you vote for a third-party candidate, you’re only exercising one. That is, you’re denying a vote to both candidates, expressing no preference. If you prefer one candidate of the two, but vote for a third, and your preferred candidate of the two loses, you have some responsibility. Not huge—it’s only one vote!—but some.
Now, what puzzles me is that #BernieorBust types (or Nader dead-enders), when they hear this, treat it as some sort of gambit. Like, “yer forcing us to choose the lesser of two evils!” Or “yer trying to silence dissent!” Or “yer shilling for the establishment!” And it may be true that those are accurate descriptions of people’s motivations, in some cases. But if you condemn/refute/reject someone’s motivations, it’s not the same as refuting the content of their assertions. The (admittedly grim) choice between two evils is not primarily *a thing establishment liberals say.* It is primarily *a thing.* How people talk about it, and their motivations, are orthogonal to the truth of the thing itself. It is what it is, feelings aside. It would remain true even if no one ever said it. It would remain true even if everyone said the opposite! If you’re contemplating a third party vote, you need to grapple with the reality of the situation.
The fact that people criticizing you, for your choice are jerks, or sellouts, or fake progressives, or whatever, is peripheral at best. Identifying them as jerks and sellouts—even if true!—in no way releases you from responsibility for the implications of your choice. The (admittedly awful) two-party system is not something anyone is *doing* to you. The people pointing it out are not *creating* it. It just is what it is, pending fundamental (and unlikely) reform of the Constitution & various electoral rules. So, fine, yell at the Hitlarybots who scold you. Condemn them all you like. But when yer done, the two-party system is still there. Shitty political realities do not disappear just because you’ve (correctly) identified them as shitty. That is all.
This argument is a flaming bag of poop with alarming emissions that need to be offset somehow to protect the environment. Essentially, Roberts argues just because there is a cancer rotting at the center of American politics does not change the fact that the cancer will still be there tomorrow. Do not do anything to challenge or remove the cancer. Citizens will never be able to cure the cancer. Liberate yourself, and learn to live with the cancer.
Of course, the two-party system is not going away anytime soon. Any time there is a movement against the two-party system, the establishment of both parties fights back to protect the system. They allow candidates like Nader and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who make demands to be included in debates, to be arrested. The Democrats deploy operatives, who zealously harass and intimidate petition circulators attempting to get third-party candidates on state ballots. Party leaders overtly wield the media to demonize such candidates in ways starkly similar to how Sanders has been covered in the primary election.
Establishment Democrats, and the pundits which those Democrats depend upon to maintain their grasp on progressive politics, have run out of arguments against Sanders. They have tried just about everything they can come up with. The race was over in March until Sanders picked up momentum by blowing out Clinton in five of six states. Sanders now is likely to win Wisconsin and significantly diminish the number of delegates Clinton takes in New York. So, they recognize they face a future, where people reject their ideas and panic because all they have left is Nader mythology and lectures against “purity” or voting one’s conscience.