My Support for Ralph Nader, Ten Years Later: Lessons Learned

Like many people who campaigned and voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, the upcoming tenth anniversary of that disastrous election and awareness of the tragic results continues to haunt me. While it was perhaps the most serious political misjudgment I have ever made, it is important to recognize why at the time it seemed to be a quite rational course of action. It is also important to recognize what both the Democratic Party as well as progressives who are tempted to support left alternatives to the Democrats can learn from it.

It should be emphasized at the outset that Nader did not cause George W. Bush to be elected president. Bush was not elected president. The election was stolen. In addition to the Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority that blocked the recount that would have provided Gore with a victory in Florida thereby giving him a majority of the electoral college, many hundreds of predominantly African-American voters – the vast majority of whom would have voted for Gore – were denied the right to vote because their names were similar to convicted felons who had been disenfranchised because of their crimes. It is also noteworthy that a 1996 crime bill pushed by then-Vice-President Gore dramatically increased the number of crimes considered felonies and thereby the number of convicted felons, the majority of whom in Florida are poor minorities who would have much more likely supported Gore over Bush had they (and the non-felons with similar names) been allowed to vote, thereby providing the Democratic nominee with a comfortable margin.

It is also important to emphasize that, even if Bush had fairly won Florida’s electoral votes, Gore received a solid majority of the popular vote nationally, outpolling Bush by more than a half million votes. Nader and the Green Party oppose the Electoral College and support presidential elections based upon a popular nationwide vote. Gore and the Democrats, by contrast, supported the archaic and undemocratic Electoral College system. It is ironic, then, that the Democrats continue to blame Nader and the Greens for Bush’s election that came as a result of an unfair electoral system that they supported and Greens opposed.

At the same time, there is little question that had Nader’s name not been on the ballot in Florida, enough Green voters would have probably cast their ballots Democratic instead, raising Gore’s margin over Bush high enough so that the Republicans could have not gotten away with the fraud that tilted the balance.

How Gore’s Politics Alienated the Democratic Base

This then raises the question as to why so many people like me, who previously and subsequently voted Democratic in presidential elections, chose to vote for the Green Party in 2000.

Many people have forgotten that before Al Gore became a progressive hero as the most visible leader of the movement to curb climate change – perhaps the biggest single issue of our day and for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize-he was widely-recognized as being on the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. As one of the three finalists in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, Gore positioned himself clearly on the right, with Jesse Jackson on the left and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis – the eventual nominee – in the center.

Gore was one of the most ardent Democratic supporters of Reagan’s right-wing foreign policy agenda, supporting such dangerous and destabilizing Pentagon boondoggles as the B-1 and B-2 bombers and the Trident II, cruise and Pershing missiles, all of which significantly raised the threat of nuclear war. He also supported U.S. funding and training of the Contra terrorists attacking Nicaragua and the murderous junta in El Salvador. In 1991, he was among the minority of Senate Democrats who supported the Gulf War. He was an outspoken supporter of a series of right-wing Israeli governments, opposing the Palestinians’ right to statehood alongside Israel or even allowing Palestinians into the peace process.

As the Democratic presidential nominee in 2000, his hawkish world view did not seem to wane. Even with the end of the Cold War, he supported increasing the already-bloated U.S. military budget. He was apparently ready to tear up the SALT I treaty – negotiated by Nixon and Kissinger and long the foundation of nuclear arms control – in order to pursue a dubious missile defense strategy. He opposed human rights provisions for trade agreements and even for arms transfers. He opposed the treaty banning land mines. He supported laws that threatened jail and fines for Americans simply for travelling to Cuba. He defended the ongoing bombing of Iraq and the starving of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children through draconian sanctions. He strongly supported efforts by the Word Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund to weaken environmental laws, consumer protection and labor rights in the name of “free trade,” and was the administration’s most visible advocate of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.)

His positions weren’t much better on domestic issues. He opposed raising the minimum wage to match the cost of living. He not only supported the death penalty, but made it far more difficult falsely convicted death row inmates to appeal their cases in federal courts. He supported the repeal of federal guarantees of assistance to poor children. He supported Federal Reserve policies of keeping wages low to prop up stock prices and taxing earnings from the stock market at lower rates then income from actual work. He supported the repeal of Depression-era banking regulations designed to protect small depositors and restrictions on derivatives that helped lead to the current financial crisis for which scores of Democrats are now being punished at the polls. He supported the Defense of Marriage Act in an effort to prevent gay and lesbian couples from having equal rights. (Earlier in his career, he referred to homosexuality as “abnormal sexual behavior” and voted against a bill that would protect patients with HIV from discrimination.) Even on environmental issues, his record was mixed, supporting efforts to undermine the endangered species act, pushing for nuclear power, and supporting an increase in clear-cut logging of old growth forests.

While most of us who supported Nader did not expect to agree with the Democratic nominee for president on every issue in order to vote for him, the fact that Gore took positions which only a few years earlier would have been considered to be in the mainstream of the Republican Party was simply too much to bear.

When he received the Democratic presidential nomination in July of 2000, there was hope that he would try to reassure the party’s disillusioned base by choosing a more liberal vice-presidential running mate. Instead, he chose Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, who had the most conservative voting record of any Democrat in the Senate. Indeed, Lieberman was to the right of the Republican incumbent he defeated when first elected in 1988, quit the Democratic Party in 2006, and endorsed Republican senator John McCain for president in 2008. There was no reason to think that Gore’s appointments for cabinet posts and other key positions in his administration would be any better.

It cannot be stressed enough that had Gore instead embraced an even slightly more progressive agenda, he would not have lost so many Democratic voters to Nader. Rather than modify his positions more in line with the party’s more liberal base, however, Gore initially worked to keep Nader off the ballot in a number of states to prevent voters from even having the choice. And, while Gore was willing to debate Bush, the opponent on his right, he refused to debate his opponent on his left, apparently fearing how voters might react if they were able to compare his positions with those of the well-respected consumer advocate. In the final week of the campaign, recognizing that he was losing liberal voters to his Green Party challenger, Gore did shift the tone of his campaign somewhat to the left, spouting more populist themes. In those final days, polls showed he gained three percentage points, finally pulling slightly ahead of Bush, while Nader dropped from 6% to 3%.

But it was too little too late. So many of us were so disgusted with eight years of center-right governance of the Clinton Administration and the prospects of more under Al Gore, we just could not stomach voting Democratic, even though it was apparent that the election was very close. After eight years of bitter disappointment with Clinton and Gore in power in Washington, it felt cynical and self-defeating to once again vote for a lesser evil, which seemingly would only contribute to the downward spiral which was taking the Democratic Party further and further away from its progressive heyday with the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. In many ways, then, Nader was a symptom, not a cause, of the large-scale alienation with Gore.

At the same time, few of us realized just how far to the right this country would go under George W. Bush. Many of us expected a more moderately conservative administration similar to that of his father. Indeed, Bush’s anticipated pick for Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was in many ways more moderate that the hawkish Madeleine Albright, who served under Clinton, or any of Gore’s likely picks to lead the State Department. While the relatively weak Texas governorship did not offer many clues, there was little indication that the younger Bush would embrace the very neo-conservative agenda his father had rejected. Indeed, during the first eight months of the administration, the more moderate elements in the new Bush administration appeared to be winning out against the far right. That all changed on September 11.

Strategic Miscalculation

Back in 2000, it appeared to many of us that the only way to stop the ongoing rightward drift of the Democratic Party was to support a credible challenge from the left. History offered a number of examples, such as the way the strong showing of the Socialist Party in the 1932 election prompted the newly-elected President Franklin Roosevelt, who originally ran as a fiscal conservative, to instead adopt the New Deal. There was some evidence at that time that the Green Party could have a similar effect.

During the 1990s, the Greens were a major player in New Mexico politics. By polling 10-15% in the 1996 election against Gore/Clinton-type Democrats, Green candidates sapped enough votes away from Democratic nominees to allow Republicans to win two House seats and the governorship. In response, the New Mexico Democratic Party moved well to the left: Fred Harris, the populist former Oklahoma Senator, became state party chair and focused on wooing the party’s liberal base. (Harris’ wife LaDonna, a prominent American Indian attorney, was the vice-presidential nominee of the progressive Citizens Party in 1980.) In 1998, the Democrats nominated solid progressives in the two house districts they had lost during the previous election cycle, causing the Greens’ share of the vote to shrink to well under 5%, resulting in the Democrats defeating the Republicans with far better candidates than they had nominated two years earlier.

Though developing a credible third party challenge on a national level is a greater challenge, many of us held on to the hope in 2000 that Nader would receive at least 5% of the vote nationally, thereby crossing the threshold that would provide the Green Party federal matching funds for the next election. In becoming a viable third party on a national level, there would be a solid base from which to raise issues being ignored by the two major parties: challenging the domination of our economy and politics by big business and corporate-led globalization, redirecting our bloated military spending to human needs, supporting single-payer health care, enacting meaningful campaign finance reform, making environmental protection a priority, ending capital punishment, stopping arms transfers to repressive regimes, opposing the Israeli occupation, etc. Fear that the Greens might get this 5% may have been what motivated the Democrats’ last-minute anti-Nader campaign even more than the fear that Nader votes might actually throw the election to Bush.

Unfortunately, following the debacle of the national election of 2000, rather than learn their lesson and move to the left, the Democrats moved still further to the right, with the majority of Democratic senators voting with their Republican counterparts in October 2002 to authorize the fraudulently elected president with the unprecedented authority to invade an oil-rich country on the far side of the world that was no threat to the United states. On the House side, most Democrats voted against authorizing the war, but the most important Democratic leaders sided with Bush as well. Though the party not controlling the White House normally picks up seats in mid-term Congressional elections, as a result of this betrayal of the vast majority of Democratic voters who opposed the invasion of Iraq, millions stayed home, resulting in the Republicans regaining control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House.

Then, in 2004, as their candidate for president, the Democratic Party ended up nominating Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who – along with his running mate North Carolina senator John Edwards – were among the minority of Congressional Democrats who supported the invasion of Iraq, an abomination which even Gore strenuously opposed. Not surprisingly, even with a far weaker showing by Nader or the Green Party, the Democrats lost again.

The Bottom Line

The reality is that, if one looks at voting as strategic choice, it almost always makes sense to vote Democratic.

There will always be people who can’t vote for certain Democrats on principle. I could never, for example, cast my ballot for someone who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, because such people clearly have no respect for the most fundamental principles of the post-WWII international legal system or the U.S. Constitution and demonstrated a willingness to lie about non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” and sacrifice the lives of over 4500 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for the sake of oil and empire. Despite what happened in 2000, then, I could not vote for John Kerry in 2004. Nor can I ever vote for Dianne Feinstein, my Democratic senator. Some people have higher thresholds, some lower.

One can also make the case that voting is a sacred right that should not be exercised for strategic reasons, but on moral principles alone. The suffragettes and civil rights advocates who risked their lives for the right to vote were not doing so simply to be able to cast their ballot for a lesser evil. There is a related argument that it is morally and psychologically damaging to compromise one’s principles by voting for someone whose policies you don’t agree with against someone whose policies you do believe in; that it is important to vote your hopes rather than your fears.

However, the idea that one can “teach the Democrats a lesson” by voting for a progressive third party or not voting at all and thereby allowing Republicans to win just doesn’t seem to work.

Also important is that fact that, though the differences between Democrats and Republicans may be relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, the power of U.S. government is so great that even small differences can make huge differences in the lives of many millions of people. Just ask the people of Iraq and other countries who have suffered so much as a result of those of us who thought we could “teach the Democrats a lesson” ten years ago. Those of us here in the United States who are relatively privileged and secure need to be sensitive about how our decisions effect those less privileged and more vulnerable, both those in this country and the billions of others around the world.

The reality is that, despite Gore’s failings and the fact that it seemed to make a lot of sense at the time, the world would have been a much better place had so many people like myself not supported Nader in his 2000 campaign. As journalist Robert Parry observed, a Gore presidency “would have taken the country in a far different direction. Most significantly, he might have made significant progress in getting the United States to face up to the crisis of global warming, an existential threat to mankind that Bush studiously ignored. It may be a bitter irony that the one major political accomplishment of America’s Green Party will be that it helped condemn the world to environmental disaster.”

So, as reluctant as I am to say it: If you can stomach it, please vote Democratic this Tuesday.

Then, even more importantly, fight like hell to make sure they stop selling out to the militarists and the corporations. With only a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic officials have rarely led when it comes to progressive positions; they have generally had to be dragged kicking and screaming by their constituents. We were able to force many Democratic elected officials to move to the left on civil rights, Vietnam, Central America, nuclear power, women’s rights, South Africa, East Timor, globalization, Iraq, gay rights, and other issues.

And here is the difference: Democrats, if pressed sufficiently, can change.

Republicans, by contrast, are hopeless.