Florida and the Nader Factor
By Martin A. Lee
Al Gore should thank his lucky stars. If so many Ralph Nader supporters hadn't switched at the end, held their noses, and voted Democratic, Gore wouldn't have finished in a virtual dead heat with Bush. Gore would have lost the election outright, no questions asked.
But the Gore team doesn't seem to appreciate this. Rather than showing a bit of gratitude to Green defectors for keeping Gore competitive, top Democrats blasted Nader, pegging him as the spoiler, the devil incarnate, and vowing that he'll never again be welcome on Capital Hill. "Nader cost us the election!" cried Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, even though the race for president was still too close to call.
The big media skewered Nader – and no doubt more mudslinging and recrimination will be forthcoming. They called him reckless, irresponsible, egomaniacal, a windmill-tilter of the worst sort because he threatened Al Gore's chances. But what really irked newspaper editors the most was that rumpled Ralph, unrepentant to the end, had the temerity to challenge the holiest of holies, the U.S. two-party system.
Nader denounced the money-infested electoral process as hopelessly corrupt, and millions of people agreed with him. That didn't go over well among opinion-makers who seem to venerate the two-party system as the apex of human achievement. Nader's decision to carry the Green Party mantle and his refusal to back down under pressure was not simply a misguided strategy, according to his liberal detractors. What he did was much worse. By taking aim at the GOP-Democratic duopoly, Nader had committed a heresy. He was guilty of a sacrilege. That's why he provoked such vitriol in the press.
Democrats take heed. Scapegoating Nader when Gore was such a pathetic candidate is an exercise in denial. It's ludicrous to blame Nader for the poor performance of Gore, whose GOP-lite impersonation inspired little enthusiasm.
One could just as easily argue that by running such an ineffective campaign, Gore undermined Green Party efforts to win five percent of the vote and qualify for matching funds in 2004. Many would-be Green Party supporters reluctantly abandoned Nader at crunch time because they were spooked by Democratic scare tactics about the litany of inevitable horrors that would ensue if Bush emerged the victor.
Who knows how many more votes Nader would have gotten had Gore been a more potent candidate? And that's only one factor to consider when assessing the strength of the Nader constituency. Had he been permitted to participate in the presidential debates, the Green Party doubtless would have gotten a big boost at the polls. And if the United States was a more democratic country with elections based on proportional representation, rather than an antiquated, winner-take-all electoral college, the Nader vote would have soared.
A survey cited in the September 11 issue of Business Week indicated that 74 percent of U.S. citizens agree with Nader's primary contention that corporations wield too much political clout and exert their power in ways that are contrary to the public interest. I believe that's precisely why Nader was excluded from the debates – because his ideas ring true and have broad-based, mainstream appeal.
Let there be no mistake about it: Nader was the conscience of the presidential campaign. Without him, the elections would have been an utterly dreadful exercise. He raised key issues - corporate domination of government, child poverty, the widening gap between rich and poor, universal health care, to name a few – that Gore and Bush wouldn't go near.
Nader not only made it interesting, he had a significant impact that far exceeded his 2.7 million vote total. This became abundantly clear in Florida, where the Green Party grabbed 97,000 ballots and threw a monkey wrench into the two-party machine. While relatively small in the overall picture, the Nader vote was sufficient to prevent either major party from getting a majority or laying claim to an irrefutable victory.
As a result, Nader's candidacy will leave an indelible mark on the American political scene. Whoever squeaks into the White House is going to be cursed by questions and nagging doubts about his legitimacy - and this will forever taint his administration. Whether it's Bush or Gore, the president will appear illegitimate to tens of millions of Americans, even to many of those who voted for him.
It's poetically justice that the much-maligned Nader should have had such a huge impact on the outcome. If he was any kind of spoiler, then he ruined it for the GOP as well as the Democrats by denying each party a clean victory. Nader cast a pox on both their houses. And that, of course, was the purpose of his campaign all along – not to win the elections, but to educate, expose, and criticize the fraudulent nature of the two-party system when both sides are in hock to big money interests.
Should Bush get the nod, it may prove even more difficult for him to salvage any pretense of legitimacy given that he also lost the popular vote. Moreover, with Congress poised for gridlock, Bush would not appear to be in an optimal position to push through a far right agenda. At this point, no one knows to what extent he'll kowtow to extremist leaders of the religious right with whom he secretly conferred during the campaign (reporters were barred from these meetings).
What about abortion? Well, you can't blame Nader for the fact that Senate Democrats voted unanimously to confirm Judge Scalia to the Supreme Court. It's not Ralph's fault that a gaggle of donkeys tipped the balance in favor of Clarence Thomas. If Dubya decides to ignore his pro-choice mom and appoint another reactionary, then the Democrats ought to get off their hind legs for a change and block any Supreme Court nominee who threatens Row v. Wade.
One need not be a clairvoyant to surmise that irrespective of who sits in the Oval Office next term, the slurping and belching at the corporate trough will continue. Maybe it will be somewhat more venal and obvious if Bush gets the nod. But there's scant evidence to suggest that Gore would pander any less to big business. Nor can we assume that he would wreak significantly less havoc than his GOP rival.
Just as it took Nixon, a Republican, to break the diplomatic ice with Communist China, so, too, Clinton and Gore, as Democrats, were able to run roughshod over the poor by implementing their insidious version of welfare reform. Had a Republican president led the charge to dismantle welfare, the Democrats would have been more inclined to raise partisan objections.
If the Democrats want to win decisively the next time around, they should stop castigating Nader and alienating his progressive constituency. Nader represents a growing force to be reckoned with in American politics. Let's be thankful that he, rather than Patrick Buchanan, speaks for the anti-corporate populism that's percolating at the grassroots.
For many people, voting for the Green Party was a small but important gesture that linked them to a broader protest movement, the movement for social justice and economic democracy that demonstrated in Seattle and Prague. They should not be cast as spoilers because they rejected an awful choice and voted for a fundamentally different kind of society.
Martin A. Lee, author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens, writes a weekly column for the SF Bay Guardian.