Published on Friday, August 6, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
Ralph Nader: Let The Voter Beware
by Thom Hartmann
The frauds and deceptions of the Bush administration are legion and, sadly, to be expected, based on the Bush family's past (from sweetheart business deals going back to WWII, to smearing John McCain in South Carolina in 2000, to lying to the American people just before the election of 2002 about the threats Iraq posed).
But few people expected Ralph Nader - one of America's finest defenders of the public interest and the commons - to employ deception in an election.
Specifically, Nader has gone to great lengths to exploit the lack of knowledge most Americans have about how other democracies around the world work, and thus deceive people about both the history and present reality of our electoral system and the role of third parties in it.
When the Founders and the Framers of the Constitution put together American democracy in 1787, it had never been tried before in the way they visualized. In ancient Athens, it took 6001 citizens to turn out and agree to pass a law; Rome was a republic, but not of, by, or for "the people"; and the Iroquois Confederacy had no "executive branch" to elect, a remnant from the days of kings that the Framers were unwilling to give up. Thus, the Framers of the Constitution had no "truly democratic" model to work from.
So they created a flawed constitution.
The major flaw was that national elections are held on a first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all basis. Which means that if three or more candidates compete in a race, it's virtually guaranteed that somebody with less than a majority of the vote will end up winning political power. The result of this flaw is non-democratic minority rule, instead of the democratic ideal of majority rule.
A good example of this happened in the 2002 election in my state of Vermont, where the Republican candidates became Governor and Lieutenant Governor with 45 percent and 41 percent of the vote respectively because each had more votes than his Democratic or Progressive opponents alone. (Example: Republican Brian Dubie - 41%; Democrat Peter Shumlin - 32%; Progressive Anthony Pollina - 25%. The Republican "won.") The majority of Vermont voters selected liberal or progressive candidates, but conservatives are in charge of the state - the exact anti-democratic result that gave some of the Framers nightmares.
James Madison was the most outspokenly worried about this. In the 1787 Federalist #10, he goes into a lengthy discussion of the danger of "factions" - one aspect of what we today call political parties - emerging. First he puts a good face on the problem, suggesting that the new Constitution will solve the "violence" done to democracy by factions. But in the next sentence, he admits his fear that he and the other Framers had not truly solved the problem of what would happen if "factions" were to emerge.
"Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union [based on the Constitution], none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction," wrote Madison. "The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. ... The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished..."
The problem was that if factions were to emerge as political parties, it would mean there could only be two of them, for if more than two parties emerged then the majority of people would almost always remain unrepresented, while the most well-organized minority would end up ruling.
Madison concluded by saying he felt the Constitution he and Hamilton were promoting with the Federalist Papers was the best solution they could come up with to solve the problem of factions.
But, as he noted, the constitution wasn't perfect: "The valuable improvements made by the American constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarrantable partiality, to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger [of factions] on this side, as was wished and expected." His only solution was to beg Americans not to form factions.
Although George Washington was soon thereafter elected unanimously and by acclimation, America's second presidential election (won by John Adams) almost immediately led to the creation of Madison's feared "factions" in the form of Vice-President Thomas Jefferson's "Democratic-Republican" party (today called the "Democratic Party"). Ever since then, we've largely been a two-party nation - because our Constitution is written in a way that causes anything else to result in the least democratic outcome to an election.
Most of the rest of the world, however, has learned from our mistake and taken a different path.
Of the 86 other "fully democratic" nations in the world (according to the UN), only a few like Greece and Australia had repeated our mistake, although Australia solved the problem with a national variation on what in America is called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), where you select your first, second, third, etc., preference among candidates, and if there's no majority winner, the "instant runoff" is instantly recalculated.
Had this been in place in the US in 2000, for example, and had most of Nader's voters chosen Gore as their second choice (as most polls indicate was the case), then when neither Gore nor Bush received more than 50 percent of the vote, Nader's first-choice votes (he being the lowest of the vote-drawers) would have reverted to their second-choice and Gore would have been elected by the majority of the people (as he was anyway, but that's a different rant).
Few other democracies are locked into a two-party system like ours because most emerged in their current forms after 1861, when John Stuart Mill proposed the idea of proportional representation in his book "Considerations on Representational Government." It solved, once and for all, the problem of Madison's factions making a nation less democratic.
Under proportional representation - in use in virtually all the other democracies of the world - the percent of the vote a party gets determines the percent of seats they have in Congress or Parliament. It's far more democratic than our system, and if Madison were alive today he'd be wishing he'd thought of it in 1787 when he helped write and sell the Constitution.
While many local governments in America are becoming more democratic by instituting IRV (mostly at the urging of the Green Party), we still have a federal system that is purely winner-take-all, and thus "most democratic" when only two parties compete. (And even then only partially as "democratic" as IRV or proportional representation nations.)
Which brings us back to Ralph Nader.
In a February 2004 appearance on Meet The Press, Nader said to Tim Russert, "You'd never find that type of thing [resistance to a third party] in Canada or Western democracies in Europe. It is an offense to deny millions of people who might want to vote for our candidacy an opportunity to vote for our candidacy. Instead, they [the Republicans and Democrats] want to say, 'No, we're not going to let you have an opportunity to vote,' for our candidacy."
Nader added, "There's a tremendous bias in state laws against third parties and independent candidates bred by the two major parties, who passed these laws. They don't like competition."
Amazingly, many people are taken in by this argument, as they don't understand the difference between our system and those of most European nations, and don't realize that our election system was developed before there were any political parties whatsoever. Tragically, Nader's argument is most readily believed on college campuses, where study of American history and political science in both high school and college is at an all-time low.
Why would Ralph Nader try so hard to mislead his audiences? He is no fool, and as an attorney he certainly knows the history and content of the US Constitution. Many progressives are baffled as to why he would work so hard to perpetuate ignorance - particularly among young voters - about the crucial issue of how democracies work and how our republic can be made more democratic.
Unfortunately, at the moment, third parties mean less, not more democracy when it comes to voting in most elections in the US (because they cause minority-supported candidates to be elected and majorities of voters are thus unrepresented). Yet third (and fourth and fifth, etc.) parties are also critical to bringing out issues that the two big parties don't or won't address.
The simple solution is to institute IRV in the United States, a step that many communities across the country have already taken. But to do this at the national level will require the agreement and participation of at least one of the two major parties - which is why many Progressives are supporting the Greens and, at the same time, infiltrating and becoming active in the Democratic Party.
It's similar to the strategy conservatives successfully used in the 1970s after the 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater, when they proceeded to infiltrate and ultimately take control of the Republican Party and then bring Reagan to power. As progressives do the same with the Democratic Party - while still helping keep the Green Party and other progressive movements strong - we can then use the Democratic Party to push for IRV, re-enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, an end to "corporate personhood," and other progressive and truly democratic reforms.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt proved, only by influencing (both from without and from within) the power of one of the two national parties can progressives truly make the United States of America a more democratic and egalitarian nation. As more and more progressives join the Democratic Party, participate in meetings and caucuses, and present themselves as delegates, we will gain enough power to bring about changes (such as IRV) that will result in a renewal and reinvigoration of this great democracy, and pave the way for third, fourth, and fifth parties to participate in a truly democratic fashion in America.
But first we must correct the misperception Nader is pushing that the problem third parties face is purely the fault of the existing two parties. While it's true they resist third parties as a challenge to their power, the real problem is a flawed electoral system left over from 1787.
And, as Australia demonstrated, a two-party system can be changed to a multiparty system - but only when the nation's citizens realize the true source of the problem.
Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show. www.thomhartmann .com His most recent books are "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," "Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights," "We The People: A Call To Take Back America," and "What Would Jefferson Do?: A Return To Democracy."