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Published on Wednesday, July 5, 2000 in the New York Times
Ralph Nader Is a Reformer, Not a Spoiler
by John B. Anderson
The attacks on Ralph Nader's presidential candidacy, on the Green Party ticket, stir memories that stretch back two decades. In 1980, after abandoning the Republican primaries, I ran for president as an independent candidate. The arguments lodged against me then were almost identical to those now being waged against Mr. Nader.

When polls taken in the spring of 1980 showed my support in the range of 25 percent, I was promptly labeled a "spoiler," driven more by personal ego than conviction. Critics charged that my candidacy deprived voters of the opportunity to make a clear choice between the right-wing conservatism of Ronald Reagan and the far more moderate incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

My counterargument, based on the advice of Erasmus, was simply this: When confronted with a choice between two evils, do not choose. I felt that a systemic problem in our political process could only be addressed by taking a new direction.

Call it the third way. The electoral system monopolized and controlled by the two majority parties was then, and continues to be, irretrievably broken. More important, the two-party system is not constitutionally ordained.

Our founding fathers worried about the effect of party dissension on our democracy. James Madison wrote that factional strife would obscure a vision of the common good. And George Washington warned about "the baneful effects of the spirit of party."

The "domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension," he said, "is in itself a frightful despotism."

The postwar history of divided government, with control of the White House in the hands of one party and control of Congress in the other, has all too often been a prescription for gridlock.

But internal divisions within the major parties have also contributed to government disarray. Moderate and right-wing Republicans are in strong disagreement, and their inability to be a cohesive political force hurts, rather than strengthens, the democratic process.

Dissonance and acrimony have disillusioned the voting public. In 1996, more than 100 million adults did not bother to vote in the presidential election, according to the Federal Election Commission. And President Clinton was chosen by less than a majority of the votes cast.

Yes, it is unlikely that Mr. Nader will become president. But why shouldn't his views be heard?

Mr. Nader advances issues that the major parties are unwilling to even broach. For instance, the Green Party has advocated "instant-runoff" voting. Under this sensible system, voters cast ballots for their first-, second- and third-choice candidates.

If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the top two candidates are entered into an instant runoff -- and the second- and third-place votes are counted. The election would thereby produce a winner who wins a true majority of votes. Mary Robinson was elected president of Ireland in this fashion, as was Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London.

Ralph Nader should not simply be dismissed as a "spoiler." His candidacy could raise issues and propose solutions that may elevate the political dialogue.

Most important, his candidacy offers the healthy prospect that millions of voters who now feel disenfranchised will become active, interested and involved citizens.

John B. Anderson is president of the Center for Voting and Democracy, which studies alternative electoral systems.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


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