I have admired Ralph Nader for many years. I met him in 1976 while working as an assistant editor of The Progressive magazine. In the summer of 2000 my wife and I discussed his candidacy with him and subsequently contributed to his campaign.
Mainstream Democrats have not convinced me that his candidacy cost Al Gore the presidency. Elections in the United States are decided not merely by the choices voters make but also by who goes to the polls. Our largest party is the party of nonvoters, disproportionately constituted by the young and the poor. Exit polls and survey research failed to address the question of how many Gore as well as Nader voters were lured into the political process by Nader's candidacy. In the run-up to the 2000 election, polls consistently showed Nader around 5 percent of the electorate. It seems entirely plausible to me that many of these Nader supporters, idealists and first-time voters drawn to the political process by his campaign, made last- second decisions to go with Gore as a close election loomed.
In addition, polling data indicate that the most successful periods of Gore's campaign were when he sounded populist themes, often in response to Nader. The Democratic Party fails to acknowledge its own inadequacies. It rejects open debates and equitable voting procedures like instant runoff voting that would give third parties input without being spoilers. If Democrats are serious about deterring Nader, rather than invective they might try bargaining with him by offering concessions on these procedural issues right now.
Nonetheless, I will not be voting for Nader in 2004. Two-thousand four is very different from 2000. In office, Bush has been the social conservative most of us expected and feared. But in the aftermath of Sept. 11 another side of his conservatism has gained traction: an extremely repressive agenda with respect to civil liberties and a willingness to use every procedural trick at his disposal to impose his views. American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner has recently documented changes in U.S. House of Representatives procedures that centralized lawmaking in the hands of House leadership while also denying information and input to the rank and file of both parties.
We on the left too often bandy about terms like fascism, but there is a confluence of forces in American life that will make dissent ever more tenuous if we cannot arrest these trends. The repressive Patriot Act combined with the consolidation of the media, the centralization of congressional leadership, and the packing of the federal courts constitutes a complementary and destructive mix. A victory over George W. Bush, even by a centrist Democrat, will at least create more space for political discussion.
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In 2000, Nader's candidacy was valuable because Gore had drifted so close to the Republican mainstream that differences were far less significant than Gore's supporters claimed. But Bush as president has governed so far to the right of his campaign and concerns about economic inequality, civil liberties and the war are now so substantial that no Democrat can win the election without addressing these issues in at least a moderately progressive fashion. The failure of Joe Lieberman's tactically and politically misguided candidacy amply demonstrates this fact.
Yes, the ways in which the Democratic nominee will address these issues in the election and certainly in office will prove to be far less than progressives would like. But Nader's run will do little to further mobilize voters, many of whom are already scared of or deeply bothered by the Bush administration.
I supported Nader in 2000 in part in the hope his receiving 5 percent of the vote would qualify the Green Party for matching funds in 2004. There is no possibility this campaign could reach even the 2.7 percent of the vote he received in 2000. In a context where there is considerable fear of the incumbent and where any Democrat must stake out at least a moderately progressive position, Nader's candidacy will serve at best as a distraction and at worst might siphon off votes in key states.
When historians re-examine our era they will regard Ralph Nader as one of the most progressive forces in politics. His contributions to civic life exceed those of any elected official. But that activism has generally taken other forms than electoral participation. Nader need not and should not award carte blanche to the Democratic nominee. Instead of running he might build grass-roots organizations that would lend principled and limited support to the Democratic nominee.
As such he might still criticize inadequate stances even during the campaign. And surely any organizations he inspires should persist in their endeavors even if a Democrat is elected. Such civic organizations would develop awareness of issues and energize many who have been alienated from politics. A Bush victory, however, will only further erode prospects for any future Ralph Naders.