Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wrote a column about Ralph Nader earlier this week that uses some interesting language. Noting that it's now been 16 years since Nader ran for president and garnered enough dissenting votes to help elect George W. Bush, he wrote (emphasis mine):
"That is enough time for Nader to confess his role in enabling one of the most disastrous presidencies in American history, or at least to come up with a better explanation for his decision. Instead, Nader has repeated his same litany of evasions, most recently in an interview with Jeremy Hobson on WBUR, where he dismissed all criticisms of his 2000 campaign as 'fact deprived.'"
Nader refuses to confess! What is this, the Spanish Inquisition? Fetch the comfy chair!
It would be foolish to argue that Nader's run in 2000 didn't enable Bush's presidency. Though there were other factors, Nader's presence on the ballot was surely a big one.
But the career Democrats of the Beltway and their buddies in the press have turned the Nader episode into something very like the creation story of the Third Way political movement. And like many religious myths, it's gotten very tiresome.
The Democratic Party leaders have trained their followers to perceive everything in terms of one single end-game equation: If you don't support us, you're supporting Bush/Rove/Cheney/Palin/Insert Evil Republican Here.
That the monster of the moment, Donald Trump, is a lot more monstrous than usual will likely make this argument an even bigger part of the Democratic Party platform going forward.
It's a sound formula for making ballot-box decisions, but the people who push it never seem content to just use it to win elections. They're continually trying to make an ethical argument out of it, to prove people who defy The Equation are, whether they know it or not, morally wrong and in league with the other side.
Beltway Democrats seem increasingly to believe that all people who fall within a certain broad range of liberal-ish beliefs owe their votes and their loyalty to the Democratic Party.
That's why, as a socially liberal person who probably likes trees and wouldn't want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, Nader's decision to take votes from the party-blessed candidate Gore is viewed not as dissent, but as a kind of treason.
The problem with this line of thinking is that there's no end to it. If you think I owe you my vote because I recycle and enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird, you're not going to work very hard to keep it. That's particularly true if the only standard you think you need to worry about is not being worse than Donald Trump, which is almost the same as no standard at all.
This is why the thinking within the Democratic Party has gotten so flabby over the years. It increasingly seems to rejoice in its voters' lack of real choices, and relies on a political formula that requires little input from anyone outside the Beltway.
It's heavily financed by corporate money, and the overwhelming majority of its voters would never cast a vote for the nut-bar God-and-guns version of Republicanism that's been their sole opposition for decades.
So the party gets most of its funding without having to beg for it door to door, and it gets many of its votes by default. Except for campaign-trail photo ops, mainstream Democrats barely need to leave Washington to stay in business.
Still, the Democratic Leadership Council wing of the Democrats have come to believe they've earned their status, by being the only plausible bulwark against the Republican menace.
This sounds believable because party officials and pundits like Chait keep describing critics of the party as far-leftists and extremists, whose platform couldn't win a national election.
Dissenting voices like this year's version of Nader, Bernie Sanders, are inevitably pitched as quixotic egotists who don't have the guts to do what it takes to win. They're described as just out for 15 minutes of fame, and maybe a few plaudits from teenagers and hippies who'll gush over their far-out idealism.
But that characterization isn't accurate. The primary difference between the Nader/Sanders platform and the Gore/Clinton platform isn't rooted in ideology at all, but money.
The former camp refuses to be funded by the Goldmans and Pfizers of the world, while the latter camp embraces those donors. That's really all this comes down to. There's nothing particularly radical about not taking money from companies you think you might need to regulate someday. And there's nothing particularly centrist or "realistic" about taking that same money.
When I think about the way the Democrats and their friends in the press keep telling me I owe them my vote, situations like the following come to mind. We're in another financial crisis. The CEOs of the ten biggest banks in America, fresh from having wrecked the economy with the latest harebrained bubble scheme, come to the Oval Office begging for a bailout.
In that moment, to whom is my future Democratic president going to listen: those bankers or me?
It's not going to be me, that's for sure. Am I an egotist for being annoyed by that? And how exactly should I take being told on top of that that I still owe this party my vote, and that I should keep my mouth shut about my irritation if I don't want to be called a Republican-enabler?
The collapse of the Republican Party and its takeover by the nativist Trump wing poses all sorts of problems, not the least of which being the high likelihood that the Democrats will now get even lazier when it comes to responding to their voters' interests. The crazier the Republicans get, the more reflexive will be the arguments that we can't afford any criticism of Democrats anymore, lest we invite in the Fourth Reich.
I didn't vote for Nader in 2000, and I don't have a problem with anyone arguing this coming Election Day that we shouldn't all do whatever we can to keep Donald Trump out of office.
What's problematic is the way Beltway media types are forever turning postmortems on the candidacies of people like Nader or Sanders into parables about the perils of voting your conscience, when what we're really talking about is the party's unwillingness to untether itself from easy money. This is how Chait sums up Nader (again, emphasis mine):
"Nader goes on to defend his idiosyncratic belief that people are under no obligation to consider real-world impacts in their voting behavior. Vote for a third-party candidate, write in a candidate, follow your own conscience: 'I think voters in a democracy should vote for anybody they want, including write in or even themselves. I don't believe in any kind of reprimand of voters who stray from the two-party tyranny.'
"Why should people vote for candidates at all? Since, by definition, the person we most closely agree with is ourselves, why not just write your own name in every time?"
Ugh. Hey, Jonathan: Voters don't want candidates who agree with them about everything. They just want one who isn't going to completely take them for granted. If that's become too much to ask, maybe there's something wrong with the Democratic Party, not people like Ralph Nader or Bernie Sanders.