There are two Great Myths that have come out of the results of the 2000 Presidential Election, myths that have been so well-drummed (and ofttimes purposely so!) into the Collective Consciousness of the Body Politic that is the United States of America that we are likely to witness some poor American public school 6th Grade Social Studies student some fifty years from now still coming upon same in rather badly-written American History textbooks (or whatever equivalent template for which the technology of the 2050s might allow):
The first is that it was the Supreme Court of the United States that elected Republican George W. Bush President of the United States...
the second is that then-Green Party candidate Ralph Nader cost Democrat Albert A. Gore, Jr. the Presidency.
Neither of these premises, of course, is true.
I have already addressed the first of these Great Myths on this very website (and at the very time the controversies surrounding the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Bush v. Gore were still in play!). I am now, because of Ralph Nader's announcement- on national television earlier today- of his intentions to run for President as an independent candidate, forced to confront the second.
For it is this second Great Myth, fueled by both an unreasoning fear of losing the 2004 Presidential Election combined with an abject and blind hatred of President Bush on the parts of some Democrats, that is now leading to largely incorrect assumptions about the possible impact a new Nader presidential candidacy might have on this November's election and which, in turn, have the potential to actually derail the Democratic Party's presidential nominee's bid for the White House if that nominee should be so foolish as to take this fear and hatred as reality. Even such a progressive vehicle as the Nation, only this past week, urged Nader not to run on grounds that progressives had "only one focus: beat Bush". Well, if beating President Bush is, indeed, the only thing progressives might have to focus on nowadays, this generation of Americans has raised a pretty lame crop of progressives!
Ralph Nader is right about at least one thing: historically, the great reform movements in American History have come out of Third Party and Independent bids for political office, including that of the Presidency. Put another way: these reforms have generally not originally come out of the two Major Parties themselves! The New Deal of the 1930s may largely be viewed (and rightly so) as a watershed in the long history of the Democratic Party of the United States but there would have been no New Deal were it not for the Progressives of Robert LaFolette first openly pushing for such ideas in the 1920s; likewise, the even earlier progressivism of both Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson would not have been possible without the Populists and other like political movements of the 19th Century having already "greased the skillet" politically for such policies.
The most successful (one could even argue only successful) Third Party in American History was the Republican Party, precisely (as I myself once argued on this website) because it was unafraid to then become one of the two Major Parties (though, yes, this was aided and abetted by a significant number of politicians in the then-two Major Parties [that is, former Democrats and former Whigs] being willing to switch their allegiances to the "new kid on the block" [something that, because Major Party-raised/controlled finances are the key to being nominated- let alone elected- to public office, is highly unlikely to happen nowadays]). Now, 150 years after its founding, the Republican Party, as one of the two Major Parties, is- along with the even older Democrats- no longer the solution but, or so Nader himself argues, very much the problem.
In his multi-volume early-to-mid 20th Century work A Study of History, Arnold J. Toynbee argued that a Civilization (what I, elsewhere on this website, once called a "World") would continue to thrive only if it could successfully respond to a challenge faced by that Civilization, such response achieved by an elite within the Civilization getting the rest of the population to freely imitate (in other words, not inducing this by force) that which the elite was doing in response to the challenge at hand. At the same time, however, the Civilization would not continue to grow unless the response itself bred new challenges to which a new and different elite would have to come up with a successful response.
The key words here are "new and different elite": for, if the elite that had handled the most recent challenge facing the Civilization came to believe it was the only elite that could handle any new challenges engendered by their own response to the previous challenge (thus stifling a competitive "new and different elite" in the cradle), the Civilization would begin to decay (Toynbee used the term "disintegrate") as the rest of the population would, more and more seeing this, begin to turn away from the entrenched elite- refusing to continue to freely imitate that elite, thus forcing this entrenched elite to induce imitation of their new response to the newest challenge by force, and so on and so on. It is rather easy to see how the words "induce... by force" are, in and of themselves, anathema to any realistic concept of Democracy and Liberty!
So-called Political Correctness in our contemporary American Society is a perfect example of this. What Ralph Nader himself, in his appearance on NBC's 'Meet the Press' this morning, termed the "liberal intelligentsia" (a term I myself don't much like, since "intelligentsia" implies the existence of intelligence I have lately largely been unable to discern)- upon perceiving, a generation or two ago, the problems associated with, say, Racism and Sexism within society at large- rightfully sought to make institutionalized Racism and Sexism illegal. Yet there are many and subtle gradations of Racism and Sexism and more than a few instances in which one person's Racism or Sexism is most certainly not another's: in a Free Society, one should be able, as adults, to freely discuss and confront such gradations; it should certainly be a discussable issue on college campuses where, supposedly, tomorrow's adults are currently being highly educated. Unfortunately, many of those who- as young adults themselves- manned the barricades in the struggle for Civil Rights in the 1960s and 1970s in imitation of a political elite (the leaders of what liberals have termed "The Movement") which saw this struggle as a successful response to the challenge of such Racism and Sexism became- in middle age- the very University Presidents (or, for that matter, Democratic National Committee members) of the 1990s and now into the first decade of the 21st Century who have decided to respond to the challenge of what we might term post-Modern (personal, as opposed to institutional) Racism and Sexism by decreeing that there should be no such free discussion. As a result, the generation that once youthfully produced the college campus-based Free Speech Movement of the 1960s (a movement which had great, and positive, effect on the Civil Rights struggle) also ended up producing the aging oppressors of similar, much more recent movements for Free Speech on college campuses (that neo-Stalinist clampdown generally known as "Political Correctness").
So it is with the reaction of this same liberal political elite to the 2004 candidacy of Ralph Nader. The leaders of the entrenched liberal wing of the Democratic Party of the United States, the reformers of three and four decades ago, have long since decided that they are to be the only progressive reformers in the American political mix and woe be to those who might actually deign to challenge this self-vaunted status! Of course, in a Toynbee-like analysis, this would only serve to show that the Democratic Party is, in fact, in decay and disintegration (and, presumably, therefore unworthy of leadership in responding to the next set of challenges).
Why did Gore lose in 2000? More to the point of this Commentary, why did more than a relative handful of liberal and progressive voters turn to Ralph Nader- and away from Al Gore- four years ago? Very simply, because the leaders of the liberal/progressive Democrats- blinded by the charisma of Bill Clinton as much as they are today blinded by their disdain for George W. Bush- basically took their rank and file for granted and, when confronted with the possibility that many among that rank and file might actually choose to vote for a Third Party alternative, told those among their rank and file who would do so to, more or less, go to hell. They shouldn't then have been all that much surprised that Nader did so well as he did in 2000! But, rather than blaming Ralph Nader for the elevation of George W. Bush to the Presidency, they should be pointing their fingers only at those who stare back at them from a mirror. For you cannot tell a significant (however minority) faction of your Party "we don't really need you" and then wonder why they still didn't vote for your guy!
Blaming Nader for Gore's loss is simply another way (without their having to come right out and say so) of acknowledging that their candidate (and Party) was, back in 2000, more than a bit weak in the Political Principles department. If a Third Party or Independent candidate can, in fact, hurt one of the two Major Parties that much, it simply means that Expediency has well blotted out Message within that Major Party. The Gore/Lieberman campaign was so concerned with winning an election it did not, in the end, win (in effect, as I have pointed out elsewhere on this site, telling the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to just sit on its hands just one more time, as it had several Presidential Election cycles in a row by then, so as to present a more moderate image of the Party to the average voter) that it only ended up failing to be a campaign on that for which the Democratic Party traditionally stands, thereby alienating more than a few Democrats (if we use this term to include those with a mere propensity to vote for Democrats as well as those die-hards more wholly committed to the Party as an institution) who happen to be noticeably less centrist than the voters Al Gore's candidacy was attempting to take away from supporting George W. Bush.
If a Nader independent candidacy this Fall were to cost the Democrats the chance at defeating President Bush's bid for re-election, it would only go to show that the Democrats and their eventual 2004 nominee had once again failed to campaign on traditional Democratic Party principles, had once again alienated a significant wing of their Party- just as they had four years before. That is why the fear and anger among many Democrats about a Nader run is, in a nutshell, the quintessential "Loser's Gambit": for to say that you need Nader to stay out in order for the Democratic nominee to win is only an admission of the Democratic Party, in fact, being in that Toynbee-like decay and disintegration making them so unworthy of leadership!
As for me, I'm as happy as a clam that Ralph Nader is running for President: in fact, if I could still do cartwheels, I'd be doing them right now even as I write!
And so should you, regardless of Party or ideology... why?
If you happen to be a Democrat, committed to defeating President Bush, you are not going to do so this time round without being a Democrat with a capital "D". President Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism" (whatever you might think of that phrase) well allowed him to claim the Center in 2000: in the end, all Gore could do was say "Well... we're compassionate, too!" instead of the more forceful "We're ALWAYS compassionate!!" There was far too much "Me, too"-ism ("Well--- but-- we don't want to take guns away from hunters either!") in the Gore/Lieberman campaign and not enough "Who ARE we? What are we all about, anyway?" A Nader candidacy in 2004 might very well force the Democratic nominee to make sure that, this time, Nader does not fully co-opt those issues of most concern to most Democrats (and, if Nader does, then whose fault is that? Certainly, not Nader's!). Thus, Democrats should welcome this potential challenge, not cringe from it: if nothing else, it will keep the 2004 Democratic nominee from taking large blocs of his own Party for granted come General Election time!
If you happen to be a Republican, committed to re-electing President Bush, the pull of Nader on the Democrats described in the previous paragraph will force the Republican Party to more starkly- as a counterpoint to the Democrats- define itself in terms of its own principles and values. None of this Compassionate Conservative "mush"! The GOP's guy may have won but there was a reason Gore got more popular votes than Bush and why the 2000 election was so darn close (not only re: the Presidency but also with a 50-50 U.S. Senate at the start of the 107th Congress)... the two Major Party candidates in 2000, despite their disparate views on a number of "hot button" political issues, so often seemed so interchangeable-- too often like two "empty suits"!
Ralph Nader, therefore, may actually have had good reason to opine, back in 2000, that there was no real difference between the two Major Parties... well, if Nader's now wrong about that in 2004, here's your chance (I say to both Democrats and Republicans) to prove it!
To my mind, the addition of more voices only fuels the fires of good, honest, healthy political debate (and recall that, per this site's Mission Statement: "[T]his site is an exercise in Free Speech. We certainly support the notion that you have the same right of Free Speech we are here exercising ourselves"; Ralph Nader also has that same right of Free Speech, even so far as to speak as an independent presidential candidate: you cannot expect me to opine otherwise). Look, for example, at the current contest for the 2004 Democratic Party presidential nomination now whittled down to only two truly viable contenders, Senators John Kerry and John Edwards. Kerry simply has to be viewed as the currently presumptive nominee (it is now too late, and far too many delegates have already been allocated, to call him a mere "front-runner"); Edwards will need a huge boost in votes come Super Tuesday (2 March) if he is to have any chance at wresting the nomination from his Senate colleague-- I say "huge boost" because, not only does the North Carolinian need to win more than a few Primaries, he has to win them decisively (given the proportional nature of Democratic Party delegate allocation, merely besting Kerry by single-digit percentages in any States Edwards might actually win still nets Kerry significant delegates-- Edwards simply would be unable to catch up to the Bay Stater!)
But what if the Democratic nominee had already been clearly determined (that is, if all but Kerry, Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton had dropped out by now [one would then have had to assume that Kerry already was the nominee-designate])? I thought it a mistake for Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe to have expected any presidential contender of his Party who had not done well by 3 February (a week after the New Hampshire Primary) to drop out and I think that events since then have well proved my point. For what would have happened had two major contenders not still been in the mix? President Bush (who, after all, enjoys all the prerogatives and perquisites of White House incumbency) would now be solely dominating the political headlines (the average, bell-curve voter is not going to be paying all that much attention to the nominee-in-waiting: Jerry Brown being "last challenger standing" kept a Bill Clinton in the news all through the Spring into the Summer of 1992-- the infamous "I didn't inhale" episode aside, how much did that help Clinton versus an incumbent President George Bush pater?). The average voter (outside of the "hard core" political junkie or fully committed Democrat [clearly largely pro- Kerry in such a scenario] or Republican [anti-Kerry], and these all together make up a minority of the electorate) would, by now, likely be tuning out whatever Kerry might have to say (yeah, it's true they'd be tuning President Bush out, too... but, if something major were to happen between now and the Conventions, they would certainly tune in again to what any sitting President might then say-- and, more to the point, do). Keeping the contest for the nomination going also keeps the eventual Democratic nominee in the headlines along with the incumbent in the White House!
In fact, the only Party that today appears truly threatened by a Ralph Nader independent presidential candidacy (assuming, again, that the 2004 Democratic nominee doesn't repeat Al Gore's mistakes) is the very Green Party that had nominated Nader last time round. The Green Party appears, in 2004, to be making a concerted effort to join the Libertarian Party as a Third Party trying to run itself like a real political Party. It has abandoned its one-time and rather unwieldy "Association of State Green Parties" in favor of a "Green Party of the United States"; like the Libertarians, the Greens have a recognizable delegate allocation system (meaning the methodology used to determine how many delegates to a Party's Convention there are to be from each State [References: Green Delegate Allocation, Libertarian Delegate Allocation -Ed]). It has yet to be seen just how many candidates the Green Party might field for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, Governor and other Statewide offices compared to the Libertarians this year but it is clear that the Green Party is, like the Libertarians, trying their best to be a Major Third Party for some time to come.
Ralph Nader, of course, now potentially eats into any support the eventual Green Party presidential nominee might get (such as it might be). On the other hand, John Kerry (assuming- if only for sake of this particular argument- he is, indeed, going to end up being the Democrat challenging President Bush this coming Fall) has already pledged that he would run on the very issues Ralph Nader has this very morning claimed a Democrat can't run on.
Let Kerry himself prove Nader wrong! A Nader candidacy keeps a Kerry candidacy "honest". And if Kerry is honest this coming Fall, there is then nothing at all Democrats need fear from a Ralph Nader presidential run.
But, of course, you can't have it both ways!!