The Nader Factor

Should progressive voters in slam-dunk states vote for Ralph Nader?

Taking stock of the U.S. Electoral College system, George
Orwell might have observed that all voters are equal -- but some
voters are more equal than others.

Because all of a state's electoral votes go to the winner of the
state's popular vote, the two candidates have been devoting
nearly all of their energies to so-called battleground states --
Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan -- as the election
approaches. Accordingly, they have been virtually ignoring
voters in "slam-dunk states" like Massachusetts and New York
(clearly in Gore's column) and Texas (clearly in Bush's).

Arguably, this creates a situation where liberal and progressive
voters in so-called "slam-dunk states" have the option to have a
greater electoral impact by supporting Ralph Nader than by
voting for Gore. After all, if Nader achieves 5 percent of the
total popular vote, the Green Party would be eligible for millions
in federal matching funds in 2004. Furthermore, in slam-dunk
states, the argument doesn't necessarily hold that a vote for
Nader is a vote for Bush.

Thus emerges a dilemma:

Should progressive voters in slam-dunk states vote for Ralph Nader?

Robert L. Borosage

Tactical voting has instant appeal. Any progressive with a pulse wants
to cast a protest vote against the corruptions and conservatism of major party politics. Plus Ralph Nader is the only great man in the race. His life-long personal commitment and integrity merit support. And his message and agenda appeal to our heads as well as our hearts.

Tactical voting erases the problem of electing Bush. For a progressive voting in a state where there is no contest (e.g. Texas, Wyoming, New York), a vote for Ralph is attractive. But does it make any sense? To answer that, it is important to know what a vote for Ralph is a vote for.

Tactical voting presumes a trade-off. In contested states, Naderites should be voting for Gore to keep Bush from winning. But Nader rejects this trade-off. He says, correctly, that you don't run for president unless you're trying to take votes from the other candidates. More tellingly, he's planning a last minute swing through contested states like Iowa and Wisconsin, where he might make the difference. This nasty stroke is likely to hurt both Gore and Nader. Certainly Nader would have an easier time reaping the votes needed to reach 5 percent nationally in uncontested states than in those that are at
play where liberals will be under pressure to support Gore.

It is hard to think of any reason to spend the last days of the campaign in contested states other than to hurt Gore.

This raises the fundamental question. If tactical voting by progressives helps Nader get to the coveted 5 percent and matching money, what is the strategy? It isn't to "show that we're alive." More progressives will vote Democratic than for Nader. It isn't to "build a progressive movement." If anything, the Nader campaign has divided the fledging Seattle Coalition, by ignoring the concerns of unions, environmentalists, minorities and women who say that a Bush victory is too large a price to pay.

On political strategy, Nader and the Greens have been painfully incoherent. Nader isn't a member of the Greens and doesn't intend to join. He holds himself, sensibly enough, above their internal disputes. If he reaches 5 percent, who then gets the money? Is it the disputatious Greens or Nader's separate operation? Does Nader stay involved, or does he return to doing what he has been doing so honorably for decades? Surely, the experience of the Reform Party after Ross Perot and its takeover by Pat Buchanan and the nativist right suggests that clarity on these questions is important.

The same confusion extends to what Nader and/or the Greens intend to do with the resources that getting 5 percent would provide them. Most Greens are intent on building a third party, and not concerned about reforming the Democrats. They are strongest in college towns and liberal communities that are where Democrats often win. Is the
strategy to force Democrats to nominate liberals who then gain support, or to run candidates no matter what -- even if that costs Democrats a handful of seats every cycle while the third party slowly builds?

On this, Nader displays none of his normal acuity; he's been simply opaque. He says that he prefers Democratic to Republican control of the House, because then progressives don't have to play defense so much. On occasion, he boasts that his campaign will help Democrats win the Congress by bringing out alienated voters.

On the other hand, in an interview with David Moberg for In These Times, he paints an entirely different strategy. He tells Moberg that he respects liberal Representative Henry Waxman, but says if there were a Green candidate, even a weak one, he'd vote against his longtime ally.

"This is a war on the two parties," says Nader. "After November, we're going to go after the Congress in a very detailed way, district by district. We're going to beat them in every possible way. If [Democrats are] winning 51 to 49 percent, we're going to go in and beat them with Green votes. They've got to lose people, whether
they're good or bad." Nader tells Moberg that he's willing to sacrifice progressives like Russ Feingold in Wisconsin or Paul Wellstone in Minnesota.

This is a fundamental strategic choice. The Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association and the New Right have chosen to take over the Republican Party from within. They have pushed the party to the right -- with far greater effect than Pat Buchanan armed with matching money. Pat Robertson, Falwell and others even have the discipline to support George Bush's son for president, so anxious are they to defeat
the Democratic Party.

Nader vows that the Greens will also systematically join in trying to defeat Democrats in close districts. He may not be successful. But if he is, is this a strategy that "tactically voting" liberals want to support? After six years of the Gingrich Congress, do we really not care if Democrats spend a decade or two as the minority? Do we really think there is no difference between a Congress led by Republicans Tom DeLay and Dick Armey and their gang, and one led by Democrats Richard Gephardt, David Bonior, John Conyers, George Miller, Barney Frank, Maxine Waters, and Tammy Baldwin? Are we prepared to knock a Wellstone out of the Senate in a "war on the parties?"

Ralph Nader merits respect. It is wonderful that his searing analysis is receiving rock star treatment on campuses. But progressives might want to ask a few questions before paying tribute to him by tactical voting to help gain 5 percent of the vote. You just might get what you hope for.

Robert Borosage is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future.


Steven B. Cobble

I wish all dilemmas were this simple -- the answer to your question is yes! Progressive voters in slam-dunk states should obviously vote for Ralph Nader.

Without changing one single electoral vote, progressive voters in states like New York, Massachusetts, Texas, and Maryland could help create a new fourth party, push the Democrats to the left by affirming the issues that Nader has been campaigning on, and make it clear that it was Nader voters that helped Dick Gephardt take back the House from Republican House leaders Tom DeLay and Dick Armey.

As a Nader supporter (even in battleground states), and the original author of the essay from which this debate springs, I naturally have a certain bias. The basic premise of my argument is relatively unassailable, however -- that due to the nature of the electoral college, in at least two-thirds of the country, and perhaps as many as nine states out of 10, a vote for Ralph Nader is in no way a vote for George W. Bush. It is a vote for Ralph Nader. It is a vote to break the two-party stranglehold. It is a vote against the special interest corporate degradation of our democracy.

And in these states, progressives can cast that vote without penalty. In these states -- most of America! -- progressive voters can affirm their principles without any so-called "spoiler" problem, without any effect on the Supreme Court, without changing one single electoral vote from Al Gore to George Bush.

All you have to do is know what state you vote in -- and whether the race is even close in your state.

I should note, by the way, that even liberal Gore supporters in recent days have been agreeing with this point. Here's what Senator Paul Wellstone had to say on PBS' NewsHour, in a debate with Nader supporter Jim Hightower:

"What I am saying is that I have tremendous respect for Ralph, and I appreciate a lot of what he said about the issues, and I'm in agreement with what he says about a lot of the issues, but if you live in a state like Texas where Jim's from, fine, but in the battleground states, where it's close, you don't want to cast a vote for Ralph Nader which becomes a vote essentially for George W. Bush."

I disagree with the last part of that statement. But this debate is about whether or not to vote for Nader in the slam-dunk, non-battleground states -- and there, Wellstone clearly accepts my original thesis -- the answer is yes!

I should note that many (most?) Nader voters are young, new voters, former Perot voters, independents, disaffected liberals -- voters who would not vote for Al Gore even if Nader were not running. So, I also liked what Gore supporter Robert Wexler, a Florida congressman, had to say about the Nader supporters on Crossfire: "No, listen, people who are supporting Ralph Nader have a progressive view. . . Al Gore is not nearly as liberal as Ralph Nader. Al Gore is a moderate, New Democrat, center of the party, center of the American electorate, and that's why Ralph Nader apparently feels compelled to run. But that's okay. And when those people get into the polls, they're going to vote Democratic for the Senate and the Congress, and it's good news for the Democrats."

Readers might keep this latter point in mind when listening to criticisms of Ralph in the next few days, since Nader voters may well prove the margin of victory for new Democratic Speaker Dick Gephardt, Majority Leader David Bonior, Judiciary Chair John Conyers, and Veterans Chair Lane Evans.

I personally believe you should vote your conscience. But if George W. Bush scares you too much, first check the polls in your state. Then vote for Nader. [For a breakdown of the "slam-dunk" and "battleground" states, click here.]

Steven B. Cobble is an adviser to Ralph Nader and former political director of the National Rainbow Coalition.


Will Marshall

Ralph Nader urges Democrats to vote for him in states where Vice President Al Gore leads by nine points or more, or where George W. Bush is safely ahead. But don't count on Nader to reciprocate, say by not campaigning vigorously in states like Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin, where Gore is clinging to a precarious lead. On the contrary, Nader has made it clear that he is stalking Gore, whom he considers "worse than Bush." Only Democrats with a deeply masochistic streak will want to reward Nader's spiteful campaign to punish Gore for being too centrist or ratchet the party to the left.

Of course, those who believe Nader is right on the merits should forget about tactical voting and vote for him regardless of where they live. The same goes for people who would like to see the Greens become a viable third party nourished by public funds. But liberals and progressives ought to vote against Nader on principle, not just on "lesser-of-two-evils" grounds.

Tactical voting is becoming increasingly dangerous, since Gore's lead in many states, including California, has dwindled to single digits. Moreover, the states where Gore is comfortably ahead, mainly New York and much of New England, are probably the most liberal in the nation. If Democrats move left to undercut Green gains in those states -- which they are already likely to carry in national elections -- they will damage their prospects in the rest of the country. By the same token, voting for Nader in safe Bush states may help the Greens get over the 5 percent threshold nationally, but it will merely make Democrats weaker where they are already weak (at least in presidential elections).

Moving left to preempt Nader's appeal would play directly into the GOP's hands. After all, Bush has gotten traction in the presidential contest by charging that Al Gore is not really a New Democrat but a throwback to big government. One way for the Vice President to burnish his centrist credentials would be to forthrightly challenge Nader on issues like protectionism and fiscal discipline.

Winning presidential elections is important, but there's a more basic reason why liberals and progressives should not give Nader their vote: He doesn't deserve it. Nader's campaign is based not on a reasoned critique of post-industrial capitalism or the uneven impact of globalization, but on a conspiracy theory that would make Oliver Stone blush. In this account, all of America's ills can be traced to a single source: corporate power. Never mind that U.S. corporations have actually lost ground to foreign competitors and homegrown "new economy" entrepreneurs; they're all part of the plot too. Never mind that child and overall poverty are down, and that wages and incomes for the bottom fifth are rising; these are scraps doled out by corporate elites to distract attention from their own obscene gains. Never mind that America's mass prosperity and economic freedom are tremendous social achievements envied by less fortunate countries; St. Ralph decrees that relative equality is the only true measure of economic justice.

What is the message that Nader insists that Democrats embrace, lest he wreck their electoral prospects? That our free enterprise system is a sham, that our political system is thoroughly corrupt, that our media conspires to stifle dissenting voices, and that citizens who don't happen to share this unremittingly dark portrait of America are either fools or knaves. What Nader offers is not really a pure and uncompromising version of progressivism, but a radical rejection of the core values and institutions that most Americans cherish.

There's nothing "progressive" about Nader's fear of technological change, his opposition to open trade, his attempts to shut down a global economy that for billions of the world's poor represents the likeliest route out of abject poverty. And there's nothing liberal about Nader's way of addressing his political opponents or his fellow citizens. His speeches are studded with self-righteous denunciations of those less pure than him -- which means practically all of us. Hence, Al Gore is not simply misguided, he's a "certified public coward" who has "betrayed" working families in his eagerness to "prostrate" himself before his corporate paymasters. But make no mistake, it's not the politicians and the corporate elites but the American people who are finally the true objects of Nader's contempt. Blinded by their lust to consume, they don't know that corporations have hijacked their democracy and made a mockery of their claims to self-government.

Yes, progressives ought to challenge the complacency we see all around us. We ought to demand bigger changes than either party is offering. We ought to devise new ways to set limits on private economic power. We ought to use government more creatively to promote social mobility and equal opportunity. But liberals ought not to admire Nader's attempt to reduce U.S. politics to a fairy tale pitting evil corporations versus innocent citizens.

Liberals understand, as Nader does not, that most public issues of consequence are fraught with moral complexities and ambiguities. Liberals engage in civil discourse because they assume their fellow citizens are open to reason; they aim to persuade, not simply smite their foes. For those who like their politics in black and white, garnished with fantasies of political retribution, Ralph Nader is your man. But let's not mistake him for a liberal.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute and
editor of Building the Bridge: 10 Big Ideas to Transform


Micah L. Sifry:

Talk about a "slam-dunk" question.

Progressives in states where either Al Gore or George W. Bush is far ahead should absolutely vote for Ralph Nader. To argue otherwise is to say that we should vote for "the lesser of two goods!"

Presumably, a progressive is someone who cares about social justice, human and civil rights, power to the people, democracy. Those values are directly contradicted again and again by Gore's record and positions.

Gore favors the death penalty, the "Defense of Marriage Act," using NATO as a unilateral interventionist force, dismantling the federally-guaranteed floor below poor mothers and children (he was the strongest voice within the Clinton Administration pushing Clinton to sign former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's welfare deform bill), letting the market shape the provision of health care, increasing the military budget (more than Bush, if you can believe it), corporate managed trade, starving the children of Iraq, maintaining the embargo on Cuba (don't forget his Elian Gonzalez pander), and escalating the U.S. intervention in Colombia. Let's not forget his support for the failed war on drugs (Gore wants to even make drug use a violation of parole, while doing nothing to expand drug treatment to cover the millions of addicts presently in need of
help), his backing the repeal of Depression-era rules preventing banks, securities firms and insurance houses from owning each other, his opposition to clean needle exchange (though the whole medical community agrees that this is an effective AIDS-fighting tool), and his silence in the face of billions of taxpayer dollars wasted on corporate welfare.

A vote for Gore is a vote for all these things.

The only way a progressive voter could possibly justify a vote for Gore in one of the nearly 40 states where the race is effectively over (you can tell if both candidates aren't spending heavily on TV ads in your state) is out of fear that a strong popular vote for Nader will further strengthen the consumer advocate's anti-corporate, pro-democracy campaign along with making the Greens America's leading third party -- and that both developments will hurt rather than help progressive causes. (The other argument that some people make -- which is, "if we all do this, we might take enough votes from Gore to swing our state to Bush" -- is frankly, ludicrous. Not that many people read
The Nation and The American Prospect, alas.)

Personally, I think that history shows us that it's only when masses of citizens move together to demand change that progressive improvements in social conditions happen. No, neither Nader nor the Greens are perfect. But he and they are pushing the envelope outward, raising neglected issues (full public financing of elections, universal health care, living wage, the right to organize, the apartheid economy, media concentration, the decline of American democracy) and challenging both major parties to respond.

I don't know if Nader will succeed in his ultimate goal of creating a new majoritarian party, which he says can come about if one million Americans band together, giving 100 hours and $100 a year of their time and money. But his campaign has already built a network of over 75,000 contributors (raising over $6 million in small contributions),
1,000 campus coordinators and an untold number of volunteers. And, in an interview I had with him this weekend, he made clear that he plans to keep the core of his campaign structure intact, to help the Greens recruit good candidates for lower offices, and to channel their energies not only into building up the party but also in fighting alongside the many citizen organizations currently struggling on everything from affordable housing to corporate welfare.

Most importantly, the Nader campaign has unleashed a tremendous outpouring of activism among the young. What a sorry sight it is to see liberals like Gloria Steinem and Jesse Jackson travel to college campuses seeking to pour cold water on this new flame of idealism. It reminds me of Hubert Humphrey telling the civil rights activists who had organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that they couldn't be seated at the 1964 Democratic convention. (If the people running the Democratic Party today were asked to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, they would probably say that they couldn't since it would "spoil" the party's chances of holding
onto the South.)

Don't forget, Nader has had only 1 percent of the money and 1 percent of the media coverage, and despite being locked out of the presidential debates, he is holding at 5 percent in the national polls of "likely voters" (which likely undercounts his real vote) and surging upward in many states. My gut tells me that we may be seeing a modest
reprise of the "Ventura effect" -- wherein the two major candidates so uninspire the public that a third candidate who is outspoken, honest and down-to-earth attracts the support of discouraged voters and independents alike. A strong Nader vote on November 7th -- which progressives in "slam-dunk" states can help assure -- will give this new
progressive movement a solid mandate.

Micah L. Sifry, Public Campaign's senior analyst, is writing a book on third parties in America that will be published next year by Routledge. The views expressed here are his alone.


Annette Ramos:

In slam-dunk states, it's a non-issue whether progressives should vote for Ralph Nader. Of course progressives should vote for Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke! They make up the only ticket that truly carries the mantle of the Seattle Coalition. Much like we were initially called flat earthers in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Nader has been accused of being unprincipled and having become unhinged by running for president. However, Business Week asked on its September 11th cover whether corporations have too much power, and Al Gore unveiled his faux populist rhetoric during the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. The terms of the debate are shifting. Our agenda is not only viable, it's becoming common sense. It's the only decent alternative to the stripping of government and civic society's power by corporations.

A recent story on the front page of the Boston Globe pointed out that Al Gore has added unplanned campaign stops in the Pacific Northwest because Nader is taking away support from him in Oregon and Washington. This week he's also scheduled to go to Madison, Wisconsin, another Nader stronghold. Al Gore has finally realized that, as the pop-psychology saying goes, Denial is not a river in Egypt. Nader is running a competitive campaign, attracting not just converted Democrats and youth but independent and Republican voters. He's also garnering votes among the 51 percent who sat out the last presidential elections.

In Oakland, California, while addressing the crowd at his latest and very successful Super Rally, Nader said he plans to continue campaigning vigorously everywhere, including in closely contested states. The day before, 12 former colleagues calling themselves "Nader's Raiders for Gore" sent Nader an open letter asking him to pull out of the race in the contested states where he could throw the vote to Bush.

As we all know, however, for a host of reasons, Nader and LaDuke are not making it to the White House quite yet. Nader himself suggested to wavering voters at his Super Rally that they wait until the day before Election Day to make up their minds. Again, Nader's message to his supporters who haven't made up their minds is to check all the polls possible on November 6th to see which states remain contested and which don't and cast votes knowingly.

More than getting Nader the 5 percent of the popular vote needed for millions in federal matching funds for the Greens in the 2004 election, and minor or even major party status in different states, progressive votes for the Nader/LaDuke ticket are one way of continuing to build a movement. It's a permanent groundswell that will continue to act as a watchdog to the two major parties and will put pressure particularly on the Democrats to move left and away from the reign of the Democratic Leadership Council. This is about the long-term and we have to be bold by casting our vote with the only mainstream, progressive ticket on the ballot in 44 states.

If the Democrats lose the White House it will not be because of Nader. It will be their own fault. Although I wouldn't trust George W. Bush to run a fourth grade classroom, it's Gore's fault for not calling more attention to the ways in which he is acutely unqualified for the job. Erudite diplomacy, not affability, is the job requirement for the presidency of any country. The Democrats have exacerbated, not diminished, the economic wealth and income divide ripping America apart in the midst of our economic boom. The weakening of government regulatory powers on the environment, finance, health, labor and every other area, has been crippled systematically in the last 20 years in the face of corporate power, and the Democrats have done nothing but worsened it.

If Gore were to want my vote, he could start by selling his $500,000 in stock at Occidental Petroleum and call for a complete halt to plans to drill native U'wa land for oil in the Colombian town of Samore. He could also work on reinstating the 1930s Glass Stegall Act and getting rid of the 1999 Financial Services Modernization Act that made legal the Citibank/Travelers Insurance merger into Citigroup. He could support Congressman Martin Sabo's Income Equity Act, and an immediate two dollar raise on the minimum wage, as first steps in closing the economic gap. He could make sure America complied with the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, and he could spearhead the establishment of more stringent standards. And this list is nowhere near exhaustive.

In conclusion, vote for Nader/laDuke on November 7th and roll up your sleeves, because as Nader so aptly puts it, the only place where democracy comes before work is in the dictionary.

Annette Ramos is an activist based in Cambridge, MA.