Not Nader: Don't waste your vote
Run From Reality Resources
Micah L. Sifry
February 23, 2004
Reprinted from

Watching Ralph Nader announce his unsurprising decision to run for president as an independent, I didn't hear anything new. There was no sign from him that he understands that there might be some differences in the political context of 2004, compared to 2000. All of his arguments were the same: the need to address the "democracy gap;" how Washington is "corporate-occupied territory;" how we have too many solutions to problems that aren't being adopted as a result. "The two parties are ferociously competing to see who's going to go to the White House and take orders from their corporate paymasters," he declared at one point. He gave both parties flunking grades: a D- for the Republicans and a D+ for the Democrats. Which is amazing, considering his fierce condemnation of Bush's illegal war-mongering and call for his impeachment. Political realities change, but not Ralph.

The logic of his argument still escapes me. I fully agree with his critique of the two-party duopoly and the need to open up the system to third-party candidacies and other independent voices. But I don't see how that compels a presidential bid. Nader claimed at one point in the interview that his running is "a fight for other third parties, all the way down to the local level." But how exactly is his running as an independent supposed to help open up ballot-access laws for third-party candidates? One of the dirty little secrets of ballot access law is that state legislators—who rig the rules to entrench themselves above all else—are often happy liberalizing the ballot restrictions for presidential candidates, while maintaining far more discriminatory hurdles for someone who might want to run for state office. And third-party activists often accept this sneaky arrangement, or don't even realize how they're being hoodwinked. Those people who are drawn into helping Nader get on the ballot this time around aren't even building a third party as a by-product of their efforts, arguably one of the most redeeming contributions of his 2000 run.

I also know from talking to the folks at Open Debates—whose work I fully support—that they are not thrilled about Nader's running. On the positive side, one of their leaders told me back in the fall, a Nader bid "would make us far more relevant to the election and would attract far more press to our project." On the other hand, he said, "It would also make it more difficult for us to attract mainstream liberal civic groups to our cause, and conservative civic groups would be accused of supporting us only because it was politically expedient. We might have an easier time building a broad-based Citizens' Debate Commission if Ralph didn't run, but a harder time making anyone care. If Ralph didn't run, we would emphasize format reform more, and candidate exclusion less." Personally, I think with Ralph running, the whole discussion of opening up the debates to citizen involvement and taking control of the debates away from the corporate-sponsored duopoly-owned Presidential Debates Commission will get completely ensnarled in partisan politics. Which means we probably won't get very far.

And then there's Nader's continued claim that he can peel away disaffected Republicans from Bush, while presumably doing little damage to the Democratic candidate for president. It's true that Nader didn't have a bad word for Kerry in this interview, in fact I don't think he even mentioned the frontrunner. And he praised Edwards in an almost cryptic fashion as someone who will be a better politician the more organized the citizens are. Interestingly, Nader quickly contrasted Edwards' openness to citizen empowerment with Bush's fealty to corporations. But, can Nader really find a way to attract Republicans? Especially when he can't help himself whenever a liberal Democrat walks into his field of vision? During the interview, towards the end, he went out of his way to chide the editors of The Nation magazine for their open letter to him. That can't exactly be a strong way to reach out to disaffected conservatives.

Some of my progressive friends objected to my suggestion that Ralph Nader's disdain for the Internet ought to lead his political obituary. OK, maybe that's a bit harsh and out of proportion. But my point was simply this: by sneering at the web as the land of "virtual reality," Nader is turning away from one of the only sources of independent energy out there. For someone who is now running the most long shot of campaigns, this attitude will be incredibly self-defeating. But his refusal to see this is totally in tune with his nature. In 2000, Nader turned down many opportunities to expand his outreach because they were in one way or another beneath him. He wouldn't go to Texas to protest the execution of Gary Graham, which would have highlighted the fact that he was the only anti-death penalty candidate running, because that wasn't one of his core issues. He wouldn't go to Florida to interject his views of the Elian Gonzalez case because that had nothing to do with his anti-corporate message. He didn't care for Bill Hillsman's brilliant TV ads on his behalf. And so on. Now he rejects the Internet as if it's a bad video game.

There's more to be said about how Nader hasn't even fulfilled the promises he made in 2000 to keep building an independent political movement, how he disappeared from sight during the Florida recount, and how he treated the Green Party. But on this first reaction to his announcement, I'm left with one last irony to observe. At the end of the day, Nader contradicts himself. "We need more civic and political energies inside the campaign," he says, meaning more candidacies. But when it comes to listening to the civic and political voices of others, he stands alone.

Paul Loeb makes one last point better than me here: "So much of Nader's career has been built on reminding us of our common ties. It's wrong, he's argued, for companies to make unsafe cars, pollute our air or pillage shared resources. Actions have consequences, he's pointed out with persistence and eloquence. Now, he's taking the opposite tack, fixating on his own absolute right to do whatever he chooses, while branding those who've argued against his running as contemptuous censors, who 'want to block the American people from having more choices and voices.' This argument would seem familiar coming from an Exxon executive. Coming from Ralph Nader, it marks a fundamental shift from an ethic of responsibility to one of damn the consequences, no matter how much populist precedent he tries to dress it up with."

Micah Sifry's Iraq War Reader site.
Find more commentary by Micah Sifry at
Micah L. Sifry is a senior analyst with Public Campaign. He is the author of Spoiling For A Fight: Third-Party Politics In America, (Routledge, 2002) and recently co-edited The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (Touchstone, 2003).


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