The Nader Effect

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

Two ghosts stalk the national Democratic Party in its pitiful, 21st century incarnation. One is George McGovern, who taught them that only Republican values matter in a national election. The other is Ralph Nader, who taught them who the real enemy is.

The present hamstrung state of the party is the result of its abject fear of these ghosts, which has given it a permanent moral stammer. A party that doesn’t believe in itself is doomed to lose over and over, even if it represents the majority of the people and even — as Al Gore demonstrated in 2000 — when it gets the most votes.

While the ghost of McGovern, who was mauled by Richard Nixon in 1972, is the most deeply ingrained and enfeebling, seeming to guarantee uncritical Democratic support (“we love America, honest”) for every cynical Republican military or civil-liberties outrage concocted in the name of national security, the ghost of Nader is the most life-threatening. Its effect is emetic, causing an immediate discharge of rationality among the party faithful at every hint of a challenge from the party’s values base. The Nader Effect causes Democrats to upchuck the very medicine that will save it.

I managed to trigger a minor emetic episode last week, in a column about a pro-peace, pro-labor progressive named Bill Scheurer, whose credible campaign for Congress in Illinois’ 8th District should be, I thought, a ray of hope for every opponent of the Bush assault on our democracy. Without Scheurer’s presence, voters in the district will have a choice between two Republicans, one of whom, incumbent Melissa Bean, is disguised as a Democrat.

Over on The Huffington Post, where the column landed, someone (code name “dapper”) set off a debate by lambasting me for failing to demonstrate the absence of a “Nader factor” in the race. That is, did Scheurer, who hoped to get on the ballot as an independent, really have a chance to win, or was he merely a manifestation of the Democrats’ worst nightmare, the spoiler?

Absent proof this wasn’t the case, “you should … keep your trap shut,” he wrote, and vowed to research the matter himself. If he found evidence of a Nader factor, “I am going to come down on you like a ton of bricks” — whatever that might mean.

In other online discussions of this race, both before and after I wrote my column, I found further examples of paranoid “pre-defeat” among the Dems. One writer on the Daily Kos site, for instance, worried that any progressive candidate who might supplant Bean in the primary (let alone challenge her in the general election) would get “poleaxed” — lovely word — by the Republican.

As someone who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, and has been defending my right to have done so ever since, I think it’s time to have it out about this preposterous state of affairs. It has turned mainstream Democrats into ballot bullies, convinced that their party’s future can only be secured by denying voters legitimate choice at the polling place. Indeed, this is the only fight they seem to wage with any animation.

In 2004, John Kerry cravenly conceded to Bush while the enormous irregularities in the Ohio vote were being contested by the Greens and Libertarians, and said not a word about the disenfranchisement of untold numbers of would-be (mostly Democratic) voters nationwide that probably cost him the election. Yet he managed to wage a vicious, resource-wasting campaign of harassment to keep Nader, and his message, off the ballot in as many states as possible. It’s the only fight Kerry won.

The myth that Nader cost Gore the 2000 election remains a virulent component of what passes for conventional wisdom among mainstream Dems. This is an outrageous simplification of what really happened. First of all, there’s no moral ground for claiming that Nader took any votes away from the stumbling, pandering Gore, who, like Kerry four years later, campaigned as though the only votes he had to “earn” were Republican votes.

Second, as Greg Palast pointed out in his book “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” Florida purged its election rolls of thousands of legitimate — mostly African-American — voters with names similar to ex-felons, a cynical act of Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement without which the race in that state would not even have been close.

Finally, Gore in fact won not only the national vote but the state of Florida as well, despite the bogus ex-felon purges, the hanging chads, the “Jews for Buchanan” and the Nader vote. According to a recount commissioned by a consortium of major newspapers, who of course buried the story, Gore would have won Florida, and thus the battle for electoral votes, if he had commissioned a statewide recount. Despite everything, he got the most votes. He just didn’t have a will to win that matched George Bush’s.

As the Republicans of 2006 shoot themselves and otherwise self-destruct, the Democrats have a chance to make significant gains in this year’s elections. All that’s stopping them are their own ghosts.