Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ralph Nader’s Ghost: The Folly of the Protest Vote

Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. Progressives unnerved about the increasingly hysterical, overheated histrionics among supporters of Clinton and Sanders should take little solace. We’ve been here before.  In 2000, it was Ralph Nader vs. Al Gore. And it was ugly. By the eve of the 2000 election, if I had had a dollar every time I heard the Nader camp's refrain “Bush and Gore are the SAME. There is NO difference” I could have comfortably retired to a seaside villa in Sicily. The Nader/Gore split became a gargantuan s*** show.  Fully formed, highly educated adults became raving adolescents, happy hours were anything but, and online forums disintegrated into intelligence-free zones of name calling and sniping.

Ultimately, Nader’s Raiders did just well enough (2.75% nationally) to tip the election to George W. Bush. The Nader vote cost Gore two states: Florida and New Hampshire. With the inauguration of President Bush, the rift was “repaired”:  both Nader and Gore supporters together suffered policy loss after policy loss for eight long and damaging years. 

History’s lesson: Um, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore weren’t ideological twins after all.

But did we learn or did we forget? If I had a dollar every time someone who once spouted the “Bush = Gore” meme later admitted they might have been a trifle mistaken, I’d be penniless. The ideological right and the ideological left have few things in common but they do share this: neither side ever admits a mistake.

As Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders head into the final stages of Campaign 2016, the parallels to Nader’s doomed Presidential run are becoming ever more apparent. Both Nader and Sanders started with very upbeat campaigns, addressing real issues, long on optimism but short on specifics. Team Clinton argues that Sanders’ plans are cartoonish, simplistic and would never pass in a divided Congress. Given my public policy bent, I favor the pragmatic and detailed over the optimistic but dangerously vague. I don’t doubt Sanders’ sincerity on the issues for a moment, however, and I will fight like a tiger to keep the White House in Democratic hands regardless of the eventual nominee. 

As the 2000 campaign progressed, and Nader faced abysmal polling numbers, his campaign’s optimism morphed into something uglier, solipsistic, and cynical. If you weren’t for Nader, you weren’t just against him, you were either stupid or an evil shill of the plutocrats.

Since last week’s New York Primary, in which Team Sanders was dealt a devastating defeat, we are seeing some alarming and familiar signs.  Sanders original pledge to work hard for the Democrats regardless of the outcome of the primaries has been cast to the wind by some of his most senior staff. Now, we hear that they’ll fight for the nomination even if they lose the delegate count and the popular vote. The Sanders team has, like Nader before them, become infected with conspiracy theories. Primaries and caucuses are not lost, they are stolen. Super delegates don’t make up their own minds, they are merely puppets of the DNC. And the DNC has the evil powers and ill intent of Voldemort.

Recently, we see more and more Sanders supporters proudly proclaiming they will sit out this election, or cast a “protest” vote for a minor third party candidate—many of the same people who just a few short months ago were vowing to wholeheartedly support the eventual Democratic nominee. One of the more vociferous folks on my Facebook feed, is now proudly proclaiming: “I can afford a protest vote, I live in New York”. The pledge to support the nominee, it seems, carried some fine print: we’ll support the nominee but only if the nominee’s name is Bernie Sanders. That’s a bit ironic for a campaign obsessed with “lies.”

In 2000, a vote for Ralph Nader didn’t turn out to be a vote for the progressive cause in any state. Nader’s core supporters erred in keeping a doomed campaign alive across the country, and they siphoned just enough votes to put Bush in the White House. So, could Sanders’ supporters cost the Democrats the White House if they choose to sit on their hands? It’s a good definite “maybe.” Progressives delight in proclaiming Donald Trump a joke, but six months ago we all scoffed that he had even a remote shot at the Republican nomination. It doesn’t take much of an attenuation in votes on the progressive side to send a couple of swing states to the other team in the Midwest battlegrounds, particularly if our team repeats the ridiculous internecine civil war we fought amongst ourselves in 2000. This year, the sniping doesn’t stop at the top of the ticket: Sander’s pledge to sue the Democratic Party for raising money for Democratic Congressional candidates is many things; a path to recapturing the House and the Senate isn’t one of them. It’s a tactic more indicative of a bitter curmudgeon than a principled progressive.

What I find ethically troubling, from the mouthier folks on the Team Sanders campaign, is the notion that yes, the White House is better off in the hands of any Democrat, but they, personally, can afford a protest vote. So, the rest of us, who are either stupid or shills of the plutocrats are forced to do their dirty work by supporting the Democratic ticket while they occupy the supposed moral high ground. This crass nonsense cost us the White House in 2000, and I’m having a difficult time imagining a scenario where it is helpful in 2016. 

Secretary Clinton currently leads Senator Sanders by nearly three million popular votes. Perhaps, before Team Sanders urges their supporters to steam off in a huff of protest votes they might consider WHY so many folks didn’t see the Sanders’ message as the start of a revolution. The 70% to 80% of minority voters casting ballots for Clinton aren’t all stupid stooges of the plutocrats. Maybe they just see the world a little differently. Maybe more voters really do favor the pragmatic approach. Neither Clinton nor Sanders is the perfect candidate, but neither are evil, either, and a vote for either of them is far better than a vote for no one. 

Elections have consequences. Ironically, Team Nader recognized that in the final months of the 2000 campaign. By late September, groups of Nader supporters were flocking online peddling “vote swap” schemes. I live in Michigan, it’s a swing state, but you live in New York, a blue state, so you vote for Nader and I’ll vote for Gore. But vote swaps were ultimately insincere; Nader supporters voted for Nader in all states.  And we all know how that turned out.

Let’s all take a long breath and consider the specter of President Donald Trump, as the Wraith of Ralph, the Ghost of Nader, hovers overhead.

Elections do have consequences. Putting Trump in the White House doesn’t capture the moral high ground, it’s playing the fool. We played that asinine card in 2000. Do we really want to play it again?