Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein: Progressives Have Been Helping Liberals Win Since 2000
Ralph Nader helped Al Gore win.
Calling progressives ‘spoilers’ not only gets history wrong but hampers future progressive campaigns.
Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party nominee in the 2000 presidential election, and while some claim that he hurt the campaign of Democrat Al Gore, an honest analysis shows that Nader’s campaign was in fact a primary reason that Gore won that election.
Here in 2016, with a wild and wildly consequential election winding to a close, it’s important to understand accurately the role Nader played in 2000 as well as to comprehend the role progressive candidates in general play in national elections.
To begin, Gore won the popular election in 2000. This isn’t contested. He received nearly a million more votes nationwide than did George W. Bush. It was clear that while the election was close, Gore was the nation’s popular choice for president.
No candidate since the 1800s has won the popular vote without also winning the electoral college, and Gore was winning the electoral college count, too.
But then, as thousands of Democrat-leaning votes were slowly being counted in Florida, the Supreme Court intervened and issued a bizarre and unconstitutional order — the least defensible decision in Supreme Court history, according to many legal scholars — to halt the vote count. This abortion of democracy took Florida’s electoral votes from Gore and made George W. Bush the next president.
Why the Democratic Party didn’t mount a more serious legal challenge to this fiasco in Florida is a true scandal, and movies have been made about it. But for whatever reason, they didn’t. They let the election slip away. It’s now history.
Even before the vote-counting was unfairly halted, it was Democrats voting for Bush, not for Nader, whom one could fault for making the state so close. Twelve times more Democrats voted for Bush than for Nader in Florida, so if an explanation is needed for why Gore came so close to losing the state, it’s that he ran a weak campaign there that didn’t attract many of the voters in his own party.
Regardless, Gore won the election. The Supreme Court — and legal inaction and incompetency on the part of Gore’s lawyers — made Bush president. The simplest correct interpretation: The 2000 election was stolen by Bush’s lawyers and the Supreme Court after a legitimate Gore victory.
How Nader helped Gore win
Early in the election, it didn’t appear likely Gore could win. He was trailing Bush through much of the spring and early summer, often by as much as 10% in the polls. His speeches were not connecting with voters, and his vision was not inspiring independents. It was clear he needed to expand his appeal beyond what had become in some states a shrinking Democratic base, but his campaign seemed unaware how to do so. He chose not to campaign with President Bill Clinton, despite the fact that the impeached president remained popular with the base of the party. But Gore also didn’t articulate powerful new positions or policy directions either; Gore seemed both opposed to, and in favor of, the Clinton administration’s economic and international policy. To independents, he seemed neither fish nor fowl, neither progressive nor conservative, neither courageous nor charismatic.
Ralph Nader, meanwhile, a man widely respected across the political aisle, a man who had a record of decades of courageous work, was touring the country throughout the spring, giving detailed, eloquent, and fiery speeches assailing the rising power of corporations over every aspect of our society. His message was connecting with conservatives and progressives alike, he was gaining a popular following, and his rallies were swelling.
Nader spoke truths that many of us have only belatedly learned: That the leadership of both political parties — the DNC and RNC — serve the same corporations; that the middle class is being robbed via massive wealth transfers through regressive taxes, corporate offshoring, inflation, and wage stagnation; and that corporate and lobbyist money in politics has corrupted the system badly enough that genuine progress on most of our country’s most pressing issues is impossible.
People sat up and listened to these truths in 2000, just as they have in even greater numbers here in 2016. The country’s political debate shifted in a liberal direction as Nader unapologetically advocated progressive ideas and progressive solutions.
This liberal shift in the political debate across the country, galvanized by Nader, is what enabled Vice President Al Gore to reinvent his campaign, rewrite his message, and finally close the gap with Texas Governor George W. Bush. Al Gore’s tepid campaign caught fire only as his campaign, evidently watching Nader closely, caught on to the progressive energy sweeping the country. Gore’s speeches got better and better once he started articulating the vision — or at least the words — of Ralph Nader. At the Democratic Convention, accepting the nomination, Gore’s impassioned speech surprised conservative and corporate pundits with fiery progressive rhetoric, and it propelled him sharply upward in the polls. As the summer turned to fall, and as his words sounded more and more like those of Nader, he passed Bush in the polls and took his first 5% leads.
Ralph Nader inspired and rallied the left, found the issues most important to working people, and provided language that inspired and connected with independent voters.
Gore incorporated these into his campaign, and people responded: Gore began going after big corporations and speaking with the passion of a true progressive instead of the triangulation of a watered-down Republican. His poll numbers continued to rise… until he began backing off on articulating his progressive vision in September and October. His poll numbers then fell a little — back into a dead heat with Governor Bush in late October as the election neared.
When election day arrived, Nader drew but small single-digits. Gore took the popular vote and the electoral college.
Until the Supreme Court stole the election.
That is what happened.
Why Nader is blamed
Given that the fault with the 2000 election lies with the Supreme Court, why do the media and, in particular, pundits and columnists in the corporate media who write from the Democratic side repeat the debunked notion that Ralph Nader was the reason George Bush became president?
It’s quite simple: Ralph Nader is a threat to a system that benefits them.
Nader — and other progressive candidates and movements — threaten to bring real change to the distribution of power in this country. The corporate media and the two corporate political parties have strong vested interests in the status quo. Indeed, they are the status quo. The media and the older political parties are the wielders of political power in this country today, and in general, they have no interest in things changing. They do not want other political parties — or alternative media sources or columnists — to take any of the power they now enjoy, and they do not want the Democratic Party to move too far in a progressive direction, since the ultimate goal of progressive politics is distributing power more broadly.
The thousands of emails leaked by Wikileaks this month alone have demonstrated extraordinary collusion between the Democratic Party, on the one hand, and Democratic-leaning media, such as the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post, and NPR, on the other. Together, the corporate media and the corporate political parties have a strong, shared vested interest in preserving the status quo.
The thing is, progressive issues poll extremely well with the people. Strong majorities of Americans want universal healthcare, aggressive action on climate change, higher wages for workers relative to CEOs, less corporate power in political decision-making, peaceful solutions to international conflicts, trade deals that keep production on our shores, and an end to corrupt campaign financing.
Simply reforming our elections by using Ranked Choice Voting, as local elections boards in some progressive districts have done or are considering doing today, would end the “spoiler” argument once and for all: Each voter nationwide would rank their choices for president, and our democracy and world would be infinitely better. Any “problem” presented by the candidacy of a Ralph Nader or a Jill Stein would be solved immediately.
But the corporate media and corporate parties aren’t interested in reform. They don’t support Ranked Choice Voting. They’re in power, and unsurprisingly they would prefer to keep that power. This is the dictionary definition of a vested interest in the status quo.
Blaming progressives when Republicans win has become a necessary, effective, and clever way to maintain the status quo. Not only does doing so allow the media to turn popular heroes of the left into popular enemies, blaming someone like Nader also enables the corporate media and the corporate political parties to employ divide-and-conquer politics.
Divide-and-conquer is an ancient and time-honored tactic in top-down political systems. As a holder of political power, if you can turn your opponents against each other, if you can turn rich against poor, black against white, straight against gay, immigrant against native, reformer against revolutionary, middle class against working class, etc., each group will struggle to find political power on its own, and the ultimate danger — unity among those who have little or no power — is foreclosed. From the days of feudalism right up today, turning opponents against each other is an extraordinarily effective strategy, and it’s the way a small minority stays in power today in the United States.
Home field advantage
While blaming Nader — and other genuine progressives — is a key element of the establishment’s strategy to preserve the status quo and prevent unity on the left, it is reducing overall activity on the left that is the real goal. For it is action on the left that forces issues to the left. When a progressive like Ralph Nader or Bernie Sanders is cogently articulating progressive issues, voters begin thinking and talking about progressive issues, the media is forced to cover progressive issues, and progressives tend to win. Action on the left galvanizes more action on the left.
Specifically, when the issues that are discussed are progressive issues — climate change, healthcare, education, corporate power, corruption — the left generally wins. It’s the “home field advantage” in politics. The advantage goes to the candidate who is discussing the issues on which she or he is strongest, most trusted, and most inspiring. Therefore the trick is to get the issues that are being discussed in the media and online to be your issues. The first and most important debate is the debate about what will be debated.
If the topics of discussion are chosen by the right — terrorism, the military, homeland security, immigration, tax rates — the right gains the home field advantage and tends to win. Candidates come and go, issues shift based on current events, but the corporate media and the corporate parties generally want corporate conservatives or corporate centrists to win, in order to preserve the status quo, so they tend to focus voters’ attention on right-wing and conservative issues each year and during every election. They know that when they get to define the terms of the debate, corporate conservatives will come across strongest and usually win. This is why bland centrists struggle to connect with voters on either side, and this is why Nader’s energy and commitment to progressive issues shifted the debate across the country and helped Gore win.
Nader made the issues of the 2000 election the country’s progressive issues — trade, healthcare, climate change, social security, and education — and it’s a significant reason Gore was able to come from behind and win.
This year Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders are ensuring a Clinton victory
Here in 2016 the level of activity on the left has been unprecedented. From internet organizing to stadium-sized rallies to fundraising, the Bernie Sanders revolution was something new, exciting, and powerful in American history.
The corporate media attempted to contain the rise of Sanders — and now of Jill Stein — through ridicule, distorted reporting, and disingenuous misrepresentation of popular progressive solutions to social problems. But as in 2000, the issues were too big and their champion too trusted. Sanders even outstripped Nader in his broad, revolutionary appeal. Furthermore, the American people no longer only get their news from the corporate media, and the deepening activity on the left this year is fueled by deepening, authentic, widespread concern about dire issues: climate change and global warming, wars and refugees in the Middle East, institutional racism and for-profit prisons, and an economy that is enriching a small cadre of corrupt bankers and corporate officers while impoverishing millions of poor and working class people.
So while people who think of themselves as good Democrats demand that supporters of Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders shut up and support Hillary Clinton, they’re showing an ignorance about history and about how presidential campaigns work. What matters is the debate before the debate, the activity on the ground, and the messages that inspire independent voters. A corporate centrist Democrat like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, or Al Gore will lose if they don’t enable significant activity on the left.
Ralph Nader helped Al Gore win in 2000, and it is Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders who are ensuring a Clinton victory in 2016. All the Clinton campaign needs to do is connect with the authentic progressive activity on the ground, speak out as the champion of the progressive issues of the day, and let democracy do the rest.