As Ralph Nader becomes the Harold Stassen of the 21st century and a running joke to everyone except Al Gore, we sometimes forget that a generation ago (When Stassen was our perennial candidate for President), Nader was a founder of the consumer and environmental movement. How does someone evolve from one of the most credible policy advocates in the country, to a punch line on late night television?
When you buckle your seatbelts and when your air bag deploys—saving your life—you should thank Ralph Nader. The Clean Air Act, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act are at least partially due to Nader’s skill as an advocate in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
I mention the history because Nader did not build his reputation as a consumer and environmental advocate by pushing symbolism at the expense of results. He must know that his popularity is trending down.
Running as the Green Party’s Presidential candidate in 2000 he received 2.7 percent of the popular vote and was seen as the spoiler who threw the election to George W. Bush. Partially in reaction to that election, he only achieved ballot status in 34 states and received 0.3 percent of the vote in 2004.
This year, he first supported John Edwards for President and when Edwards dropped out decided that the populist cause required a new candidate—himself. The point about third parties in American politics is: while they may be useful for raising issues, they are useless for achieving power.
The structure of the American political process is specifically designed to favor majority rule. Unlike some parliamentary systems with proportional representation, a candidate must achieve a plurality in a specific state or district to win an election. Small parties get nothing. You could get 25 percent of the vote in every congressional district in the country and elect no representatives. In the Presidential election, the real vote is for electors to the Electoral College. The system is winner-take-all, and whoever gets the most votes in a state gets all of that state’s electoral votes. (At least in 48 states: In two states, Maine and Nebraska, electors are selected by pluralities in Congressional districts.) If a third-party candidate received enough votes to win a state’s electoral votes and the election were close enough that no one got the 270 electoral votes needed to achieve a majority, the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives. In the House, each state’s delegation gets one vote.
Currently, 26 of the delegations in the House are controlled by the Democrats, 21 by the Republicans and three are tied. If the House of Representatives were to decide this election, the Democrats would win.
The United States is a representative democracy, not a pure democracy. It is also a federation of still somewhat sovereign states. In U.S. politics, geography matters: Majorities matter too. There is little practical benefit to being a perpetual minority party. In American politics the whole game is about occupying and defining the political center. The goal is to build a tent big enough to attract a majority. Ronald Reagan knew that and built a center-right coalition. Bill Clinton knew that and built a Center-left coalition. If Ralph Nader wants to influence policy outcomes he needs to influence one of the two majority parties. Why doesn’t he do that directly? Why does he run for President?
If you run for office but can’t win, you are obviously doing it to raise issues and affect the agenda of those who win power. Symbolic candidacies and even strong third party candidacies can influence the political agenda. That’s what makes Ralphie run.
When Nader ran for President in 2000, he got a lot of free media attention. When he ran in 2004 he received some attention, but less than in 2000. In 2008, he is being noticed again, but some of the attention he is getting is probably not the type of attention he should be seeking. Instead of analyzing his issues, the media analyses his motivations.
In 2000, when Al Gore narrowly lost the Presidency—in the Electoral College, or at least in the Supreme Court—many Democrats blamed Ralph Nader for the election of George W. Bush. It became clear that running a minor party race for President brought costs along with benefits. Many of Nader’s former supporters became skeptical of his motives and tactics and his national standing suffered.
Nader of course, will hear none of this. Here’s how his Web site presents his candidacy:
Never one to be stymied, Nader responded to the declining influence of civil society over elected representatives by entering the electoral arena himself, and is now on his third major presidential campaign aimed at reinvigorating America’s democracy, in the best traditions of the suffragettes, labor party, and abolitionists of the 19th and early 20th century.
When asked in 2004 if he was worried about his legacy being tarnished from the hurly burly of presidential politics, Nader responded: “Who cares about my legacy? My legacy is established. They’re not going to tear seatbelts out of cars. I look to the future. That’s the important thing.”
While it is possible to admire Nader’s persistence, and even some of his principles, the suspicion that lingers is that his campaign is more of a desperate attempt to stay in the public eye than a well thought-out strategy for influencing public policy. As 2004 demonstrated, however, even his supporters are unlikely to vote for him if the alternative is John McCain and a permanent military presence in Iraq.
Still, one can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a better way for Nader to gain our attention. Unfortunately, as this blog and other stories now in the media demonstrate—running for President still works for Ralph Nader. In fact, we’re paying attention to him right now.
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