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It’s Time to Put Ralph Nader’s Role in the 2000 Election into Historical Perspective

Ralph Nader’s run in the 2000 Presidential race has become for many liberals and progressives the quintessential representation of the third party “spoiler.” Even invoking Nader’s name in these circles induces an anger bordering on apoplexy. Without any sense of historical or political context, the Nader campaign of that year has been reduced to a hysterical and one-dimensional admonition against considering a third party presidential candidate, especially now for the 2016 Presidential election.

Before conjuring up the mythologized and reviled Nader, it behooves anyone with an ounce of critical reflection to reconstruct what led up to Nader’s presidential campaign. The Clinton presidency was replete with policies that led to economic and social injustice, neoliberal globalization, and global humanitarian travesties. As Michelle Alexander and others have documented, Clinton’s support for the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994 with mandatory sentencing and expansion of the drug war and death penalties led to mass incarceration on an enormous racialized scale. Added to this was Clinton’s so-called “welfare reform” which actually increased the number of women and children in poverty. Clinton’s corporate agenda included deregulation of Wall Street, ending Glass-Steagall protections and leading to bank mergers and financial speculation. The promotion and passage of NAFTA only furthered job-killing corporate globalization. Finally, Clinton expanded NATO, intervened militarily in the Balkans, and created additional punitive sanctions on Iraq, the latter leading to an estimated death toll of 500,000 Iraqi children (justified by his Secretary of State, Madeline Albright).

It was revulsion with these policies, and Gore’s obvious fealty to them, that led to Nader’s campaign in the 2000 Presidential election. In addition, the dramatic protests in Seattle over the WTO meeting at the end of November in 1999 provided an energized base for the struggles against corporate globalization. Nader’s Green Party campaign entailed ending the drug war, embracing workers’ rights and fair trade, promoting free education and universal health care, and overturning corporate control of the political process. If this sounds familiar, it is very similar to the issues that Sanders ran on. However, where Sanders got around 13 million votes in the Democratic primaries, Nader’s vote total in the 2000 presidential election fell short of 3 million. Moreover, it failed to gain the 5% minimum that would have guaranteed public funds for the next Green Party run in 2004.

Of course, it was Nader’s near 100,000 votes in Florida that many believe cost Gore the state and, as a consequence, the electoral victory. The reality is much more complex than the simple-minded and malicious accusation that Nader cost Gore the presidency. For starters, Florida, under a Republican Secretary of State, unfairly expelled tens of thousands of its citizens, most of whom were African-American, from the voting rolls. In addition, because of the lack of standardized and comprehensible voting procedures, numerous counties had confusing ballots that contained “double bubbles,” butterfly spacing, and faulty punch cards. This led to myriad voting problems, including Palm Beach votes intended for Gore that went to Pat Buchanan. Had the Gore campaign requested a recount across the state, it was clear that he would have erased by a large amount the 537 vote difference between him and Bush.

Instead of a fair and full recount of the Florida vote, the Republican Party sent in its operatives to disrupt that recount in key Democratic counties. More to the point, the partisan US Supreme Court ruled in a highly controversial and irregular 5-4 decision that the recount should not go forward. Thus, it was the Supreme Court with relatives of Justices Scalia and Thomas working for the Bush campaign that handed the presidential election to their Republican ally.

It should also be remembered that thousands were mobilized around the country by the NAACP and other organizations to protest the shenanigans in Florida. Many of us joined these protests as soon as Florida’s irregularities were known right up to the day of George W. Bush’s inauguration. That millions more were not involved in stopping this political travesty is an indictment of those very liberals and progressives who now pontificate about the lesson of Nader’s 2000 presidential race. People in other countries who have contended with flawed elections have managed to prevent illegimate governments from taking power. Apparently, the “limousine liberals” (as Thomas Frank labels them) and their fellow-travelers here in the US have an aversion to going out into the streets to stop what was a coup enabled by the US Supreme Court.

It is also an indictment of the political class that the arcane Electoral College has not been eliminated and significant electoral reform has not been legislated. Sixteen years later, after Gore won the popular vote by over 500,000, we are still worried about electoral swing states. Furthermore, excluding citizens from the franchise itself, like the millions of ex-felons (including what is estimated to be almost 30% of African-American men in Florida), or from voting because of ID laws that discriminate against people of color, the poor, and students calls into serious question how representative this so-called democracy is. While some cities have enacted ranked-choice voting, called IRV, and Maine will vote on establishing this state-wide in 2016, we are locked into an electoral system that makes it nearly impossible for third parties not to be cast as “spoilers.”

Now we confront another presidential election, one in which the two candidates of the duopoly represent the 1%, guarantee the continuing oligarchic control of the federal government. Nonetheless, we do have a choice, but we need to recognize what might be the implications of the recent past, including the 2000 presidential election, for the present and future.

We also have to consider why we have arrived at this present political juncture. The fallout from the economic crisis of 2008 and the bailout supported by Republicans and Democrats has only increased the disenchantment with the political establishment, helping fuel the Trump and Sanders campaigns. While Trump triumphed by media enabling and racial resentment, the Sanders bid, undermined by DNC duplicity and electoral manipulation, refused to seize the historic moment and break with the Democratic Party.

Although Jill Stein of the Green Party made a bold, and to some in the Green Party controversial, offer to Sanders to be at the head of her ticket, she will instead run on a platform that improves on many of the issues advocated by Sanders, such as free college education, universal health care, ending the drug war, and enacting environmental legislation that rejects fossil fuels in favor of renewables. Moreover, Stein’s Green Party positions on war and peace matters are much more advanced than Sanders from cutting the Pentagon budget by 50% to ending all of the interventions around the globe that Obama and Clinton, as Secretary of State, have promoted. For this reason alone, Stein offers a real alternative to US imperial policies that have devastated so many lives around the globe.

Stein has already begun to attract many of the disillusioned Sanderistas motivated by economic, social, racial, environmental, and global justice. Nonetheless, to capture more of those disgusted with the Trump/Clinton offering, she might want to consider actually discussing what the very real differences are between Trump and his followers and Clinton with hers. This includes denouncing the racial demagoguery of Trump and acknowledging that many people of color are part of the base of the Democratic Party. With many of the Black Lives Matter activists opting out of the presidential race and concentrating on local races for district attorneys, this may require some alliances with progressive Democrats at a local level.

Finally, whether to adopt a “safe state” or “swing state” strategy will necessitate a serious debate among Green Party members and supporters. There are those within the Green Party who believe Nader made a mistake of contesting Florida and a few other swing states in the 2000 presidential election and not concentrating on building up the vote totals in safe states like New York and California. Nonetheless, whatever the decision by Jill Stein and the Green Party concerning electoral strategy, it cannot afford merely to rely on the disgust with establishment politics to attract voters. While combating the delusion that blames Nader for Bush’s election in 2000, she and the party cannot succumb to its own delusions about what can be achieved within the rigged electoral system.