On Nader’s Service to Democracy

by David Coles

Ralph Nader’s recent entry into the field of presidential candidates was met, by and large, with a range of derisions from individuals in the media and the public: Democrats angry and scared that his bid will tip the scales in favor of the Republicans; Republicans smirking, confident that this hopeless run will seal the deal for George W.; cynics on all sides ridiculing this dreamer’s long-shot attempt, while they paint him as a receding attention-hound. They are all misguided. First, while Nader’s impact on the 2000 election was profound, it is categorically unfair to blame him for Al Gore’s defeat; arguments to the contrary suggest that the Democrats are somehow entitled to progressive voters’ votes and that outsiders don’t have the right to seek them. Competition is healthy in politics, as in many walks of life, and it forces contestants to put forth their best efforts or suffer the consequences. This is precisely where Gore failed; his bland, centrist agenda did not excite the nation’s more progressive voters, though he did manage to win the popular vote. One must recognize the immense service that Nader — or any serious candidate, really — can provide to democracy. Free people deserve and demand a vigorous national debate, in which creative ideas from across the political spectrum are batted around. Absent that diversity of opinion, democracy is severely weakened. In reality, the United States today has a two party system, at least at the presidential level. Ralph Nader, like any “third” party candidate, has zero chance of being elected, due to a variety of obstacles that reflect massive, systemic shortcomings of our electoral process: The absence of public funding of public campaigns and resultant, astronomical financial demands of elections, which effectively exclude non-multi-millionaire candidates; formidable ballot-access hurdles; media consolidation that reduces forums; the winner-takes-all electoral college system; and a lack of proportional representation. Given these realities, is not any outsider bid a wasted effort? Absolutely not. It is important not to underestimate the influence that non-winners have on politics. By threatening to capture any significant number of votes, a candidate can greatly impact the tone and substance of an election. In the current cycle, for example, observers have widely recognized the role Howard Dean played in shifting the Democratic Party’s agenda to the left during his “failed” campaign. Similarly, Nader’s impact on the 2000 election forced the Democratic Party to reassess its strategies for 2004, and its agenda and rhetoric have been decidedly more progressive this time around. Nader has convincingly argued that any short-term effects his 2000 campaign may have had in tipping the scales toward Bush are minor compared with the long-term benefits, such as building a national progressive movement and getting the disengaged to become civically involved. The non-voters remain America’s largest political group, after all, and it will likely require novel ideas from outside the mainstream to activate this sector of the populace. For example, should Americans expect any major candidate to seriously challenge the aforementioned deficiencies of our electoral system? Don’t hold your breath. We cannot vote out of fear, year after year, election after election. Tragically, this is what so many are resigned to, including those major media outfits — namely the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — who have condemned Nader’s decision to run. Their message is one of complacency and acceptance of the status quo — a status that Ralph Nader has never accepted. David Coles lives in Riverwest. Email responses are welcomed at or letters to the Currents at .