After Iraq and massive deficit busting upper-class tax cuts and Ashcroft and Abu Gonzales and Strip Search Sammy etc. etc. etc. it’s very difficult to continue to defend the narcissistic third-party candidacy that put Bush in the White House in 2000, and to continue to defend this as a viable strategy for progressives. Some of these defenses couldn’t be more easily dismissed. The argument that Nader didn’t really throw the election to Bush is just unambiguously false (and as Chait points out, it’s crucial to note that putting Bush in the White House was not merely an incidental byproduct but the central goal of Nader’s campaign.) Ditto for claims that because Democrats and Republicans aren’t different enough on NAFTA and legalizing hemp that there is therefore no difference between the two parties. Then there are the times in which the lines of communication between the various arguments appear to have been cut off. My favorite is the attempt to justify the Greens by noting that a significant number of conservative Democrats voted for Bush, or that Gore couldn’t win his conservative home state. To quote myself, “First of all, it’s a non-sequitur on its face; it doesn’t change the fact that if Nader doesn’t run, Gore wins. But secondly, Greens don’t seem to understand that this fact fatally undermines the basic rationale for a left-wing third party candidacy. So, because of realignment, many nominal Democrats voted for the most reactionary President in decades…but the Greens want us to believe that there is a majority for social democratic politics in the US that would inevitably manifest itself if only the Democrats would stop thwarting democracy and run a Kucinich/Mumia ticket. Sure.”
Having said that, though, I know some people of some actual political sophistication who voted for Nader, and in my experience none of them are willing to defend claims that there’s no difference between the two parties, or that the fact that the electorate is moving right means that the Democrats should move to the left. In my experience, most of these arguments always wind up simply noting a lot of things that are wrong with the Democrats. And, of course, many of these complaints will have merit. Clinton did sign a lot of bad legislation. Cantwell’s vote for cloture on Alito was appalling. The problem, however, is that pointing out that the Democrats aren’t where you want them to be is insufficient. The real question is: what does voting for a third party do to change the Democrats? And the answer is: nothing. After all, by throwing the election to Bush Nader had about as much leverage on a presidential election as a third-party candidate could have…but according to his dead-ender supporters, the Dems are just as bad. So when is this strategy going to work, exactly? How many elections do you have to throw to Republicans? When will the contradictions be sufficiently heightened? When Clarence Thomas is the median vote on the Supreme Court, maybe? What’s the causal mechanism here? Of course, this strategy of using third parties to push the Democrats left is doomed to dismal failure, because there are always more votes in the middle. As Katha Pollit pointed out, this is particularly true of Nader, who ironically seemed to share the DLC’s dream of a progressive movement without labor, feminists, or civil rights groups (although, in fairness, their chief political constituency was white male college students as opposed to wealthy white businessmen):
Future elections will be even tougher. Whoever wins the presidency, people now know every vote counts–the frightened liberals are really frightened now. If Bush wins, the energy left of center will go into re-electing Democrats–any Democrat. Meanwhile, the small Nader vote–only 2 percent of Democratic voters chose him, while 11 percent chose Bush–means that the Democratic Party will move, if anywhere, rightward. The Greens may move that way also; after all, they failed to dislodge the old progressive voting blocs–feminists, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, labor. The typical Nader voter was a young white man, college educated but income poor. Nader did well among students, independents and Perot voters; outside a few left strongholds–Madison, Portland, Berkeley, western Massachusetts–his best counties were rural, his best state Alaska (10 percent), of all places. None of this sounds like a recipe for a powerful progressive voting bloc.
That’s the problem. The argument is not that the Democrats don’t leave a lot to be desired, as is inevitably the case in a system where coalitions are put together before elections rather than after. It’s that voting for third parties does nothing, and can do nothing, to change that, and it has hugely consequential negative externalities.