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Joint Causality Does Not Allow Any Individual Willful Cause to Escape Responsibility

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Given the obvious indefensibility of third party spoiler campaigns as an electoral tactic, as we’ve seen recently in comments dead-enders who remain apologists for Ralph Nader’s disastrous game of heighten-the-contradictions in 2000 have to rely on a variety of transparently specious arguments. The most common is a strawman with an underlying logical fallacy. If one observes that if not for Nader’s campaign, Al Gore would have been president, they will at some point being accused of arguing that Nader’s campaign was the only relevant variable in the 2000 campaign. Needless to say, nobody believes this. Obviously, election outcomes are the product of the complex interaction of many variables. Prominent Florida officials and Supreme Court justices and Ralph Nader all needed each other to achieve their common goal of putting George W. Bush in the White House. Under some other plausible scenarios, they would not have succeeded, and in others the help Nader’s campaign provided to Bush would have been superfluous. In terms of whether Nader deserves responsibility for the predictable potential consequences of his actions, this is all neither here nor there. Things could have worked out so that Nader failed to throw the election to Bush. Could have, but didn’t. And even if he had failed, it would have remained worth pointing out that as a tactic for pushing the Democrats to the left spoiler campaigns are all downside with no upside.

A variant form of apologism is to concede that Nader bears his share of responsibility, but to whine about how he’s been singled out. Why attack poor Ralph? Antonin Scalia and the Bush brothers are the real enemy! Well, first of all, most Nader critics are plenty critical of the Republican bad actors involved (certainly I have been.) The media has generally not gotten enough criticism (although I’ve been beating that drum forever.) But, especially going forward, there’s a rather obvious reason to spend time criticizing Nader for supporting Republicans instead of criticizing Jeb Bush for supporting George W. Bush. It is obviously futile to try to persuade Republicans not to advance Republican interests. It is, however, worth trying to persuade people who don’t support Republican interests not to support Republican interests.*

Essentially, this line of defense is like the people who defended Mike McCarthy for his series of irrational tactical decisions because the Seahawks needed a near-miraculous series of events to ultimately take advantage of the points he left on the board. But this makes no sense. The reason to maximize your number of points is that you’ll never know when you’ll need them, and the fact that you might not is beside the point. The particular path the NFC Championship took to being close at the end was unusual, but it certainly was highly plausible at the time he made stupid decisions to kick field goals that the game would be close. Similarly, it was eminently foreseeable that the 2000 election would be close, and that a spoiler campaign could act to tip the scales. The fact that more than one thing had to happen for Nader’s campaign to help swing the election to Bush doesn’t mean he can somehow duck accountability.

*Another version of Nader apologism asserts that Nader and most of his supporters and liberal Democrats do not have the same goals at all. This is really stupid. Most Nader supporters were not revolutionary socialists; they’re people on the broad left of American politics who had no problem pulling the lever for Kerry and Obama. And if we’re dividing people between “liberal” and “left,” Nader of course would be in the former category. He’s a quintessential 60s liberal legalist, and not a particularly left-wing one. His differences with mainstream liberal Democrats are not ideological, but temperamental, rooted in his unwavering belief that any Democratic public official who cannot deliver precisely what he wants when he expects it is hopelessly corrupt.

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