Sunday, March 07, 2004

Keeping Nader in perspective 

The blogosphere harbors a lot of bad will toward Ralph Nader. While I'm as concerned as anyone about the effect a Nader candidacy will have in November, I think much of the recent vilification of Nader is misguided. Although I disagree with parts of Nader's platform--his view that there is essentially "no difference" between the two major parties is especially infuriating--he does bring up some important issues that aren't addressed by either of the two major parties. Moreover, Nader's role in the 2000 election was not at all unusual by historical standards. A quick look at the role third parties have played in past presidential elections helps to keep things in perspective.

Although third parties never win, they have several times this century dramatically affected the outcome of a presidential election. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" candidacy split the Republican vote and gave Woodrow Wilson the victory. In 1924, Progressive Party candidate Robert Lafollette took 17% of the vote, allowing Republican Calvin Coolidge to win easily. In 1946, Strom Thurmond's segregationist "Dixiecrat" candidacy carried four states and nearly cost Truman the election. In 1968, another segregationist, George Wallace, carried five states, coming within 50,000 votes of depriving Nixon of an electoral majority, which would have sent the election to the House of Representatives. In 1992, Ross Perot took nearly 19% of the vote; although the exact significance of Perot's role in Clinton's victory is disputed, Perot's candidacy definitely helped Clinton unseat Bush Sr.

By historical standards, Nader's 2.7% in 2000 is not an unusual figure. If the twentieth-century presidential elections are ranked according to what percentage of the vote went to a third party candidate, Nader's 2000 candidacy comes in 11th out of 26, near the middle of the pack. What made Nader's candidacy so significant was not the number of votes he took but the fact that the country was so evenly split. This brings me to an important point. The only substantive role third parties can play in our current political system, at least at the federal level, is the role of spoiler. Third parties' ability to split the vote on either the right or the left and throw elections to the other side is the only source of what small power they have. What this means is that in a polarized and evenly divided country like ours today, third parties wield disproportionately more power.

I wish our electoral system gave third parties a more constructive role in the political process. But as long as the system remains the way it is, the primary role of third parties will be the role of spoiler, and Nader can hardly be blamed for choosing to wield the unusual amount of power he has in our present-day 50-50 nation. Frankly, given a choice between third parties as spoilers and no third parties at all, I'll take the spoliers any day. There are important political viewpoints not expressed by either of the two major parties, and third parties are their only means of expression. Sometimes third parties will hurt the Democrats, as in 2000, and sometimes they'll help, as in 1992. That's just the way it goes. Personally, I'm hoping Roy Moore runs for president! That would cancel out the Nader effect nicely.
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