Monday, November 7, 2016

Inane Nader Analogies

Almost nothing makes centrists sound like conservatives quite like Nader analogies.

The bogus notion that Ralph Nader had cost Al Gore the 2000 election has long been utterly debunked. Nevertheless, this brain-dead narrative still shambles on like a zombie. It just will not die. It is essentially the Birtherism of passionate establishment Democrats: A ridiculous, desperate attempt to square their worldview with the world. There is an honest argument buried in there if you tweak the language, but more sober precision robs their favorite narrative of much of its emotional punch - of its addictive appeal. The argument is a potent rhetorical narcotic that continues to poison our politics and this is an intervention.


Have a seat. Let's start the detox with a little math. We can agree that's a thing, right? 

In 2000, Nader got 1% of the Democratic vote and 1% of the Republican vote, so he had no net effect. One minus one equals zero. Yes, Nader got 3% of Independents but most of those voters would have probably stayed home otherwise. Nader mainly mobilized people who don't ordinarily vote - those folks disgusted with the system. He certainly did not cost Al Gore those votes. Nader just got them out of the house. And if Nader had not run and those people showed up at the polls anyway, they would have voted for some other third party candidate. Yes, there were other third party candidates. As Michael Moore had sarcastically quipped, we should "Blame Monica" instead - Workers World Party standard bearer Monica Moorehead who got 1,804 votes in Florida. That's quite a bit more than the 537 that separated Bush and Gore.

"Who? The Workers World what?" you ask. "Never heard of them." No doubt. But surely you know that third parties exist: They always have and always will. They just do better and become conspicuous when the big two neglect and insult their constituencies. So, don't do that. You can object to hostage analogies all you want, but I'm just explaining electoral physics. Guilt-tripping your victims will not change it. It may move the needle a little in a close election, but it wears thin, breeds resentment, and makes people wonder why elections are so close in the first place. You may as well be yelling at gravity.

Oh, and speaking of captive analogies, we have locked the door.

Ordinarily, third parties do not pose a problem. But that ceases to be the case once you give them issues by creating bipartisan "consensus" around ignoring important issues like trade. Freeze out peoples' concerns and elections become dangerous games of "chicken" between the two major parties: How many voters can you alienate and drive off and still win? Today, we have the lowest voter turn out in the developed world and it has been worsening. Business-friendly bipartisanship trumpets comity but foments volatility. You had to know it would eventually. How long did you think you could do this?

But the point here is that third parties are a permanent part of the political landscape and all strategies should accept that as a given. George W. Bush had third party issues in 2000 too. In addition to Ralph Nader siphoning off votes, Bush had Pat Buchanan running on his right. Remember that? Who can forget the confusing butterfly ballot causing that infamous antisemite to get 3,000 Jewish votes? Even Buchanan himself admitted, "[M]ost of those are probably not my vote and that may be enough to give the margin to Mr. Gore." The GOP also had to contend with the Libertarian and Constitution parties. There were ten different parties on the Florida ballot and all of them beat the 537 vote margin between Bush and Gore. The point is that third parties are par for the course in any election. If they become a bigger problem than normal, you only have yourself to blame for growing them.

For example, frothing establishment Democrats pilloried Ralph Nader for saying there was "not a dime's worth of difference" between the two major parties. This was obviously false on social issues like abortion and gay rights; but on many other issues - such as, well, anything that had to do with money - it was spot-on. Centrist Dems where eager to prove to big business that they were indistinguishable from Republicans. Remember that passing NAFTA and "Welfare Reform" were Bill Clinton's first signature legislative accomplishments. They signaled his fiscal seriousness and willingness to discipline labor and the poor.

Bill Clinton had pandered to both economic and social conservatives and Gore sought to outdo him. This explains his tapping Joe Lieberman for VP on the ticket. Gore ran as a competent, moderate Republican - like Bush but smart and presumably apt to give social conservatives slightly less. And of course everyone presumed Bush Jr. was going to govern like Bush Sr. He had daddy's staff and we all thought that Colin Powell would keep him from doing anything too crazy. In other words, both Bush and Gore ran as the former's father. I half expected Gore to say "a thousand points of light" at some point. In short, both Gore and Nader portrayed the Democratic ticket essentially the same way: Nader's narrative was also Gore's.

Let's get real here. Ralph Nader did not put George W. Bush in the White House: Purging the voter rolls did. Throwing out black votes did. And the Supreme Court did by retroactively stopping the Florida recount already in progress. Without a 14th Amendment violation, the Federal government has no authority to intervene in how states run their elections. The Bush campaign had no legal standing to bring their case in the first case, but of course Republican-appointed justices decided to ignore their "states rights" principles and the Constitution to boot. Of course, there were outrageous 14th Amendment violations - but the Bush campaign was not the victim of them: black voters were.

I am not playing cute. I know you are trying to make a "straw that broke the camel's back" argument. But you are studiously ignoring all the other, more important straws. And those straws actually constitute wrongdoing by public officials. But you only want to discuss the solitary, innocent straw of ordinary voters expressing their honest, un-coerced political preferences. To focus on the later implies perverse priorities and an unconscionable comfort with corruption. I'm not playing "Yes, But" - you are. My argument does not ignore inconvenient facets to focus only on one - yours does. And what's worse, yours punches down. Of course, most scapegoating does. That's how scapegoating works.

How out-of-control is your Nader analogy addiction? It is so bad you were unthinkingly making them against Bernie Sanders as soon as he started running. I enumerated the problems with this is a series of tweets back in March. Here they are in more readable paragraph form:
Clinton supporters should not make 2000 election analogies. The comparisons are incoherent and their candidate is Al Gore in all of them. For openers, the fact that Sanders is running as a Democrat makes the metaphor totally moot. Moreover, using that as a springboard for blaming Nader for Bush’s wars only highlights the fact that Clinton voted for both those wars. It also re-emphasizes Hillary Clinton's unfortunate association with the failed "New Democrat" brand which her husband championed. Indeed, Al Gore's VP pick, Joe Lieberman, should have buried that brand when he embraced G.W. Bush. The 2000 election is an object lesson in how running to the right depresses Democratic turn out. [As Harry Truman said,] "Given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat who acts like a Republican; the voters will pick the Republican every time!" Plus, the analogy is awkward for the misogyny narrative. Last I heard, Al Gore was a man. And yet the Democratic base [still] rebelled.
Shall I unpack a few points in that paragraph for greater clarity? Okay, let's be perfectly cynical – i.e. realistic and pragmatic, as centrist Clintonistas imagine themselves. You want your candidate to look like a winner and, towards that end, you do not want to associate them with proven losers. And, sorry, Al Gore was a total loser and that's not a comparison you want to invite. Admittedly, the election was stolen from Gore, but he was not exactly a winner to begin with. Unlike his predecessor, he was famously wooden and uncharismatic. Bill Clinton had The Gift.(1) Long story short, Bill Clinton was a hard act for Al Gore to follow. Likewise, I think following Barack Obama with Hillary Clinton is ridiculously risky – particularly since she follows his “Yes We Can” with dismissing progressive aspirations as unrealistic. This familiar letdown effect is invariably an election handicap for both parties. George Bush Sr. similarly had difficulty following Ronald Reagan.(2) Of course, as we know now, it is sexist to discuss charisma at all; so I suppose Al Gore was the victim of sexism. Likewise, mentioning the electric enthusiasm Senator Elizabeth Warren ignites is considered sexist as well. But I must say it's awfully odd to damn Nader for supposedly indirectly putting a hawk in office when you are now trying to do so directly.

So, where is the aforementioned honest argument buried? Well, you could at least tweak the language to make it arguable by saying Nader could have cost Gore the election under those circumstances. But the fact of the matter is that he didn't. You could still honorably argue for caution, calling Nader's actions reckless, but that does not pack quite the same punch, does it?

Two posts ago, I made the progressive case for sticking with the Democratic Party and growing the Warren Wing. In that post, I also called-out political scolds for trying to shame those who chose to vote third party. Most of us live in safe states, so our votes are wasted regardless. The argument definitely has value in swing states - and Trump is so grotesquely abhorrent that he has turned some traditionally red states purple. I live in one, so I will likely vote for Hillary Clinton rather than Jill Stein. But elsewhere, shaming is at best ineffective self-satisfied lecturing and at worst counter-productively divisive. And such shaming is especially ineffective when it comes from those known for making phenomenally shoddy arguments that are more mythology than anything else. I could rattle off a host of other examples, but I will leave that for another post.

And if you still cannot quite grasp the absurdity of making Nader analogies, let me put it another way.

If you hate Ralph Nader but still admire Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, you obviously have no notion who put George W. Bush in the Oval Office. Yes, she has gradually evolved since casting the tie-breaking vote in Bush v. Gore. Well, arguably evolved: In 2011, she said the decision was not "the end of the world." Since then, she has admitted the vote may have made things worse. However, her language remains consistently agnostic: It's posed as a possibility. She has never expressed formal regret or admitted the decision was wrong or unconstitutional. But at the time of the vote, O'Connor was a longtime, Bush family supporter:
[W]hen NBC declared for Democratic candidate Al Gore, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told the guests at an election party that the Democrat’s election victory was “terrible.” (Of course, her criticism was a little premature, as we now know.) She then went on to participate in making sure nothing so terrible would happen, casting the crucial fifth vote in Bush v. Gore without blinking an eye. O’Connor had a long history of rooting for the Bushes in presidential elections. In 1988, she wrote to longtime political ally Senator Barry Goldwater, in a letter now in his public archives, that she “would be thankful if George B wins. It is vital for the Court and the nation that he does.”
Of course, blind bipartisanship prevents acknowledging such inconvenient facts. What, one must wonder, was so "terrible" about Al Gore to Sandra Day O'Connor? Bill Clinton believed that traditional New Deal Democrats were too liberal. Al Gore thought Clinton was still too liberal. What was she afraid of?

Well, among other things, she wanted to retire and did not want any Democrat to appoint her successor. "Sensible" centrists saw her as a pragmatic, objective moderate. Obviously, she was not. As Jefferey Rosen wrote in the New York Times in 2001 before she retired:
Over the years she has emerged as the leader of the federalism revolution that may be the Rehnquist court's most distinctive legacy, returning power from Washington to the states. And although she is not a committed social conservative, she is a committed antigovernment conservative -- a justice eager to second-guess the judgments of state and federal lawmakers and executives. By refusing to defer to Congress and the president, she has enhanced not only her own power but also the power of the court itself. If she is, in fact, nominated as the next chief justice, her generally moderate votes should give less pause than her view that no branch of government is entitled to respect except the one to which she belongs.
I'm no lawyer, but that strikes me as curious jurisprudence. Such a states rights federalist logically should have let Florida officials complete their recount without federal interference. But apparently she had no problem with federal interference as long as it was her own and she got the partisan results she desired.

Sandra Day O'Conner's vote perfectly illustrates the "bipartisan" blind spot in centrist ideology and how it serves conservative purposes. It's the same establishment horseshit that insists that Ayn Rand-fan Paul Ryan is a "courageous" "serious thinker" on the budget. Yes, Sandra Day O'Connor clashed with Antonin Scalia, but she was a protégé of William Rehnquist. Today, Paul Ryan clashes with Donald Trump - but so does Ted Cruz. Will perennial press swooning over Ryan resume after election day or will his mercurial cowardice on endorsing Trump preclude his political rehabilitation?

Well, is Henry Kissinger a pariah yet? Does Dick Cheney still appear on "Meet the Press"? If Ryan's star has truly fallen, another Ayn Rand fan's will rise. The corporate press will just anoint another. After all, the Fourth Estate has hedge mazes to manicure. They are not going to trim themselves.

Ultimately, Sandra Day O'Conner had cast the only vote that mattered in 2000 - the straw that actually shattered the camel's back. Isn't it high time we stopped flogging the Nader scapegoat?


(1) Like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton was preternaturally likeable – a “Great Communicator” – and his personal popularity eclipsed the profound unpopularity of his policies. (Reagan assaulted popular social programs like Social Security and Medicare. Clinton dissed and betrayed crucial Democratic constituencies like labor and minorities, but many forgave him. Al Gore did not enjoy this latitude. Indeed, he inherited the public skepticism and ill-will Clinton had built.) This meant that both Reagan and Clinton had at least some latitude to nudge the country in either direction, left or right. Both chose toward the right. For Reagan, it was a simple advantage. For Clinton, it was a scandalous waste (if not a conscious abuse) of great political talent. To put it as charitably as possible, it was lost opportunity to repair the damage done in the previous twelve years – which was, after all, what he was elected to do in 1992.

(2) Recall Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan’s wistful lecture/pep-talk to George Bush Sr. in 1992:
Some of your staff used to walk around calling the Reagan years "the pre-Bush era." There are many names for such people; "historical idiot" is one. You know and feel that Ronald Reagan was, is, a great man. When your delegates hear his voice Monday night they will erupt in joy. They will shake their heads and say, "I miss his voice." They’ll mean: I miss belief.
Ideologues, of course, emphasize ideology: It flatters their profession and affirms their importance. But sometimes things are more shallow. In 1988, Poppy Bush was saved from himself by Lee Atwater’s blatant race-baiting and having a similarly uncharismatic opponent in Michael Dukakis. But in 1992, Atwater was dead and Bush faced a more formidable opponent in the form of Bill Clinton. If Hillary Clinton loses, it will be a replay of 1988 rather than 2000.


  1. "Remember that passing NAFTA and "Welfare Reform" were Bill Clinton's first signature legislative accomplishments. They signaled his fiscal seriousness and willingness to discipline labor and the poor."

    Fucking no. Bill's first signature legislative accomplishment was his budget which massively raised income taxes on the wealthy as well as raised the corporate tax & massively increased the earned income tax credit such that it constituted the largest redistribution of wealth from rich to poor since LBJ's great society programs. Bill's massive tax increases & EITC expansion were secured by only Democratic voted in Congress & in the Senate Al Gore had to cast a tie-breaking vote to get the budget passed because center-right Democrats (unlike Gore & Bill whom you correctly acknowledge to be centrists) didn't want the tax increases & they voted with every single Republican to block Bill's tax increase.

    I have no opinion on NAFTA, but you're right that it was an early legislative priority.

    Bill's other early legislative priorities were ending the ban on gays in the military & healthcare reform. Conservative Democrats defeated healthcare reform & the idea of gays openly in the military so instead we got the fucking shitty Don't Ask Don't Tell which I guess was better than the total ban but still it was an example of vile disgusting center-right Democrats defeating noble center-left & centrist Democrats.

    Welfare reform occurred after the midterm of 1994 after the GOP took control of both chambers of Congress, after Bill got his tax increases on the rich, expanded EITC for the poor, & tried & failed for healthcare reform & gays openly in the military.

    Welfare reform was shitty & evil but it was done by Bill with Republicans rather thand Democrats Bill always said afterwards that he should done welfare reform when the Dems controlled Congress because he'd campaigned on it in 1992 & yet he tried for two things progressive (healthcare & gays in the military) before tried for the centrist thing & by the time he tried for the centrist thing the right controlled Congress rather the Dems.

  2. If you believe this to be true "Let's get real here. Ralph Nader did not put George W. Bush in the White House: Purging the voter rolls did. Throwing out black votes did."

    And I agree with you that if suppression of black voters had not happened then Gore would have won Florida, then you have to acknowledge that Hillary lost Wisconsin because of voter suppression not because she didn't campaign there or because she was too rightwing (she was actually far too economically left wing & far too socially leftwing/concerned with fighting racism)