Ralph Nader might have saved the Democratic Party
The mere mention of Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign for president is enough to send most Democrats into a state of caterwauling rage. After all, Nader's presence on the ballot in Florida almost certainly narrowly cost Democratic nominee Al Gore the state and thus the election, and inflicted on America eight endless years of George W. Bush, a self-described "compassionate conservative" who turned out to be neither particularly compassionate nor particularly conservative (nor particularly adept at running the country).
Nothing can ever change Nader's role in that election, nor can he ever be absolved of his share of the responsibility for the endless series of calamities that unfolded under Bush's misrule. Nader's contention that there was no meaningful difference between Gore and Bush was sharply, almost prophetically wrong. If I had a Ralph Nader voodoo doll, I would have put a pin it every day for the last 17 years and slept like a baby.
But even I must concede that it's time for a reappraisal of Ralph Nader's place in history.
Nader was more than just the spoiler in 2000. He was also likely responsible for placing Democrats on a long-term trajectory of moving back to the social-democratic space the party occupied during and after the New Deal, a position that helped mid-century Democrats eliminate political threats from far-left parties. Today's Democratic Party platform is eerily and unmistakably similar to Nader's set of signature issues, and credit must be given where credit is due.
2000 was Nader's second run for president. An activist most famous for his indictment of car safety in 1965's Unsafe At Any Speed (you can also thank Nader for, among many other things, getting vouchers when your flight is overbooked) he first sought the presidency in 1996, received less than 1 percent of the vote, and wasn't even the most successful third-party candidate on the ballot — Ross Perot got over 8 million votes. But the general languor of Bill Clinton's second term, and the sense that Vice President Al Gore was insufficiently committed to making aggressive progressive policy created a completely different environment for Nader the next time around. Nader spoke to packed rallies full of true believers, refused to take part in what he called the corrupt campaign fundraising system, and boasted a roster of celebrities like Susan Sarandon who spoke on his behalf.
Indeed, 16 years before Bernie Sanders staked his Democratic primary campaign on a "Medicare For All" plan, Nader pushed for a Canadian-style reform of the American health-care system. Speaking to an audience in Philadelphia outside of the Republican National Convention on July 31, 2000, just months before the election, Nader argued forcefully that "the time is long overdue for Americans to join other Western countries and get universal health-care coverage. The best way to advance health care in this country is to get these giant corporations out of health care and replace them with nonprofit institutions." Gore, meanwhile, spoke mostly about preserving Medicare and incrementally increasing the number of people with insurance.
Health care wasn't the only issue Nader was ahead of his time on. During the campaign he railed against the "criminal injustice system" at a time when national Democrats were still confident that their 1994 crime bill was responsible for bringing the rate of violent crime down rather than, as we know today, exploding the prison population and adding trillions to state and federal budgets. Nader's thinking on crime and prisons has slowly become the default conventional wisdom within the Democratic Party, albeit with a more explicitly woke anti-racist appeal than Nader made, with last year's nominee, Hillary Clinton, promising systemic reform to address racist policing practices and their disproportionate impact on minority communities.
Nader was also the first national figure to endorse a financial transactions tax, which will be one of the most important tools future Democrats will use to pay for their expansive plans to extend the social safety net. While Democrats remained reflexively pro-trade into the Obama administration, Nader pushed for a renegotiation of NAFTA to strengthen labor protections. He called for a significantly higher minimum wage and European-style parental leave and daycare policies.
Nader ultimately scored only 2.7 percent of the vote in 2000. He was completely oblivious about issues of race, gender, and sexuality that would evolve to be so critical to the contemporary Democratic coalition, and irritatingly read every single issue through the lens of social class. Though he publicly argued that he didn't care if Bush won, he could not, ultimately, have been happy that the race was so close that his voters appeared to cast the decisive ballots in Florida and poisoned the reputation of Nader and the Greens for a decade. The party hasn't even sniffed 1.5 percent of the presidential vote since.
Political scientists have long wondered why the aggregate vote share of third parties declined over the course of the 20th century. Prior to the New Deal, it was not uncommon to have a significant number of third-party legislators in Congress, mostly from left organizations like the Progressive Party and the American Labor Party. In a 2007 article, political scientists Shigeo Hirano and James Snyder argued persuasively that it was the Democrats' sudden shift to the left under FDR that deprived these parties of their signature issues and thus led legislators to switch parties, voters to change their allegiance, and organized labor to support Democrats almost exclusively. That leftward tilt, and the elimination of third-party threats, helped the Democrats thoroughly dominate national politics from 1932 to 1968.
The Democrats' move to the center starting in 1984 may have helped Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992 — although it is important to note that Ross Perot's 18.9 percent of the vote was at least as important a factor — but abandoning their New Deal-era commitment to government interventionism seems, over time, to have cost the party the allegiance of millions of disillusioned leftist voters. Rumblings of dissatisfaction with the party's orientation have been obvious since at least 2003, when Howard Dean sought the nomination and claimed he was "from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."
Barack Obama became the first Democrat since LBJ to unify economic and social progressives but watched a Republican Congress stymie any possibility of further change after 2010. And then last year, Bernie Sanders made Nader's arguments to an audience of millions of enraptured young people and progressives who wouldn't be able to pick Ralph Nader out of a lineup of two people. While Sanders was also a sometimes-awkward messenger for the party's message of racial and gender equality, his campaign represented progress on those issues for the economic left.
Bernie's breakthrough also teaches us something else about third-party strategy in America: Railing against the two-party "duopoly," a staple of Green Party rhetoric from Nader to Jill Stein, is a dead end. The undertow of strategic voting — where voters will eventually settle on one of the major-party nominees to avoid wasting their votes — is impossible to swim against at the national level. Bernie Sanders was able to reach mainstream, center-left Democrats with his message, and to permanently change the conversation about health care and inequality, because he operated within the Democratic big tent rather than shivering in the cold outside it. Notwithstanding any lingering grievances generated by Clinton's loss, his standing with the public, including most Democrats, remains high because he endorsed and campaigned for Clinton after the primaries finally concluded.
The Nation's William Greider, in a 2000 endorsement of Nader, argued that "third-party presidential candidates do not attain power themselves, but they can move national politics in new directions if their message draws the kind of popular support that threatens the entrenched order." Whatever else you want to say about Ralph Nader, that he pushed the conversation in a new, progressive direction is at this point hardly disputable. The evidence is all around us. And in 2020, Democrats must once again find a candidate who appeals credibly to both economic and social progressives — and critically, can also speak the language of today's ascendant coalition of women, LGBTQ activists, and minorities as a first language. If that person can also carry a wave of progressive legislators into office, they may yet bring Nader's hopeful, long-ago vision to fruition, and heal the lingering fractures of 2016 — and 2000.