The Nader fallacy (or thoughts on being a ‘good’ Democrat)

I have no idea how many of these posts I’ll end up making but I want to put a standard disclaimer out there for at least the first few to clear up any misconceptions. I am not, and have not been since the 1998 midterms, an active member of either of the two major political parties. Since the 2000 election I have not voted for either one of the major party candidates, and do not see myself doing so this year regardless of who it is (this includes Sanders though that is terribly unlikely at this juncture). I say this to preface that I don’t have a dog in the (two party) fight.

So right off the bat there are lots of places on the web that show why this is bullshit (though you do have to have a basic understanding of how electoral math works, which seems to be a problem for a lot of people these days) but I favor this DailyKos one because it brings together a lot of the data scattered around elsewhere. But long story short is that Nader didn’t cost Gore the election, Gore being a shitty candidate that wasn’t able to keep a large number of Clinton voters from 1996 from voting Bush did.

This matters now because a lot of big D Democrats are trying to tell other Democrats and independents who support Sanders that if they don’t vote for Hillary, or if they vote for Sanders as write-in or third party or whatever then they’re going to cost Hillary the election. So that’s blatantly poppycock.

Now, this also matters because I vaguely recall I voted Nader in 2000 (vaguely because I was in grad school at Chicago, and the elections happened to fall right after midterms for most of us so I also vaguely recall spending a large part of the day drunk) but I know for sure that I voted for neither Gore, nor Bush. I’d split with the Democratic party after the 1998 election, and I’d split from the Republicans after my first year at University (there are likely still photos floating around of my wearing a ‘Clinton sux’ shirt from my freshman year, a deeply embarrassing time for a number of reasons).

What I do recall more clearly, after sobering up and getting over the shitshow that was Florida, was a classmate laying into me for ‘costing Gore the election’. At the time I resorted to the easiest defense, that Gore had handily won Illinois, where I was registered to vote. But I have seen this float up again (most notably in 2004 during the Kerry run) as an accusation levied at people who are perceived to be moderate and all points left. Typically it seems to be couched as one of the following permutations:

1. As an exhortation to party loyalty; ‘a vote for X is a vote against Y, and is good as a vote for Z, and we all know that Y is better than Z so please vote Y.’ Or in the current situation ‘A vote for an independent Sanders (or Jill Stein, or what have you) is a vote against Hillary, and a vote against Clinton is basically like voting for Trump, so vote Clinton, otherwise you’re voting Trump.’

2. Your vote only matters if you vote for a major party candidate, so vote for the lessor of two evils.

3. You’re throwing your vote away.

And they are all bullshit. The first is bullshit because it seeks to perpetuate the myth that we have an iron-clad two party system, while this may be the de facto case thus far it is not codified in law and there is not, nor should there be, penalties for people voting outside either of the two major parties. The second and third are bullshit because, again, this amounts to trying to create a forced choice. One of the common assumptions that gets bundled in cognitively here is that people are only voting for President in these elections. I get this a lot usually some version of ‘If you’re not voting for Kerry/Bush/Obama/Romney/McCain/the Smiler/Clinton’ then why even vote? First off because you can, and second because you can make difference down ticket. Having lived in California for a long-ass time I can tell you that those Propositions can matter a whole hell of a lot (and still a hearty fuck you to my neighbors after all these years for voting for Prop 8).

Trying to intimidate people into voting for your candidate isn’t a strategy I can see working much at all. There’s plenty of literature in social psychology that suggests forcing people into a decision they don’t arrive to on their own doesn’t work particularly well unless you are able to exert constant coercion, and that less than constant coercion will often create the facsimile of cooperation until an opportunity to defect presents itself. Put it another way you can threaten people into voting for your candidate, and they may even play along, but once they are in the voting booth, all alone, all bets are off.

Finally don’t hate on someone because your preferred candidate is not universally loved.  An important factor in three of the last five Presidential elections for Democrats has been putting up candidates that are not well liked by large portions of the electorate, even by people who might be registered in the party, or have voted for the party in the past. Outside of Obama, who was not even supposed to be as viable as he was according to the party insiders at the time, the kinds of middle-of-the-road centrists thrown forth by the party seem tailored to appeal to ‘swing voters’ but without concern to what is happening to portions of the base. And this doesn’t mean they’re out there voting for the other candidate, or for a third party, they’re mostly staying home or abstaining from voting for Prez.

Not being okay with the candidate your party puts out there is a perfectly fine reaction, and one which I’ve seen several Democratic stalwarts go through since 2000. Being asked to go along with ‘it could be worse’ candidates is not a strategy that is sustainable over the long term, as the Republicans are currently in the midst of finding out. And it suggests that the continued existence of a two-party dominant system requires a much more careful balancing act between moderate and extreme than we are currently seeing (though this is just supposition, I suppose you could ask a political scientist for whether this is really shaking out this way.)

This isn’t to say that everyone finds these candidates distasteful. Gore, Kerry and Clinton all have their fervent supporters, but when the impulse of these supporters is to accuse and try to demonize party members, or even temporary party voters, who don’t want to support their candidate then they are potentially peeling away future support for the party down the line. This was part of the ethos that allowed the GOP to become the big tent, and it seems to be something that many Democratic insiders have trouble connecting to.

To return to 2000, I had split with the Democratic party prior to the 2000 election, but the way many party stalwarts acted in the wake of the election served only to push me, personally, farther away from ever wanting to support the party. Democrats in this year can certainly argue among themselves as they like, but they should be aware that there are legitimate reasons their fellows may have for breaking with the party, and that just because a potential voter sits out or votes third party this year it doesn’t mean that they are voting for the other party, or that they may not return in the future if presented with a candidate that is more energizing to them. Especially if the candidate you are supporting seems poised to win, be gracious in victory.


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