2020 Election

Confessions of a Ralph Nader Voter


Joe Biden, like Al Gore, is not the lesser of two evils.



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I voted for Nader in 2000. (Don’t @me!)

I was 27 years old, an aspiring novelist with an office job and a soon-to-be fiancée, I’d been living in New York City for five years, and I didn’t care for either of the major party candidates. Dubya was Dubya. Al Gore didn’t pass the purity test. He was a corporatist Dem who wasn’t progressive enough for my taste, vastly inferior to my man Bill Bradley. Joining the Democrats felt to me like selling out. So I did what any bleeding heart would do and registered with the Green Party. Basically, I was the Y2K prototype of a Bernie Bro: well-meaning, sure, but arrogant, naïve, insufferable.

In my defense, I lived, as mentioned, in New York, a state Gore was assured of winning on election night. I was therefore free to Vote My Conscience™. Also, Ralph Nader owed his popularity to campaigning on, in order: more regulation on large corporations, especially in media; universal health care; the reallocation of military spending to education and social welfare programs; better public housing and public transportation; free public college and better public schools; heavy investment in solar power and other renewable energy sources; and an increase in the $5.15 minimum wage. (The more things change, dot dot dot.) Whatever progress we’ve made these last 20 years has been agonizingly slow, even as the Republicans have cut taxes over and over for the rich and the big corporations, even as their current standard-bearer threatens to kill both us and democracy.

So I get it. I understand the arguments. It’s frustrating to watch the deadlock in Congress, the Mitch McConnell obstruction, the lack of movement, the incremental victories, the income inequality, the soulless corporations—who fund both parties—running amok. Why can’t we have a Green New Deal, universal health care, and sensible gun control? Why can’t we prioritize women’s bodily autonomy over patriarchal interpretations of a 2000-year-old religious tome? Why can’t everyone catch up to how I think, ffs? The surest way to achieve those idealistic aims, I knew in my 27-year-old heart, was to vote third party—a third party untainted by decade after decade of compromise. Or of, you know, achievement.

In my arrogance, I did not stop to wonder why, in the two centuries plus since Washington warned about factionalism in his farewell address, there have only ever been two major parties at any given period in American history. I did not question the motives of the Green Party’s candidate or what a vote for him in New York might do to the nation as a whole. If I noticed that precious few of Nader’s supporters were people of color, it did not register. And I certainly did not suspect that I was being manipulated by powerful forces as invisible as they were insidious. Nah, my keen ability to not be manipulated by the major parties is why I refused to join! I got it, and the Gore voters were all saps.

Like I said: insufferable.

Twenty years ago this October, I attended a Ralph Nader rally at Madison Square Garden. There were tens of thousands of people in the arena. The surprisingly astute Phil Donohue was the emcee, and the celebrities performing and speaking included Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Jimmy Fallon, Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Ani de Franco, Ben Harper, and, if my notes are correct, Bill Murray (!).

“I went more out of curiosity than anything else,” I wrote a few days later, in my very first attempt at an online political column. “I came in a cynic and left a changed man. I felt as though I had witnessed—nay, participated in—something truly special. My sarcasm had washed away. I was full of idealism, quite convinced that my vote does matter and that one person can change the world.” No doubt the millennials and zoomers at the Bernie rallies in ’16 and last year felt much the same.

My column is at most 800 words, and a full third of it is given to remarks made by Michael Moore in his speech introducing Nader. I’d been a fan of his short-lived TV show, The Awful Truth, and was obviously quite taken by his wit. Two things he said really stuck with me:

If you don’t vote your conscience now, when will you? Don’t make a decision based on fear.

and

I’ve heard people say, “I’d vote for Nader, but I don’t want to waste my vote.” Now I think we all agree that a Bush presidency would be hellaciously awful. But if you vote for the lesser of two evils, you’re still voting for evil.

Twenty years on, Moore is still making the same specious argument. So is Susan Sarandon. So is Cornel West, who said something similar on Real Time with Bill Maher before the 2016 election, insisting that Jill Stein, who dined with Vladimir Putin, was somehow preferable to Hillary. Yes, Colin Kaepernick changed the world by taking a knee during the National Anthem, but he was among the many, many celebrities four years ago to promote the idea that Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald John Trump were indistinguishable. While the differences between Bush and Gore were less stark than the contrast between HRC and DJT, the argument itself is exactly the same as what I heard at MSG two decades ago. Die-hard Berners are still at it, insisting on a false equivalency of the candidates, while conservatives are tripping over themselves trying to find some reason, any reason, to vote for the psychopath rather than the empath.

I voted for Nader, in part, because his candidacy was ardently supported by all those famous people at the rally. The fact that people I respected were proudly pro-Nader legitimized him. Yes, New York went to Gore despite my protest vote. But my individual enthusiasm for Nader helped build a movement, and that movement convinced voters in other states that “voting your conscience” was a swell idea. And by “other states,” I mean Florida.

The 2000 election hinged on the will of the people in the Sunshine State. Whoever won Florida won the White House. And the vote there was close. Photo finish close. Coin flip close. Commercial for the Gillette Mach 5 close. After calling the state for Gore, the news networks retracted, then called it for Bush, then retracted again. Gore conceded, then withdrew his concession, and Bush reportedly got pissy on the phone. Oh, and I forgot to mention: the governor of Florida was Jeb Bush, the brother of the Republican candidate! Nothing untoward about that at all! Although, to be fair, it was Katherine Harris, the hapless secretary of state, who was in charge of certifying the vote. Unfortunately, she was both the co-chair of the George W. Bush campaign in Florida and also completely and totally overmatched. Think a less corrupt and more ineffectual Pam Bondi. When the votes were all in, Bush had won by 300 votes—just 300 votes, in a state of 15,330,000 people!

The six weeks after Election Day were a Mack Sennett picture. The razor-thin margin of victory prompted an automatic recount. Both parties dispatched their best attorneys to Florida. And crazy stuff started to happen, because, again: Florida. Some of the physical ballots were found to be confusing; a clutch of elderly ladies accidentally voted for the loathsome Pat Buchanan, running on the Reform Party ticket. Other ballots were ruled invalid because they were not completely punched out, leaving “hanging chads”—a phrase that became a punchline for jokes on Letterman and Leno. As rank-and-file state officials tried valiantly to carefully count the votes, future felon and GOP ratfucker Roger Stone—who lives in Fort Lauderdale—led the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot, in which a gaggle of Gordon Gekkos and Patrick Batemans and Alex P. Keatons raised a ruckus outside the rooms where the votes were being counted, slowing down the already molasses-slow process. Eventually the Supreme Court, then as now led by a conservative chief justice, stepped in, ruled for the former in Bush v. Gore—certifying a vote total of 2,912,790 for Bush and 2,912,253 for Gore; yes, it was that close—and instead of An Inconvenient Truth, we got eight years of My Pet Goat.

Bush began his presidency ignoring the chatter about Osama Bin Laden and ended it with the entire world economy on the brink of collapse. In between, he waged war against the wrong country and cut taxes for his wealthy chums, even as he was spending a cool trillion bucks in Iraq and Afghanistan, and installed John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, and Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Courts of Appeals. He was an abominable president by any metric. And yet compared to Trump, he’s Teddy Fucking Roosevelt.

While my one meager vote for Ralph Nader didn’t really affect the outcome, it actually kind of did. Nader received 97,488 votes, 1.63 percent of the total, in Florida—not nearly enough to win, but more than enough to tilt the vote rightward. How many of those voters were swayed by the rally at Madison Square Garden? If we had all just stayed home, the world would be a very different place.

The country somehow managed to make it through two Bush II terms. It won’t survive four more years of Trump. The stakes for 2020 couldn’t possibly be higher. It’s Joe and Kamala, or the republic dies (and most of us do, too, because, despite what the GOP would have us believe, there’s still a pandemic raging).

For anyone thinking of voting third party, or protest-voting, or sitting this one out because Bernie got robbed or whatever, here are some inconvenient, if not awful, truths:

There are two parties because that’s how the American system works. Third parties work fine in Europe, in parliamentary systems. Here, they only serve as spoilers. Google “H. Ross Perot.”

Kanye West is a spoiler. We know this because he basically told us so, by admitting he talks to Jared Kushner all the time about election strategy. The GOP hoped West would move enough Black voters off of Joe Biden. He did not and will not.

Republicans are exploiting the Green Party to make it more difficult for people in swing states to vote by mail.

Michael Moore must be aware of all this. He’s a bad actor, whose livelihood depends on just this sort of chaos. For all his claims to be progressive, he’s essentially working for the Republican Party and has been for 20 years.

Bernie Sanders is the new Ralph Nader, a supposed man of principle who refuses to join a major party. I was pleasantly surprised that he so earnestly endorsed Joe at the Democratic National Convention. If he had done the same for Hillary in 2016, instead of holding out as long as he did, we would not be in this mess. He’s making noise now about Joe’s platform, probably because he hasn’t gotten enough attention lately. Ignore him.

The Justices of the Supreme Court aren’t getting any younger, and the extreme list to starboard did not represent the view of the majority of Americans even before the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gallantly waited approximately an hour after her death to announce that, yes, the Senate will vote on Trump’s nominee to replace her. This, I assure you, we do not want.

A vote for any candidate from any third party—Green, Libertarian, Constitution, Reform, Communist, Whig, United States Pirate, Rent Is Too Damn High—is a vote for Trump. Period, full stop.

A vote for Biden isn’t a vote for “evil,” as Moore would have it, any more than a vote for Hillary was a vote for evil in ’16, or Obama in ’12 or ’08. John Kerry and Al Gore were not “evil” candidates. Nor, for that matter, was Mitt Romney “evil,” or John McCain, or even—it pains me to admit this—George W. Bush (Dick Cheney? Sure, but not Dubya). But Trump is flat-out evil. A vote for Trump—and, by extension, a vote for anyone other than Biden—is a vote for evil: for refugee children in cages, for environmental catastrophe, for destruction of the social safety net, for the death of democracy, for passive genocide.

Biden isn’t [fill in the blank] enough for you? Guess what, he doesn’t have to be. No candidate, not even Kamala Harris, is perfect. So I encourage you to Vote Your Conscience. Which means that, if you don’t vote for Biden, we become Belarus, and you never get the chance to vote in a legitimate election for the rest of your life.

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