Was it only a few short weeks ago that I turned on the TV in my hotel room to hear conservative commentator Tucker Carlson explain to Don Imus that Gore would win the Floridian chadfight because Republicans were too nice, polite, modest and fair to get down and dirty like the Democrats? That was before a small army of rowdy Republicans descended on Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties and successfully intimidated election officials while turning themselves into a media spectacle halfway between a fraternity brawl and an ancient Roman mob. Like the false announcement of a Bush victory on election night–courtesy, we now know, of a Fox TV reporter who is a cousin of George W. Bush–the demonstrators helped produce the mistaken but widespread impression that Bush had won an election that Gore was trying to undo, when in fact the election, as I write, is still undecided. According to the Wall Street Journal and other papers, the demonstrators, originally portrayed as John Q. Publics following their hearts to Florida, are GOP operatives and Congressional staffers financed by the Bush campaign, which is putting them up in Hilton hotels and entertained them on Thanksgiving with turkey and a performance by Wayne Newton.
Al Gore’s position is that there should be an accurate count of the Florida vote–the fraudulent nature of which becomes daily more obvious. What’s wrong with that? Outrageous, say the Republicans; boring, say the media, which from the start urged “closure,” like a prosecutor urging a quick lethal injection so that grieving survivors can start “the healing process.” Flip a coin, advised Ralph Nader, fliply.
And what of Nader? Campaigners have been quick to put a brave face on his unimpressive 2.7 percent–unmentioned now is the magic 5 percent that would bring the Greens federal funds and that they themselves had made a central rationale for a Nader vote. “We accomplished what we set out to do,” Nader campaign manager Theresa Amato told me. “We helped the Greens, we raised issues, we got new people into the political process. The Greens are now the leading third party, the only viable third party. I’m positive, I’m upbeat, I’m not depressed in any way.” Longtime Green activist and former member of the town council of Princeton, New Jersey, Carl Mayer was even cheerier, telling me that Nader had mobilized 150,000 volunteers and 50,000 donors and sparked the formation of some 500 local Green organizations and 900 campus groups, and crediting him with “changing the tenor of the whole race” by pushing Gore to take populist stands against the drug and oil industries. Mayer even argued that it was because of Nader that President Clinton declared wilderness areas national monuments in several Western states and that the FDA approved RU-486. Unlike virtually every other Nader supporter in America, Mayer not only accepted the mainstream analysis that Nader votes had cost Gore the election (assuming Bush wins), but said it didn’t bother him a bit.
One hesitates to inject a discouraging word, but 2.7 percent of the vote is not a lot. It puts him in the company of conscience candidates like Barry Commoner, but behind most major third-party challengers in recent memory. Even John Anderson–who?–and his National Union Party–what?–eked out 6.6 percent in 1980. Sure, you can spin these gloomy stats–Nader got more votes than any progressive third-party candidate since 1948! Nader would have gotten lots more votes but for the closeness of the Bush-Gore contest, which kept Dems in the fold! Third-party runs aren’t about votes, they’re about changing the discourse! But when I think about how many furious letters and e-mails I got for writing skeptically in this space about the possibility of a meaningful third party, especially a progressive one, I have to say events have borne me out. I said that in the end most voters would stick with the two parties because the differences that seem small to Naderites are concrete and significant to them, because the two-party system is the way civic favors and services are distributed and because people understand that the winner-take-all system insures that a left-leaning third party throws elections to the Republicans–as the Republicans understood when they ran Nader’s attacks on Gore as ads for Bush.
Commentators will be analyzing the Nader vote for months, and no doubt the campaign could have done some things better or not at all: the invisible and tokenistic vice presidential candidacy of Winona LaDuke, the waffling over whether to go for votes in toss-up states, the attacks on “frightened liberals.” But even a perfect campaign would run up against the structural obstacles that have rendered marginal every modern attempt to build a strong and lasting third-party alternative to the two- party “duopoly.”
Future elections will be even tougher. Whoever wins the presidency, people now know every vote counts–the frightened liberals are really frightened now. If Bush wins, the energy left of center will go into re-electing Democrats–any Democrat. Meanwhile, the small Nader vote–only 2 percent of Democratic voters chose him, while 11 percent chose Bush–means that the Democratic Party will move, if anywhere, rightward. The Greens may move that way also; after all, they failed to dislodge the old progressive voting blocs–feminists, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, labor. The typical Nader voter was a young white man, college educated but income poor. Nader did well among students, independents and Perot voters; outside a few left strongholds–Madison, Portland, Berkeley, western Massachusetts–his best counties were rural, his best state Alaska (10 percent), of all places. None of this sounds like a recipe for a powerful progressive voting bloc. In an interesting post-mortem on the Newsforchange website, Micah Sifry argues that the Greens may be too far left for the actually existing electorate and that the future lies in the “radical middle,” from which sprang Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot. In other words, for leftists to achieve even the momentary electoral prominence of the now-moribund Reform Party, they have to be more, well, conservative.