Politics: Ralph Nader and the Idea of Choice

by William Grosso

Related link: http://www.scripting.com/

I absolutely love this, from today's Scripting News

Nader's run separates the people who "get" American democracy, and those who don't. If Nader is going to win the election for Dubya, then now's the time to fix the bug in the process. Kerry isn't nominated yet. Think. What's the problem that Nader exploits?

The presidential election process in the US is so screwed up at this point, and it's descended so far down into its own echo chamber of idiocy, that I'm baffled as to the solution.

With respect to the Democratic nominee: approximately 1/3 of the states, representing well under 1/3 of the population, have expressed a preference. Why did Howard Dean drop out? Well, a significant part of the reason was that all the coverage was about how his candidacy had been soundly rejected by the voters and he was no longer a factor.

Was he rejected? Well, the vast majority of the voters didn't get the chance to do so.

Right now John Kerry, wearing the mantle of media-designated victor, is attacking Bush and attempting to appear Presidential. And the press coverage is mostly about how, if Edwards doesn't win in the next few states, Kerry will be inevitable. Got that, Democratic party members in the last half of the states? Your opinions, hopes, and choices are irrelevant.

And now that Nader's announced he's in, we're already hearing about how he's just going to hurt the Democratic candidate. I find it both amazing and unsurprising that the number one response to Nader's entry is not about his ideas and whether they're any good. It's about how his entry impacts the (mostly imaginary) horse race.

And I think there's something astonishingly undemocratic about websites like Ralph Don't Run.
The logic behind the ad is simple, and goes something like this:

  1. If Ralph Nader runs, a significant number of people will vote for him.
  2. The Nader voters would otherwise vote for the Democratic candidate.
  3. The only way to prevent the Nader voters from voting for Ralph is to take away that choice completely.
  4. Therefore, Ralph shouldn't run.

Or, to rephrase it: Those damn voters! Why won't they shut up and vote the way we want them to.

Would you vote for a "third party" candidate?


2004-02-22 16:25:20
Nader voters of 2000
Ok, I agree on how the primary system and its "a few states at a time" does have the wrong effect of pushing early victories in specific states and momentum over the true idea of acquiring a general and true concensus among voters in the party. Come up with an alternative, though, 'cause I sure as heck can't.

As for Nader, well the facts spoke for themselves. The people who voted for him may have been trying to say "this is the man who stands for what I believe in", but that's not how the system took it. The system we have got 2 messages out of the Nader voters leading to Gore's upset loss.

To the Democrats, Nader voters said "come on, guys, get a little more organized and get us something better than this"

To the Republicans, Nader voters said "hey, all you have to do is divide up your opposition and you can put a chimpanzee in the white house without a fight."

9/11 and the dot-bombs not withstanding, the country has suffered significantly as a result of the reactionary "lets bring back the golden age of Reagan" policies in place by the current administration.

And when the guy in charge is telling us that he can cut the half-trillion deficit (that he created) in half in 5 years, when 5 years ago we had zero deficit (on paper, anyways), that's when its time to get the guy in charge out of there and get someone who knows how mathematics and basic arithmatic actually work.

(and by the way, the system has never been a democracy, and never will be. The founding fathers knew damn well how democracies fail when emotions and mob rule give sway over proper reason and politics, and have the example of the destruction of Athens to show for it).

2004-02-22 17:59:13
Electoral reform
I haven't yet seen anyone overtly state the obvious, which is the need for electoral reform. In particular, read this essay (which I wrote several years ago...it's only a little dated).

2004-02-22 18:10:15
Actually ... I think Electoral Reform Won't Work Either
What we're really seeing is that semi-direct democracy doesn't scale (and, yeah, I know we were supposed to be a republic. But at this point, that's kinda been over-ruled in a lot of scenarios).

One of the big problems we're experiencing is that the country and the federal government are both too big.

It's hard to make decisions that hold for the entire US.

A lot of our current political battles reflect the fact that different areas have different belief sets.

In order for the country to get to know a candidate, we need a two year election cycle.

Even in a two year election cycle, it's impossible to figure out what the actual impact of the candidate will be.

Because the job is so big, and the world changes so fast, and because we can't really, even in a less dynamic world, assess the impact of a leader, we wind up voting for president based on emotional identification and character issues.

Imagine a much more federated country, where most decisions are made locally or at a "ecosystem" level. At that level, you could know more about the candidates, and they'd have relevant track records (How well does being a governor predict being a president? I don't know. But I imagine that performance as a minor local leader is a good predictor of performance as a major local leader).

Of course, that's a pipedream. I just don't see any other solution to the problem.

2004-02-22 18:56:14
It's the plurality voting system ...
The post about alternative voting systems was interesting, but the fact remains that we're stuck with the plurality system for this year (and probably a very long time to come). This has the two party system as an emergent property (see Duverger's law, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duvergers_Law). That's why a dozen candidates, or voting your deepest feelings rather than on the basis of the lesser of two evils, is *pragmatically* a Bad Thing even if it makes you feel good or matches your childhood conception of "democracy" - if you don't vote for the candidate with the combination of a good chance to win and at least a marginally acceptable agenda, you are effectively voting for that person's strongest opponent.

How many of the people who voted for Nader in Florida in 2000 feel good about what Bush has done to the EPA, to the Kyoto accords, to energy policy, etc. etc. etc.? Like it or not, they elected him , if they would have preferred Gore's policies but thought they would "make a statement" by voting for Nader. Campaign for a better voting system if you wish, but vote for the lesser of two evils or you are voting for the greater of them.

2004-02-22 20:34:41
Ralph and tilting at windmills
So the system is screwed up. Okay. How do you fix it? Is it screwed up because we have such a dismal turnout? Is it because most of us prefer to complain rather than contribute? Would we have better results if we had a dozen folks running? So the winner could potentially have only 20% instead of 49? How the heck is that going to make it better?

In the least we should allow direct voting instead of this archaic system. Even with Nadar running, Gore still had more votes than GW.

Even with a dozen folks running, unless the younger generation votes in proportion to their population the results will be skewed by the over-represented elderly. It's simple math. If 30% of group A vote and 90% of group B vote, then group B will have a 3X impact.


2004-02-23 00:34:25
If it's a pipedream...
...why are you calling it a solution?

I'll agree that your proposal is a pipedream. Having a bunch of little bitty governments with their own policies and politics is a massive PITA, which is why the European Union is all the rage in Europe. In fact, I bet they would argue that the old European model "doesn't scale".

Furthermore, the devil is in the details. Social Security is 22% of the budget. If we move that to the state level, does that mean that you have to live in one state all of your life to maintain benefits? Defense is 19% of the budget. I don't think we're about to leave it up to Rhode Island to defend their own borders.

I could continue going down the list, but you get the point. Even if Social Security and Defense were the only things the feds do, that's close to a $1 trillion annual budget. The President of the United States is going to remain a big job, so we better figure out how to pick him (or her). So, I'm curious. Why don't you think that electoral reform will improve things?

2004-02-23 00:42:58
It's the plurality voting system ...
Having written the first iteration of the Wikipedia article on Duverger's Law, I'm pretty familiar with it. :)

My short-term proposal would be that the Democratic nominee take electoral reform seriously. A Democrat taking a serious and credible stand in favor of electoral reform would eliminate what little threat Nader poses, as well as very likely getting some Libertarian votes that wouldn't ordinarily vote for the [D] candidate. Not to mention that the candidate would be doing the Right Thing[tm].

2004-02-23 08:40:38
Electoral Reform doesn't resolve any of the forces I listed?
First, I didn't say go for "itty bitty" governments. I agree with you that "itty bitty" is probably too small.

Second, I'm wondering who, exactly, you anticipate invading Rhode Island? Has Iceland been secretly coveting the relative warmth and sunshine of New England?

Beyond that: many of the problems we're experiencing are, more or less, generated by the hugeness of the job and the scale of the country. Changing the way we pick the president doesn't change the fact that the president, and the federal government, mean too many things to too many people. It might alleviate the problem a little, but it doesn't feel like it handles the fundamental problems.

2004-02-23 12:52:30
Voted for Nader in 2000, not sure yet about 2004

First, don't forget the power of polling. I don't think that we necessarily need to know the results of the other primaries before those states' Democratic voters can make their preference known.

I voted for Nader in 2000 because his message really resonated with me and because I did not see a significant difference between Gore and Bush except on judicial appointments. Would I be as anxious to get rid of Gore today if he had won as I am Bush? I think that I probably would.

I knew from the polls that my candidate was not going to win the election. The outcome that I was voting for in 2000 was to strengthen the Green Party, to promote Nader's message, and to accept the bad candidate who would win. 2004 will probably be different, for I expect a starker difference between Bush and the Democratic nominee.

Although I disagree with the Ralph Don't Run-crowd, I do not think that their efforts are undemocratic. The U.S. system has a single winner for this election, and I believe that voters acknowledge this situation when they vote.

As an example, I recently had an interesting conversation with my wife I'd like to share. She thinks that Bush is doing an OK job though not a great one, but she is worried that if Bush wins in 2004 that Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be the Democratic candidate and be the likely victor in 2008. So the reasoning behind her vote in November may be very complicated indeed.

2004-02-23 15:03:38
Power of Polling?
Wasn't Dean leading the polls by a country mile before the actual voting started?
2004-02-23 19:22:01
The lesser of two evils?
I agree that the media is skewering the race and is significantly swaying public opinion about who the 'winner' will be. I also agree with your position about voting for Nader in that, for some people, they may want "Nader first, Bush second", in which case a vote for Nader is the way to go.

However, I doubt many Nader voters want that, and those that don't should seriously consider the reality that they are only increasing the chance that Bush will get elected. It is a statistical fact that the more split up the democratic votes are, the more likely the republican candidate will win. As the saying goes: "United we stand, divided we fall." If the democratic vote is 'divided', the republican vote will prevail, and Nader fans will probably be even more unhappy than if the democratic candidate won.

We can't all get 'the' person we want, and I think it's important to remember that compromise is how democracy was constructed in the first place, and that sometimes it's the best way to achieve an objective. In most cases, it's better to get some of what you want rather than none. Having the ability to choose doesn't mean we can't (or shouldn't) choose to all play on one team.

2004-02-23 20:12:09
Vote Libertarian
Libertarians "get" democracy.
2004-02-23 23:47:47
democracy is restricting choice?
The "democratic" party yesterday (or was it sunday) went as far as to call the candidacy of Nader undemocratic.

I find that highly troubling, if a party calling themselves "democratic" calls fair competition to their point of view to be undemocratic.
Next you'll see them banning all other parties for the sake of democracy...

From what I've seen (from the outside, which gives me a different perspective from US people of course) is that the entire US election process is a joke. Effectively the winning candidate is NOT decided by the electorate but by the media, and therefore by whom has the largest advertising budget...

Of course the entire system of primaries is incredibly silly as well.
Party members (or the party central comittee or however they call the upper echelon) should vote on their candidate in closed session in all states simultaneously, without the results of any one state being known before the polls close.
Only that way can a fair election be held in which the results of one area do not affect those of another area.

Hate campaigns with personal attacks against the opposition candidates should be banned, maybe even lead to the guilty candidate being excluded from the election process.
As it is your entire election process is only about a shouting match between candidates not about the real issues but about sullying the image of the competition.
The low point was reached (for now) when sunday "democratic" party people started hinting that the president was misappropriating government funds to pay for the burrial of his dog who died last weekend, and that he considered a dead pet more important than dead US troops overseas (neither of which is true, being cleverly crafted lies to make the president look bad on a personal level).

Leftwing politicians here launched a campaign like that against a moderate rightwing competitor in 2002 which led to the murder of that competitor.
The murderer claimed he'd been convinced by that hate campaign that the person he shot in the head 5 times at close range deserved to die.
I think the only reason that hasn't happened yet in the US is the cordon of USSS troopers that every candidate is surrounded with.
Is THAT what you people want "democratic" process to be?

2004-02-24 08:59:19
Democracy Doesn't Work: More Proof
Because political party's depend on their "bases." Each party has a base of folks who are generally inclined to that party. Mostly each party works on capturing the base of folks who are seen as capturable, like soccer moms or whatever. Occasionally, a base will shift from one party to another, like white folks in the south who switched from Dem to Rep, and it causes a seismic shift in one party's control over the truely important political offices, the local ones, which affects national offices in long term ways.

Ralph agitates Democrats because he is attracting votes away from one of their bases and aggravates the issue because he isn't aiming at any Republican bases. Essentially he is cherry-picking. It would be different if he worked across the political spectrum, like Ross Perot. Maybe a run without being affiliated with the Greens will change this, but I don't think it is likely.

I'm not agitated by Nader, but I am annoyed by his website. The primary content on votenader.org appeads 21 page-downs from the top in Safari 1.2.

2004-02-24 10:39:25
Power of Polling?

Yes, this is absolutely a problem if you rely on polls which are more fluid and don't have the finality of an election. But I stand by the idea that polls are useful tools for guaging the current state of opinion and measuring the effect of a candidate's campaign.

2004-02-26 13:20:52
David Winer is no David Broder
The notorious libertarian leaning of computer people aside, this isn't exactly news. The primary system has been broken since no later that 1976, and all the whining of the Dean Bloggers won't change that. Yeah, Dean got beat up by the media, AFTER he was hailed by the same media for 6 months. It's not fair, but it's not new either, ask John Mccain, Gary Hart, Eugene Mcarthy et al about being a media darling. As for Nader, if you honestly believe Gore would have lead us down the same path as Bush, then by all means vote for Nader, a man who has never held a single elected office in his life. When the repubs finish drilling in ANWR and put up a giant blinking NO GAY MARRIAGE sign there (finaiced by Haliburton, runing on Windows) don't complain to me.
2004-02-26 13:31:38
Okay ...
I'm having trouble figuring out exactly what you were replying to. Starting with the incongruity of sentence 1 (Winer seems to lean pretty hard towards the Democrats) and heading through the irrelevance of "running on Windows," my best guess is that you meant to reply to some other weblog.