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AN APOLOGY TO RALPH NADER AND, MOST OF ALL, HIS VOTERS
July 20, 2017
by Casey Ellis
In 2000 I voted in my first U. S. presidential election.  I was a 19-year-old college freshman and, while being in college was very exciting, even that couldn’t match the thrill of voting.  This was a moment I’d waited for since I was at least seven.  As I recall, I was slightly irked that, for logistical reasons, I had to fill out an absentee ballot instead of going to the actual polling station. 
           
My parents started drilling me in civic responsibility long before I could have possibly understood it.  I have a vague memory of my mother talking about democracy in relation to the actions of a bad guy in some children’s cartoon.  My early interest in history was enthusiastically encouraged, but that encouragement was not left to develop without guidance.  The emphasis was always on freedom and justice; power and wealth were to be regarded suspiciously.  Growing up in such an atmosphere should explain why I was never in danger of becoming one of those young people who don’t show up to vote. 

When I registered to vote, I did so as a member of the Democratic Party.  There was never any question about that, given my upbringing.  Eagerly I voted for Al Gore and nervously awaited the results.  As we all know, I did not have a politically pleasant evening. 

Of the numerous aspects worth discussing about that election, the first in over a century (and now the second in my lifetime) when the will of the American people did not prevail in a presidential contest, I want to focus on Ralph Nader and the Green Party.  Many claimed that Nader was a “spoiler,” costing Gore the election by siphoning off just enough votes in the crucial state of Florida to hand victory to George W. Bush.  The spoiler claim, hatred for Nader, and contempt for the Green Party became articles of faith for many Democrats, including me. 

To be fair to myself, I was never as snide or as vicious as some Democrats were, at least not to anyone’s face.  This was largely because I had a great many friends who enthusiastically supported Nader.  In fact, it is probable that a majority of people I knew well were Nader voters.  They were (are) friendly, intelligent people.  While one or two argued with me about backing Gore, it was never unpleasant and most never even brought it up.  Certainly I was not about to make trouble with people I cared about over how far to the left we all were. 

Privately however, I was contemptuous.  Many Nader voters might be good and smart people, I reasoned, but they had made a profoundly foolish decision.  Inwardly, I actually reveled in being part of the reasonable, center-left minority.  To my mind, it meant I was able to temper my passion for freedom and justice with calm rationality.  Of course I was liberal.  I wanted to diminish corporate influence, crush racism and homophobia, protect the environment and defend a woman’s right to control her body.  But I was smart enough to realize that none of that could happen without a realistic shot at political power.  I knew radical ideas were only accomplished slowly, by dedicated but realistic pragmatists.  Misguided “idealists” who refused to toe the line aided reactionary conservatives.  In fact, they weren’t so different from the reactionaries, in their black & white, good vs. evil view of the world.  I was subtler.  I saw gray. 

That was what I thought in 2000.  A lot has gone down since then.  For one thing, eight years later the stock market collapsed, plunging the world into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  Even the journey away from that precipice has been slow and precarious.  Around 2008, my views started modifying.  My smug contempt was replaced by…sympathetic contempt.  Left-wing radicals were largely correct, but their program stood no hope of popular acceptance.  I honored their ideas, but I still thought a benevolent elite was needed to institute whatever was possible from that admirable set of dreams. 

Then came the 2016 election, and with it went the last of my illusions about my political superiority.  Berne Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination on a, for our time, far left platform.  To everyone’s surprise, Sanders’ campaign turned into a serious challenge to Democratic heir-apparent Hillary Clinton.  I determined to support Clinton in November figuring she’d win the nomination.  But for the primary, I felt Sanders’ views were more like my own, so I supported him, not thinking it would mean much.  Instead, an ocean of bad blood was spilled between Clinton and Sanders supporters.  There were the usual “He’s too radical to win” lines, but along with these were utterly contemptuous attacks on the very concept of wanting something radically different.  I heard the word “idealist” turned into a nasty slur.  I heard sneering dismissals of today’s youth (the first generation in decades that will be worse off than their parents) as simply wanting “free stuff.”  I even heard Sanders supporters en masse accused of racism.

Astonishingly (to me, at least) these attacks continued after Clinton won the primaries, and Sanders threw his support behind her.  It even continued after the election, which Hillary Clinton lost despite, according to her campaign, having no ability to lose. 

“Bernie can’t win!  It’s not possible!”  Think of what has happened all over the world in the last few years.  Think of President Donald Trump.  And yet the jeers continue, dismissing not simply radical ideas, but the very hope of a better path.  The tone I have heard, and its disconnect from reality, has led me to believe that a good number of people in power are not afraid people like Bernie Sanders can’t win, but that they just might

This brings me back to 2000 and the whole purpose for this piece.  I do not regret my vote for Al Gore, nor do I regret my vote for Hillary Clinton in this past election.  Making a “best option available” calculation is perfectly reasonable, albeit debatable.  But I do deeply regret my attitude.  I assumed Nader voters were naïve and smugly enjoyed my own superiority.  As I watched Sanders and his voters laughed at, I finally understood what a political ass I had been.

In the 2000 election, most Green voters did not see Ralph Nader as an infallible god.  Their consciences simply could not permit them to back Gore, who promised to continue Bill Clinton’s policies, policies that included racially-tinged mass incarceration, the gutting of the welfare state, and stripping student loan borrowers of any realistic hopes of bankruptcy protection.  The decision to back Nader is debatable, certainly.  But I had some nerve tossing my head at it.  For most Nader voters, freedom and justice simply meant too much to them to consider that level of “settling.”  Looking back, whether I would have gone to Nader or stuck with Gore, I realize freedom and justice didn’t mean as much to me then as being what I thought of as “smart.”  That was really stupid of me, and I’m ashamed. 

So Mr. Nader, members of the Green Party, but above all you folks who voted for Nader and endured my (probably not as well-hidden as I’d hoped) nose in the air…I’m sorry.                        
            
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