Ralph Nader: Democrats Are Weak, Corrupt and Could Still 'Blow It'

Unrepentant about the 2000 race, Nader argues that Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton “enabled” Donald Trump

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Ralph Nader knows how you feel about the 2000 election and the presidency of George W. Bush, all these years later. He would like you know that none of that was his fault.

Toward the end of a Salon Talks interview last week with the legendary consumer advocate and democracy gadfly — who is now 84 years old, but quotes dates, names, laws, vote totals and page numbers without hesitation — I asked Nader the inevitable question about 2000, which he may have heard 2,000 times by now. You know, I told him, that many people still blame you for how that election turned out, and everything that happened afterwards.

He chuckled, or perhaps cackled. Nader is an amusing, upbeat guy in person, which you don’t necessarily expect from someone obsessed with the fine-grained details of consumer safety regulation and democratic reforms. “Yeah, everybody but Al Gore,” he said.

Gore lost to Bush in that fateful election, Nader says, for what he calls “the following sine qua non reasons.” (He hasn’t practiced law for quite a while, but must have been the kind of lawyer you hate seeing on the other side.)

He lost because they stole it from him in Florida and blocked him 5-4, in Scalia's Supreme Court, from an ongoing Florida Supreme Court recount. It would have come out in his favor. He also knows he lost his home state of Tennessee, which is really not often done. He was a senator and a representative [from that state]. He lost for a lot of other reasons: He didn't come out authentic during the debates. Everybody thought he was going to totally plow George W. Bush under, but each time he came out, you didn't know which Al Gore you would get. ... In one debate, he and George Bush agreed over 23 times during the debate: "I agree with him!" He didn't run a very good campaign.

Now, I believe everyone has a right to run for election in this country. I don't think any of my critics would keep me from doing that. The real problem is that they're looking for scapegoats. The Green Party is an easy scapegoat because I got 97,000 votes [in Florida], and there were 537 votes, before the recount, that separated Bush and Gore. But what they don't point out is that 300,000 Democrats in Florida voted for George W. Bush. Or that the Secretary of State and Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, who was the governor, engaged in a lot of shenanigans, including disqualifying people whose name sounded like ex-felons -- thousands of them, not just a few crazy ballots.

So there were a lot of sine qua nons, and what I tell people is, “You're giving the Green Party delusions of grandeur.” They are responsible for the Electoral College, which put [the decisive result] in Florida, because Gore won the popular vote nationwide. They're responsible for the 5-4 Scalia Supreme Court. They are responsible for 300,000 Democrats in Florida voting for George W. Bush. They're responsible for Tennessee. And how about sunspots? Why don't you add sunspots, right?

Nader also insists that he pointed the Gore campaign toward “majoritarian issues,” such single-payer health care and raising the minimum wage, that could have created a clear separation between the parties in an election when many voters viewed the two major candidates — a pair of white Southern men from dynastic families with Ivy League pedigrees — as nearly indistinguishable. At the time, of course, the Democratic Party was firmly in the grip of the economic and social ideology we now know as “neoliberalism,” and it went nowhere near those issues or any of the others on Nader’s list.

We can debate endlessly whether those were the only possible politics for the time, and whether Nader’s destabilizing presence in the 2000 race played a decisive role, but we don’t get to back up the simulation and run it again to find out. Furthermore, if all of that sounds strangely familiar, it should.

Nader and I did not discuss this directly, but he clearly recognizes that the bizarre outcome of the 2000 election set the stage in various ways for the even more bizarre outcome of the 2016 election. (Here’s a strange signal from the universe: Nader’s vote total in 2000 was about 2.9 million, virtually identical to Hillary Clinton’s national popular-vote margin over Donald Trump in 2016.) In both cases, any number of marginal factors could have altered the outcome; in both cases, it served the institutional interests of the Democratic Party to blame a tiny number of left-wing defectors.

To a significant extent, Nader’s post-2000 career — including his non-Green Party presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008 — has been devoted to an extended argument that he was right to do what he did, right about the weakness and corruption of the Democratic Party, and right to try to rattle the American people into seizing control of their supposed democracy. His new book, a piecemeal collection of essays and letters written over the last four or five years, makes this explicit right in the unwieldy title: “To the Ramparts: How Bush and Obama Paved the Way for the Trump Presidency, and Why It Isn’t Too Late to Reverse Course.

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Andrew O'Hehir is a senior writer for Salon.