The 3% Man

Ralph Nader looks at Florida and sees a decadent Democratic Party

 "On tomorrow's Meet the Press, Green Party leader Ralph Nader will announce whether he will sit out the 2004 election or enter the race and cause George Bush to win by three votes. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say: Stay home, nerd. You're the reason we're in this K hole to begin with." -- Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, February 2004

As a wise frog once sang: It's not easy being green. Just ask twenty-year-old Barry University student Elizabeth Sebesta. She's spent the past three weeks canvassing her school's Miami Shores campus on behalf of presidential hopeful Ralph Nader, earnestly insisting that "we have to get rid of this two-party system run by corporations." The reaction hasn't exactly been a groundswell of encouragement. Republican students roll their eyes and walk away, while Democrats often angrily blame her candidate for throwing the 2000 election to George W. Bush -- and possibly repeating that scenario this November as well. Even Sebesta's own boyfriend, a U.S. Army paratrooper now stationed outside Baghdad, has been less than supportive. "I was really pumped and excited to be doing serious work for Nader and starting up a [campaign] chapter here at Barry," Sebesta recalls with a rueful chuckle. "I sent [my boyfriend] an e-mail." The reply came screaming back from Iraq through cyberspace: "What's wrong with you? What's happened to you since I left? Have you been brainwashed?"

Sebesta remains undaunted. Though her pitch may be lacking a certain degree of nuance ("Like, capitalists run our country, and we need to get rid of capitalism -- period"), she's counting her victories one vote at a time. Which is precisely what has leading Democratic Party officials just as panicked as Sebesta's (now ex-) boyfriend.

Confident presidential candidate Ralph Nader: "I'm not 
Fred Harper
Confident presidential candidate Ralph Nader: "I'm not clairvoyant!"

Ralph Nader himself is similarly upbeat. Speaking to Kulchur by phone from Phoenix while on the campaign trail, he points out that "in the year 2000 I spent only two and a half days campaigning in Florida." Still he received more than 97,000 votes here. So expect his face to become much more familiar to Miamians as November approaches. "We're starting a major political movement," he enthuses, "and pushing Democrats to become more progressive, because they'll be shown if they don't, they're going to lose votes."

And the Democrats' contention that he's merely a spoiler in the presidential race? "You can't spoil a system that's spoiled to the core," Nader replies. "You can't even count the votes properly in Florida. The Republicans are engaged in all sorts of shenanigans in Tallahassee and the Democrats aren't watch-dogging them. The Democrats have a lot of work to do inside their party before they spend their time hurling epithets at independent candidacies for the presidency."

Ralph Nader's 2000 electoral math is now the stuff of American history: In Florida, where Bush carried the state by just 537 votes, Nader received 97,488 votes (5355 of them from Miami-Dade County). In New Hampshire, where Bush carried the state by 7211 votes, Nader received 22,198 votes. Had Al Gore won either state, he'd be sitting in the Oval Office now. Moreover in several states where Gore prevailed over Bush by slim margins -- Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin -- the difference was dramatically eclipsed by Nader's totals in those states, an indicator of just how tight that contest was.

Nader insists he draws equally from both sides of the ideological spectrum, yet Voter News Service exit polls from Election Day 2000 reveal that had Nader not run, only between one-eighth and one-quarter of his supporters would have switched to Bush, while about half would have chosen Gore.

Chastened by this knowledge, liberals have supposedly returned to the Democratic fold en masse. The Democratic Party could have nominated a cadaver for president and they'd be cheerleading it on to victory. Nader derides that as chronic "ABB syndrome" -- anybody but Bush.

It's certainly easy to hear the chorus of disapproval for Nader's current bid from once-sympathetic quarters. Filmmaker and author Michael Moore has shifted from headlining Nader rallies in 2000 to publicly apologizing to Gore, while left-leaning journals such as The Nation have filled their pages with pleas: "Ralph, Don't Run!"

Crass realpolitik, as Nader himself charges? Perhaps. It certainly signifies an incredible amount of condescension from radicals who previously chanted power to the people. These critics seem to have little confidence in the strength of their own arguments for supporting Kerry, now viewing the Democratic faithful as little more than glassy-eyed children easily led astray by the appearance of Nader's name on their ballot, much like toddlers lured into a stranger's car by a piece of candy.

Michael Moore and his ilk do have good reason to worry. Far from encountering a backlash, Miami-Dade Green Party co-chair Steve Showen says Florida membership since the state's notorious election troubles has doubled to more than 7000, with similar developments nationwide.

Indeed December's San Francisco mayoral election saw Green challenger Matt Gonzalez losing to Democrat Gavin Newsom by less than 12,000 votes -- despite Newsom outspending Gonzalez ten-to-one and benefiting from a personal appearance by Bill Clinton. "Only in San Francisco can you be pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-death penalty, pro-gun control, pro-rent control, and be considered a conservative or moderate," Newsom griped to the New York Times. In that light, Newsom's subsequent issuing of marriage licenses to gay couples -- a move that took even the Bay Area's own gay community by surprise -- appears as much an act of moral courage as a shrewd gambit to shore up his left flank while preparing for re-election and a future national career.

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