Dear fellow progressives: The lesson of history is clear — vote for Joe Biden

Will third-party voting help build the progressive movement? Over the past 20 years, that's been proven false

By Daniel Ellsberg - Michael Ellsberg
November 2, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)
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Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)

'Tis the season for some progressives to argue that the best way to build a progressive political movement in America is to stick it to the centrist Democrats — who have rejected progressive nominees and platforms — by voting for a third party, even in swing states.

If that helps elect what many regard as a "greater evil" Republican, some third-party supporters argue, it will radicalize significant parts of the electorate, help the third party grow, and gradually increase the prospect of victory for genuinely progressive politics.

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As die-hard progressives, we strongly disagree. Few beliefs among progressives have been so thoroughly tested in empirical reality over the last 20 years — and few have been so thoroughly discredited — than the idea that running third-party candidates in swing states during close elections is a good way to build a progressive voting bloc. 

In 2000, Ralph Nader, running as a Green, received 2,882,955 votes, which was 2.74% of the popular vote. 

In 2004, Nader (running as an independent) received 465,650 votes, which was 0.38% of the popular vote. The Green Party's candidate, David Cobb, received 119,859 votes, or 0.1% of the popular vote. 

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These two candidates combined received about 20% of the votes that Nader alone received in 2000. An 80% decrease in your voting bloc is not exactly grounds for confidence that "boycotting" or "protesting" the two-party duopoly via voting for a third party in swing states is likely to expand your voting bloc. 

Why did the Nader and Green voting base fall off a cliff after 2000? The answer is obvious. In 2000, Nader was more or less open that he was intentionally trying to help get George W. Bush elected, under the (now discredited) theory that hard-right regimes somehow swell the ranks of radical voters. 

In his book "Gaming the System: Why Elections Aren't Fair and What We Can Do About It," William Poundstone cites a reporter who asked Nader in 2000: "You would not have a problem providing the margin of defeat for Gore?" Nader reportedly replied, "I would not at all. I'd rather have a provocateur than an anesthetizer in the White House. Remember what [Reagan secretary of the interior] James Watt did for the environmental movement? He galvanized it. Gore and his buddy Clinton are anesthetizers."

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In another instance, Nader said he'd prefer Bush over Gore because "it would mobilize us."

In a 2000 Outside magazine article, Jay Heinrichs wrote: "When asked if someone put a gun to his head and told him to vote for either Gore or Bush, which he would choose, Nader answered without hesitation: 'Bush. ... If you want the parties to diverge from one another, have Bush win.'" And in another interview, Nader told Dana Milbank that a Bush victory would "rally the left." Nader's subsequent strategy of campaigning hard in swing states aligned with his theory that Bush would be preferable over Gore for progressives.

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Many of Nader's most prominent supporters in the progressive movement, including one of us (Daniel), along with Michael Moore and a dozen former "Nader's Raiders," urged Nader to stick to his original goal: winning 5% of the national vote, which would qualify the Greens for federal funding. 

The obvious way to do that, we said, would be for Nader to stop campaigning in swing states, and instead focus his campaign in vote-rich cities in safely red or blue states such as California, New York and Texas, where he could reach many progressive voters at once. And these voters would feel comfortable supporting the Greens under such a strategy, since most potential progressive voters did not share Nader's view that Bush would be preferable to Gore.

But Nader chose to abandon his declared 5% strategy. Instead, he campaigned aggressively in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida in the final days of the election, favoring fewer total votes but more votes in swing states. This was his apparently intentional strategy of trying to defeat Gore.

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Nader's desire was fulfilled. He received 97,421 votes in Florida, vastly more than Bush's 537-vote margin of victory in the final official count in Florida, the state that tipped the election to Bush. 

Of course, not all Nader voters in Florida would have voted for Gore had Nader not run in Florida; some would have voted for Bush, and some would not have voted at all. In 2004, Nader stated that "In the year 2000, exit polls reported that 25% of my voters would have voted for Bush, 38% would have voted for Gore and the rest would not have voted at all." If those percentages held in Florida, that would mean a net gain of 12,664 votes for Gore had Nader not run in Florida — again, far above Bush's 537-vote margin in the state. 

Nader and many Greens fairly point out that numerous other factors led to Bush's razor-thin victory. There was widespread, unjust disenfranchisement of minorities in Florida, which the Gore campaign did little or nothing to challenge. There was the extraordinarily weak campaign by Gore, which caused 300,000 Democrats in Florida to vote for Bush, and half of all registered Democrats in the state not to vote at all. Then there were the infamous butterfly ballots and "hanging chads." And of course, the Supreme Court's nakedly partisan ruling in Bush v. Gore.

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Thus, Nader defenders complain, with some justice, that it's unfair and disingenuous for Democrats to focus on him and the Greens as the single cause for Bush's victory, given all these other factors (some of which were self-inflicted by Gore's campaign). Of course Nader's swing-state strategy was not the only cause of Bush's victory, or even the main one.

But it's at least as disingenuous for Nader and his supporters to claim — as most of them have done ever since — that their choice to campaign in swing states was not even one significant cause among others for Bush's victory. First, it's disingenuous because — as quoted above — Nader more or less admitted that he was intending to be one such cause, and his actions aligned with that intention perfectly. 

Second, as described above, Bush's narrow victory in Florida resulted from multiple factors, each of which alone influenced more votes than the final margin of victory. Thus, each variable was a sufficient cause, holding the other variables constant. If you are clearly one of those sufficient factors which tipped the election to Bush — and particularly if you knew you were likely to be one such factor, and intended to be so — then pointing out all the other factors does not absolve you of your part. Nader and the Greens have refused for 20 years to take any responsibility for their intentional swing-state strategy being one factor, among others, that helped to elect Bush. This obdurate refusal to take any responsibility at all is absurd. It's a state of denial of Trumpian proportions. 

By intentionally becoming one factor among many that led to Bush's victory, Nader's chosen course contributed to catastrophic results for victims of Bush's policies in the Middle East. (This is not to let off the hook the craven presidents, Democrat and Republican, who have shrunk from "losing" Bush's wars ever since, as previous presidents acted in Vietnam.)

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Was Bush "no different" than Gore, as Nader and the Greens repeatedly claimed during the election? While it's impossible to know if Gore would have invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, it seems exceedingly unlikely he would have used that crisis as an excuse to invade Iraq, a totally unrelated country. After all, Gore — for all his obvious faults from a progressive perspective — was not a neocon. He was not part of a movement that had been promoting the invasion of Iraq since before the election and (as we now know) started planning for it early in 2001, well before 9/11.

Bush's Iraq war is one of the great moral stains of the 21st century. In 2006, the Lancet — one of the world's premier medical journals — published a study estimating that the first year and a half of the Iraq War led to 654,965 excess deaths of Iraqis, and that the vast majority of those deaths were violent. In 2015, Physicians for Social Responsibility embarked on a comprehensive review of the literature, and concluded that the Iraqi death toll from our invasion had likely topped 1 million.

One team of researchers recently concluded that the global "war on terror" that Bush initiated has led to 37 million refugees across the Middle East, which is close to the entire population of Canada becoming refugees. 

Nader's refrain that there was no significant difference between the major parties or between their two candidates in 2000 — he called them "Tweedledum and Tweedledee" — proved disastrously wrong. As did his prediction that a Bush victory would lead to a surge in progressive voting. Yes, the Republican was even worse than his Democratic opponent — far worse. And no, Bush's aggression and domestic criminality did not "rally the left," either in 2004 or 2008. 

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On the contrary, far from helping to build a progressive voting bloc outside of the Democratic Party, Nader's reckless strategy of running in swing states in 2000 decimated the very voting bloc he had built up across the nation. 

The numbers speak for themselves. After their 80% dip in votes in 2004, Nader and the Greens never fully recovered. They went up a bit in 2008. Nader, running as an independent again, received 739,034 votes, which was 0.56% of the popular vote. Cynthia McKinney, running as the Green Party candidate, received 161,797, which was 0.12% of the popular vote. The two candidates combined received less than a third of what Nader received in 2000.

Then in 2012, Nader didn't run, and the total progressive non-Democrat voting bloc went back down. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, received 469,627 votes, which was 0.36% of the popular vote. Stein went up in 2016, when she won 1,457,218 votes, which was 1.07% of the popular vote. Still, this was just about half of the votes that Nader received in 2000. 

Where is the progressive "rally" that Nader's swing-state strategy and his preferred Bush victory was supposed to cause in 2000? In fact, there was not a rally but a free fall. Their judgment of running in swing states, risking if not favoring "the greater of two evils" to "mobilize" progressives, was horrendously misguided.

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Of course, terrible judgment isn't the only thing that keeps a progressive third party from growing. The fact is, our nation has a voting system that stacks the decks wildly in favor of the two-party system. There are many changes to our voting system that could break up the two-party duopoly, and we support all of them. 

Chief among these changes is ranked-choice voting with instant runoff (as Maine and many cities now have). This allows voters to voice their support for an alternative party, without the risk of helping to elect a greater evil. 

We should also abolish the Electoral College. Doing so would avoid the loser of the national vote from gaining power, as happened with Bush and Trump (and could happen again this year). Ending the Electoral College could also support the growth of alternative parties, as (without swing states) it would be harder for a tiny number of votes to swing an election; thus, fewer people would fear supporting an alternative party. While formally abolishing the Electoral College might be impossible politically in the short run, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would have the same effect, and may be easier to enact. 

But we don't have these changes yet. And in the absence of such changes, third parties in the U.S. are doomed to minor status. Except for Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 (a former Republican president), no third-party candidate has received 20% of the popular vote since 1860.

Thus, while third parties currently have almost no chance of gaining any traction in the U.S. (because of the features of our voting system mentioned above), they now always run the risk of electing greater evils. Trying to grow a third party as if desirable electoral changes were already operative — when they are not — is not merely a failure to deal with reality; it's wildly irresponsible. 

Since 1950, the two major parties have indeed been (as Greens correctly point out) similarly deplorable in nuclear policy and the military budget. But in domestic matters, they have never truly been Tweedledum and Tweedledee. With Amy Coney Barrett now on the Supreme Court (along with the other five Republican-nominated justices), the possible overturn of Roe v. Wade is just one dramatic example.

This year — in terms of climate policy, the pandemic, racial justice and maintaining democracy — the "greater evil" is indeed vastly greater. It is reckless to risk that greater evil in the name of a strategy of growing the progressive movement that has been thoroughly disproven over the last 20 years. 

So what's the answer for progressives who want to see a powerful progressive party in America?

The answer, by now, should be obvious. Progressives should set out to dominate the Democratic Party. A difficult struggle? Definitely. But both possible and necessary.

In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders did the right thing, and ran in the Democratic primary. The result? 13,210,550 votes for a candidate who was every bit as progressive as Ralph Nader; this amounted to 43.13% of the total vote in the primary. Bernie's 2016 showing was the most votes a truly progressive candidate has ever received in a modern American election — far more than Nader's peak of 2.8 million in 2000. 

Unlike Nader in 2000 — who never stood a chance because of our voting system, which prevents third parties from gaining any traction — Bernie had a solid chance of winning both the Democratic primary and the general election in 2016. 

Third-party progressives always say, "the Democratic Party can't be reformed." But Bernie's impressive achievement in 2016 strongly contradicts that claim. He didn't win, but he showed decisively that a grassroots insurgent movement, running on small donations without corporate or billionaire funding, can become a significant force in Democratic politics. Third-party supporters counter that the Democratic establishment squashed the Bernie movement. That's true, but come on ... no insurgency sails in without resistance. This one is far from over. 

Did Trump winning in 2016 swell the ranks of progressive voters in 2020? If anyone could "rally the left" to swell the vote, you'd think it would be Donald J. Trump. That had looked equally true in 2000 and 2004 under Bush. Instead, as we've seen, eight catastrophic years of Bush — including the Iraq War and universal domestic surveillance — dramatically decreased votes for a progressive candidate. And the same thing has happened under Trump. 

In the 2020 Democratic primary, Bernie received 9,680,042 votes. His fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren received 2,831,566 votes. Their combined total in 2020 was almost 700,000 fewer votes than Bernie alone received in 2016.

Bernie's insurgent, grassroots movement rallied after eight years of Obama, a centrist Democrat, not after four years of Trump, a proto-fascist. 

Why? The answer is obvious. When a climate-denier and would-be dictator like Trump (or a warmonger like Bush) is in power, some proportion of progressives feel it's more urgent to get him out than to get a progressive in; like most Democrats, they see a centrist like Kerry in 2004 or like Biden now as a safer bet for doing so. 

We believe the next Bernie-like progressive Democratic candidate with a chance of winning is far more likely to rise after four years of Biden than after four more years of Trump. (If there's even a democracy after four more years of Trump!)

For a whole range of reasons — most urgently, the climate crisis, which must be turned around this decade — we need a far more progressive president in 2024 than Joe Biden or Kamala Harris. For example, we would be glad to see that challenger be Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will turn 35 — the minimum age for becoming president — right before the 2024 election. (We'd also be thrilled if she ran for the Senate.) 

We believe young, progressive insurgents within the Democratic Party, such as the members of "the Squad" and Rep. Ro Khanna, are the future of progressive politics in America. A "protest" vote for a third party, a write-in or not voting at all fails to advance the prospects of these bold challengers. A vote for Biden (which both Bernie and AOC are urging) helps the future chances of young progressives aiming to take over the Democratic Party.

A vote for Biden is not only, crucially, a vote against Trump. It is also a vote for the inspiring possibility of a progressive challenger in 2024, who will have a much easier time gaining traction with a centrist Democrat in power over the next four years, rather than under a president who is hell-bent on destroying the Constitution and ending democracy in America.   

For all these reasons, we urge our fellow progressives in every state to join us, along with Bernie Sanders and AOC, in voting for Joe Biden. 

Why in every state and not just swing states? This is the first presidential election in American history in which the popular vote is important, as well as the Electoral College vote. That's because it is the first time in our history when an incumbent president has vowed to contest the results, whatever they are, unless he wins. He even rammed through a last-minute appointment of an extremist Supreme Court justice in hopes of winning his challenges in the courts, even if — by an honest and complete count — he loses. 

The best hope of removing Trump from the White House is a landslide victory for Biden, both in the swing states and in the nation as a whole. 

Let's make that happen. 


Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg is the author of "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers" and "The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner."

MORE FROM Daniel Ellsberg

Michael Ellsberg

Michael Ellsberg, Daniel’s son, is an author and activist based in Berkeley, California.

MORE FROM Michael Ellsberg