Politics & Policy

Tempest in a Teapot

Nader and the end of democracy.

I have just returned from speaking at Keene State College in New Hampshire. I am weary from the road and the smelly large person who sat next to me on the flight back from Manchester. But, on the other hand, this Nader thing is just so much fun. As I have much writing to do between now and my next beer or shower and I suspect that the DNC might have Nader taken out any before the weekend is over, I feel like I should try to cover as much ground as possible.


At Keene State last night I asked the students in the audience who they were going to vote for. By my rough count, 50 percent of the room plans to vote for Nader. 45 percent said they will pull the lever for Gore. Two people said they plan to vote for Bush — though they raised their hands as if they were expecting a sniper to shoot them off — and 1 percent were undecided. But when I asked the audience whether they thought even 10 percent of the student body would actually vote, most chuckled at such a high number.

This raises something important to keep in mind about the so-called “Nader movement.” If Gore wins — or even if he doesn’t — we can expect to hear a lot of talk about the new enthusiasm of young people for Green activism. Don’t believe the hype. Bush still leads by a wide margin among likely voters age 18-29 (indeed, “New Guard” candidate Gore leads only among the very, very Old Guard). Bush’s “problem” is that he simply doesn’t lead among the young people writers for Time and Newsweek consider to be “legitimate” young people — you know, the kids that spark nostalgia amongst the Jonathan Alter’s of the world.

Bush leads among the millions of young people who want to live normal, prosperous, and, one day, philanthropic lives and they realize that Bush is their guy. The Nader movement is really a movement within the Democratic party and nothing more. It is successful not because most young people are becoming more political but as a backlash against the fact that most young people are becoming increasingly apolitical and perhaps even conservative.


The editorial board of the New York Times is crying as if Ralph Nader peed in their corn flakes. Nader hurts Gore in up to eight states with 70 electoral votes and, so, they feel he should get out of the race, saying “We would regard Mr. Nader’s willful prankishness as a disservice to the electorate no matter whose campaign he was hurting.”

Now, I cannot prove this, but I smell some pants on fire at the New York Times. How they can possibly expect us to believe that they would pound their high chairs with as much relish if Nader were hurting Bush instead of Gore is beyond me. And probably beyond them too, as it is impossible to imagine a scenario in which Nader could actually hurt Bush more than Gore.

The relevant scenario, of course, would be a threat from Buchanan. And maybe they honestly believe that if Buchanan’s “willful prankishness” were hurting Bush they’d be just as angry at him as they are at Nader. But I think they’re kidding themselves — and the rest of us.


I draw great solace from the fact that Ralph Nader is causing so much havoc for the party of campaign-finance reform and its champions over at the Times. The irony that Nader is causing so much mischief amidst talk of this electoral college “cheating” democracy is delicious.

Bear with me for a moment. The chief benefit of the electoral college — other than that it tempers the worst aspects of a direct democracy (“Boo hiss! Direct democracy Bad!” Sorry, my couch, like me hates direct democracy) — is that it has for the most part discouraged third-party candidates.

Voting fetishists think that voting is a personal expression of self-esteem or the performance of some inalienable civic rite. And sure, in some sense that’s all true. But as the scholar Herbert Storing pointed out decades ago, “The framers of the Constitution thought it at least as important to consider the output of any given electoral system. What kind of men does it bring to office?”

The electoral college is perhaps the key mechanism for bringing good men — or perhaps the least bad — men to office, by hammering home the “wasted vote” argument. Under the Framers’ system, demagogues are shunted to the sidelines. For example, Alabama governor George Wallace, who exploited regional racial animosities in the south, could have been a major spoiler in 1968 under a pure democratic system. In September of 1968 Wallace was polling in the mid-twenties, but voters soon recognized that because of the electoral college, their vote would be wasted on Wallace because he could never win enough votes outside his home base to upset the electoral college. And, worse, they reasoned, Wallace voters could split the “conservative” vote, electing Humphrey. By Election Day the Wallace vote was cut in half.

Under a “pure” democratic system every tin-foil-headed nut bag is encouraged to join the fray and no votes are wasted. Even demagogues who poll no better than 5 percent would have a vested interest in sticking around as long as possible so they could become king-makers. An Al Sharpton or David Duke could exact what Walter Berns calls a “bigot’s ransom” from more mainstream candidates, demanding, say, a federal entitlement to eye-holed pillow cases or buffalo wings.

Anyway, this has always been one of the strongest arguments in favor of the electoral college: to weed out the nutty or dangerous opportunists from the crop of viable candidates. Admittedly it has made launching new parties more difficult, but I don’t care about that. Nevertheless, the campaign-finance regime completely undercuts this constitutional function. By promising to give millions of dollars to any party that passes a 5 percent threshold in an election, the government is subsidizing zealots to run campaigns that have no chance at winning, but have every incentive to stir up as much trouble as possible. Ralph Nader says things no majority candidate would ever say if he thought he could win. Pat Buchanan too — who got his $12 million from the feds when he got the Reform Cult, I mean, party’s nomination. As the Times pointed out in its hissy fit editorial about Nader, “For Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore, every adjustment in a position gains or costs votes. Mr. Nader has the luxury of taking free throws.”

That’s exactly right. Under the old system, free throws were a waste of time. Under the system the Times has been a cheerleader for, you get $12 for taking free throws.


National Review Online is going to have its head and its heart wired together for some full-tilt boogie for freedom and justice as we lead up to Election night. You should grab people off the street, take their wallets and car keys, and tell them to sit in front of a computer locked to NRO. If that doesn’t work, hobble them. Staying by your mouse is the crucial thing. As the guy who overdosed on Viagra said, this will be huge.

Also, on NROW this weekend: many cool Halloween things, including my own defense of monsters (no, not the Sid Blumenthal kind), top ten lists of scary movies, an indictment of children’s author R. L. Stine, and much, much more.


The Latest