The Anti-Democratic Movement Targeted Ralph Nader First. We Should Have Paid More Attention
The recent ballot access challenges, political investigations, and canceled primaries are just an extension of a phenomenon we should have seen coming twenty years ago
In the summer of 2004 Theresa Amato, campaign manager of presidential candidate Ralph Nader, took out a notebook in preparation for an important phone conference.
Her candidate, Nader, had already been subject to an extraordinary — and extraordinarily underreported — campaign of litigious harassment at the hands of the Democratic Party. John Kerry told Nader he had 2,000 lawyers at his disposal and would do “everything within the law” to win. In Arizona, Nader opponents filed a 650-page challenge to his attempt to get on the ballot, forgetting social justice concerns long enough to complain that one of Nader’s petition-circulators was a felon. They demanded ten samples of Nader’s own signature, hired a forensic examiner to call others into question, and challenged residents of a homeless shelter. The Democratic state chairman, Jim Pederson, said outright, “Our first objective is to keep [Nader] off the ballot,” because “we think it distorts the entire election.”
Now, Amato’s candidate was set to talk with Democratic National Committee chairman (and future Virginia governor) Terry McAuliffe. A high-energy, Clintonesque schmoozer in public, McAuliffe in private was curt and to the point: he didn’t mind Nader running in noncompetitive places, but had an “issue” with 19 states where “a vote for you is a vote for [George] Bush.” He shifted with impressive nonchalance to offer a bribe.
“If you stay out of my 19 states,” he said, “I will help with resources in 31 states.” McAuliffe then made a show of pretending to ask an assistant about other ballot challenges against Nader, saying he “supported them” but wasn’t funding them, a statement ultimately contradicted in court testimony by Maine’s State Democratic Party chair. This was just one of countless instances in which Democrats hurled billable hours at anyone deemed a “threat” to votes they considered theirs.
In 2004, a third party needed to collect 634,727 valid signatures in about six and a half months to get on the ballot. If you’ve ever wondered why so few third-party candidates run, it’s because this is an extraordinarily difficult logistical task, and expensive, requiring services of companies that even then charged between $1.00 and $1.50 per signature. (Ross Perot reportedly spent $18 million to get on the ballot in 1992.) The process gets more cumbersome when you’re forced to account for “spoilage,” i.e. how many signatures you’ll lose in the face of challenges from a determined opponent, in Nader’s case from Democrats and affiliated groups.
Nader lost signatures that were allegedly signed in the wrong county (an irony given recent events, as we’ll see), due to “unwritten rules” that a collector’s signature must be legible even if his or her name is printed underneath it, because signatories no longer lived at the addresses where they were registered, because signatures were printed instead of signed, because additional information like the date was included next to signatures, and so on, and so on, and so on.
“We had more than two dozen lawsuits complaints filed against us in a massive effort to disenfranchise the people who wanted to see him on the ballot,” Amato says now.
Amato later wrote a book, Grand Illusion, documenting the Democrats’ plan to keep Nader’s meager resources “tied up mentally, emotionally, and financially in courtroom after courtroom,” violating rules themselves while using the press to smear Nader as the cheat. “I wrote a whole book precisely because I didn’t want the history to be lost, of what the Nader campaigns went through,” she says now.
A subtext of Grand Illusion is how Democrats showed great creativity when seeking ways to keep Nader off the ballot, but almost none when it came to examining possible reasons it might be underperforming. Kerry in 2004 was fatally flawed because he had no position on this central issue of the campaign, the Iraq war. He tried simultaneously to be against it (“Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions”) and for it (pledging to “hunt down and kill the terrorists”), while running all year from the fact that he voted for Bush’s war resolution.
This complex non-position not only created a clear rationale for a third-party run in a year when support for the war dropped as low as 45%, it was a major factor in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 general election loss, when Donald Trump won 57% of military households vs Clinton’s 39%. Had the party shown a fraction of the backbone on the Iraq issue during the crucial October 2002 vote that it showed in bollocking Nader all through the 2004 cycle, it’s possible Trump never would have been president.
Twenty years and multiple political upheavals later, the Democrats are taking the sabotage game it played in 2004 up a notch or ten. It’s taken the position that all of Joe Biden’s potential challengers within the party and without are, in effect, new Naders, whose presences are “distorting” the real election. The major difference between 2004 and now is that thanks to major changes in both the Democratic and Republican parties, current Democrats have the money and institutional capacity to attempt a legal campaign to “Naderize” even the likely GOP nominee, Trump, essentially seeking to ballot-block their way to victory.
Democrats first disenfranchised internal party challengers like Marianne Williamson, Dean Phillips, and (initially) Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. through tactics like declaring the New Hampshire primary “non-compliant” and “meaningless” and canceling the Florida primary. Then, when Dr. Cornel West, Kennedy, and a new party called “No Labels” decided to seek third-party ballot access, money from LinkedIn billionaire Reid Hoffman, former “Right-wing hit man” turned Clintonian organizational assassin David Brock, and a group fronted by former presidential candidate Dick Gephardt was quickly deployed, leading to a meeting of Biden advocacy groups in which one of the participants warned potential third party entrants, “If you have one fingernail clipping of a skeleton in your closet, we will find it… We are going to come at you with every gun we can possibly find.”
Lieberman on January 16th sent a separate letter to his former Senate colleague Biden, saying, “I respectfully ask you to help put an end to this shameful attempt to silence voters and prevent choice and competition in the upcoming election.” Obviously, this fell on deaf ears. Two days later word came out that American Bridge hired former Hillary Clinton campaign attorney Marc Elias to help “thwart” third-party bids.
In essence, Democrats first prevented politicians or interest groups from attempting to influence their platform by running in primaries, then used scorched-earth tactics to head off potential third-party runs, leaving only the Republicans an alternative —except of course they’re using Death Star tactics to try to disqualify that party’s candidate, too.
Amato’s Grand Illusion described the evolving hypocrisy, cynicism, and ruthlessness of the Democratic Party a dozen years before Trump. It’s a story to which we should have paid more attention, because the Sun Tzu tactics unveiled against Ralph Nader are now clearly the strategic model for the whole party. Had the Republicans not suffered a major intramural collapse in 2016, Grand Illusion today might read like a cautionary tale about the anti-democratic tendencies baked into the two-party system. The Republicans, after all, have their own history of ballot-pruning tactics, for example working behind the scenes to suppress the candidacy of Libertarian Gary Johnson in 2012.
But since Trump steamrolled the GOP clown car in 2016, establishment politics has increasingly consolidated under the umbrella of the one party that (just barely) succeeded in fighting off its populist challenger, the Democrats. The return to the Democratic tent of once-hated neocons like Bill Kristol (who was reportedly in attendance at the anti-No Labels meeting described by Semafor) has helped revamp the blue-party institutional space into something like a permanent Washington-against-the-world war council, fueled by an aristocratic contempt whose intensity is almost beyond comprehension.
These people reordered the geography of the world, blithely moved whole manufacturing sectors from one continent to another, started moronic wars that pointlessly killed millions and created millions more refugees, bailed out corrupt banks while whole regions went into foreclosure, and failed to accomplish much but a growing sense of foreboding and decline despite decades of promises to the contrary. Still, they feel sincere rage at the idea that they should have to earn votes.
The special anger Nader inspired came from his refusal to just “send a message,” saying things like “Isn’t that what candidates try to do to one another—take votes?” when Democrats suggested he stop “taking” votes from Al Gore or John Kerry, and run in “safe” states only. Again, never mind that they could have altered their own fortunes easily by prioritizing voters over donors just a little more. In their minds, this was not Nader’s call to make. In the minds of early 2000s Democrats, voters never elected Republicans. Ralph Nader did.
Headlines like “Ralph Nader Was Indispensable To The Republican Party” (HuffingtonPost) and “Ralph Nader Still Refuses to Admit He Elected Bush” (the indispensable Jon Chait of New York, who recently insisted Joe Biden’s 2020 election inspired the “greatest outpouring of joy since V-J day”) still trickle out, as reminders that such grudges are never forgotten. The hyper-combative, winning-is-everything mindset of the new “lawfare” era was probably born in that 2000 loss, a “direct outcome of the 2000 Nader campaign,” as Amato puts it. This is true even though, as Amato notes, there were eight minor candidates on the 2000 Florida ballot, and all eight got more than the infamous “margin of difference” of 537 votes.
In the age of Nader, the rage was directed at anyone who suggested the Democrats should have to face competition from more than one direction. The updated idea in the Trump era is that they should not have to face competition at all.
Back in 2016, when I disliked Trump enough to write Insane Clown President, I was still naive enough to puzzled by the stream of headlines describing his win as a “failure of democracy.” It was anything but. The presidency had long been stage-managed to absurdity, with candidates needing the backing of one of the two parties, the press, and corporate donors to gain the White House. The whole idea of this oligarchical ADT system was to guarantee the president arrived in the Oval Office a political debtor, while keeping anyone with aspirations to independence out. This was the clear lesson of the Nader episode.
Trump broke through all these barriers as an unapproved “fringe” candidate, making his win an extraordinary blow for democracy, or so I thought, even though I couldn’t stand him. If he could win, anyone could, and this was good news for those of us who thought the system’s corrupt features might never be fixed.
Looking back, it’s clear Trump’s unsanctioned run and win were the violations of “norms” Washington insiders were most furious about. Now, when politicians talk about protecting “democracy,” what they really mean is restoring those old barriers of entry. The problem is, voters are wise to the game now, forcing insiders to resort to ever-cruder mechanisms of control, like the ten million criminal indictments and the recent ballot disqualification attempts.
If those efforts fail, even more extreme action is surely coming, and “protecting democracy” is the pitch they’ll use to sell it. All of this is will be justifed based on the idea that the Trump threat is so grave that taking so much as one vote from Democrats is criminal irresponsibility, not really morally different from marching for Hitler.
Everything is permitted in the fight against Hitler, which is why the aforementioned Hoffman is the quintessential modern Democratic backer: loaded, thin-skinned, and eager to color outside lines. Vox in 2020 profiled him:
Myopically focused on collecting the 270 electoral votes needed to defeat Trump… to win those votes, critics feel, Hoffman is willing to play dirty. Hoffman’s defenders see this agitation as worth it — and if Democrats win, it could validate a more provocative form of political combat.
Of course no one goes into politics to lose, but if you don’t believe in letting voters decide, and winning becomes about something other than making the best argument or boasting the best record, you got lost somewhere along the line. We cheat when we think we deserve to win, no matter what, and our leaders have spent decades now talking themselves into this frame of mind. The entitlement disease was there all along. We should have seen the chaos of this year coming.