There was yet another dust-up over the role Ralph Nader in the 2000 election at BJ a few days ago. I didn't feel like jumping into the fray, so I'm putting my thoughts down here instead.
There are four reasons why Nader and - more importantly - Naderites should be ashamed of what happened in 2000.
First, until the election system is changed, voting for a third party candidate helps the other side. This is a straight-up math problem, and is easy to understand. Let's say there are three candidates: Far Left (FL), Center Left (CL), and Center Right (CR). If FL gets 3% and CL gets 48%, CR wins with 49% - despite more people preferring a left-leaning candidate. Unless there's a certainty of a blowout, voting for a third party candidate in an important election is dangerous and shouldn't be done. Now, if the election system was different - if runoffs were held, or IRV was used - then voting for a third or thirteenth or thirtieth party would be fine, as long as the leading candidate was supported in the runoff or included somewhere in the ranking of candidates. Multi-member districts or proportional representation would change the calculus, too, but neither exist to a significant degree in the US.
Second, voting is not an act of self-expression; it is about controlling the government and the resources it commands. It's about power. Some people like to feel they have a clean conscience by voting for a "pure" candidate instead of a moderate they feel is or will be too compromised. That kind of thinking is pure narcissism. It's been clear for a long time that bad elected officials can and do hurt a lot of people. Personal satisfaction can't possibly outweigh the harm that others might experience.
Third, executive positions matter. The POTUS really is the most powerful person in the world. He's in charge of the world's most powerful military. He sets the priorities for the spending of trillions of dollars. He can have a long-lasting impact on the legal environment based on who he nominates to the SCOTUS and the lesser courts. And so on. State executives matter, too, though by varying amounts. Ahnuld has had devastating impacts on California, while Douglas has merely kept Vermont in a holding pattern at a time when progress is needed. And what Bush has done at the federal level is tragic. So, even if the choice is between a bad candidate and a horrible candidate, every effort needs to made to put the least bad candidate into the office.
And finally, the two parties really are different. They may not be sufficiently different for some people, but the logic of the election system pushes the parties into being coalitions. The Democrats are an especially broad coalition, which frustrates the left wing of the party and dulls the party's effectiveness. But the notion that there is essentially no difference between the two promotes apathy and depresses voter turnout. Nader pushed this message in 2000, which also reinforced the media's habits of mindless even-handedness and general laziness. And by being a third party candidate he distracted from a feasible way of making the Democrats more progressive: working hard in primaries. The social conservative movement understood this. It took over many local and state parties, forcing candidates to at least give its issues extensive lip service, even though they never got around to passing much legislation to change things.
One standard retort of Nader defenders is that it was Gore's fault that he lost the election because he ran a mediocre campaign. This is partially true: Gore made mistakes by running away from Clinton and with Senator Droopy Dog, among other things. If he had run a better campaign, throwing away votes wouldn't have mattered. But this doesn't absolve Naderites of failing to notice it was a close election, or the signs that Bush would be awful, or how the electoral math works. For that matter, Gore's effectiveness as a candidate doesn't absolve non-voters of their laziness or stupidity, either.
The past is the past and personally I am not angry with people who voted for Nader. But I do get rather frustrated when people fail to learn from history. I think the arguments above make for a pretty convincing case that voting for Nader was a mistake. And if I can figure them out, then so should most other people.