It seems official. Ralph Nader is going to repeat his irresponsible and self-indulgent presidential run. I am horrified for all the obvious reasons every other Democrat is. It's ironic -- no it's just sad and inexcusable -- that this generation's most prominent critic of corporate privilege handed the presidency to George W. Bush.
Setting this very large grievance aside, there are lots of good reasons to prefer a head-to-head matchup of two candidates to the cacophany made possible by third-parties. We saw in 2000 that even a minor third-party candidate can tilt an election to thwart the views of most voters. From the perspective of democratic process, this was not a tragedy. Of course, Bush's presidency has been disastrous, but no process can fully protect us from that. I would gnash my teeth if John McCain won in similar fashion this year. Yet he would still need to get within a whisker of a true majority to pull this off.
Things easily get wackier and scarier when third parties attracted someone of greater backing and stature. Imagine some parallel universe in which Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and a disaffected Hillary Clinton decides to run as a third-party candidate. (If you prefer, imagine the opposite scenario.) John McCain could conceivably take office with less than 40 percent of the vote. We don't need this kind of stuff.
More fundamentally, third-party candidates raise the probability that a nutcase could someday win the presidency. Imagine that the 1992 election had gone a bit differently, that Ross Perot was a somewhat smoother candidate and that Bill Clinton's candidacy had suffered some serious post-nomination blow. We could have had a genuinely scary figure win the presidency on the basis of an unlimited war chest and the need to reach some threshold below 50% of the popular vote. If third parties become fourth and fifth parties, the dangers magnify. A depressing number of countries provide evidence for this point.
Sanford Levinson's terrific book Our Undemocratic Constitution notes many ways that our constitution and our political traditions aren't perfect. We do dumb things, such as granting Supreme Court justices lifetime rather than 20-year appointments. Watching the sequelae of the Lewinsky scandal and President Bush's sad limp through his final year, the virtues of a parliamentary system seem more compelling than they did ten years ago.
One thing we've done well is to design a system that vets presidential candidates through two stable major parties, and that forces the resulting nominees to compete for the political center. It isn't always pretty. The two parties often screw up. Moreover, the American political center has often been wrong about important things. On balance, however, our nation has profited from the safety-valve created through the two-party system. It's one thing to have independents in Congress and at the state level. When we are talking which human being has the power to send our nation to war and launch nuclear bombs, I like our system uncreative.
If Ralph Nader goes through with it, Democratic operatives will surely work to keep him off the ballot and off of the public stage. They will work under the radar, and might be embarrassed if their efforts are discovered. They shouldn't be. State legislators should do this work openly.
Many voices, one head-to-head choice. That is the best way to pursue American democracy.