"I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don't want, and get it."
-- Eugene Debs
Leading up to the 2000 elections, I campaigned against offshore drilling in Florida while my buddy, Johnny Ardis, campaigned for Ralph Nader. By the end of the year, members of my group, Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, were called local heroes and Johnny Ardis and his candidate, Ralph Nader, were called spoilers.
Our citizen group set out to save our shores in Florida by asking citizens and policy makers to stop to Chevron and Mobil’s plans to turn Pensacola into an oil town. A federal agency - Minerals Management Service - funded by our tax dollars, left no stone unturned to silence citizen opposition.
We learned the kind of cynical lesson in Democracy that no one learns in school - that citizens are routinely bullied into surrendering our rights, our health and even our lives in a perversion of purpose in which federal agencies established to protect the people from the abuses of corporations have become little more than a tax-funded service wing of the industries they supposedly regulate.
“Our government, once ‘of the people, by the people, for the people,’ has been hijacked,” says Ralph Nader. In its place we find a corporate government with both major parties so deeply beholden to it that neither can say “no” to the Halliburtons with designs on Iraq or the Chevrons with designs on offshore gas and oil.
This is the struggle Ralph Nader undertook in his Presidential runs as part of a long-term mission to wrest our democracy from the corporate government that now owns both major parties and put it back in the hands of the people.
That’s why Johnny Ardis was willing to be labeled a “spoiler” right along with Ralph in their historic 2000 election campaign in Florida. And it is why, when I was asked to work for the Nader campaign this election, I seized the opportunity. I also saw the spoiler label rearing its ugly head.
An all-night research session prepared me to explain to naysayers -- as recent polls have finally made public -- that Ralph Nader’s candidacy would have little or nothing to do with the outcome of this election.
A Democratic exit poll showed that Ralph Nader’s votes were spread among Republicans (25%), Democrats (38%) and former non-voters (37%) more than 60% of those who voted for Nader would not have voted for Al Gore. More than 250,000 self-identified Democrats in Florida voted for Bush that’s ten times as many Democrats voting for Bush as voted for the Nader. Of the 96,000 votes Nader’s campaign earned in Florida, only 36,000 came from Democrats. More than that were suppressed by Republican electoral manipulations. In short, the Democrats and Republicans cost the Democrats the 2000 election, not Ralph Nader!
However, the spoiler label burdened progressives with a false but crushing guilt. The result is a 2004 Presidential race dominated by fear, devoid of any demands on the Democrats and tarnished by corrosive attacks on democracy. The Democrats have sabotaged citizen petition drives, initiated expensive lawsuits and falsely accused the Nader campaign of aligning with the Republican Party -- all to block the democratic process. By participating, progressives have wrought an injury to their own cause that the enemies of justice could never successfully perpetrate.
The “spoiler” label has gained conservative Democrats a lot of mileage in the giddy union of the two parties behind the corporatist agenda. But there are better, more honest, more constructive ways to win elections.
Independent candidates and minor parties have always led the way to social change. They have been told by their opponents and frightened friends alike to leave well enough alone or take their stands “some other time,” because speaking truth to power might only make it worse. But when they have persevered, the world has been changed for the better.
Ralph Nader will persevere in Florida just as our citizens persevered -- and won time and again -- against Chevron. Minor parties, Independent candidates and citizen activists must continue to reform the political system and not be told to remain silent.
The spoiler label was a smoke and mirrors game in 2000 just as has been for most of this election season. But if it sticks, we plan to wear it proudly just as Johnny Ardis did in 2000. Revolutionaries always spoil corrupt systems.
Amy Belanger is media coordinator for Nader/Camejo 2004 and
former director of Florida’s campaign against offshore drilling. Raised in
Pensacola, Florida, she now lives in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at: