Back in 2000, Ralph Nader mounted a third-party run for President against Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush.
While many on the left criticized Nader's run and cautioned that he would help Bush get elected by siphoning votes away from Gore, others felt that he would energize new voters and bring attention to important issues that would otherwise be ignored by the major party candidates.
I supported Nader's right to run (though I did not vote for him for a variety of reasons), and I was glad that he was advocating for a variety of environmental and social justice issues that were getting short shrift from both major parties. However, I felt he was being dishonest when he repeatedly said on the campaign trail that Al Gore was not significantly different from George W. Bush.
I wonder how many of those who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 can look back and honestly believe that Al Gore would have used the 911 attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq in 2003. Or that he would have rolled back environmental protections and squandered our nation's budget surplus on tax cuts for the wealthy.
Nader ran a humorous commercial in which children expressed a series of cynical dreams for their future. One said: "I want to vote for the lesser of two evils." The implication, of course, is that it is better to vote for someone you really want, even if they have no chance of getting elected, or just to stay home. I have always felt that those who refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils are complicit in allowing the greater evil to come to power.
Nader actually said that, given a choice between a candidate (Gore) who would make voters complacent with small incremental improvements in environmental protections and one (Bush) who would wake up the left by making things worse, he would prefer the provacateur.
I am not sure what Nader meant by waking up the left. If he meant that they would come out to vote the Republicans out of office in 2002 and 2004, then he was rather naive. If he meant that they would donate a lot of money to Nader's organizations so that they could "fight" the disastrous Bush policies, then he was rather corrupt. Either way, those who believed his campaign bullshit were taken for a ride.
Most voters are turned off by the extreme left. Nader and his ilk (I'm looking at you, Dennis Kucinich) will never succeed in pulling the Democratic Party as far to the left as they like, because for every voter gained on the left, two in the center will be lost.
In recent months, I have seen the debates among anti-Walker activists over where the movement should go and what tactics should be used. I would like to point out that influencing politicians is more like training a cat than training a dog. You must be very patient and reward incremental improvements in behavior. Any Hollywood cat wrangler will tell you that negative reinforcement does not work with a cat. While you must be careful not to reinforce negative behavior, you must be just as careful to recognize and reward positive behavior, even if it is only a fraction of the eventual behavior you want to see.