When Ralph Nader ‘55 concluded his speech in McCosh 50 last month, the 500+ students and faculty who rose in a standing ovation, wildly cheering and applauding, surely knew his presidential candidacy was doomed. At the pre-speech press conference, I shook his hand with admiration and proudly handed him the latest Nassau Weekly (the one with caricatures of George W. Bush and John Kerry antagonizing each other, suspended by the immense middle fingers of a smug Nader), but I had no illusions of ever calling him “Mr. President” either. Yet I stood with my fellow Princetonians in support of his ideas, and seriously began to wonder about the failures of Nader and other third-party candidates to win the majority vote. Why do Republicans and Democrats monopolize elections? What have third-party candidates accomplished in the past? How does Nader compare to other election losers, and why won’t he go away?

The Two-Party Tyranny: A Brief History

The 2004 election, as every election has been since the 1820s, was a contest between two parties—only two parties. Before the 1850s, in American presidential elections the Democrats and Whigs faced off every four years, and since the antislavery Republican Party came to replace the Whig Party in the 1850s, every U.S. president has been elected either Democrat or Republican.

Why has the United States traditionally upheld this two-party system when multiple parties persist in most other democracies? Political scientist Earl Kruschke observes in his Encyclopedia of Third Parties in America that British tradition gave birth to the American two-party political system. In both the UK and the U.S., the election system is “winner-takes-all,” whereby the votes for the losing candidate are wasted, even if the loser wins 49.9% of the vote. In contrast, most other democracies have a proportional representation system, whereby the overall results of the election are proportional to the distribution of votes, which implies greater diversity of parties represented. David Pitts of Issues in Democracy also points out that the media primarily focus on Republicans and Democrats, devoting little time to other parties, and that the Democrat and Republican parties act as “large umbrellas” for many interests and beliefs.

But clearly the umbrellas are not wide enough to cover the wide spectrum of social issues that actually plague the minds of American citizens, nor are they deep enough to sufficiently address the issues that do arise in presidential debates. In a battle for commercial appeal between two parties, we have to wonder what percentage of truth and what percentage of publicity magic we actually receive in campaigns. Often avid followers of politics pinpoint the flaws in one candidate so the other seems more attractive, and ultimately we vote for the candidate who will do the less evil, as we are quite uncertain who will do the most good.

“It will always be a least-worst choice, every 4 years,” Nader said at Princeton.

The Indie Scene

Not many losing candidates become household names, and even fewer third-party candidates retain historical significance. Between World War II and the 2000 elections, the only memorable contenders from other parties are 1948 Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond, 1968 American Independent candidate George Wallace, and 1992 Reform candidate Ross Perot. The defining characteristics of these few notable independents aren’t always flattering, however. Thurmond and Wallace both strongly supported racial segregation, and Perot was a poorly-organized billionaire who couldn’t spell “potato(e).” They may have won substantial percentages of the vote in their respective years, but in the same way that most indie flicks don’t deserve Sundance Awards, these three third-party guys just didn’t make the presidential cut.

Yet Nader wasn’t purely self-promotional when he told Princeton students last month, “Every time social justice was advanced, it was advanced by voters who supported independent candidates.” Historically, some of the most important laws and rights have sprung up as a result of third-party efforts. Here are a few, according to About.com: women didn’t win the right to vote until 1920, but in the late 1800s the suffrage movement began with the Prohibition and Socialist Parties; unemployment insurance and the Social Security Act of 1935 blossomed as a result of the efforts of the Socialist Party in the 1920s; and the idea of imposing a tax commensurate with a person’s income started with the Populist and Socialist Parties in the 1890s, culminating in the ratification of the 16th Amendment in 1913. Even George Wallace, though adamant about racial segregation, helped spark the “tough on crime” mantra that inspired the Safe Streets Act of 1968.

Though some controversy surrounds the nature of Nader’s campaign, he should not be denied credit for his own share of accomplishments as a staunch representative of a third party. The 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act passed in Congress partly as a result of his research and lobbying, for example. The Center for the Study of Responsive Law, the nonprofit national consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, and Princeton Project 55 are just three of over 100 civic organizations Nader helped found or organize, according to his campaign website. Civic engagement is vital to a democracy in which people take charge of bettering their communities, even if such community-based initiatives get lost in the hype of presidential wins and losses.

Masters of the Loss

Much like the giant lemur, the mylodont sloth, and thousands of other species driven to extinction by overbearing competitors (humans), presidential candidates who lose their elections usually retreat into oblivion, their names recalled only in reference to their skeletons. Few losers have held on to people’s admiration and genuine approval throughout the years, forcing their ideas into the public conscience regardless of the outcome of the election.

Adlai Ewing Stevenson ‘22 was probably the only losing presidential candidate in the 20th century to successfully master his loss in this way. The Democrat opponent of General Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, Stevenson urged a ban on nuclear testing, attacked McCarthyism, and advocated “freedom of the mind.” In his vision of the Democratic party, the belief in “equal rights for all and in special privileges for none” prevailed, as he said in a speech in Detroit in 1952. Above all, this former Quad member and managing editor of the Prince made his electoral losses seem noble. David Greenberg of Slate writes that Stevenson “meant to raise politics to a higher plane where reason and decency would prevail over the usual pandering, mudslinging, and emotional appeals.” In particular, Stevenson seemed to advocate what he believed, even if his beliefs cost him votes, and insisted on telling the American people the truth. Despite his losses, the idealism that he promulgated and the encouragement he gave the younger generation promoted a new outlook for the Democratic party of the 1950s and 1960s.

While “vote-stealing” bitterness surrounded Ralph Nader’s candidacy in the 2000 and 2004 elections, he takes the Stevensonian approach of losing with dignity, using his campaign to advocate actual social justice causes. Democrats and Republicans barely ever touch issues such as the environment, corporate crime, drugs, and the military budget, but Nader challenged people across America to think critically about them. In 2004 he demanded that Bush and Kerry “take off their corporate handcuffs and spit out the marbles,” urging an election where candidates actually say what they stand for rather than yielding to corporate pressures and holding back. Of course, accusations abound that Nader accepts money from shady Republican sources, most notably from the same Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but at Princeton he claimed that he does no litmus test on donors. The function of his campaign, he claims, is simply to keep his agenda before the two parties.

The Future of an Illusion

As a third-party candidate obsessed with environmental, progressive, civic engagement issues, Ralph Nader will never win the presidency, but he has won the respect and attention of millions of Americans. In 2000, he won 2.8 million votes, and at Princeton, he quoted an estimate that 50% of those who vote for him would not have voted otherwise. Perhaps that percentage is exaggerated, but if Americans really did decide to wake up early on election day just because they liked what a certain Princeton graduate had to say, that’s not vote-stealing—that’s progress.

It is hard to come by a candidate whose campaign is analogous to throwing a stone in a mirror-still pond so that the ripples extend throughout the body of water, creating a series of small waves that spread out and, by propagation, touch far-off shores. Not everyone agrees with Ralph Nader, but for many people he has thrown the stone that provokes critical thought about pressing issues of today, inspiring Americans to take action in their communities and enact social change. As someone who claims that “the only social justice issue worth fighting for is one where you lose and lose and then you win,” Nader will probably return in the 2008 election, but not without reason. In a two-party world, he will never be president, but he will continue to spark controversy and interest just by fighting to get his name on ballots every four years.