[ NOTE: This is an old article of mine, from August 2004. You probably won't be too shocked to learn that Hartmann never retracted the falsehoods that I describe here. You may also not be shocked to learn that Common Dreams refused to run this article, though they were happy to publish Hartmann's attack. ]
In his article "Ralph Nader: Let the Voter Beware" (Common Dreams, August 6th), Thom Hartmann throws out the damning claim that Ralph Nader has made a concerted effort to "deceive people" and "mislead his audiences," apparently in order to bamboozle them into supporting his 2004 presidential bid. Specifically, Hartmann's charge boils down to "the misperception Nader is pushing that the problem third parties face is purely the fault of the existing two parties."
Deception, misleading, and deliberately pushing misperceptions: these are harsh indictments indeed, especially when directed at a person with Nader's reputation for honesty and integrity. On closer investigation, however, it's clear that these claims are themselves built on a foundation of falsehood. Hartmann has misrepresented the facts in an attempt to smear Nader--a sorry but sadly common practice among some progressives in the runup to the 2004 elections.
Hartmann's sole cited evidence against Nader is a pair of quotes ripped violently out of context from Nader's February 2004 appearance on "Meet the Press." Fortunately, we have the actual transcript available to evaluate his claims. Let's examine how closely Hartmann's version compares to reality. First, Hartmann describes the following exchange between Nader and Tim Russert, helpfully filling in some implied subjects for us (in square brackets):
In a February 2004 appearance on Meet The Press, Nader said to Tim Russert, "You'd never find that type of thing [resistance to a third party] in Canada or Western democracies in Europe. It is an offense to deny millions of people who might want to vote for our candidacy an opportunity to vote for our candidacy. Instead, they [the Republicans and Democrats] want to say, 'No, we're not going to let you have an opportunity to vote,' for our candidacy."
So according to Hartmann's inserted comments, in this quote Nader is referring directly to "resistance to a third party" by "the Republicans and Democrats." Now let's look at the actual quote in context:
MR. RUSSERT: There's a Web site that actually says www.ralphdontrun.net, and I want to air this in its entirety for you to watch it, for the country to watch it, and then give you a full chance to respond. Let's watch:
(Russert plays the video clip)
MR. RUSSERT: There's real passion in that. What do you say to those people?
MR. NADER: That's the liberal intelligentsia that agrees with almost all our positions. That is a contemptuous statement against democracy, against freedom, against more voices and choices for the American people. You'd never find that type of thing in Canada or Western democracies in Europe. It is an offense to deny millions of people who might want to vote for our candidacy an opportunity to vote for our candidacy. Instead, they want to say, "No, we're not going to let you have an opportunity to vote," for our candidacy.
Obviously Nader's "they" wasn't referring to the "Republicans and Democrats" at all, but rather to the people behind ralphdontrun.net (a web site that is specifically dedicated to attacking and undermining Nader's campaign, not third party campaigns in general), and to the larger group of "liberal intelligentsia" who support their viewpoint and tactics. Hartmann's bracketed characterizations are completely misleading, and he has carefully omitted the context which would have made that obvious to his audience.
At this point in Hartmann's article the discerning reader--even if he or she is giving full credit to the version of reality being presented--is likely to wonder: is that really all you have? Presumably realizing this, Hartmann shores up his first deception with another one. He punches home his claim about Nader's misrepresentation of the true nature of the U.S. electoral system by immediately following the quote above with this:
Nader added, "There's a tremendous bias in state laws against third parties and independent candidates bred by the two major parties, who passed these laws. They don't like competition." Amazingly, many people are taken in by this argument, as they don't understand the difference between our system and those of most European nations, and don't realize that our election system was developed before there were any political parties whatsoever.
This might be amazing--if that's what Nader was actually saying, that is. In fact, though, this quote not only appeared much later in the interview, but it was also addressed to a specific question from Russert that makes the context and meaning crystal clear. We go to the actual transcript once more to set the record straight:
MR. RUSSERT: How uphill will your battle be, and how many state ballots do you think you can get on?
MR. NADER: There's a tremendous bias in state laws against third parties and Independent candidates bred by the two major parties, who passed these laws. They don't like competition. So it's like climbing a cliff with a slippery rope. And anybody who doubts it can look at a list of all these signature barriers and all the obstacles a number of states, not all of them, put before third-party candidates.
So Nader was actually answering a direct question about state ballot access provisions. In order to obscure this fact, Hartmann had to omit not only Russert's question itself but Nader's mention of "signature barriers and all the obstacles a number of states...put before third-party candidates." And of course Nader is precisely right when he points out that ballot access laws like these have been promoted by the two major parties (for obvious reasons); they surely aren't mentioned in nor even implied by the Constitution.
It's worth asking at this point what Nader's actual position is regarding the topic that Hartmann is discussing: namely, the distortion of democracy engendered by the winner-take-all system in the U.S. Nader's feelings about the electoral system have never been difficult to discern--he explains them regularly in his interviews and speeches--but in order to present this falsified indictment, Hartmann actually had to ignore Nader's statement in this very same "Meet the Press" interview that "the antiquated Electoral College [is a] winner-take-all system that blocks all the way to excluding candidates from the debates, blocks any kind of voices, any kind of competition, and we've got to fight that." Recall that Hartmann would have us believe that Nader's sin is to claim that the obstacle to third party participation in elections "is purely the fault of the existing two parties" (my emphasis). Unlike Hartmann, Nader understands that the serious problems we face today in the electoral system are a result both of structural inequities that have existed since its inception and of subsequent efforts by the two major parties to reinforce and expand those inequities in order to solidify their own power.
The final irony here is that the main remedy that Hartmann reasonably puts forward for the U.S. electoral system--instant runoff voting, or IRV--is also a commonplace in Nader's stump speeches, and Nader's campaign web site features an extended discussion of the importance of IRV. It's hard to believe that Hartmann could be unaware of this if he has even passing familiarity with Nader's positions.
So the real question that arises from all this is not why Ralph Nader is trying so hard to "mislead his audiences," but rather why a progressive like Thom Hartmann would sacrifice his own reputation for truth and integrity to undertake such a transparently dishonest and malicious attack on Nader. It appears likely that Hartmann is one of that group of progressives who are not just planning to support Kerry in 2004, but who are intent on smearing the only major progressive voice in this campaign in order to garner a few more (most likely meaningless) votes for the Democrats--and the facts are a wholly optional consideration in that crusade, to be seized upon if they're useful and distorted or ignored if they're not. He owes Nader not just a retraction, but an apology.