Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty
the national interest

Running Spoiler Campaigns Does Not Protect ‘Democracy’

The fatuous rationale for No Labels and Cornel West.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty

Most Americans who oppose Donald Trump agree the threat to democracy is the major issue of the 2024 election. But what, precisely, constitutes the threat? To most Democrats, the danger is that the election will install into power a president who admires autocratic regimes and wishes to replicate their methods by encouraging violence, using the government to punish independent media and prosecute his political enemies.

But another, smaller group of people say the threat to democracy is that there will only be one candidate running against Trump. They define “democracy” as giving voters in the general election the choice of multiple non-Trump options.

At the moment, Biden is facing potential spoiler campaigns from the center (No Labels) and the left (Cornel West.) The substantive critiques those two spoiler campaigns have with President Biden and the Democratic party are ideologically diametrical, but their process argument is the same.

“There is no true democracy in America when two ruling parties actively work to prevent voters from having choices,” says Peter Daou, West’s campaign manager. “Would you accept a restaurant with only two (rotten) items on the menu? Of course not.”

“The attempt to shut down No Labels is not an attack on the organization. It’s an attack on America’s democracy,” claims Joe Lieberman, one of the organizers of the centrist third-party campaign.

Notably, West and Lieberman alike aren’t merely making a procedural case that they require ballot access. They are arguing that even to denounce their campaigns imperils democracy. Lieberman’s comments came in response to the Democratic Party merely instructing its officials to attack No Labels as a threat to democracy.

Daou, in an interview with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, complained that the very act of criticizing his campaign is undemocratic. “Let’s say this cycle we also say the same thing, which is, ‘Oh, my God, we have to stop Donald Trump or we have to stop whoever the Republican might be,’” he theorized. “And this happens the next cycle and the next cycle and the next cycle. Where is the so-called democracy that we’re supposedly protecting or saving? What we’re doing is we’re crushing third parties. We are stifling democracy itself, Isaac.”

Daou and Lieberman are not simply asserting that third parties must have the right to appear on the ballot. They are insisting democracy requires that they run and that the major parties refrain from denouncing them as spoilers.

At the risk of insulting the reader’s intelligence, apparently, it is necessary to point out that the choice construction of a presidential election is nothing like a restaurant menu. When you order from a restaurant, every diner gets to eat whichever dish they want. For that reason, it’s in the restaurant’s interest to provide them with as many options as the restaurant can competently supply. When I go to a restaurant, I want the menu to offer me something that caters to my individual tastes.

To continue with the restaurant analogy, a presidential election is like a restaurant where, even though we have different choices on the menu, every diner gets the dish that gets ordered the most. That changes the incentive completely. In that kind of restaurant, I would neither expect nor even want a menu with lots of choices. I would want a menu designed to give me the choice closest to my preference. I happen to love Indian food, but putting chicken tikka and lamb vindaloo and saag paneer on a winner-take-all menu ballot might well mean that I wind up eating a bologna sandwich.

If we could live in a world where everybody got the president of their choice, I am confident nobody would care how many presidential candidates jumped into the race. The reason Democrats are concerned about the proliferation of candidates is that the election is going to result in just one president.

The nature of the American presidential election system, which lacks both parliamentary coalitions and ranked-choice voting, is that multiple candidates make it easier for a candidate to win with a minority of the vote. Democrats believe that the intensity of opinion around Trump — and the Democrats’ need to win a strong majority of moderates in order to have a majority — means that having multiple non-Trump candidates increases the odds of a Trump victory.

Third- and fourth-party enthusiasts seem (or perhaps just pretend) not to comprehend this dynamic at all and instead insist putting more choices on the November election is tantamount to “democracy.” Of course, you could expand choices by running more candidates in the primaries, which are open and decided by the voters. But neither the No Labels faction nor the Cornel West faction are willing to actually compete for the Democratic nomination. (Daou, revealingly, originally managed the campaign for Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson before giving up when she went nowhere).

The Wall Street Journal has repeatedly argued that criticizing No Labels is unpatriotic and anti-democratic. “President Biden said in a rare recent interview that No Labels has ‘a democratic right’ to do this, but ‘it’s going to help the other guy,’” complains an editorial this week. “Now comes a Super Pac trying to raise millions of dollars to assail No Labels, according to a fundraising pitch to prospective donors. What do these folks have against democracy?”

The Journal used to insist that wealthy donors spending money on ads to promote their point of view was a freedom so vital that campaign donations couldn’t even be regulated. Now, apparently, it’s a threat to democracy.

The Journal also professes to have no idea why anybody would even object to a No Labels candidacy. “What we don’t understand is the obloquy heaped on No Labels. Its members are patriots who want to spare the country from a campaign that offers four more years of the last two polarizing Presidencies,” pleaded a July editorial.

Of course, the Journal understands perfectly well why Democrats object to a spoiler campaign. “Yes, this does pose a threat to them because it’s likely to drain votes away from the Biden side,” boasted a Journal editorial writer in a video segment praising No Labels.

Lieberman’s own motives are only slightly more opaque. In an interview with CT Insider this summer, he dismissed polling that found a No Labels candidacy would pull more votes from Biden than Trump by insisting, “I haven’t seen exactly that one, that’s not our poll.” (As the interviewer noted, those numbers actually did come from his organization.)

And while Lieberman has been publicly assuring Democrats that No Labels would stand down if its candidate isn’t in position to win the election, he told CT Insider he might stay in the race anyway:

Even if we don’t think we’re likely to win, is there a constructive role for third party, a third ticket, bipartisan in which the American people can say by voting for that by partisan ticket, “Hey, Republicans and Democrats, we’re not buying what you’re selling, we want a third choice and No Labels is offering it to us.” So we may decide to run even if it’s not so sure that we can win, if we think we can have that kind of positive effect on whichever of the two candidates gets elected next November. 

If your primary motivation in life is to exact revenge on the Democratic Party over personal slights, it’s easy to talk yourself into believing that you’re following some higher principle. But nobody should indulge their self-delusions. Skipping an open primary system to instead flood a first-past-the-post ballot with competing candidates to lower the plurality threshold for a terrifying authoritarian to win power has nothing to do with “democracy.”

Running Spoiler Campaigns Does Not Protect ‘Democracy’