“The old parties are husks, with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled, each a jumble of incongruous elements, and neither daring to speak out wisely and fearlessly on what should be said on the vital issues of the day.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Third parties are the pariahs of our political system, surviving on the scantiest scraps of media coverage and campaign contributions. To vote for a third party candidate is, in the opinion of many, a wasted vote, since the candidate has little to no chance of winning the election. However, if history is any indication, the greatest progress is often born out of defeat.
In the 1932 election, deep in the throes of the Great Depression, the Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas picked up a surprising 2.2 percent of the popular vote (a 230 percent bump from his performance in the previous election cycle). Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sensing a growing distrust with the leadership in the country (following a series of notable runs from alternative candidates), sought to recover this contingent of voters by adopting some of Thomas’s ideas, which include two of FDR’s most successful and enduring innovations: social security and unemployment aid. This isn’t the only instance of a third party candidate influencing the policies of a major political party. Workers’ rights (including child labor laws and the forty-hour work week) were originally advocated by the Socialist Party. The Reform Party brought the national debt crisis to public attention. A graduated income tax was the handiwork of the Populist Party. Women’s suffrage was first championed by the Liberty Party, and later by the Socialist and Prohibitionist parties. These are just a small handful of the causes appropriated by the controlling parties.
For a time it seemed third parties were gaining traction in the United States (like our geographic neighbors, Canada and Mexico, both of whom subscribe to multiparty systems). John Anderson drew 6.6% of the vote in 1980. Ross Perot and his Reform Party pulled 18.9% and 8.4% in 1992 and 1996, respectively (the former tally accounted for the highest number of votes since Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912). But following the role of Ralph Nader in the highly contested 2000 election (for which he was branded as a “spoiler,” a term that has never sat well with me for its basic assumption that somehow Gore was entitled to those votes), third parties have lost their foothold in American politics, with the third place candidate polling at just 0.38% and 0.56% in the last two elections.
The Republican Party, once the party of progressives like Teddy Roosevelt (not to mention, vampire hunters like Abraham Lincoln), has morphed into something much more dangerous: self-proclaimed arbiters of moral rectitude, deniers of scientific fact, wielders of fear. Similarly, the Democratic Party have strayed so far from their core values that today a candidate like FDR would be tarred and feathered for his radical left leanings. Most importantly, both parties have fallen victim to moneyed interests.
Voting for a third party is the way I choose to voice my dissent. It’s a vote toward realignment, a recalibration, of our political system. The dominant parties are stricken with tunnel vision; their economic promises are distracting us from other critically important issues (many of which contribute to the long-term health of the economy). To vote for a third party is to help place neglected issues back on the table, make them relevant again: poverty, education, climate change, clean energy, corporate welfare, drone warfare, gun control, capital punishment, labor rights, consumer protection, to name a few.
One idea that has been tossed around by a number of third party candidates over the past decade is campaign finance reform (a bipartisan issue advocated by candidates on all ends of the political spectrum). Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party), Dr. Jill Stein (Green Party), and Rocky Anderson (Justice Party) support greater transparency, with the latter two pushing for more comprehensive spending reforms. Since the Citizens United ruling, unattributed donations (better known as “dark money”) have accounted for 35.2% of spending in national and state elections.
The DISCLOSE Act was placed in front of Congress in 2010. The bill would have required political groups to release the identities of their largest donors, but the bill failed to reach the necessary number of votes in the Senate. Some believe the federal ban on direct corporate spending could be the next regulation to get nixed, which would only serve to further pollute our system of government.
Among the hurdles facing third parties today is their inability to get into the debate. The Commission on Presidential Debates, an organization formed by the two major parties (after the League of Women Voters refused to sponsor the debates, owing to the increasing demands of the parties), only allows a candidate to debate if they are polling at 15% or more in five national polls. The conundrum, of course, is how are those candidate expected to reach the 15% threshold if they aren’t allowed a televised platform to voice their views and opinions. (Recently, the Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein was arrested after trying to gain access to the debate site at Hofstra University.)
This duopoly is undermining our democracy. Two parties is a farce. We live in a nation saturated with choices (supermarkets carry three different types of Raisin Bran, for God’s sake), and yet we’re limited to two viable candidates for President of the United States? That isn’t in line with the values of this country. We deserve more choices. We deserve better choices.
Still, for all our seeming helplessness, we ultimately hold the greatest trump card of all: our vote. Politicians need to be reminded that a vote is something earned: not something that can be taken for granted, and certainly not something that can be bought. As long as we continue to settle for the “least worst” option (vote defensively instead of offensively), those in power will continue to take advantage of the very people they were elected to represent. Settling isn’t a way forward. It only leads to more of the same. And how much worse does it have to get, how much more deception and greed, until we draw the line, until we say enough is enough?