Twenty years ago, independent candidate Ross Perot captured nearly one in five votes cast for President, yet still finished a distant third and failed to win a single electoral vote. Since then, as can be plainly seen from the table and graph below (an abbreviated history of the most significant third party candidacies for President), it’s been all downhill for the anti-duopolists, at least in terms of vote getting, as the most successful third party candidates in each subsequent election managed to capture a progressively smaller percentage of the popular vote.
It does seem rather bizarre that, even as the establishment parties become more brazenly disdainful and in fact openly hostile to the interests of common citizens, those attempting to mount challenges to the duopoly find themselves increasingly marginalized and ignored. What is interesting to contemplate is what, if anything, those on the left who rightly reject the artificial and meaningless construct of corporate D vs. corporate R can do to alter that dynamic.
Year Party Candidate Vote% EVs Next Election
1832 Anti-Masonic William Wirt 7.8 7 Endorsed Whig
1848 Free Soil Martin Van Buren 10.1 0 Won 5% of vote
1856 Whig-American Millard Fillmore 21.5 8 Dissolved
1860 Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge 18.1 72 Dissolved
1860 Constitutional Union John Bell 12.6 39 Dissolved
1892 Populist James B. Weaver 8.5 22 Absorbed by Dem
1912 Progressive Theodore Roosevelt 27.5 88 Returned to Rep
1912 Socialist Eugene V. Debbs 6.0 0 Won 3% of vote
1924 Progressive Robert M. LaFollette 16.6 13 Returned to Rep
1948 States' Rights Strom Thurmond 2.4 39 Dissolved
1948 Progressive Henry Wallace 2.4 0 Won 1.4% of vote
1968 American Independent George Wallace 13.5 46 Won 1.4% of vote
1980 Independent John Anderson 6.6 0 Dissolved
1992 Independent H. Ross Perot 18.9 0 Won 8.4% of vote
1996 Reform H. Ross Perot 8.4 0 Did not run
2000 Green Ralph Nader 2.7 0 Ran again
2004 Green Ralph Nader 1.0 0 Ran as write-in
2008 Write-In Ralph Nader 0.6 0 Did not run
Percentage of Popular Vote (each X = 1/2 of one percent)
It needs to be said firstly that neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties were “present at the creation”, so you could technically say that they are examples of third or alternative parties that made good. The big difference between those cases and the ones listed above are that both the D and R parties essentially arose from the ashes of formerly dominant parties (the Democratic-Republican party and the Whig party specifically) which had already all but collapsed.
The second incalculable advantage they had, which is especially relevant to the present day situation, is that both had big money interests solidly behind them. So of course it’s quite possible to go from nothing to major party status – at least in certain unique situations – provided you’re willing to carry water for the one percenters. On the other hand, if your whole raison d’etre is to stand in opposition to the predations and power monopoly of the one percenters, that puts you in an altogether different category, one which presents infinitely greater obstacles and challenges.
We are now less than two months removed from the 2012 election, and it is interesting to speculate where the top minor party vote getter – who will undoubtedly be Green Party candidate Jill Stein – will fit into the above spectrum. There are, of course, always a hard-core group of terminally disaffected voters who will reliably cast their ballot for some “other than” candidate, whether that candidate’s party label is Green, Reform, Libertarian, Prohibition, Peace And Freedom, or whatever. In most cases, the R’s and D’s could really not care less. Out of more than 125 million votes cast for President in the 2008 election, the Democrats could well afford to ignore the 3/4 million stubborn souls who chose to write in Ralph Nader.
On the other hand, I well remember that in the 2000 election, when the pre-election polls showed a much tighter race, and in which Nader’s candidacy looked far more formidable, the Democrats expended a significant amount of time and energy denouncing Nader’s “spoiler” candidacy, and raising the specter of a critical mass of “thrown away” Nader votes leading directly to a back-door victory for the odious George W. Bush (which, according to Democratic Party orthodoxy, is exactly what happened). A small army of celebrities and other D Party flaks was deployed across the country to warn of the dire consequences of throwing one’s vote away on Spoiler Ralph. I recall that some even went so far as organizing so-called voter exchanges, in which Nader-leaning voters in swing states could trade their votes with Democratic loyalists in safe blue states, so that one could still register a protest vote for Nader without in the least presuming to try to affect the actual outcome of the election.
The take-away from all this is that, at least in those elections in which the electorate is very closely divided between R and D (it wasn’t in 2008, where Obama won handily by more than eight million votes), a minor party candidate can have a disproportionately large influence on the whole process merely by threatening to siphon enough votes away from one of the major candidates to swing the election to his/her opponent. Of course, it goes without saying that all minor parties ultimately desire to be something more than mere “spoilers”. They obviously want to get their candidates elected, and their proposed policies and programs enacted.
Well, suppose you were a political consultant, and six months from now a group interested in organizing a third party effort came to you and said, “In the next Presidential election we want our candidate to be an actual player, and not just a protest symbol.” What advice would you give? What represents a credible path (assuming there even is one) from being a mere flyspeck on the most outlying fringes to being a force to be reckoned with, that can aspire to at least have some measurable effect on the outcome? Here, for what it’s worth, is how I would respond:
1. Make it a crusade, and not just a campaign. A campaign for Presidential is something that goes on for perhaps twelve months or so every four years. For minor party candidates, the time period is considerably shorter. A crusade, on the other hand, is something that goes on 24/7, 365 days a year, and regardless of whether the calendar year is divisible by four, two, or twenty-seven. As Samuel Adams observed, “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.” What needs to be emphasized is that we’re not just talking about replacing bad and corrupt elected officials with dedicated and honorable ones, but remaking our entire society in fundamental and far-reaching ways.
2. Present a united front. It’s axiomatic that in unity there is strength, but today it seems the Left is as fragmented as ever, and just as much absorbed in pointless and self-defeating internecine conflict. Why, I wonder, is there a Green Party candidate, a Justice Party candidate, and a Socialist Party candidate, when all basically advocate the same agenda? How much more potent and effective a third-party movement would be if all oars were rowing together in the same direction, instead of at cross purposes. The anti-duopoly Left needs to unite under the banner of the Progressive Party (a nameplate that has a long and honorable history), or perhaps the New Progressive Party, or maybe the National Unity Party, or something along those lines. As another one of the early American revolutionists memorably said, if we don’t hang together, surely we will all hang separately.
3. Produce a cogent, well reasoned and comprehensive document describing who we are, what we stand for, and what we want. Every great movement lays down the gauntlet in the form of a written manifesto or polemic describing why it exists and what it seeks to accomplish (think Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence) – where is ours? This document, in my opinion, should seek to lay out the following: A) Make the case as to why the current structure of our society is untenable, and harms and undermines the interests of the great majority of citizens; B) Describe at least in broad strokes what constitutes a better, more humane and just alternative; C) List the ten or twelve most urgent policy changes that need to occur in order to staunch the bleeding and begin to set America on course for a brighter and more sustainable future; and D) A specific and detailed code of ethics and conduct for public officials (elected or otherwise), as well as candidates for public office.
4. Require all candidates running under the Party banner to explicitly embrace this manifesto, to make the items on the “Top Ten” list their highest and most urgent priorities, and to take the “Vow of Chastity” and voluntarily abide by the candidate Code of Conduct, so that voters can see in a very straightforward and unambiguous way that the candidate is beholden to no one but them.
If, by some miracle, all of the above steps were taken between now and the 2016 election, would it mean that a New Progressive candidate might have a real chance to win the election, or even come close? Realistically no, because our nation’s entire history strongly suggests that great sea changes such as we advocate happen gradually, over a very long period of time. But yet, one thing I think we can all be absolutely sure of is that such a sea change is coming, that it is inevitable and completely unavoidable. The level of toxicity, of complete detachment from unpleasant realities inherent in current policies and current political, economic and social structures is simply unsustainable. It’s really no longer a question of if, but only of when.
Though obtaining real power should probably best be considered a long-term goal, raising the profile and influence of the anti-duopoly left in the near term is still a realistic and achievable objective. The ability to insinuate ourselves strongly into the national consciousness and the national dialogue is both doable and within reach. However, merely retracing our steps along well worn paths won’t get us there. Simply doing once again what we’ve done in the past will inevitably produce the same outcome, in which the opposition to More Of The Same is reduced to the level of ineffectual gnats buzzing around the head of the great Donkephant, who merely swishes his tail absentmindedly as he goes right on contentedly chewing his cud. Certainly, the Barack Obamas, Bill Clintons and Rahm Emanuels of this world are counting on that very scenario continuing to play out. The most hopeful thing I see is that we have in our own hands the power to prove them wrong.