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Third party laziness, 2012 edition

NOTE: The site’s spam comment catcher is being unusually aggressive. If you’ve posted a comment and it hasn’t shown up, please be patient. I can’t monitor the site constantly, but I do not bury comments.

Kevin Gosztola’s post on safe voting strategies quotes historian Howard Zinn’s claim that “we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls.” But Zinn veers away from an important insight by concluding “and choose on of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.” I completely agree that voting isn’t the most important thing citizens do (they still should do it, obviously; I’m not saying it’s trivial). What matters most is what they do between elections. Ongoing civic engagement is what matter most. That is true for political parties as well, and it is why recent third party runs for president have been vanity projects.

You can tell by looking at what those candidates have done besides running for president. Did Ralph Nader try to drum up support for third party candidates down ticket? Did he try to build up party infrastructure after the election? Creating a credible third party is an enormous project, one that will need to be measured in years if not decades. It requires an ongoing commitment from both citizens and those who would lead them. It also requires a lot of unglamorous grunt work - identifying candidates, compiling contact information, phone numbers, walk lists, and so on.

Ralph Nader wasn’t much interested in that, was he? He didn’t seem to have an appetite for anything that didn’t involve a microphone and a spotlight. I have little patience for those who think the two major parties are corrupt, that anyone who votes for them is a credulous dupe helping to prop up a rotted system - and don’t lift a finger between elections to plant the seeds for an alternative. There are plenty of opportunities for that kind of activity to happen, too. All you have to do is look for any issue where people feel passionately but the Big Two have avoided.

The best issues will be ones where local activists can participate. Financial reform, for instance, would not be suitable. While neither Democrats nor Republicans are in favor of cracking down on Wall Street1, there aren’t any good ways for most citizens to act. But for as angry as people are about that, there isn’t a good way for most citizens to push for action.

Here in Ohio an issue like fracking is much better suited for that kind of approach, and I’ve tried to document that on my site for months now. People can and have been pushing for ballot initiatives, demanding regulatory agencies do their job, urging elected officials to act, and so on. It’s an issue without a political constituency, one that people can get involved in, and something many people care deeply about. That is exactly the kind of ferment that creates demand for a third party, and wouldn’t it be lovely if the Greens were here lending a hand? But they aren’t. And the people who are sounding off the loudest on the awful state of the legacy parties appear to be more interested in establishing the purity of their intentions than in highlighting what they presumably regard as small scale (non-national) problems, parochial concerns unworthy of their attention.

Yet it is precisely in these political spaces where a third party will have to emerge. The people engaged at that level are the real third party activists. Those who proclaim the need for alternatives might want to consider giving the occasional nod towards those efforts - even if it means being ignored or criticized for dwelling on minutia. Independent and local efforts need to be translated into seats on city councils and school boards, then into seats in statehouses, then seats in Congress. Democrats and Republicans need to become persuaded of the credibility of that party, and feel comfortable jumping to it without jeopardizing their careers. Only after all that has occurred does it make sense to go for the big enchilada.

The real measure of a third party isn’t getting a presidential candidate on the ballot in all fifty states; it’s in building up a base of elected officials from the ground up. If you want to know about the viability of a given third party, have a look at that ballot on election day. Is it represented at the bottom as well as the top, or is voting for its presidential candidate also a straight ticket vote? If the latter, chances are pretty good it’s basically an exercise in narcissism. Those who vote for that candidate can congratulate themselves on their noble refusal to compromise their values, but they will be largely and deservedly ignored. Voting for a third party that has a strong regional presence and a toehold at the national level makes a lot of sense. Voting for one that only shows up with a moon shot presidential run every four years makes none.


1. Spare me talk of Dodd-Frank. William Black put the Great Swindle in perspective: “If you go back to the savings and loan debacle, we got more than a thousand felony convictions of the elite. These are not, you know, tellers or something. We today have zero convictions, zero indictments, zero arrests of any of the elite, non-prime lenders that, through their fraud, drove this crisis.”

Reader Comments (15)

I think if you examine why individuals -- "real people" -- tend to back off from long term effort of this kind, you'll have your answer. In countries where there's a healthy mix of socialism and capitalism -- where the economy is steaming along at a good rate but not dependent on making citizens overwork, overconsume, or spend too many resources on patching together their healthcare and childcare -- there's time and support for committing to such a huge undertaking. It's an undertaking that would also have corporations and the existing power structure standing in one's way. You need serious resources for what seems, at first glance, like a simple matter of community organization. You're up against some pretty lethal private interests as well as the problem of trying to get already over-committed people to make another long-term commitment.

November 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPW

Agreed, PW. Someone working three part time jobs and constantly hustling just to get by won't have much time to turn the Green party a force. And also agreed that in many cases employers might be very much in the way.

I don't have any illusions about those kinds of obstacles; my frustration is more with the candidates who decry the two party duopoly but won't help build alternatives in a grassroots way. And also with the commentators who prefer issuing broad polemics against The System while ignoring the kind of nitty gritty efforts that present a real challenge to it.

November 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan

I guess we need a George Washington to come along for that. Many important areas (social, political and science) are waiting for that person to come along and make that significant contribution. It's a combination of need, opportunity, skills, resources and availability. Patience. Basically the rant you describe is more about 'where is this guy'? Let's hope he gets here before the Messiah.

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichah

It seems you are excluding yourself and others, from forming this "grassroots" effort. It is true it takes candidates, but it also takes people. And, as PW states, people are rundown. There are many people out there that agree with the green party's platform,but so many more don't know about it. That is lack of coverage, by our corporately owned media. Still, the fastest and most reliable source of information, in an age of instant information, is radio and TV. If the alternative does not get a chance to be heard on these platforms, they almost surely, lost.

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFH

You make it sound like the POINT is to take political power. Why bother, since the MEANS, building community economic power, are perfectly good ends? Winning elections should be considered incidental.

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRanDomino

'The best issues will be ones where local activists can participate. Financial reform, for instance, would not be suitable.'

On the contrary, they can move their money and business to cooperative institutions -- credit unions.

In general, though, you're quite right about the futility of monarchical politics as practiced by minor parties in the U.S. The Greens, Libertarians and others should be focusing on local and state-level elections instead of getting deeply involved in the Great Leader circus.

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnarcissie

I don't know where you're looking, but I think your third-party analysis is way off.

First, the Ralph Nader "egotist" meme has been around forever and has always been unconvincing. All politicians have unbridled egotism--it's a job requirement. Second, Nader has not ignored party-building. Third, he's not running this cycle. You might have at least put some effort into discussing those who are actually running in this election. Fourth, there are benefits to strictly running a presidential campaign without downticket offerings. Some political discussions are national/international, some are regional or local. There is nothing fatal about addressing some but not all of these in a single campaign effort.

If you look at the Greens (fyi I'm not a member, but might cast ballot for them this vote), they are clearly working on down-ballot candidates, and they are on the ground. Your claim is simply not accurate.

Are third parties poorly organized? Sure. Do they need tons of additional work? Absolutely. But that does not mean they are not working these issues.

One final note--just a few days before you wrote this, Jill Stein was arrested for bringing supplies to the KXL blockade action in Wood County, Texas. So we had a national candidate bringing needed attention to a local effort of great importance. Her jail time in Wood County, it seems to me, contradicts your portrayal above.

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasual Observer

FH, I'm slightly skeptical of the "voice in the wilderness" formulation where a third party has all the right policies but just can't get attention from the MSM. For one, the party's main communication tool should be its enthusiastic members, not ad buys or coverage in the news. For another, at the local level it isn't really true that radio and TV are the fastest and most reliable sources of information; something lower tech is: flyers.

If people use face-to-face contacts along with lower tech (but effective) means of communication to stir their neighbors to action on an issue of intense local interest, political space is created. No TV required.

November 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan

Michah, RD and Anarcissie - the site raised false positive flags on your comments for spam. I apologize for their delay in showing up, and I've put a note at the top of the post.

RD, political office is useful, and that is why people seek it. In our neck of the woods we've been doing community organizing, but we don't have to limit ourselves to that. I see it as a both/and, not either/or, approach.

Anarcissie, I agree on the move your money approach, but I'm not sure that would bring the big banks to their knees. It's still worth doing, of course.

Casual Observer, I didn't mention Stein because I want to see if she does any party building after the election. I used Nader as my example because he's had 12 years to try to build up a third party, and hasn't. If Stein does the same I'll be of critical of her.

As for the arrest, here's what I wrote in a comment at a place I cross posted:

I'm calling for building up party infrastructure: identifying candidates to run for local offices, prepping them if they are new to the process, assembling phone lists and walk lists, etc. For all of Stein's admirable activism, has she done any campaign events with down ticket Greens? Worked to staff up the party to be able to thrive after election day? Hell, she's spending her time now - at the absolute fever pitch of election season, the moment when the maximum focus is put on party politics and the moment when the Greens will have the most receptive audience - getting arrested at a Keystone XL protest. That shows you where her heart is - with activism, not party building. And good for her - again, her efforts in that regard have been admirable. But it also makes her spectacularly unsuited to be the head of a political party.

November 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan

"For all of Stein's admirable activism, has she done any campaign events with down ticket Greens? "

The answer is yes, she has. I have that on personal knowledge. While I don't know her schedule, I assume what she did near me with downticket folks is fairly typical of what she does nationwide. Again, I find your criticism unjustified.

On Nader, he just yesterday hosted the 3rd party debate, 4 parties in attendance! Much earlier, I believe he was on stage in Oregon or Washington when Anderson did a presser about getting on the ballot there. Again, I think Nader is doing more for 3rd parties than you give him credit for.

That said, I think we agree that 3rd parties are in bad shape, need lots of work.

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasual Observer

Any link to the downticket event you attended? Local paper, blog post, etc? I'd actually like to read about that.

Nader hosting a debate, not so impressed. Once again, it's Ralph in the spotlight. What has he done to help local officials get elected? Or help third parties identify and run candidates? I give him credit as an activists, but he is wholly unsuited to lead a political party.

November 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan

Here you go. This event included Stein and 3 GP congressional candidates in San Antonio, TX. This is from the Bexar County Greens website. I'm sure there is other stuff out there on the event, although media coverage of 3rd party events is really poor.


On Nader, your claim was that he didn't do party-building. Hosting the 3rd party debate is exactly that. Now you claim to need other proof, while you yourself haven't provided any actual evidence that what you claim about Nader is true.

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasual Observer

To be fair, Nader is getting long in the tooth and is probably not up to much in the way of party-building.

To be very fair, Nader has never done anything except tear down Democrats to the advantage of Republicans. A number of the contributions that allowed him to run in the past were in fact from Republicans.

November 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles

Charles, Nader could have done something in the years right after 2000 to help build up a third party even if he's too up in years now to do that.

As for the Republican donations, that just seems like ordinary political strategizing along the lines of McCaskill's contribution to Akin's primary run. Politicians do stuff like that if they perceive advantage; I don't thing the contributions to Nader were something new under the sun.

November 8, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan

Dan, Nader accepted the donations knowing where they were coming from and what they were intended to accomplish (split the progressive vote). He obliged by campaigning in states where he had promised not to campaign, notably Florida.

That's certainly not new under the sun: pretending to be a reformer while working for those who are opposed to reform. It's just that from Nader, it's a little rich.

As for what Nader could have done, I looked up his age, and he's younger than I had thought. You're right. He could have done a lot more.

November 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles

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