Decline of “Third Party” Progressives

Libertarians Ascending

I enjoyed watching Karl Rove squirm on Election Night. Here he was, the Machiavellian Prince of Republican politics, the man who took the simple-minded son of a former president and vaulted him to a two-term reign of terror in the Oval Office. He had collected hundreds of millions of dollars from anonymous corporate donors and promised Republican victory in the 2012 election.

Convinced that he and his minions alone held the true measure of the electorate, when he refused to concede Ohio even after Fox News had lowered the hammer, I couldn’t help but think of Election Night 2000 when George W. Bush was informed that Al Gore had carried Florida. A visibly shaken Bush looked around for his brother Jeb, Governor of the Sunshine State, and stated frankly that he didn’t believe he had lost Florida. Jeb dashed for the door and the rest is history.

Karl Rove stole that election through an ingenious if immoral combination of massive voter disenfranchisement and manipulation of the vote count. Four years later he performed a similar feat with the same tactics when Democrat John Kerry gave up the fight in Ohio.

I have little doubt that the Rove Machine would have kicked into gear to steal this election, too, if not for the fact that it was in the end an electoral landslide. Had it come down to one or two states, Ohio and Florida, they would still be counting votes today.

Karl Rove lost the air of invincibility in this election but the true measure of his defeat was not in the loss of the White House. That can be blamed on demographics and a spineless candidate. The true indication that Rove lost his groove came down ticket in the senatorial and congressional races.

As I watched the results come in on Election Night, I noticed that several closely contested races for the Senate listed a Libertarian candidate who was collecting more votes than the margin dividing the Democrat and the Republican.

As it turned out, two newly elected Democratic Senators and a handful of Democratic members of Congress won their elections against a Republican who lost more votes than the margin of victory to a Libertarian challenger.

Either the Rove Machine failed to recognize the threat or failed miserably with virtually unlimited resources to neutralize it. It may be that the Libertarians, unlike the Green Party in prior elections, were immune to the lesser evil and wasted vote arguments. It may be that Libertarians as a whole feel no closer to the modern Republican Party than they do to the Democrats.

True libertarians do not support the social agenda that has dominated modern Republican politics. They believe in small government. They believe that no government, state, local or federal, has a right to interfere in the private affairs of citizens. They believe that no government should impose its morality on those who do not share that morality.

A libertarian may be opposed to abortion on moral grounds but that conviction does not extend beyond his or her personal life. When a party or a government seeks to ban or limit abortion legislatively they have fallen off the libertarian wagon. When a party seeks legislation that limits access to contraception or requires intra-vaginal probes for any woman seeking an abortion, that party becomes the enemy of libertarianism. When a party acts to perpetuate the drug wars and opposes the legalization of marijuana, they have no home for the libertarian.

Finally, when a party seeks to legislate its religious morality on a national scale by defining marriage to exclude homosexuals, every true libertarian will rise up in opposition.

Though largely unnoticed by the media or the public at large, the Libertarian Party has achieved what no third party has achieved in the modern era: it has influenced the balance of power. It has become a cog in the wheel and a force that can no longer be ignored by the political heavyweights.

By contrast, the Green Party, Peace and Freedom and every other third party in American politics has virtually vanished. On my own ballot in central California where congressional races were often decided by razor thin margins, beyond the slate of presidential candidates, not a single third party or independent challenger appeared.

The problem dates back to the year 2000 when Democrats blamed Green Party candidate Ralph Nader for tipping the election in Florida (and therefore the presidency) to George W. Bush. It was not massive disenfranchisement of minorities. It was not discarded ballots and election rigging in the backcountry of northern Florida. It was not the Gore team’s calling for only a partial recount when a full recount could have changed the outcome. No. It was Ralph Nader.

As a consequence, in the 2004 election the Green Party announced a new policy directing its members and supporters to vote for the Democrat in contested states. In effect, the party announced to the nation that they had no intention of making a difference.

In 2012 they have certainly gotten their wish.

Say what you will about Ralph Nader, he was a serious candidate who spoke greater truths, who addressed issues neither major party would touch, and whose voice was heard by millions of American voters.

Ultimately, my problem with Ralph Nader and other third-party presidential election campaigns is that they were resigned to symbolism. His notion was to influence Democratic policies and who knows but that in some small ways he did. But if the objective was to influence the Democratic Party, it would have made more sense for him to run for the Democratic nomination and at least be guaranteed a place on stage in the early primaries.

My notion is: if you are running for an office the first objective ought to be to win.

In modern American politics, there is a clear path to the presidency. The first step is to achieve national recognition. That Nader achieved through his remarkable career as a consumer advocate. The second step (to be by-passed only through military leadership) is to win an election. That Nader never achieved. The third is to win a statewide election.

Instead of running for the White House on multiple occasions, what if he had targeted a governorship and won as Jesse Ventura did in Minnesota? What if he had won a congressional seat and parlayed that success into a run for the United States Senate?

Nader could have built an organization and gathered the credentials needed to be a viable candidate for the presidency.

What if all the resources devoted to Nader’s presidential campaigns had been applied to a handful of targeted elections for congress? Winning just a few seats in congress would magnify the influence of a third party by quantum leaps and bounds. As it is, the Green Party is a non-factor and one that is in steep decline.

If those of us who believe in independence, who believe that the two-party system is designed for corporate dominance, wish to become relevant in the age of unlimited corporate spending, we had better change our strategy.

We had better become smarter like the Ventura campaign and more stubborn like the Libertarians. The only useful function of a national campaign is to raise awareness, promote policies and most importantly to raise funds for down ticket races. Toward the common interest of breaking the stranglehold of the major parties, left leaning parties need to unite and break bread with libertarians.

For all the derision heaped upon him, rightly or wrongly, I would support yet another Nader campaign if he adopted the above objectives, explicitly stated. I would support any other prominent independent or third party challenge in future elections on the same condition.

In the recently elected 113th congress, there are only two senators who are not members of the dominant parties (Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine). There are precisely zero independent members in the House of Representatives.

With independents as the fastest growing affiliation in the electorate, that is an incredible record of third party and independent failure.

The further we go down the road of unlimited corporate funding, the harder it will become to find that illusive electoral success. We need to make a move now for our very democracy may depend on it.

My own preference would be a labor party, absorbing the remnants of third party progressives, with fair trade as its banner issue and Senator Sherrod Brown as its standard bearer.

I know. It’s just a dream. In the age of Citizens United, it cannot be done. The two-party system is entrenched. But the truth is we have faced impossible odds all our political lives. We keep fighting because we believe in the democratic experiment. We keep fighting because there has never been a greater threat to democracy since the presidency of aristocrat John Adams or the Civil War.

Independence or bust!

Jack Random is the author of Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press) the Jazzman Chronicles, Volumes I and II (City Lights Books). The Chronicles have been published by Dissident Voice and others. Read other articles by Jack, or visit Jack's website.