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Alternatives to the Big Two

Casey Boland

In a nation as vast, diverse and individualist as the United States, it's difficult to find anything everyone can agree on. We'll dispute everything from social issues to sports teams to television programs to soft drinks. Yet we as a nation can embrace one another and rejoice in our collective disgust of one thing: major politicians, especially those running for an office as esteemed as the presidency. With the exception of those unfortunate individuals on the payroll of either the major political parties or those fortunate few to reap the material benefits bestowed by the corporations and economic sector which own the major political parties, Americans love to hate big wig politicians. Every four years we watch as older, white rich guys play the part of Joe Normal, while reciting the lines stated ever-so sincerely every four years by similar, older, white rich guys generation after generation before. Today presidential elections and their concurrent campaigns and conventions are nothing more than entertainment. They are bad theatre, or abysmal television. And yet some still summon the strength to go to the local polling station, pinch their nose, look the other way, and pick the "lesser of two evils." TV pundits and syndicated columnists shouldn't ask why so few people vote, but why so few choose to vote at all.

Unless you have a spare million dollars lying around, none of us has much of a say in presidential campaigns and presidential elections and presidential politics and we know it. Which may explain why the nation's appetite for an alternative to the Republicrat monopoly on major political (and economic) power in the U.S. grows. The elusive "third party" pesters the major parties every four years. It is a specter haunting the marble-tile floors of American Power precisely because it challenges that power. "Minority" parties or "fringe" parties span the ideological political spectrum from left to right. Some focus exclusively on one issue (Marijuana Reform Party), while others take on the entire decaying edifice of American democracy (though many will argue what is called "democracy" in the U.S. was never a democracy at all). Most third parties and their candidates evade the media spotlight (or the media evade third parties, to be more precise), while some become celebrities. Yet as Reagan so adeptly illustrated, celebrities make for bad politicians (those among you with more potent cynicism coursing through your veins will spit, "all politicians are bad"). What follows is an educational romp through the highs and lows of the Third Party in U.S. presidential politics.

Extra! Extra! Don't read all about it !

 It goes without saying that the media make or break presidential contenders. It's a horse race where the one with the sleeker mane, the more melodious whinny, the whiter teeth and the faster pace will win. We know that. But what we often forget is that the media have nothing to gain from fringe parties who prattle on about the horrors of capitalism and neoliberal trade pacts. After all, the mainstream media is mainstream because it is a business, and a business owned and operated by the biggest corporations on the block. Wouldn't it be akin to biting the hand that feeds were the media to champion any candidate who castigated the wealthy fat cats who buy off the politicians? As progressive author and academic Michael Parenti put it 14 years ago, by not covering in any seriousness alternative political parties and their candidates, "The media help perpetuate the pro-capitalist, two-party monopoly."  

OK, OK, you may argue, what about Ross Perot in '92? Or what about John Anderson in '80, smarty pants? True, both Ross Perot and John Anderson appeared to be genuine alternatives to the Republican and Democratic candidates. Yet it would be a stretch to label either Perot or Anderson as genuine alternatives. Perot is a millionaire whose vision lives on in the Reform Party. Their "reforms" don't go much beyond upholding the capitalist hierarchy that has plagued this nation since its inception. And John Anderson was an estranged Republican. Like Perot, he offered no concrete message of change. Hence, they in no way threatened the established power order and were showered with vast quantities of media coverage. How many of you know that Gus Hall and Angela Davis ran in 1980 on the Communist Party ticket? Does the name Barry Commoner ring a bell? Or Larry Agran? Each sacrificed loads of time and energy to combat the two party du-opoly and now barely register as a teeny blip on the radar screen of America's political memory.

Journalists don't try to hide the fact that they shortchange third parties. One Newsweek editor was quoted as stating: "If we don't think that you have at least some chance of being elected, you don't get any coverage." An L.A. Times reporter adds: "An election is not a matter of who has the best ideas Þ. What it really comes down to is who can win the most votes." Since the public learns most of what they know about candidates from the mainstream media, if someone doesn't fit into their spotlight, they have virtually no chance of attracting a significant number of voters. As Parenti notes, "Media exposure confers legitimacy on one's candidacy. By giving elaborate national coverage only to Republicans and Democrats, news organizations are letting us know that these are the only ones worth considering."

Think about it. How many of you said or heard someone say "Well I wanted to vote for X but they'd never win. I didn't want to throw my vote away, so I picked Y." The media don't exactly encourage voting for third parties by labeling them "fringe" parties with little hope of attaining anything but an obscure historical reference point for future third parties. It takes a well-stocked "war chest" of millions of dollars for a candidate to achieve the status of "serious contender" through the warped eyes of the mainstream media.

It's the issues, stupid

While alternative parties and candidates are often derided for their lack of political finesse (i.e. not being "politicians") they have played a vital role in bringing important issues to the fore of a campaign. Such issues as the abolition of slavery, the right of women and African Americans to vote, environmentalism, and progressive reform in general were all championed by "fringe" parties that changed the thinking of the vast majority of the nation. They force subject matters that the media and especially the Big Two candidates would much rather ignore. The mainstream media chatter incessantly like well-groomed chickens about the devious role of money in presidential campaigns. Yet they never seriously question that role nor do they seriously cover less financially-endowed prospective politicians.

Instead of digging deep into the bubbling cauldron of social ills and economic issues addressed by non-major political parties and activists, the media serve us sugary sweet reports about as substantial as cotton candy. We hear about George Bush 2 breakfasting with blue-collar workers at a diner in Texas, or Bore Gore delivering speeches to grade school kids. And when we do witness the random news story on their stance on an issue, all we receive are the same tried and true, tired and worn platitudes. Norman Solomon suggests that this emphasis on meaninglessness "tell(s) us that candidates and the media are trying, in their own ways, to dance past engagement with real issues." While 40 million Americans have no health insurance, 30 million have substandard diets, and the U.S. gets the award for having the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world, the media and BushGore Inc. pontificate superficially about acceptable (though no less significant) issues such as social security, taxes and education. And they exhibit an egregious paucity of concrete solutions to these issues.

Monopoly in the debate club

Traditionally, candidates for the presidency put up their dukes with words and the wrangling over of important issues in the public forum. Contemporary society knows the media as the most public and wide-reaching of forums. Presidential debates serve a function for allowing candidates to express their ideas and opinions (however insincere and fabricated) for an audience of millions. So it's a given that landing a spot in the debates is crucial for any serious presidential wannabe. And it's a given that the most serious candidates on issues of genuine concern to the public will not be granted permission to face off with the major party candidates.  

The bipartisan (Republican and Democrat) Commission on Presidential Debates devises the rules for the presidential debates. Any candidate must meet constitutional requirements and appear on the ballot in a number of states to show at least some chance of winning. This year they decided that a person must also, one week before the debates, gain the approval of 15 percent of opinion poll respondents. Their decision reaffirms the role of big money in presidential campaigns, since any candidate of modest means needs the coverage only a nationally televised presidential debate could provide. Not to mention the fact that, according to a 1999 Gallop poll, 38 percent of Americans considered themselves neither Democrat nor Republican.

Look at The Body. Jesse Ventura shocked the nation by winning the Minnesota gubernatorial election in 1998. All the old political hacks and tired pundits must have suffered a coronary upon learning such ghastly news. Six weeks before the election, Jesse netted a measly 10 percent poll rating. Then came the gubernatorial debates-he first broadcast live before a television audience. Jesse ran on the Reform Party ticket and the only way he found his way into a televised debate with the big wigs was elementary political scheming. The Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey III mistakenly thought Jesse would drain votes from the candidate of the pachyderm party. After the debate, many media-bred political specialists concluded that Jesse "made an impression." A slew of debates followed for The Body, each one revealing him to be the champion of the audiences who watched him body-slam the other candidates. A Star-Tribune poll conducted about three weeks after the initial debate revealed that Ventura's support rose to 21 percent. As Norm Solomon points out, "At the time that poll was completed, Ventura's cash-strapped campaign had not yet aired a single television advertisement - but the candidate had participated in several televised debates with his major-party opponents." As we all know, Ventura trounced the other two and ascended to the governorship of Minnesota.

It is debatable whether or not Ventura would have won if he had not appeared in his first televised match with the other candidates (had the CPD's 15 % rating been in effect in Minnesota, he would have been barred from participating). But it is undeniable that it certainly awarded him a substantial degree of attention and notoriety. In all likelihood - and most importantly for his campaign - the televised debate performed the legitimizing function Parenti discussed earlier.

The same could probably be said about our old buddy, millionaire-cum-political-mainstay Ross Perot. Throughout the '92 presidential campaign season, Ross sparred with Bill and George for an American television audience. I remember the TV being glued to the debates in my house-and ours was just one in some 97 million (for the last night of the debates). It entertained. It somewhat enlightened (as far as any program brought to you by Pepsi or Maxi-Pad or General Electric can enlighten). People liked seeing Ross chuck witty barbs at the meticulous scripted and choreographed Bush and Clinton. And what happened when American viewers were treated to a presidential debate between two old farts trading carefully scripted candidate lines, straight out of their Presidential Debate 101 textbooks in 1996? A mere 36 million tuned in for the last night, down 10 million from the first night. A third candidate can add colour to a debate-they can spark an exchange, which may tiptoe outside the acceptable boundaries of what is allowable in a major political debate. And just imagine what would have happed if someone in media-land fell asleep and allowed Ralph Nader to debate Bush and Gore.

To vote democrat or not to vote democrat?

Let's be honest with ourselves: just about anyone reading this publication is not about to vote Republican. Considering that this is indeed a magazine emanating strong sociopolitical overtones, this leaves us with three possibilities for the Clamor readership - 1) They see the futility of voting at all in this sham democracy and opt not to locate the local polling booths come election day 2) They will investigate and support an alternative party 3) They will vote for Gore.

Indeed, quite a battle has been raging amongst the left intelligentsia in the United States over whether to Go Gore or to Go Green. Several contenders do in fact exist as viable third parties on the left, yet for all of our intents and purposes, Ralph Nader wins most progressive popularity contests. Perhaps the small yet potent criticism leveled by Katha Pollitt from major-progressive publication The Nation serves as an appropriate synopsis of the Democrat vs. Third Party issue.  

Pollitt essentially argues that third party candidates, particularly Ralph Nader, have routinely run half-hearted stabs at the presidency and accomplished nothing but perhaps some stolen votes from the Democrats. She maintains that though Gore certainly is no desirable president, he is preferable to Bush. While many on the left-liberal end of things vociferously deride Gore as no different than Bush, Pollitt states that there are some major concrete political contrasts that could potentially affect such members of society as public school teachers, small-business owners and minorities. According to Pollitt, Nader and those of his leftist ilk follow in "the long tradition of high-minded progressives making principled but hopeless runs for the White House."

Progressive economist and media analyst Edward S. Herman contends Pollitt's assertions in a Z Net web site (vast progressive resource) editorial. He states that Gore, like many Democrats before him, is hardly a lesser evil. Amongst other crimes to which the Clinton-Gore administration is culpable, Herman cites the economic sanctions (not to mention outright aggression) against the people of Iraq leaving over a million dead. The Democrats (the supposed party of the people) were also responsible for the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996 (Orwell would have appreciated that euphemistic misnomer), which, along with Democrat-supported terrorism legislation, "have been serious betrayals of principle and elementary decency and attacks on human rights and civil liberties." Ed doesn't stop there. He adds, "A vote for this 'lesser evil' is therefore a vote that implicitly approves seriously regressive policies at home, a growing military budget, an aggressive and murderous foreign policy, and the commission of literal war crimes abroad."

 Herman also evokes another idea others, including many alternative political parties, have suggested: why not make NONE OF THE ABOVE an option for voters? It makes perfect sense. When we as the American populace are so violently disgusted by the choices for Presidency of this great nation (sarcasm most certainly intended), we should be able to record our vote of no confidence in the candidates forced upon us by CNN and the CDP. Of course we could also write in Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh as so many surely do, yet a vote for NONE OF THE ABOVE could carry some serious weight regarding the public's trust and faith in their electoral system. Yes, we could just not vote. Scores of folks across the country exercise their right to do just that (while in some countries you are fined for not voting, something our friends on Capitol Hill have considered instituting here). But to do so is to be ignored and to go uncounted, though Herman says: "A vote is a form of approval of the candidate as well as the process - nonvoting is a way of expressing disapproval of both, and as more and more people do refuse to vote the system as well as the candidates lose credibility."


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