I am a committed advocate for third parties. There is a desperate need to mix up the political system, to invigorate it with new players and new passions and to find ways to ensure that people at the fringes can be heard.
That's why it is so significant that the Green candidates have managed to win 206 seats -- mostly at the local level -- across the country.
But winning local office is not the same thing as winning nationally. And winning nationally is what matters in 2004. The goal has to be beating George W. Bush and helping the Democrats retake the Senate and House of Representatives so that we can bring to an end the Republican stranglehold on the federal government and ensure some semblance of citizen involvement.
The reasons are pretty basic:
1. Truth is not Bush's strong suit. Should I list the lies, distortion and general bits of misinformation pushed by the fabricator-in-chief, or should I just leave it to those of you who care to check out David Corn's book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception or Joe Conason's Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth?
2. The Bush administration is the most overtly, fanatically and aggressively partisan in recent memory. Every administration favors its own, but I cannot remember a time when political party mattered as much as it does now, not during Ronald Reagan's eight years, not during the presidency of George H.W. Bush and not during the Carter or Clinton eras. (President Bill Clinton appointed a Republican to head up the Defense Department and relied on two Republicans as major advisors.)
3. The war in Iraq. I opposed it and still do. Rather than the cakewalk we were promised we've gotten ongoing violence and a shifting rationale -- and those lies. I certainly do not feel any safer since we sent the troops in (or since Saddam Hussein was captured) and I bet the troops don't either.
4. Bush's raging unilateralism. The Bush team does not see us as a member of the world community and seems committed to running roughshod over the globe. Evidence? How about invading Iraq and pulling out of the Kyoto accords.
5. The environment. Kyoto is the least of his offenses here.
6. The economy. The Bush administration did not cause the economy to tank. Those kinds of things are cyclical, to a degree. He just has no idea how to fix it or any concern for bridging the widening income gap that is eroding the American middle class and helping to create a brutally stratified caste system.
7. Right-wing judges.
8. John Ashcroft and the USA PATRIOT Act.
9. Crony capitalism. Bush friends and campaign contributors appear to be doing very well these days, in terms of public policy and government contracts.
10. The First Amendment. This administration seems intent on doing away with the wall between church and state, pushing an agenda in which religious schools and charities can use public money to proselytize and in which religious justifications are given for bigotry against gays.
The best way to deal with these issues is to find a Democrat willing to take on the president and for progressives to get in the trenches and help and not to sidetrack the debate by fragmenting the opposition to Bush.
Keep in mind the history of third party movements, especially at the national level. Rarely do they poll more than a handful of votes, and when they do they tend only to play the spoiler role, handing elections to candidates with political agendas radically different than their own.
Think of former President Theodore Roosevelt running on the Bull Moose line, effectively siphoning votes away from Republican incumbent Howard Taft and helping Woodrow Wilson claim the White House.
Then there is H. Ross Perot, who pulled about a fifth of the vote in 1992, which may have helped keep President George H.W. Bush from winning re-election. (Perot's candidacy may have had less an effect on the outcome than it sometimes is given credit for. There was a significant Democratic component to his support and a large chunk of Perot voters told pollsters that if Mr. Perot had not entered the race they probably would have stayed home on Election Day.)
And what of Ralph Nader, Green Party candidate for president in 1996 and 2000? He was not a factor in '96 and while barely garnering 2% of the total vote in 2000, Nader's candidacy did play a role in the outcome. If Nader was not on the ballot, it is likely that Democrat Al Gore would have won at least a portion of the 97,488 votes polled by Nader in Florida. Just 1% of those votes -- or 974 votes -- would have erased the Republican advantage, giving Gore Florida and the White House. (Bush won Florida by just 537 votes.)
Nader did not lose the presidency for Gore. The Supreme Court took care of that for the Bush campaign. But his presence in the campaign did not help.
I voted for Mr. Nader in 1996 and in 2000. My vote was a safe one - New Jersey went overwhelmingly for President Bill Clinton in 1996 and for Gore in 2000 -- but it may not have been a smart one. The simple fact is that the arguments against voting Green in 2000 -- that the Nader candidacy would give Bush the White House and the power to appoint right-wing jurists to the bench, the opportunity to gut federal environmental regulations, that he would push anti-abortion legislation, leave us with a gutted Constitution and so on -- have proven correct.
So while I remain an advocate for third parties, I've come to realize that my idealism is misplaced in a larger system that ensures they remain at the margins. The system, as currently constituted, is rigged against third-party candidates -- whether Green, Reform, Libertarian or other. Voting for the Green candidate for higher office too often means stealing a vote from the more progressive of the two major party candidates and giving the election to the more conservative one -- generally the Republican. That seems ridiculously counterproductive.
Until we make some changes in the system itself I have to make the pragmatic choice and cast a negative vote against President Bush and hope for the best.
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.