RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Third Parties Win by Losing

The other day, a young friend told me about an agreement she has with her dad. She’ll never vote for a mainstream political party and he never will either.

When I heard her declaration, I thought it was absolutely silly. “You’ll be throwing away your vote,” I said.

“Well, I know if I vote third party I’ll never vote for a winner,” she countered, “but they’re not doing anything for us anyway.”

I had no answer for that, and now that the R and D conventions are working toward their predictable conclusions, the fixes are in, and I’m taking another look at her theory.

It’s been 100 years since we’ve had a serious third party, a fact that in itself is appalling. You’d expect, in our nation born of dozens of nationalities, dozens of religions, dozens of racial mixes, there’d be dozens of parties. But, for most of our history, two political parties have run the show.

And, when serious folks talk seriously about third parties, we disagree again. “I’d vote for a third party,” another friend tells me, “but not that one.”

So here we are, battling the same demons our great grandpas fought.

In the late 1800s, the Populists wrote platforms that could have been written by the Occupiers last summer. July 1892, Omaha, “we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized … the newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced ... our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished ...” and so on.

After a couple of decades, many of the populist demands were met, even though they never had a major amount of elected power. Democracy was expanded by direct election of senators and representatives, and by conventions where Presidential nominees were elected rather than appointed by party leaders. Utilities were taken out of private hands and made part of the public good.

In 1912, the Progressive Bull Moose Party ran Teddy Roosevelt against the incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft and progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Taking a page from the Populist agenda, the Bull Moose partisans put a strong plank in their platform for women suffrage which helped force the Rs and Ds to put suffrage planks in their own. The majors came out with weak, wimpy suffrage statements, but the bold move of the progressives and the true challenge they provided made it impossible for the majors to ignore the contentious issue. In the meantime, Roosevelt got 27% of the vote, ahead of Taft’s 23%, allowing Wilson to win with 42% and 435 electoral votes. Support built for the federal amendment to allow women to vote, which was adopted by Congress in 1919 and ratified by sufficient states in 1920.

So, in their challenge to plutocracy, the progressive populists ultimately were successful. Which is, perhaps, the lesson for third parties today. You can make a difference even if you don’t win the election.

In their selection of Jill Stein, a doctor from Lexington, Massachusetts, as nominee for president, and in their ability to get on the ballot in 21 states, and in their ability to get federal matching funds for the first time, the Green Party has become a serious contender in the Presidential race.

It will be interesting to see their platform and their plans and to see if the Rs and Ds fall in with some of the statements. It’s hard to imagine Romney adopting this line from Stein: “We need real public servants who listen to the people — not to the corporate lobbyists that funnel campaign checks into the big war chests …”

But we’re used to seeing Obama lean toward what the newspapers say are “populist” issues, even though when you peel back the veneer you see the same old corporations benefiting from his policies.

Will the Greens concentrate on the environment, the issue that moved them into existence eleven years ago? Will they push real reform of the health care industry? Will they back a peace economy, including alternative energy schemes that the majority doesn’t really understand yet? If so, they’ve found themselves in a teachable moment.

Or will they adopt broader issues that resonate with today’s worried, but unfocussed, citizens? Jill Stein seemed to indicate the broader message, “The corporate-sponsored political parties — the establishment — isn’t going to change the status quo for us. We’ve got to do it.” Does that mean publicly financed campaigns? A repeal of Citizens United?

Today, we’re creeping toward perpetual war — or maybe we’ve already gotten there, with a defense budget that consumes our future. And we simply must figure out how to check the use of fossil fuels that are building a carbon dioxide sheath around the planet, trapping heat and hustling us toward a parched end.

The words of my young friend come back to me: “I’ll never vote for a winner, but they’re not doing anything for us anyway.” We’re grappling with so many problems that our corporate system ignores, well, everyone except the fat cats, so maybe the time is right for a third party again.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2012

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