The illusion of choice

Manus Lenihan

Comment Editor

The ignored third-party candidates in the American presidential race could offer genuinely different policies from the corporatist, militaristic candidates of the two main parties – if only they were given a chance.

Millions of people in the US and around the world watched the second presidential debate between Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama on 17th October. What they didn’t see were two other election-related conflicts raging off-camera: the Green party candidate, Jill Stein, was being taken away in a police car for trying to enter the premises to observe the debate, and the Libertarian party candidate, Gary Johnson, was filing an anti-trust lawsuit against the debate’s organisers, claiming they had unjustly allowed the two major parties to dominate the debate.

While CNN and the New York Times have gone so far as to run pieces on Romney’s hair and breakfast cereal (it’s “sugary”, apparently), a broad range of frustrated but determined candidates outside the two main parties have been given little attention.

Some are on the ballot in the vast majority of states, despite restrictive laws. Some command vast local support or even a widespread nationwide presence. They are running on a broad range of issues, but, without exception, their organisations identify themselves as the embryo for a new party in the US to challenge the Democrats and Republicans.

Such is the popular consciousness of the massive power concentrated in the hands of these two parties that “third-party candidate” is the term applied almost as a reflex to every non-Democrat, non-Republican challenger. There is an almost unchallengeable assumption that there are only two parties in the US. There have been occasional third-party flashes in the pan; the pro-war, racist George Wallace in 1968 and anti-war socialist Eugene Debs in 1920 managed to gain strong votes, but no “third-party” candidate has ever made it to office.

“While CNN and the New York Times have run pieces on Romney’s hair and breakfast cereal, a broad range of frustrated candidates outside the two main parties have been given little attention.”

From a quick look at the opinion polls, it might seem that there is little interest in “third-party” candidates. Both Romney and Obama have boasted of support figures in the high forties. Even keeping in mind that pollsters often do not bother to include smaller parties, the third-party candidates are not close to being contenders. The highest rating that Johnson has enjoyed is 5%. Stein’s best showing has been around 2-3%. The Constitution party candidate, Virgil Goode, has fluctuated around the 1% mark while the Justice party’s Rocky Anderson showed 4% support 10 days into the race but has since receded into the background.

A look at some other polls, however, throws a different light on these figures. In September 2012 a poll found that 67% saw the war in Afghanistan as not being worth fighting; 70% opposed a pre-emptive strike against Iran to destroy its nuclear facilities; 58% favoured cutting spending on the military. In 2011, of the 85% of Americans who claimed to understand what “socialised medicine” meant, 45% said it would be better than the present system compared to 38% who said it would be worse.

Last summer 58% of Americans called for a third party. In October 2011 54% of Americans supported Occupy Wall Street, twice the percentage that supported the Tea Party movement. The majority react unfavourably to the word “capitalism” and see the conflict between rich and poor as the main struggle in society, above race, age and residency status.

Of course, polls can sometimes show a distorted picture or capture only a fleeting moment, but even if we cut these figures down by an extreme 10% or 20%, we are still left with tens of millions of people who hold radically different opinions from both Obama and Romney. Both favour staying in Afghanistan until 2014; both would consider attacking Iran; both will increase military spending; both, contrary to popular beliefs about Obama, oppose socialised medicine; both certainly view capitalism favourably and emphasize national unity not class struggle. This does not seem to have dented their poll ratings.

“Third-party candidate” is the term applied almost as a reflex to every non-Democrat, non-Republican challenger”

Formed in November 2011 at a meeting with only 30 people present, the Justice party has gone on to win the support of the former presidential candidate Ralph Nader in its presidential bid for Rocky Anderson, a two-term former mayor of Salt Lake City with a record of fighting for gay rights, the environment and opposing the Iraq war. Anderson quit the Democrats in August 2011, raging that: “The constitution has been eviscerated while Democrats have stood by with nary a whimper. It is a gutless, unprincipled party, bought and paid for by the same interests that buy and pay for the Republican party.”

Virgil Goode of the Constitution party is a more conservative figure who emphasizes his anti-abortion and anti-gun control stance in comparison with Romney and Obama. On the deficit, he insists: “One does not get out of a hole by digging the hole deeper,” and demands that the budget be balanced immediately by budget cuts for some departments and the total elimination of others. Goode also promises a range of anti-immigrant measures, saying: “We need to utilise troops, fences and other measures to stop the invasion from Mexico.”

The Green party’s Jill Stein said that solving the country’s economic problems did not need to be “guesswork”. During the Great Depression, she comments, “We created jobs by directly creating them, not by providing tax breaks for the wealthy … We need the government to step in where the private sector is unwilling and unable.” This is part of the party’s “Green New Deal” which Stein claims would create 25 million sustainable jobs whose implementation would be funded centrally but controlled locally. This would be funded by a massive cut to the military budget and the closing of all overseas bases.

The Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, argues: “Let’s abolish the IRS [Internal Revenue Service] and eliminate income tax and corporate tax … tens of millions of jobs get created in a zero corporate tax rate environment.” Johnson offers an immediate 43% cut to federal and military spending to control the deficit and end foreign entanglements. Very liberal on issues such as drugs, gay marriage and border controls, the Libertarians demand “minimum government” in the economy as well.

These electoral challenges are not amateur operations organised out of garages and basements. Each of the above parties can boast of hundreds of thousands of members along with very widespread support for their policies. The fact that this author knows of their existence is due to the extremely hard work of huge numbers of people. The Libertarians and the Greens have managed to get their names on the ballot in almost all states.

“North Carolina demands that an aspiring third party collect over 85,000 signatures in a three-and-a-half-year time span, averaging out to 67 signatures per day, every day.”

The concept of “getting on the ballot”, probably meaningless to an Irish voter, means an extremely gruelling campaign to meet ballot-access laws which vary from state to state. North Carolina, for instance, demands that an aspiring third party collect over 85,000 signatures in a three-and-a-half-year time span, averaging out to 67 signatures per day, every day, including weekends and holidays. This demands lots of volunteers, money and lawyers.

Johnson has taken out a lawsuit against what Stein calls the “mockumentary” of the high-profile presidential debates. These events are tightly-controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a body set up in the 1980s by the Republicans and Democrats. In 2000 and 2004, polls showed that a majority wanted Ralph Nader in the presidential debates, but the CPD excluded him. This body also ensures that questions from audience members are cleared with the candidates before the debate begins and that candidates ask each other only rhetorical and not direct questions.

Meanwhile over $1bn (€773m) has been raised by the Romney and Obama camps for the presidential race. Across all 2012 election campaigns, $5.8bn (€4.9bn) has been spent. The support of the wealthy and corporations for the Democrats and Republicans is well known, but the Democrats have a long-standing link with the trade-union movement as well.

The $400bn (€309bn) given to the Obama campaign by the unions in 2008 and the 400,000 volunteers promised this time around by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, America’s biggest trade union, have provoked enormous bitterness from left-wing third-party candidates. Smaller organisations, no matter how organized or dedicated, cannot hope for this kind of backing whether because of their anti-corporate politics or their small size.

All these barriers – ballot access, media attention and funding – might account for the gap between what Americans want and how Americans vote. However, the bane of a third-party candidate’s existence has always been “lesser-evilism”. The anti-corporate Nader was the subject of particular anger for “taking votes away from” Democrat Al Gore in 2000, allowing Republican George W Bush into the White House. The assumption is that there is a dichotomy between “liberals” or “progressives” and “conservatives”, represented by the Democrats and Republicans.

“The majority of Americans react unfavourably to the word “capitalism” and see the conflict between rich and poor as the main struggle in society, above race, age and residency status.”

Naturally, third parties are having none of this. “Most Americans need an electron microscope to find real differences between most actions and policies of President Obama and Governor Romney,” raged a Libertarian party press release. The Justice party’s Anderson says he has (figuratively) packed away his “‘Proud Democrat’ coffee mug” and is considering throwing it away, seeing no essential difference between the “two corporatist, militarist parties.”

If Obama and Romney represent between them only a narrow slice of American public opinion, then the “lesser evil” argument does not hold water. Moreover it exposes a certain weakness in the support for the two main parties: if lesser-evilism accounts for a huge amount of their vote then we can expect them to disintegrate seriously once a credible and clear lead is given by third parties.

With poverty levels at their highest in half a century, two military defeats still stinging, a mountainous deficit, environmental crisis and massive inequality, it is easy to see why the third parties believe in their mission. If neither Democrats nor Republicans can begin to solve these problems then the emergence of social explosions, never mind new political forces, is inevitable.