Four Myths Surrounding American Minor Parties

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George Collins 

Scouring political comments sections is never good for the body or the soul, and yet I find myself reading endless virtual tirades every single day. It seems my passion for politics can override my concern for my mental and emotional health sometimes.

An increasing plurality of Americans now believe that another party is needed in the American political system. The whirlwind of the 2016 election spiked interest in such a prospect last year, but the sentiment has not died one year after President Donald Trump’s victory. A September, 2017 Gallup poll indicated that 57 percent of Americans believe a competitive alternative is necessary in electoral politics (I hesitate to use the term “two-party system” since too many similarities between the Democrats and Republicans exist for any reasonable distinction to be drawn). This amounts to 77% of independents, 52% of Democrats, and 49% of Republicans in favor of a new contender.

Desire for a new political party may be at an unprecedented high, but minor parties have been participating in all levels of electoral politics for decades with varying degrees of success. One might never know this when following corporate media, as the standard narrative paints third party electoral participation as nonexistent beyond “vanity” candidates for president that appear every four years. This story’s appearance is an inevitable piece of every presidential election cycle, as predictable as Wolf Blitzer’s stupefying lack of personality or right-wing outrage over holiday cups. Minor party voters are demonized as belonging to some privileged upper-class that can afford to “throw their votes away” at best, or aid an opposing candidate at worst. Such condemnation reached new levels of lunacy following the 2016 election result when Green Party voters faced accusations of falling for Russian propaganda as part of the neo-McCarthyist hysteria that maintains a chokehold on mainstream American political thought.That sound you hear is my soapbox slamming on the ground. It would take an entire book to disprove the lies thrown about regarding third party dynamics in the United States, but we’ll keep the list short. Here are four common myths about minor parties that I hear or read all the time, and my responses to them.

Much of my experience in the minor party politics has taken place in the Green Party. Thus, most of the examples I use in this piece will focus on their effort and progress. However, it is important to note they are far from the only smaller party instigating change at local and state levels. Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant is one such shining example, as are the string of electoral victories won by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the 2017 elections.With that acknowledged, awaaaaay we go!

 

1. Minor party candidates have no chance in hell of winning.

Strong start here, as I’m not actually disputing this one on the presidential level where this talking point is applied the most. A specific set of circumstances has to be in place for someone like Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or Green candidate Jill Stein to take home the gold, and that sequence of events likely will not happen in the absence of proportional representation a la a parliamentary system of government at the national level.  However, the rationale behind most minor party support in the presidential election isn’t about winning the presidency.

Rules and regulations on down-ballot races in individual states leave minor parties with no choice but to participate in the race. The majority of state election laws require political parties to field presidential candidates in order to qualify for down-ticket appearances, meaning Libertarians cannot even run for small offices without Johnson’s candidacy, Greens cannot run without Stein’s candidacy, etc. This applies for the next four years until the next presidential election when that party must run another presidential campaign. Not participating in the national race would mean four years where minor parties have literally no opportunities to run for offices or build coalitions anywhere in the state in question due to the absence of a presidential candidate in the prior election cycle. When considering that only a handful of states lack such restrictions, sitting out the presidential race is incompatible with building a strong network of grassroots support. Minor party small race candidates are screwed without them.

So you either want minor parties to start local and build their parties from the bottom up, or you want them to sit out the presidential election. You can’t have both under the current system of election laws.

There are other benefits to be drawn from the national visibility that a presidential contender brings, and this is especially true for smaller political parties that lack the large donor backing of the two major camps. For example, 5% of the national popular vote qualifies a party for federal matching funds, and 15% awards them a spot in the televised debates which means wider exposure of their platform. The benefits of these milestones are huge for candidates in local and state races who gain better access to resources and voters.Johnson enjoyed a fair amount of exposure and support in 2016, the foundations of which were laid during his run in 2012. That limelight boosts down ticket Libertarian candidates’ chances of winning smaller races. In my own state of Washington, Libertarian candidates contended for the Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General positions that year. These are much harder to contend for without the visibility that a presidential candidate brings to the party. The Libertarians have steadily increased their total number of held offices in the United States over the course of their existence, as have the Greens and the relatively new DSA. All of these gains have been supported by the national visibility of presidential candidates (save for DSA, who first appeared in electoral races in 2017).

Would it be better for third parties to focus all their resources on winning these smaller races to build a larger foundation? In an ideal world, yes. Unfortunately, the current system of laws does not allow for such an allocation of resources. Don’t like it? Work to change the laws in your state.
2. Minor parties only show up every four years and do no meaningful work in between AKA “I would gladly support them if they would only RUN”.

Amazing what a quick Google search can churn out these days. Minor parties may not be pushing candidates at the rate of the Democrats or Republicans, but to suggest they never run for smaller offices (and never win to boot) is ludicrous. As mentioned above, the Libertarians and Greens have been gaining seats nationwide every election year since their founding with substantial gains seen in both 2016 and 2017. Each party has also been seeing exponential increases in registered voters with over one million new Greens registering in the past year alone.In the case of the Greens, candidates for positions all up and down the spectrum can be found across the country. Greens litter city councils, school boards, and county commissions in several states, and places like California, Arkansas, and more have seen Greens serve on their respective state’s House of Representatives. Two Greens currently hold seats in the Maine House of Representatives. New York saw a Green city council candidate garner 30% of the vote in a solid Democratic district in 2017 and Greens took over the city council of Hartford, Connecticut the same year. The entire Green candidate collective spans hundreds upon hundreds of contenders, and the Libertarians top them by another several hundred in generally higher positions. DSA saw several electoral victories in city council and school board positions in 2017, and Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant has held her seat as a member of the Socialist Alternative party since her original election bid in 2013.

In addition to the symbolic significance of holding these seats, minor party officeholders often spearhead progressive legislation that later gains momentum at the national level. The country-wide Fight for $15 campaign to raise the federal minimum wage has its roots in Sawant’s successful push to pass such an increase in Seattle. The Sanctuary City movement to protect immigrant families from illegal privacy invasions was started by Green mayor Rob Davis of Davis, California. Solar power is now one of the fastest-growing job sectors of the American economy due to Green legislation and activism at the local and state level that subsidized solar power companies and enabled them to expand. It is questionable whether any of these developments and many more would have appeared had these minor party candidates not won these seats and exerted their leverage given the opposition these measures faced from major party officeholders.

Critics demand to know what took so long for these victories to be achieved. True enough, the significant increase in total number of minor party officeholders in smaller offices is a relatively new phenomenon. But it is important to keep in mind that even the smaller races are several times harder for third parties to win on account of state laws hampering their efforts. When Green Pennsylvania state senatorial candidate Carl Romanelli worked to get his name on the ballot, he was required to collect 67,000 signatures. The main party candidates were required to amass 2,000. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, it cannot be argued this is a balanced system for enabling third party candidates to build that base everyone keeps screaming at them about. It becomes more frustrating when one realizes that the primary way to scrap these laws is to elect people into office who would vote to repeal it, but that’s difficult to do when these very laws keep those people from winning small races. Ballot initiative or referendum can be an alternative, as with the Maine ballot initiative to allow for state-wide ranked-choice voting implementation that was passed in 2016, but these can be vetoed by sitting officeholders depending on state laws. See the problem here?

I never understand when people claim that no grassroots action occurs within the smaller parties given how easily this information can be accessed. Maybe no Libertarians, Greens, Constitution Party members, etc. are running in your state, but if that’s your idea of an adequate sample to assess the quality of a party at the local and state level in general then my father the stats professor would like a few words with you.
3. Third party supporters are disproportionately white/privileged.

This may be true in the case of groups that carry more of a right-wing slant in their philosophies such as the Libertarians or the Constitution Party. I do not know those numbers and cannot speak to their standings.

I hear this claim vaulted at Greens constantly though, and a clarification of the speaker’s intentions is needed before addressing it. If one means to say, in the context of the 2016 presidential election, that Hillary Clinton performed better among voting people of color than Stein, then yes, that is accurate. However, if the point is that Green Party supporters in general are disproportionately white, that’s where the argument falls apart.

Reuters data released early last year demonstrated that support for Stein among POC was completely proportional to national voting blocks in last year’s race, meaning the number of POC supporting Stein relative to the number of whites doing so fell in the same ratio as the national distribution of POC voters. Other credible polling agencies’ results reflected this same trend. It is statistically inaccurate to claim that the Green Party base is disproportionately white. This ties into a larger racist narrative that seeks to erase the contributions of POC to political movements of historical significance. POC activists do endless amounts of grassroots work every day, a large part of which includes support for smaller party candidates at all levels of government during election years.

The Green Party was the first political party in American history to nominate two women of color for its presidential bid with the ascension of Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente in 2008. Socialist Alternative member also Kshama Sawant bears referencing, as Asian-Americans are one of the least represented racial groups in American politics. This is not to mention the countless black and Latino candidates that ran as Greens, DSA members, socialists, and under many other banners in both 2016 and 2017. Further than that, we can find thousands of activists outside the strict political realm whose efforts complement the progressive legislation that rises to national conversation. Claiming that the support base for these candidates and causes is comprised mostly of rich white people obfuscates the political and social accomplishments of people of color.

The claim has major problems when applied to class as well. Stein performed better among lower-class millennials making less than 50,000/year than Clinton did with considerable overlap in the “will not vote” category. She performed better proportionally among working class voters than Clinton at the time of election. 2000 Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader had more success with individuals making less than $15,000/year than he did with any other demographic.

Self-proclaimed radical queer leftie Morgana Visser framed the core problem with the privilege misconception better than I ever could: “…and because I am afraid of Donald Trump, I am expected to vote for Hillary. As if I am not scared of Hillary Clinton as President. But I am; in fact, many marginalized people are rightfully horrified of Hillary Clinton.” Such fears were confirmed when Clinton performed worse among blacks and Latinos in 2016 than Barack Obama did in his 2012 reelection campaign.

Regardless of how much one agrees with the sentiments expressed by Visser and others, the idea that marginalized people have no presence in Green party support bases is at variance with reality and, funnily enough, an expression of privilege.
4. Minor party candidates can only act as spoilers and are directly responsible for George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

It is astounding how widely believed this is even after all these years. Where do I even begin with this one?Let’s start with 2000, when it is often claimed that then Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader cost Democratic contender Al Gore the white house. For starters, people seem to forget that Gore won the popular vote that year; the Electoral College is what handed the keys to George W. Bush. This circumstance was reached in Florida after a wild ride of 18 counties not reporting recounts, Gore only requesting manual recounts in four counties that were expected to vote Democratic anyway and not requesting any in counties expected to vote Republican, the decision by the Florida Secretary of State to enforce the mandatory recount deadline, and, most importantly, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to override the Florida Supreme Court’s issuing of a statewide manual recount.

Nader carried no influence whatsoever over these happenings. None of it. The closest thing he could have done was force the automatic recount with his presence, the argument being that such a process would not have been necessary had he not run. The problem with such an assertion is that Nader’s largest pull in the state of Florida was 4% of the independent vote, the voting demographic least likely to affect the overall count. People who claim that Nader cost Gore the election often fail to take all of this into account, instead relying on abstract and arbitrary reasoning that includes no analysis of how state-level popular voting actually works.

Suppose Gore lost the popular vote in 2000, would Nader be culpable then? The answer would still be no. 12% of Florida Democrats voted for Bush in that election. If only 1% of those Democrats voted along their own party line, Gore would have easily won Florida outside of the margin that triggered the automatic recount. That’s without even mentioning the roughly half of all registered Democrats who did not even cast a vote in the first place. Further exit polling showed that an overwhelming majority of Nader voters in the state of Florida would not have participated in the election had Nader not been an option. One might call this reasoning “what-aboutism”, but these are based on statistics and reliable voting tendencies, not mere speculation.

Fast-forward to the wake of 2016 and such accusations are flying again. Green Party forums are littered with people screaming about how Jill Stein put Donald Trump in the white house. Yet again, statistics and verifiable trends in voting behavior suggest otherwise. Once again, the Democratic candidate won the popular vote but failed to capture the electoral college. A greater chunk of Democratic voters cast their ballots for Trump than they did Stein. Half of the eligible voting population did not participate in the presidential election at all, and exit polling demonstrated yet again that minor party voters were more likely to abstain from voting altogether if their selected candidate was not an available choice. The people who vote directly for a candidate are always the ones most responsible for that candidate’s success. We hear all the time that a vote for Johnson, Stein, or whomever else is an indirect vote for the opposing major party’s contender. Indirect votes do not exist. They just don’t. You might have a case in a mathematical sense if every person who ultimately votes for a minor party candidate explicitly pledged to support somebody else in the event that their final choice was not an option, but good luck finding such a scenario throughout the entirety of American history.

Ulterior motives and poor management of a needlessly complex system is what cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election, not Ralph Nader or any one of the other equally-influential minor party candidates of that election year that nobody seems to remember as conveniently. Donald Trump’s victory is better explained by proletarian rage unleashed after decades of neglect on the part of the neoliberal philosophy that swept the Democratic Party with the Bill Clinton presidency, not Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, not Russian interference, or any of the antics of former FBI director James Comey. All of these excuses serve only to distract from systemic problems that would weaken the elite behind the two major parties if they were solved.

One can hold whatever opinion of American minor parties and their voters they want to, but it is dishonest to suggest they are primarily responsible for the consequences of basing a society on profit over people. I’ll step off the soapbox now, as I must go shopping to make some American tottie scones.

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