When you play a game you want to know the rules. You don’t, for instance, play American football by the rules of European football – otherwise known here as “soccer” – just because “Football’s football.” You could get hurt playing without a helmet, after all. And it’s pretty much the same in politics – you don’t just say “Politics is politics” or “A party’s a party” and then go out and play American politics by European rules either. You – or your cause – could get hurt doing that too.
As the 2012 presidential campaign warms up, increased calls for another shot at a “third party” presidential candidacy are inevitable. After all, the party holding the White House has switched and yet America’s disparity of wealth and income appears to grow unchecked; military spending continues on a pace nearly matching that of the entire rest of the planet put together; and the pointless, and increasingly obviously unwinnable war in Afghanistan that started with George Bush will pass the ten year mark bigger than ever – with Barack Obama at the helm.
Why not then just start afresh with a new party, like people in other countries do when they don’t like the parties they’ve got? Well, the simple answer is because parties can function quite differently in various situations. And we can’t consider an approach toward the current situation truly political – as opposed to philosophical – unless it measures the system in which it operates. So, while a third party may intuitively seem to be the “really radical” way to go, if it doesn’t work well in our system, it’s not. Outrage, however justified, is never a substitute for strategy.
Were we in Germany, for example, we’d be dealing with political parties with very different characteristics, operating under very different rules. So, when some on the German left found the politics of the Social Democratic Party disappointing, inadequate, or maybe not even left wing at all, they started a new party; first the Green Party and more recently the Left Party. These moves were quite logical within a system that allows parties to combine their respective parliamentary delegations to form a coalition government when no one of them has a majority – as is usually the case. A new party might realistically hope, then, to first become a junior coalition partner – and have some of its program adopted – and later even become the larger party. All of this can be done without great worry that a vote for the new party might inadvertently facilitate the worst possible outcome, namely a Prime Minister from the party whose policies the new party’s voters favor the least (in this case, probably the Christian Democrats.)
An American presidential election unfortunately offers no such assurance. There are no provisions for coalition governments. The White House goes to the winner of the vote of the Electoral College, the makeup of which is determined by pluralities of popular votes in the various states. Come in first in the state and get all of its electoral votes, even if you don’t have a majority. (Maine and Nebraska distribute their Electoral Votes on a Congressional District rather than statewide basis.) All of which means that in the U.S. a “third party” vote can unintenionally facilitate the election of a President from the least-liked party – probably the Republicans in the case of a “third party” of the left. Where German (or French or Italian) “third party” voters have reasonable assurance that their vote will actually increase the prospect of blocking the least desired electoral outcome, American “third party” voters do not. Ignore that fact and you might as well be playing American football without a helmet.
Are there circumstances that might outweigh these considerations? Well, there could be. The most common argument for not worrying too much about whether “third party” efforts might result in a Republican president is that there’s no essential difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. Let’s look.
So far as domestic politics go, the stark profile that Republicans are currently presenting in the U.S. House of Representatives and various state capitals, most famously Madison, Wisconsin, would seem to make this argument a fairly difficult one to press at the moment. When it comes to labor rights, for instance, Democrats may disappoint, but Republicans destroy – not a trivial distinction. While Democrats may fail to press forward aggressively on women’s rights, Republicans defund Planned Parenthood. And so on.
Since my goal is analysis rather than rhetoric, I don’t want to ignore the fact that Massachusetts’ Democratic controlled House of Representatives has since attempted to match the anti-union efforts of their Republican in Wisconsin. There’s no question but that the Democrats can make it very hard to defend them. But no matter how many times we’re moved to say, “They’re almost as bad as the Republicans,” the “almost” does matter.
And then there is the matter of day-to-day the consequences of appointments to bodies such as the Supreme Court and the National Labor Relations Board, an area where there may be the broadest agreement that there is a real difference between the effects of electing one of the “major” parties or the other.
On the foreign policy side, the argument for the rough equivalence of the parties can be a lot stronger though. For instance, the recent U.S. veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution that declared Israeli West Bank settlement illegal came as no big surprise since Democratic and Republican administrations have both done such things for decades. And not only is Obama’s pursuit of the Afghanistan War more aggressive than Bush’s – as promised – but he has also authorized American bombing in Pakistan, Yemen and Libya, the latter serving as a reminder of the Democrats’ embrace of the “humanitarian” military intervention during the Clinton Administration.
And yet, there has been a difference – certainly on the congressional level, anyhow. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, which stands out as the premier atrocity even in a decade of unceasing American military action, was initiated by a Republican president and opposed by most Democrats in the House of Representatives. And even when it’s been Obama initiating military action in Libya, it’s been Democrats who have been the most vigorous in calling him on his failure to consult Congress.
It also seems hard to argue that any Republican likely to replace Obama wouldn’t be even worse on foreign policy. For instance, while the Obama Administration’s pursuit of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and its treatment of alleged leaker Bradley Manning certainly give us nothing to cheer about, consider the stance of presumed Republican presidential contender Mike Huckabee: “Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason, and I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.”
Candidate Newt Gingrich, who was for the Libya bombing before he was against it, believes “We certainly have to be prepared to use military force” to oust the government of Iran and in years past has called for legislation “that recognizes that we are entering World War III and serves notice that the United States will use all its resources to defeat our enemies – not accommodate, understand, or negotiate with them, but defeat them.”
Speaking of the possible development of a nuclear program in Iran, whose government he calls an “unalloyed evil,” former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney laments that “Unfortunately, for reasons that are unfathomable to me, our government has signaled that the military option is effectively off the table.”
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty tells the President to “Stop apologizing for our country,” as “we undermine Israel, the U.K., Poland, the Czech Republic and Colombia, among other friends. Meanwhile, we appease Iran, Russia and adversaries in the Middle East, including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman believes that if “we reject Israel, then there is a curse that comes into play.”
And, of course, Sarah Palin’s views are well known.
In short, so far as foreign policy goes, while it might not be such an open and shut case as domestic policy, if you think it’s bad now … (There is one Republican presidential candidate who does differ from all of the above, however – Texas Representative Ron Paul. But Paul will not receive the nomination, in no small part because his sane views on foreign policy are so far out of tune with the bulk of his party. It will also constitute a tremendous failing on the part of antiwar forces within the Democratic Party if Paul and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson should be the only candidates in either major party calling for an immediate end to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and occupations.)
Still, some may argue that even if the Republicans are worse than the Democrats, the Democratic Party is nevertheless a corporate dominated entity that is an unworthy and/or unworkable vehicle for social change. While not wishing to discourage anyone from hurling righteous brickbats at the party’s current leadership in Congress and the White House, I think arguing that the “essence” of the Democratic Party somehow precludes our useful participation in also fails to take into account the actual structure of American political parties.
Where parties in many other countries are “disciplined,” in the sense that their elected representatives are expected to vote that party’s position, American parties famously are not. (The best source on this may well be the humourist Will Rogers, whose remarks on the topic included, “I’m not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat!”) Apart from voting for the party’s candidate for Speaker or Majority Leader, it’s largely understood that American legislators will not be bound by any party strictures. Representatives like Dennis Kucinich or Barbara Lee may vote “off” from the majority of their party colleagues time and time again, yet they are in no way prevented from doing so. In a sense, the members of the House and Senate, dependent on their own fundraising devices as they largely are, could be seen as constituting 535 independent parties.
Likewise, presidents routinely govern without consulting the wishes of their party. Does anyone really think there is a Democratic Party structure telling Obama what to do? Or that Republican Party bosses directed Bush?
THINGS NEED TO GET WORSE?
And then you may also hear the argument that things need to get worse before they get better. So even if a third party candidacy did facilitate the election of a Republican who was the greater of two evils, it might have the effect of waking people up to what’s really going on. For instance, didn’t Wisconsin and the American labor movement come to life after Scott Walker was elected governor? Unfortunately, the most infamous formulation of this notion comes from Weimar-era Germany: “Nach Hitler uns” (After Hitler, us) – in other words, some on the German left thought once people saw how bad the right wing really was, they’d turn to them. You know how that worked out. And while nothing so dramatic may happen here, it seems that if there were anything much to that theory, you’d figure people would be pretty wide awake by now after their eight years of George Bush.
I’m no doubt short shifting a range of other arguments here, but the one additional that does come to mind is from people who say they just can’t bring themselves to vote for a Democrat because they would feel tainted by the very act. And ultimately you can’t argue with an individual’s feeling on that score – but that’s a personal statement and not a political act.
Of course, there are those who simply find the notion of making big change within the Democratic Party a dreary prospect – a high school classmate responded to my argument for challenging Obama in the primaries by citing Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and thinking you’re going to get a different result. A fair enough assessment of recent left wing Democratic Party primary efforts, I’ll concede. Unfortunately, it’s a spot-on critique of recent left wing third party campaigns as well.
This is not the place to rehash all of the elements that led up to the Supreme Court decision declaring George Bush the winner of the 2000 election, but it seems undeniable that the perceived effect of Ralph Nader’s candidacy upon the outcome caused many potential supporters to simply apply the Einstein dictum and pay little attention to his subsequent efforts – or those of any third party candidate.
The context of Nader’s 2000 candidacy may be worth recalling, though. The Democratic primaries that year produced the most soporific race to occur in a year absent a sitting Democratic president in a very long time: Al Gore against Bill Bradley. Anyone out there remember what they disagreed on? As a result, Nader’s effort produced enough buzz to prompt a bit of serious consideration of how one might utilize the Electoral College system for a kind of “tactical voting,” a concept unfamiliar here, but fairly well known in the United Kingdom.
Although quite dissimilar overall, the British and American electoral systems do share the feature of not directly electing the head of state, but instead choosing those who do elect that person – Members of Parliament in the U.K. and Presidential Electors in the U.S. – and doing so by a simple plurality in each district. In the latter years of the last Conservative government, the fact that their votes had no impact outside of their own district led some U.K. voters to act very differently than they would if their votes were totaled nationally. Aided by the availability of reliable polling information, Labourites and Liberal Democrats frequently voted for whichever of the two parties appeared to have the better chance of defeating the Tory in their particular district. (The recent Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has shelved such tactics for the time being, of course.)
Likewise, in the U.S., some proposed that if you liked Nader and you lived in New York where Gore was sure to win, or Idaho where Bush was sure to win, you should just go ahead and vote for Nader. But if you lived in a state where the outcome was not so clear like, say, Florida, you should vote for Gore because he would be better than Bush, even if he was far less than ideal. Websites for negotiating interstate Gore–Nader vote swapping even sprung up before the government shut them down – on grounds that would later fail to pass muster in federal court. But talk of utilizing the Electoral College system for progressive ends pretty much came to a halt when the 2000 Nader vote exceeded Bush’s margin of victory in Florida and New Hampshire and it hasn’t been revived since.
All of this is not fundamentally an argument against either Ralph Nader or “third parties” in general. So far as Nader goes, the only thing that really bothered me about his most recent candidacy is that his announcement provided an opportunity for people who I don’t think could carry his briefcase to denounce him for ruining their lives’ work.
So far as “third parties” go, there have been some obvious notable successes on the local level, particularly in non-partisan elections. In San Francisco, for instance, over the past decade, two Greens have won seats on the city’s Board of Supervisors, two on the School Board and one on the Community College Board, while Green Party member Matt Gonzalez came within five points of defeating Democrat Gavin Newsom for mayor. (Two of the city’s chartered Democratic Clubs even endorsed Gonzalez, prompting an unsuccessful drive to de-charter them that ultimately established the right of the Clubs to endorse freely in nonpartisan elections. Four of the five successful Greens, by the way, have since left the Party; three to become Democrats.)
And then there is the wholly remarkable case of Bernie Sanders, who has won election to the United States Senate as an independent, in the process achieving sufficient stature that it would be a Democratic opponent rather than Sanders who would be deemed the spoiler should a three way race result in the seat going to a Republican.
Significantly, however, since the time Sanders reached Congress he has never embraced a “third party” presidential campaign, standing back from the Nader candidacy even in 2000, when in the early stages it looked to have the potential to exceed ten percent of the popular vote and really put the Greens on the map.
In the end, the 2000 Nader campaign actually played out quite similarly to Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party candidacy. Former Vice President Wallace, who would have become president following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had the 1944 convention not pushed him off the Democratic ticket in favor of Harry Truman, was likewise early on expected to garner at least ten percent of the vote in a four way race with the now-incumbent Truman, New York Republican Governor Tom Dewey and South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond. The same dynamic as would develop fifty-two years later came into play, though, and fear of electing Dewey overrode lack of enthusiasm for Truman. Wallace’s vote sank to under three percent, just as Nader’s would.
In retrospect, if the 2000 election were considered a test for the American people on the use of the Electoral College, you’d have to say we flunked it. Hence, the growing popularity of the probably ultimately more desirable strategy of ditching the eighteenth century “College” entirely (which would, though, only intensify the danger of “third party” votes producing undesirable outcomes.)
Obviously nothing lasts forever and the current structure of the American political system won’t either. Still, it took a civil war to effect the last major alteration in the political landscape – the rise of the Republican Party. Likewise, we probably won’t see the next realignment until a significant portion of one party’s members – elected officials included – are ready to jump ship en masse – a possibility that does not seem to be on the immediate horizon.
However, a serious backlash among President Obama’s true believers does seem unavoidable, particularly among those who voted for him because of who they wanted him to be rather than who he was. “Third parties” can be particularly appealing to the relatively newly radicalized, who often want to put as much distance as possible between themselves and what they have just rejected. For one thing, a bold new party venture sure can seem a lot more glamourous than slogging though Democratic Party primaries.
In the end though, all of us, old or new, have to ask ourselves the same questions about the effectiveness of our political choices. And knowing the rules of the political system is ultimately a lot more important than knowing the rules of a game because so much more is at stake.
So who started all of this? To watch CNN, ABC News, or NBC News, you might say to yourself, “Well, there go those Palestinians again, always blowing stuff up!” Many in the so-called mainstream media talk about how Hamas broke the cease-fire with Israel by launching rocket attacks. The area had been relatively quiet for six months. Then what happened?
In the theatre, they talk about an actor’s “motivation.” You see, theatre is an attempt to emulate reality, with the paradox that, while reality is spontaneous, everything that happens in the theatre is meticulously planned. And so, when an actor needs to walk to the door in order to open it and see another character on the other side, that actor needs a reason to go over there. That reason needs to be more compelling than “The other character needs to be introduced” or “The actor needs to be over on that side of the stage in order for the blocking to work.” Sure, that’s fine, but within the world of the play, the character needs a reason to be over there, or perform that action. This is what is meant by motivation: Why is that character doing that thing? Oh, the doorbell rang; I’d better go answer it. Door opened. Character introduced. “Hi, how are you?” Now the blocking works. Bingo!
And yet many TV anchors and print journalists assume that, when it comes to terrorism, actions always happen spontaneously, with no provocation. Why is Hamas firing rockets into Israel? Oh, you know those terrorists: they just love to destroy things! That’s just the way they are!
Thankfully, there is a rational explanation one step beyond “just because” for most any behavior. Since humans — unless they’re mentally impaired in some way — do things for reasons, the logical question should be, “Why is Hamas firing rockets into Israel?” (So maybe I’m being facetious — just a little — but seriously, no one in the U.S. press is asking why the cease-fire broke down after six months. Hardly anyone in the U.S. press is asking why Hamas started launching rockets.) An investigation that delves just a few inches below the surface of this issue would yield a veritable gold mine of understanding. Too bad many in the media want, instead, to stick to simple, Manichaean narratives involving Israel struggling to defend itself against evil Palestinians stopping at nothing to destroy Israel, simply because it is in their nature to destroy things.
Some investigation reveals a lot. Hamas, for example, did not begin lobbing rockets into Israel without at least some provocation. For one, Israel has spent the last year laying siege to the Gaza Strip, a narrow territory carved out of the southwest corner of Israel, bordering the Mediterranean Sea on the west and Egypt on the south. (I use “siege” in the traditional sense.)
For over a year, Israel has been allowing access for Gaza to “only the minimum amount of goods required to avert a hunger or health crisis among its 1.5 million people, and prohibiting most exports,” according to The New York Times. When the blockade began last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned Israel’s actions, the fifteenth time in two years it had done so, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Israel is often accused of having a “disproportionate” response to Palestinian attacks. Total number of people killed by Hamas rockets prior to Israel’s assault: “about two dozen over the past four years” (emphasis mine), according to The Australian. Total number of Gazans killed by Israelis: 550 in the past week. Yes, that is the definition of “disproportionate.” What percentage of those killed are civilians? It seems that Israel is possibly doing more than is necessary to defend itself. For example, Israel is refusing to let foreign journalists enter Gaza despite an Israeli Supreme Court order to do so!
And lest you may think that Israel is undertaking their military action purely for wholesome and upstanding reasons, keep in mind that the Likud party sees the Gaza conflict as a fantastic electoral opportunity:
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not be a candidate in the elections and may be indicted on corruption charges. But the Gaza offensive could be his last chance to rehabilitate a legacy badly tarnished by Israel’s failure to achieve a clear-cut victory against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in 2006.
For the moment, however, the offensive in Gaza is proving popular with Israelis, and [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak are reaping the benefits. Recent polls show them closing the gap with Likud party leader [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who had opened up a wide lead based on his promise to take a hard line against Israel’s main adversaries — Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
One mainstream news outlet is even suggesting that Hamas was completely in the wrong because Fatah, a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, said it was. Such a conclusion based on that premise seems strikingly superficial and easily explainable: of course Fatah would have nothing but nasty things to say about Hamas; Hamas beat Fatah in Palestinian elections in 2006! They’re competitors for power in Palestine! Just because Pepsi says that their product is better than Coke’s, it doesn’t follow that we should necessarily believe them or take them as a credible source.
Let me be clear that none of this discussion should be read as a justification for launching rocket attacks into Israel. That certainly isn’t justified. In my opinion, nothing would ever justify such abhorrent terrorist actions. However, neither is it justified to obliterate towns (with bombs largely provided by the United States). Neither side is in the right. But in much the same way that Ron Paul tried to explain “blowback” to Rudy Giuliani, the U.S. media are loathe to talk about the current situation as a result of the choices made by both Hamas and the Israeli government. They would, instead, prefer to talk only about Israel defending itself, as though Israel can do no wrong. Never is the question asked, “Should Israel be doing this? Isn’t this a little excessive? And why is the United States supporting this without question?” But why the United States considers Israel’s foreign policy goals to be 100% congruent with its own is another article for another day.
Glenn Greenwald has written extensively on the issue of the unilateral opinion of Israel within the U.S. government. Is there any issue that both Democrats and Republican politicians seem to agree on, 100% of the time? And, as Greenwald notes, polls suggest that 70% of American people do not want the United States to take sides, and yet 100% of our leaders — President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Barack Obama — they all give the impression that they think that not only should the United States be involved, but it should support whatever Israel does, no questions asked.
The justification given for the United States’ unprecedented support for Israel (our “special relationship” with Israel seems to be much more dear to our hearts than our “special relationship” with even the United Kingdom for instance) is that Israel is the only democracy in the region, and to let it fall would be disastrous. Not only is this not true factually (Turkey, Egypt — and now Iraq! — technically “Middle East,” are also technically democracies), but even that argument doesn’t fully account for our government’s almost complete, unyielding support for anything Israel does. And to even dare to suggest that Israel may not be completely in the right is to be subjected to, at the least, howls by many of “anti-semitism” and the debate shuts down.
The international community routinely tries to sanction Israel for such disproportionate responses, but U.N. Security Council resolutions always get vetoed by — guess who?! It was only recently that Israel relaxed its blockade to allow medical supplies into Gaza. Is preventing medical supplies from entering the area for a week really necessary to stopping Hamas? Especially with 500 deaths and thousands of casualties? Furthermore, the platforms from which the rockets into Israel were launched are mobile.
The Middle East problem — which is to say, the problem with Israel and all its neighbors alike — is far more complicated than it is being portrayed. Just once, I would like to see something other than complete condemnation of Hamas and complete veneration of Israel. Is anyone in the mainstream media capable of talking thoughtfully about the subject and its many nuances? Hamas is a terrorist group, to be sure, but the question is: why is it resorting to terrorism? It’s not just anti-semitism; there are plenty of anti-semitic people in the world who don’t launch rockets into synagogues. With terrorism, religious explanations often mask political ones. Maybe we should be investigating that, instead. I bet if we examined the long-term causes, implications, and solutions in the Middle East, there’s the possibility of lasting peace. Begetting violence with violence is no solution. It only ensures that we will most likely re-visit this problem again.
Ron Paul refuses to endorse John McCain, rather opting to endorse all 4 “major” 3rd party candidates. Judging by the political preferences of Ron Paul supporters, Libertarian candidate Bob Barr is likely to benefit the most from this endorsement. (Paul was 1988 Libertarian nominee.)
Read more about Bob Barr here.