A show on Al Jazeera English called “The Stream” invited me to appear to discuss third parties, supporters of third party candidates and US electoral politics in general yesterday. They did a full show on the election and how it was a close contest, highlighted the views of voters who consider Obama and Romney to be mostly similar, and noted there are people who simply say third party candidates have no chance of winning. Then, they posed the question, “By refusing to endorse Obama or Romney, could these citizens decide the next president and what would that mean?”
I appeared on the program with Michael Moschella, a founder of the New Leaders Council and also a political director for the Truman Security Project, and Jason Brennan, a professor at Georgetown University and author of “The Ethics of Voting.”
It did not take long to see that Moschella was a supporter for the Obama 2012 re-election campaign. What he said was a perfect example of how boosters for the Obama campaign delude themselves into accepting or ignoring the two-party system. In this instance, it seemed Moschella was in complete denial of political reality. Moschella even said at one point, “It’s not the case that we have a system that blocks third parties. It is the case that we have third parties who field really bad candidates who aren’t really good at organizing.”
These were some of the arguments Moschella made that should be challenged: (1) people just do not have time for politics so there should be a limit to political debates in elections and a limit to the number of candidates in those debates (2) third party voters are purists, who are only voting for themselves and they are acting as if they are entitled or privileged (3) third party candidates are not “legitimate persons” (4) third parties do not have the kind of respect for civic engagement or life that the campaigns for Obama or Mitt Romney do and (6) I should join the Obama campaign.
[*NOTE: The following is a response to what was said by Moschella on the show. If you do not want to wade through my analysis, you can scroll to the bottom of this post and simply watch the program.]
First, to understand Moschella’s arguments and views, one only has to ask him about the 2000 Election. As I’ve written before, to anyone who suggests elections should be democratized so that citizens no longer have to participate in a winner-take-all system, they are confronted with the belief that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election.
On the show, Moschella said, “Only 300 votes separated Al Gore from G.W. Bush in Florida and not too many more in New Hampshire. If Al Gore had won either of those states, we may have had a different country and a different world.” I responded to him, “I think it’s part of the mythology of the 2000 Election that liberals or progressives talk about Ralph Nader costing Gore the election. There were tens of thousands of African-Americans who were disenfranchised and one could say if their views supported it that was why Gore lost the election.”
This did not seem to convince he should abandon this post-truth argument because minutes later he explained:
MOSCHELLA: Maybe it would be great if a third party messed up the election. Well, I think of it like this. In 2000, you had a bunch of folks who went out and voted for Ralph Nader. These are kind of like folks that they maybe their parents gave them a Ford but they wanted a BMW. So, they were really, really upset. And what they ended up getting was really a nightmare scenario. They ended up getting a rusty bicycle. [emphasis added]
It’s cute, but it’s like what progressive journalist Kevin Drum of Mother Jones argued in a column weeks ago, which is that Nader is responsible for the Iraq War, for the economic crisis and for every tragedy or travesty that occurred while he was president. But, Brennan completely destroyed this mentality:
…In the 2000 election, we often assume that Nader cost Gore the election. However, 13% of registered Florida Democrats voted for Bush. Herron & Lewis did a 2006 study and they determined that 40% of Nader voters would have voted for Bush over Gore, that third party voters are typically anti-system voters, who would not have voted at all…
He also does not think America has a two-party system and made that clear: “It’s not the case that we have a system that blocks third parties. It is the case that we have third parties who field really bad candidates who aren’t really good at organizing.” Brennan responded, “The system is rigged against third parties. That’s the consensus among political scientists.” (In some instances, Brennan managed to respond to what Moschella was saying better than I did and I did not add to what was said because I thought he had made the points that were necessary.)
Not Enough Time in Americans’ Lives for Third Party Politics
Now, we have limited time. And, there’s only two weeks and people have to make a really huge decision. I mean, the United States is the world leader in economics and security, like this really matters. When you’ve got to dissect a lot—
Now, look, we have professors, we have bloggers, these types of folks in America. like the other guest.s and they have a ton of time. They’re almost paid to look at these things all day long. My dad’s a teacher. My mom’s a librarian. So, they don’t get to do politics all day long and that does not make them worse citizens. And, people have kids they are trying to raise. So, in some respect, what I think we need is a balance—a balance where you can say we’re going to have a few debates, we’re going to spend a few hours. You’re going to be able to find out what you need about the candidates. Plus, they all have websites and, from that you’re going to be able to have a good chance of discerning.
We can’t probably spend, you know, four years just looking at politics all day long because then our country would not be able to do anything else. At, the same time we obviously want to have an informed electorate. Now, I wish that people would do a lot more and I understand that there are is a lot going on in the lives, especially among people who are trying to rebuild an economy.” [emphasis added]
Moschella really seems to operate under this worldview that there is something exceptional about America and the country does what no other country can do. It must hold to that tradition and third party candidates in debates and in elections make it complex and confusing for Americans and it sends mixed messages to the world about whether America has a functioning democracy.
I really do not know what he was talking about when he said the country needs a balance with only a few debates because we do have only a few debates now. Perhaps, he is suggesting the third party candidates should not be holding their own debates because that muddies what people understand about Obama and Romney. I don’t know.
I did get in a response to him during this exchange:
LISA FLETCHER: So, Kevin, while voting third party is definitely a victory of conscience and you are following what you truly believe, is the reality also that by doing that you are taking your vote away from somebody whose sensibilities may be more aligned with you, even though you don’t like them entirely, than the person who could win because you’re voting third party?
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: I would say that’s a reasonable question if you would ask that of Obama or Romney [supporters] because I believe that all candidates have a right to run in our elections. Now, I think the bigger question would be why do we have a system where you have such an organization like the Commission on Presidential Debates, which gets these two major parties together and has them agree to a secret contract that essentially rations debates, that essentially says you’ll have less political discussions.
“Americans watch a lot of television, consume a lot of video. If we had more debates it would not be a bad thing. No reason why three or four debates should be considered a large amount.”
Only the Entitled Can Vote Third Party
Moschella said, “It’s a really entitled point of view to say, you know, go and cast your vote because you’re upset about one thing. You agree with 90 percent but there’s one particular thing that really matters and here’s why. If you live in a neighborhood like Georgetown or a fancy neighborhood in Brooklyn, maybe the outcome of the election doesn’t affect you.” He added, as if the outcome of the election could only impact swing states, that he was going to Ohio on Saturday where there are a lot of people struggling. They want to have unemployment insurance, job training and access to abortions and, for them, the outcome of the election matters.
The problem with this is it completely consists of short-term thinking. There is no future focus in this argument and it is all about what can voters realistically get out of the electoral system, whether it is rigged or not.
I’ve argued before that I don’t think one has to be rich or economically secure to vote third party. At least, if you believe who you vote for matters, one can break with either the Republican or Democratic Parties in the same way a low-wage farm worker working on a farm that produces tomatoes for Chipotle can rise up and demand workers’ rights or a minimum wage worker in Wal-Mart can strike in a warehouse for more equality and fairness in the workplace.
One might argue they should not be resisting inequality or injustice because their owners or bosses will simply turn on them, retaliate and fire them. They should try to keep their job and, in order to do that, they should keep silent. But, if they are silent and do not take action, the workplace environment never changes for the better. Likewise, voters in US electoral politics are essentially slaves to the system’s conditions if they continue to operate within the confines and do not challenge it on a stronger level beyond voicing discontent from some place within the two most prominent parties or some organization subservient to either of those two parties.
And so, when Moschella argued, “You’re not just a representative of me. That’s a selfish point of view. In fact, you’re a representative of your community. And you’ve got to think, hey, what’s going to make this community stronger? And is it me casting a protest that could cause a whole lot of people to hurt or maybe do I have a sense of civic duty, not because there’s two candidates but because I owe it to the other folks in my community to do what makes it strong”—He said that because he was thinking about the short-term and not the long-term in the United States. And it is not privileged to raise one’s expectations for political leaders in society and act up on concerns about the long-term future.
Third Party Candidate are Not “Legitimate Persons”
Moschella stated at one point, “What I would love to see is just one time maybe hearkening back to Teddy Roosevelt, one of these parties field a candidate who’s a legitimate person, who’s a legitimate leader. And then they would be able to go and grow.” What he is saying is that Obama, who has further entrenched and institutionalized a policy of targeted killings and refused to prosecute Wall Street criminals or officials who authorized torture, and Romney, who has been responsible for shipping jobs overseas and does not think America should apologize to any country for committing atrocities, are more legitimate people than candidates like Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein or Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.
Johnson is the former governor of New Mexico. He started a “door-to-door handyman business to help pay his way through college” that later grew into “one of the largest construction companies in New Mexico with over 1,000 employees.” He founded his own non-profit organization called OUR America Initiative in 2009. Stein describes herself as “a mother, physician, longtime teacher of internal medicine, and pioneering environmental-health advocate.” She has testified before panels and government bodies on health and environmental issues. She’s worked to get money out of politics through clean election laws. When she ran for Secretary of State of Massachusetts in 2006, ”she won the votes of over 350,000 Massachusetts citizens – which represented the greatest vote total ever for a Green-Rainbow candidate.”
Moschella does not likely know any of this. He is a Democratic partisan, who tries to appear as if he knows what third party candidates are about, who derides them and does so while at the same time treating them as second-class people.
Third Parties Do Not Have the Kind of Dedication to Civic Life Like Obama or Romney
…Don’t just go into the polls. Get engaged. Go online. Sign up. Go knock doors. Call voters. Engage in these discussions. What the Obama and Romney campaigns are doing right now—especially the Obama campaign which has a really big field effort—is creating a ton of civic life all around America. Thousands and thousands of people are creating conversations about how to make a better country. The Green Party is not doing that… [emphasis added]
I do not know exactly what Moschella’s definition is of “civic life,” but, from what he has said, it appears to mean volunteering for the Democratic or Republican Party. Notice he lauds the Romney campaign. However, those building support for Stein are not enhancing “civic life.” Presumably, this is a result of the bias he has toward candidates running to challenge the two-party system. They are unrealistic and sanctimonious purists, who just do not get how this country works.
In reality, the Green Party has to get their presidential candidate on the ballot. They go around with petitions for months during presidential elections trying to secure a spot. They do not have the corporate or political action committee money that the Democratic Party has nor do they have the history of party loyalty that the Democratic Party has either. The Green Party has to truly build grassroots support to, first, get on a ballot and, second, to convince people to vote. That takes an immense amount of civic engagement and citizens see them on the streets stopping people to sign a petition to get a Green Party candidate on the ballot. In that moment, there is a conversation about politics or a pitch for supporting more voice and choices in elections. There is no reasonable argument to be made that this degrades civic life, even if they do not have the Obama for America-style foot soldiers to push their candidate and win.
Join the Obama 2012 Campaign
…I would love if you guys, like Jason and Kevin, who have some differences with political parties—If somebody like Kevin, who is worried about drone strikes—And so am I. I work in national security all day—If we had more people like him working within the Democratic Party, working on the Obama campaign, more likelihood of change.
For the record, I am not only concerned with drone strikes. I am not just concerned about this one issue and that is why I advocate for more inclusion of third party candidates in the US electoral industrial-complex—on ballots, in media, in debates and on the ground. What I put forward is not solely about Obama. It is about a future with more democracy in elections, which I find to be worth fighting for and critical.
There is bipartisan consensus around: widespread government surveillance, war crimes, state secrets privilege, indefinite detention, the PATRIOT Act, significantly reducing fossil fuel consumption, the military industrial-complex, the crackdown on whistleblowers, the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, not prosecuting torturers or those who engaged in warrantless wiretapping, Wall Street criminals responsible for the 2008 economic crisis,“free” trade agreements, restoring the Glass-Steagall Act, breaking up too-big-to-fail banks, single-payer healthcare, capital punishment, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, empire-building, etc.
And, what Moschella encouraged me to do I oppose entirely. Campaigning for Obama or joining some group within the Democratic Party means becoming a partisan. If I enter a group or organization that organizes for Obama or Democrats, it is guaranteed that I sell out and check my concerns with significant policies at the door when I become a member or volunteer. It is guaranteed the energy I bring is co-opted in the way that progressive organizations sought to co-opt or funnel the energy created by the Occupy movement into agendas they were willing to advance within the two-party system of government.
As I wrote in a previous post, an increasing number of people favor an alternative to the two parties. These numbers reflect growing discontent toward the two most prominent parties. More and more Americans are choosing not to vote, because they do not think the system represents them (a completely rational decision yet one which demobilizes people and strengthens the plutocrats or owners of America).
I’ve stated during this election there is a pretzel logic that holds respectable liberals or progressives captive and in a loop. The logic generates behavior that ensures voters are in the same position on Election Day that they were four, eight and twelve years ago. It makes certain they will be in a similar position four years from now, where people are lamenting the absence of democracy.
Americans should want to break the cycle and bring about meaningful electoral reform through majority elections, open debates, campaign finance reform,changes to ballot access laws or instant run-off voting or even term limits for Congress members, etc. The system is part of why there are not leaders in power, who are responsive to the people. There are very, very few reasonable arguments for not breaking the cycle and now is as good a time as ever to break with two-party tradition.