Former editor at The Nation and a senior analyst at
Public Campaign, Micah L. Sifry recently participated in a book party at
Abandoned Planet Bookstore.
In an evening coordinated by Green Party activists June
Brashares and Jim Dorenkott, Sifry began by speaking in general about
third-party politics. Later, he was joined by Supervisor Matt Gonzalez
and Medea Benjamin to discuss perceptions of the Greens.
In his book, Sifry centers on several recent efforts of
third parties - including the successful campaign of Jesse Ventura as a
Reform candidate for governor of Minnesota, the effects of Ross Perot's
decision to run for president as well as the rise and fall of the Reform
Party, the creation and eventual decline of the New Party, and Ralph
Nader's run as the Green Party candidate for president in 1996 and 2000.
The audience was too polite to point that all of his examples of
successful third parties (other than the Green Party) were either
disbanded or struggling.
The beginning of the talk at Abandoned Planet centered
on the difficulties of third-party politics, including campaign
financing, media coverage, and being seen as the "spoiler" in tough
races. Sifry talked about the senate race in Minnesota, where Paul
Wellstone faces Republican and Green Party challengers. He suggested
that because Wellstone is a liberal Democrat in a tight race, Greens
shouldn't run a campaign against him.
Since the audience was entirely Greens and/or Green
supporters, this stance was rejected by the majority of the audience.
But the discussion does lead to any interesting question – Should
candidates not campaign because they might be called spoilers and turn
the campaign against mainstream candidates whose ideology closely
resembles their own?
When we talk about "spoilers," we are basically
continuing to buy into the two-party system. Wellstone is an incumbent
with a political war chest that befits someone who has been in power for
several terms. He is a liberal in a fairly liberal, populist state. Yet
he is in one of this year's tightest senate races. Is it the third
party's fault that Wellstone has disenchanted enough of his voters that
he is in the closest race of his political career? Is it the Greens'
fault that Wellstone has alienated so much of his core base that the
Greens are expected to get enough votes to make a difference in a senate
race where they will be outspent by both parties?
The other key is the issues that are introduced by the
parties. Since the Democrats and Republicans have standard political
platforms that rarely change from election to election, attention in a
campaign isn't given to difficult issues that may lose votes but still
should be explored. Sifry pointed out several issues that were first
raised by third parties – including women's suffrage, social security,
and civil rights. Every idea was radical at one time – and the person
who first introduces a radical idea into the public's consciousness runs
the very real risk of being dismissed. When an idea is introduced over
and over again, it eventually emerges into the public's consciousness
and becomes seen as an acceptable idea. But the originator of the idea
is still painted as a radical.
The issue of "spoiling an election" also presumes that
only two parties can win an election. It lends the appearance of a
two-party system so essential to U.S. politics that a new political
element/issue cannot be introduced even to raise political discussion or
give the voters more options.
But offering voters more options, such as third parties,
shouldn't be seen as a radical or "spoiler" idea. As Sifry wrote in his
dedication, directed to all those who purchased his book, the purpose of
politics should be to create a broader and deeper democracy.