Excluded from debates with their Democrat and Republican competition, third-party candidates are holding their own. Activists and political analysts are eager to promote these efforts as a means to achieving greater political diversity, transparency and inclusion.
Jill Stein, Green Party presidential candidate, speaking at a Occupy Wall Street demonstration on Bowling Green in New York. (Photo by Paul Stein via Flikr)
This article was originally published on Oct 15, 2014. With elections upon us, news of presidential candidacy announcements are abound, and the mainstream media is once again pushing America’s two unpopular parties. In this piece MintPress looks at the fight for third-party inclusion in American politics.
GLENDALE, Colo. — Jill Stein ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. A physician, graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Medical School, and long-time environmental and health activist, she appeared as a credible candidate on paper.
However, Stein chose not to run as a Democrat — and certainly not as a Republican. Rather, she ran as a member of the Green Party. Though such a decision put her at a disadvantage, she believed the Greens better represented her views and also the views of constituents, especially in progressive Massachusetts.
“Polling shows people support the agenda that only the Greens are putting forward as a national party,” Stein told MintPress News. “Jobs, health care, human rights, stopping these wars overseas, bringing the troops home, downsizing the military budget and addressing climate change.”
Through what she said was a fluke, Stein and other third-party candidates were invited to participate in the first televised gubernatorial debate, pitting them alongside Democratic State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien and Republican Mitt Romney.
In the debate, she says, she was “treated like a lunatic,” but a different story was taking shape outside and in the press.
“The kooks should be excluded from the final Massachusetts gubernatorial debate on Tuesday night,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara. “That way, Jill Stein will have the stage all to herself.”
The Boston Phoenix declared in a headline “Jill Stein won the debate.”
Perhaps as a result, Stein was not invited to participate in subsequent debates.
For the Green candidate, it was a lesson on the stranglehold she says the-two party system has on American politics. Without access to the debate, she was marginalized by the Democrats and Republicans, as well as mainstream broadcast media. And without the exposure that the debates brought, she had no chance of being elected.
That, she argues, is the point.
“It illustrates what they are terrified of,” Stein said. “If people learn that they have an option that reflects what they want, they will vote for it. Half the population doesn’t vote because they don’t like what they see as their options.”
The lack of debate
Stein would again find herself excluded from candidate debates 10 years later, when she ran for president of the United States. The 2012 general debates featured only two candidates: incumbent President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
Stein says the two candidates were indistinguishable on key issues including foreign policy, health care and climate change — and that’s from the few times they even discussed issues.
“[The debates] were exercises in evasion,” she said. “It was a disservice to viewers whose time was poured into a black hole.”
Specifically, she pointed to the Affordable Care Act, which originated as a concept from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank.
“‘Obamacare’ versus ‘Romneycare,’ – try separating those,” she said. “That tells you how much daylight there is between the Democrats and the Republican Parties.”
(Stein and the Green Party support a fully public health care system.)
It’s not conspiracy theory to say that third-party candidates are intentionally excluded from the presidential debates. The League of Women Voters organized and moderated the nationally televised events until 1988, a year after the Democratic and Republican parties together formed the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Paul Kirk Jr., and then-Republican National Committee chairman Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., both told reporters at the time that third-party candidates would not be invited to participate.
In response, the League of Women Voters declined to continue to have a role in the debates, calling the new structure an effort to “perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”
“Never in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates’ organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands,” League President Nancy M. Neuman said in a statement at the time.
In addition, the debates took on major corporate sponsors, which have included AT&T, Philip Morris, J.P. Morgan, Anheuser-Busch, Sara Lee, Ford, American Airlines and the International Bottled Water Association — companies often at odds with some third-party platforms.
A dime’s difference
George Wallace once famously declared, “There’s not a dime’s difference between the Democrats and Republicans.” Ralph Nader later repeated this claim during his own 1996 and 2000 campaigns for president as the Green Party’s first candidate for that national office. For decades, Nader has advocated for the kind of electoral reform that would allow for a more level playing field for third-party candidates.
Taking up that crusade today is the Free & Equal Elections Foundation. Founded by Christina Tobin in 2008, the foundation hosted a debate between Nader and Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin which was moderated by journalist Chris Hedges. In 2010, it organized debates in the Illinois gubernatorial and senatorial, Connecticut senatorial and California Gubernatorial races.
“We want to create open and transparent elections that get people engaged in our electoral process,” Tobin told MintPress. “We want to empower people through education, giving them the tools they need to make informed decisions.”
During the 2012 election cycle, Free & Equal hosted a debate for third-party candidates in Chicago. The Green Party’s Stein, Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode were all invited. Tobin moderated the debate along with former CNN talk show host Larry King.
Unlike the Obama-Romney debates, candidates in that forum discussed addressing inequality, the military budget, finally closing Guantanamo, marijuana legalization and making health care public — ironically, these issues were also addressed by Obama during his race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
No major mainstream media were present in Chicago and no broadcast network aired the debates, but a number of independent and foreign outlets covered it including al-Jazeera English, RT and Free Speech Television. C-SPAN aired the debate in its entirety.
“Mainstream media profits off a flawed system,” Tobin said. “It teaches people to be apathetic because that’s in their interest.”
Last week, Free & Equal hosted another debate for third-party candidates in the Colorado gubernatorial race. Stein gave a keynote speech, and Tobin, Professor Griff of Public Enemy and Chuck Bonniwell of the Greater Glendale Chamber of Commerce board of directors served as moderators. The candidates included Harry Hempy of the Green Party, Matthew Hess of the Libertarian Party, and Independent Mike Dunafon, who currently serves as mayor of Glendale. Incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Bob Beauprez were invited but did not participate.
Afterward, Stein called the event exhilarating.
“I think it really moved us forward,” she told MintPress. “It clarified a number of issues being fought out in Colorado. The takeaway message and the takeaway feeling in the room is that even though we are opposite sides on many issues, we have more in common than we have with big corporate political parties simply in embracing transparency and voter empowerment. It felt like a team effort.”
A two-party state
Not since the “Grand Old Party” came to prominence in 1854 has a third-party effectively pushed its way into mainstream electoral politics. However, the Republicans were mostly former members of the Whig Party and ended up simply replacing the Whigs, thus leaving the two-party system well intact.
The U.S. remains the only major modern democracy in which two parties completely dominate. Other countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan have several parties with members elected to their respective legislatures — even cases in which two parties rise to the top.
In the U.S., this has meant a stifling of any real debate, says Rocky Anderson, who was elected mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, as a Democrat in 2000 but eventually left and helped start the Justice Party. He entered the 2012 presidential race under the Justice Party. He argues that the Democratic Party has offered a false sense of security for progressives.
“The Democratic Party is perhaps the greatest problem we have in American politics so far, as it has the pretense of moving sensible, progressive solutions and yet it has betrayed the American people in unbelievable ways, causing not only a great deal of harm in this country but also in the rest of the world,” Anderson told MintPress. “The Democrats have caved into Wall Street.”
He noted that the Glass-Steagall Act — the law prohibiting the concentration of ownership of banks, investment firms and insurance companies — was repealed during the Clinton administration. Clinton’s Treasury secretary was chairman of Goldman Sachs, after all.
“They won’t stand up to the military-industrial complex,” Anderson added. “They won’t stand up for human rights. In fact, they supported the creation of this surveillance state which is so counter to everything that’s in the core of the Constitution.”
Much focus has been placed on campaign finance issues such as political contributions, PACs and the Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited spending for political purposes, like ads. Yet Stein, Anderson and Tobin all expressed agreement that holding open debates is the singular most important way to break the two-party system.
Anderson pointed out that Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot’s “numbers tripled” on the heels of his participation in the debates for the 1992 election. There’s also the case of former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, who ran for governor of Minnesota in 1998.
“He was polling at 10 percent and not taken very seriously,” Anderson said. “Then he’s allowed in the debate and the next thing you know, he won.”
“Once you reclaim the public airwaves, a lot becomes possible,” Stein said.
For Tobin, though, that’s just the beginning. Free & Equal is looking to take the show on the road next summer and host third-party presidential debates around the country. This is where Tobin gets really ambitious and starts talking about ousting two-thirds of Congress and replacing them with Independents and third-party candidates.
“I’m a realist, but I’m also optimistic,” she said with a chuckle, clearly aware of the enormity of the work that lies ahead.
“It takes 3 percent of the people to rise to truly make a change in the world, and with the power of social media we can do that and more,” she said.
Tobin pointed out that Congress has a single-digit approval rating and polls show the electorate wants to replace everyone in Congress.
Free & Equal’s social media efforts reach 10 to 20 million people per week, according to Tobin. The 2012 debate in Chicago was one of Twitter’s top trending topics at the time. All of this, she says, has been accomplished by an organization run by volunteers.
“I feel very humbled and honored to be on the forefront of this movement,” she said. “Accountability is the future. It’s just a matter of time.”