PZ has just saved me work, summing up most of my thoughts on third-party presidential candidates.
I’m not saying that we’re doomed, though, just that the presidential race is the wrong place to effect change.
The right place is everywhere else. Maybe the primary campaigns would be better: we need to get candidates in place that don’t require us to hold our noses in order to vote for them. The Republican field is always a race to find the one candidate just crazy enough to satisfy a badly deranged base, while not so obviously crazy as to alienate everyone else, so forget them. The Democrats always seem to be looking for the moderate who won’t really change the system (that would be scary) and who will inspire just enough to squeak into office…but not inspire so much that people will wake up to our problems. I suspect that both parties will fundamentally resist change.
So maybe that’s not even the best place to work on fixing the election system. Especially in this election, the power of incumbency is so great that no one was even going to look seriously at an alternative to Obama.
You know where the elections really matter, where you really have a choice? At the local level. The Green Party is stupid to throw so much effort into a presidential campaign right now — they ought to be focused on building a base. I would vote for a Green for city council or district representative in a heartbeat. And once they’ve built a deep party structure, they become serious candidates for higher office, because they will have the backing of people doing good work on the ground.
There’s more. Read it.
Since PZ did so much, let me add a few specifics on leveling the playing field at a local and state level.
- Volunteer, donate, and run: This should be a no-brainer. You want a party for you? Help build it.
- Funding: Does your state do any public funding of elections? If it doesn’t, work on fixing that. Support it at the federal level too. Entrenched parties attract entrenched interests with the money to fund what they consider to be a sure thing. They don’t take much in the way of risks. Public funding doesn’t care who’s going to win as long as the party or candidate meets some minimum level of support. If your state does have public funding, know what is required for a candidate to qualify.
- Debates: Many sponsors of local debates are open (or at least more open) to including more than two parties’ candidates. If they aren’t, put some pressure on them. These organizations exist to inform you as a voter. Stand up for your interests. Then attend, watch, or listen to the debates.
- Press: Our corporate press frequently doesn’t feel much need to cover third-party candidates. Bug them about that. They, like the organzations that sponsor debates, are supposed to be representing your interests. If they don’t, take matters into your own hands. Find your local political blogs and pass around what they have to say about the third parties. Write up what you hear from the debates. Figure out what issues interest you and consolidate candidates’ statements from their websites in blog posts or on other social networking sites. If they don’t have information, write to the candidates with your questions and share their responses with your friends. Go around the gatekeepers.
- Major-party status: In order to be included in debates or public funding, parties typically have to meet some threshhold for votes in statewide elections, registered members, or some other arbitrary qualification meant to weed out vanity candidates. Find out what those qualifications are locally and keep them in mind as you go about your political life. Wide-open races, like Minnesota’s current Senate race, may throw you opportunities for making a worthwhile protest vote.
- Have standards: The reason you want a third party is that you want viable candidates who can exert an influence on the public discourse, if not govern outright. Don’t vote for bad candidates just because they’re neither Democrats nor Republicans. If they win, you’re screwed. If they don’t, no one takes you seriously. The Grassroots party held major-party status for two years in Minnesota when, during one of those wide-open elections, they ran a candidate who had a coherent social libertarian, socialist platform instead of just “legalize eet”. It would have been a sea change if he’d been elected, but it wouldn’t have been a disaster. Encourage that.
- Update: Stacy reminded me in the comments that I forgot to mention our system for determining a winner in an election. Do you have local instant runoff elections? No? See about fixing that. Many locales have standard runoff elections, but these are hugely expensive on any large scale. Instant runoff elections allow you to vote for your first choice without dooming your second, but they’re assumed to be too confusing for many voters. We need instant runoff to have a history of success before we can advocate for it at the national level.
Third parties aren’t impossible. They’ve happened more than once in U.S. history. Neither party has been particularly well regarded by the public for decades. This can be done if we want it. We just have to build for the long haul, and that takes smart work.