I was one of many anyone-but-Bush people in this past election, not a John Kerry fan, but that’s not Kerry’s fault. It would have been the same, or has been, for Edwards, Gore, a Clinton or two, Dukakis, Bentsen, Mondale and Ferraro. Were I to be a Republican, the names would change, but not the attitude.
That’s because I’ve believed, just like third-party voters, that Democratic and Republican politicians are essentially the same. After all, they’re politicians, not statesmen or activists, and our political system increasingly demands a certain sameness — “electability” — that has candidates avowing faith, quashing uniqueness, flaunting families, dressing alike and serving special interests.
All that set the politicians apart were that their parties paid lip service to different constituencies. But every four years or so, to get re-elected, they had to prove to those constituencies that they did a little more, so there was always minimal action in the direction of gun control, or deregulation, or environmentalism, or prayer in schools.
A vote for Republicans was a baby step toward corporate freedom. A vote for Democrats nudged us back toward protecting workers. And so on.
Republicans have been raising the stakes. Instead of incremental movement toward reshaping America, they’ve been promising greater and greater leaps, setting themselves up to have to deliver them. Those great leaps will take us into a scary future by way of a demonstrably dangerous present, justified by unhealthy paranoia, religious faith and juvenile fear. And they make it impossible to continue the cynicism that keeps me voting for lazy, minimal steps in the right direction.
In fact, the elephants’ thunderous, earthshaking leaps make it vital to vote and okay to vote against rather than for. It should have been obvious this year that a vote against Bush was the most important vote that could be cast, and, just as in 2000, the only practical way to do that was to vote for the electable opposing candidate. Four years ago that was Al Gore, before more than a thousand U.S. soldiers and perhaps 100,000 Iraqi civilians paid the price, before thousands of U.S. citizens lost health care, jobs or hope.
This year it was Kerry. A vote for anyone else was a vote for Bush — and more death, fewer jobs, a greater divide between rich and poor, the stage set for a dramatically worsening environment and possibly the end of Roe vs. Wade and any number of our civil liberties — despite the 2.4 million votes separating the candidates even if every independent voter had gone for Kerry instead.
The independent voters all have extraordinarily high-minded reasons for voting for their candidates. My co-worker Andrew J. Manuse writes, for instance:
I believe my decision to vote for [Libertarian candidate Michael] Badnarik was thoughtful, educated, moral, principled and purposeful. He had the best ideas for protecting and restoring our Constitutional and individual freedoms at home, restoring our economic well being, fighting terrorists, winning the war in Iraq and bringing our troops home. He supported giving individuals more power over their own destiny, primarily by stripping away government constraints on individuals' financial and social freedoms and responsibility. He believed that corporations should not be granted legal status as persons. I think that if we did away with the precedent that makes corporations “legal persons,” there would be less corruption and greed, and overall the world would be a much better place.
Principled and moral the vote may have been. Thoughtful, educated and purposeful it was not, any more than deciding to forgo voting against Bush’s ongoing evil in exchange for the expectation of finding a genie in a bottle — to wish for it to put Bush out of office.
As an example of how thoughtful the decision was, one reason the co-worker didn’t vote for Kerry is that he has “disdain [for] his support for the United Nations and I fear he would surrender U.S. sovereignty to the organization, which I believe is anti-American and mostly made up of nations that support terrorists.”
For the record, there are 191 countries in the United Nations. That’s every country on Earth, except for the Vatican and Taiwan. And not everyone accepts that Taiwan is still a sovereign nation.
The suggestions for reforming our political system are similarly questionable.
1) We can stop allowing the government to steal our money to fund political parties. How? We can lobby Congress for a Constitutional Amendment that would make it illegal for the government to fund political parties and mandatory to allow all parties equal protection under the law. Let candidates get their own funding. They will be able to collect all the money they need if their ideas are strong enough.
This is a peculiar suggestion coming after a campaign in which Bush raised about $286 million and Kerry about $243.2 million on their own, getting only $74.6 million each from the government. The private fund-raising went so well that the candidates apparently flirted with the idea of rejecting public funding because it limited them, since only the public funding could be used after the candidates accepted their parties’ nomination.
2) We can stop buying newspapers, watching television news and listening to radio news programs that are biased toward one candidate and don't give alternative-party candidates the time of day. We can start our own news services online or work toward changing one of them and making it serve the people the way a news organization is supposed to: openly, without bias and with balance.
Better, but who funds the new media? It’s not so easy to get money for start-up news organizations, especially considering that the main font of interest in the idea would be from independent voters, who gave the top four third-party candidates all of $5.6 million through the election. Also, what money goes to this new media would shrink the money available for actual candidates, while people committed to more mainstream candidates would be relucant to leave more mainstream media behind without an established alternative, resulting in little financial incentive for existing media to change. Encouraging change there is the far better idea, but I foresee skepticism that more space would be warranted for “fringe” candidates.
3) We can force the organization that runs the debates (www.debates.org) to include all the candidates that have made their way onto the ballots in some of the states.
Even better, but the skepticism of the media would extend to the debate commission.
4) We can create organizations that would work toward making our election more fair and become powerful ourselves by working together.
A bit vague, but in fact the only suggestion that deals with the reality that, in this dangerous, delicate time, voting for a third-party candidate only makes sense if it is possible for one to win. A foundation for such a win must be built. It is only by laying the groundwork for a strong showing by a third-party candidate, which implies the possibility of a win, that such organizations can break through widespread skepticism to convince the media and debate planners to include more candidates. This inclusion, in turn, legitimizes the candidates and brings them more publicity, making more funding possible.
But something must start the cycle and make all this possible.
The first step of the organizations, then, would be to convince more communities, and then states, to move to instant runoff voting. This system lets people rank their candidate choices, meaning every person using it could vote for the third-party candidate they wanted as their No. 1 choice, with their safety candidate — a Democrat such as Kerry, for instance — somewhere down the list. Candidates are successively discarded by determining who got the least votes, then the second-least number of votes, the third-least number, and so on until one candidate has enough votes to win. It means there’s no such thing as a spoiler candidate and no such thing as vote splitting. It means a decline in “electability” as the defining factor in campaigns and an increase in the power of ideas.
In addition to encouraging coalitions and positive campaigning, as candidates vie to be a No. 2 choice for voters with whom they’re not No. 1, it encourages people to vote as they truly feel they should, including for third-party candidates, without throwing a vote away.
Forms of this are already in use in Cambridge and San Francisco.
It’s the only concrete step that improves U.S. politics without risking our culture. All else follows. It has to come from the grass roots up, though, and the grass roots seem focused on party instead of process.