If you are a political guru, you might want to watch An Unreasonable Man. The film covers the rise and fall of America’s most vociferous and successful consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, during his run for president in 2000.
The crux of the film is fairly simple: Despite decades of service and activism, Nader will forever be known as the man who helped elect George W. Bush in 2000. (If you were angered by the Bush administration, just replace “known” with “universally despised” in that last sentence.)
The claim of his role as spoiler is up for debate. Exit polls indicated that half of Nader voters in Florida would have stayed home, while the rest would have split their vote between Gore and Bush. Also, don’t forget that the Supreme Court ruled against a recount.
Regardless, Nader’s brand was greatly diminished because of this perception. During the now infamous 2000 elections, Nader received 2.8 million votes; during the following election when Nader ran again as a third party candidate, he only received 465,151 votes – an 83% drop.
Despite his success as a third party candidate, ‘Nader’ has become a pejorative term, one that negatively caricatures third party candidates as saboteurs of democracy. He now exists in the same political limbo where Ross Perot has resided since the 1992 election.
We can already see the effect of Nader on a number of candidates running for president during this current election cycle. Several independent-leaning candidates swore off the third party option, and instead joined the rank-and-file of the major party that more closely aligned with their platforms.
Though he ran as an independent for the majority of his career, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made the move to the Democratic Party out of fear of taking “votes away from the Democratic candidate,” which he said might “help elect some right-wing Republican.”
Sanders continued, “I did not want responsibility for that.” (Translation: I don’t want to be the next Nader.)
In the GOP field, Ben Carson agitated party loyalists when it came to light that he had only been a registered Republican for a year before deciding to run for office.
“I have to run in one party or another,” Carson said, explaining his pragmatism. “If you run as an independent, you only risk splitting the electorate.”
The stigma about third party spoilers is so strong that it has even penetrated the psyche of the third parties. Instead of playing the role of provocateur, several third parties have appeared willfully obsequious to their perceived ideological superiors in the two major parties.
During the 2012 election, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson was fully prepared to cancel his campaign if libertarian godfather Ron Paul received the Republican nomination. (The godfather label is appropriate considering Johnson made a personal trip to Houston prior to the 2012 election to share with Paul his plans to run on the Libertarian Party ticket – almost like he was asking for his blessings.)
Even during his own presidential campaign, Johnson encouraged his supporters to caucus and vote in the primaries for Paul.
Paul never reciprocated Johnson’s political generosity. Even when he famously refused to endorse Mitt Romney, Paul also stated openly that it would be “extremely unlikely” that he would endorse a third party candidate. When asked specifically about Johnson, who was nearly an ideological twin of his campaign, Paul flat out said “no.”
In politics, the prevailing logic encourages candidates to always kiss up, never down.
In politics, the prevailing logic encourages candidates to always kiss up, never down.Jay Stooksberry, IVN Independent Author
The situation got ugly when party members, who quietly lobbied for Sanders via social media, were censored by Green Party leadership. In response to the growing disenfranchisement of “Sanders Greens,” State Party Senior Advisor Benjamin Meiklejohn expressed his discontent:
“Statistically speaking, if you look at the numbers, between 80 and 97 percent of our own party’s members will not vote for the Green presidential candidate in the general election. When the party purists reprimand and attack other party members who are not loyal to the party’s presidential candidate, they are essentially tuning off and turning away 80 to 97 percent of our own party.”
Third party candidates demonstrate the tell-tale signs of abuse. Rather than placing blame on the individual inflicting the actual harm – namely, the two-party system that has stacked the deck by not allowing them to debate and denying access to mainstream media outlets – they often blame themselves for their situation.
This is the catch-22 that American voters continue to endure: People become increasingly dissatisfied with the two-party system, but alternative parties cannot achieve success without being considered a spoiler for their ideological cohort.
Pretty much every representative government in the rest of the world is actively governed by a multitude of parties. India, as an example, has 1,886 registered parties – 56 that are recognized national or state parties and nine of which hold a seat in parliament.
Is it so much to ask for a third party in the United States? Or as Jim Hightower famously said, “Some people say we need a third party. I wish we had a second one.”
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