The Illusion of Democracy in the 2012 Presidential Election
All presidential candidates able to get a percentage of support in a national poll, qualify for federal matching funds or get on enough state ballots to win the number of electoral votes needed to become president should have a right to run in elections in the United States. Tonight, only Democratic Party presidential candidate President Barack Obama and Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney will be participating in the debate, even though Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who filed an antitrust lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates, should be included.
Operating under this belief, which I wish was more widely shared by people in America, I engaged a journalist, who saw a message I sent on Twitter defending the right of third party candidates to participate in elections and sent me a message privately.
The journalist wanted me to broaden my knowledge of Ralph Nader as a “charlatan.” I told the journalist I had no problem taking concerns seriously as long as this was not meant to support the false notion that Nader cost Gore the election. The journalist responded, “I do think Ralph Nader was a factor in Gore’s loss. One factor. Always thought it was a huge mistake for the left and Naderites.” This conclusion, the journalist clarified, stemmed from personal experiences that led him to decide Nader is unprincipled.
I responded he was a factor if you don’t like what he represents. Otherwise, voter disenfranchisement and the Supreme Court had much more to do with why Gore did not assume the presidency. I made clear this argument was not based on what I think of Nader as a person because that does not advance the cause of democracy. The journalist replied, “Democracy and a just society are my guidelines too and precisely why I opposed voting for Ralph Nader.” To which I said, “One is politically bigoted if they argue third party candidates running is detrimental to democracy,” and told the journalist they would have the last word.
The reaction the journalist had: “Listen, buddy. Throwing around charges like ‘bigoted’ is not only inimical to your democracy, it’s arrogant. Grow up. I’m done.”
Why Re-Litigate the 2000 Election?
To anyone who would like to see elections democratized so that citizens no longer have to participate in a winner-take-all system, this is an attitude that must be confronted. Those advocating for meaningful electoral reform, like majority elections, changes to ballot access laws or instant run-off voting, open debates, campaign finance reform, etc, have to deal with the reflexive zeal that comes from liberals, who have deluded themselves into thinking Al Gore would have won in 2000 if Ralph Nader had not been a third party candidate.
For example, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum writes in a rather glib blog post, “So How Did the Whole ‘Lesser of Two Evils’ Thing Work Out For You in 2000?”:
…if you’re an actual lefty agonizing over whether you can possibly support the lesser of two evils this year, I have nine words for you: How did that work out for you in 2000? Even if you assume that Al Gore would have passed the Patriot Act; and invaded Afghanistan; and given the NSA free rein to engage in wholesale amounts of warrantless surveillance; and approved the torture of enemy combatants — even if you assume all that, do you think we would have invaded Iraq if Al Gore had been president? That didn’t just happen, after all. It’s not as if the public was baying for Saddam Hussein’s scalp. It happened only thanks to a very determined effort by Dick Cheney and his fellow neocon sympathizers, and it happened only after a very deliberate, months-long marketing campaign from the Bush White House….
Essentially, according to Drum and other liberals, Nader is responsible for the Iraq War, for the lives of innocent civilians and troops who died. He has this blood on his hands because he ran as a candidate and siphoned off votes, which Gore was entitled to receive.
This rewrites history. It ignores the fact that tens of thousands of voters were disenfranchised, voting systems and procedures failed (i.e. the butterfly ballot), the US Supreme Court declared Bush the winner and there were Democrats who voted for Bush or did not vote in the election at all. (Not to mention, it was Gore’s election to lose, but he did not win his home state of Tennessee.) Additionally, it suggests Nader had no right to be a candidate and attempt to challenge the two-party system in 2000.
None of this would matter when advocating for democracy in US elections if it were not for the fact that mythology propagated by liberals has created this sense among citizens that third party candidates spoil elections. And, if one votes for a third party candidate, they are complicit in an effort that could potentially cost one of the major party candidates the election and lead to a war of aggression or the rise of more right wing policies.
The “spoiler” label reinforces ballot access obstructionism by elected state officials from the Democratic and Republican Party. It bolsters secret debate contracts that are drawn up to make certain only presidential candidates from the Democratic and Republican Party are on stage during the presidential debates. It ensures citizens remain captives of a system, where the same conversations about “lesser of two evils” voting are had every four years.
And, this is political bigotry. “Spoiler” is a slur that suggests candidates do not have a right to run. Blocking candidates from ballots and debates is a bigoted act, not in the sense that someone is being racist but in the sense that someone is denying candidates their civil right to participate in elections.
This election liberals rationalize: “To say that you’d rather vote for someone who can’t win than for a candidate with odious values is one of those stirring, consequences-be-damned pronouncements that usually win me over when I hear them in movies. But this isn’t a movie, so I have a hard time ignoring the consequences of (implicitly) encouraging would-be Obama supporters to nullify their votes and thereby increase the chances that Mitt Romney will be our next president.” (Robert Wright, The Atlantic); “Libya and the drone strikes don’t even come close to comparing to Iraq. So go ahead and vote for Gary Johnson if you must, but do it with your eyes open. Whatever good it accomplishes, it also puts us one vote closer to having Dick Cheney’s old foreign policy gang back in the West Wing. I’m not quite sure how the math on that one ever gets above zero” (Kevin Drum, Mother Jones); “ “For as much as they have a huge effect on the direction of the country, presidential elections are not the place where meaningful change occurs.” (Jamelle Bouie, The American Prospect); “The Green Party enjoys no geographic base anywhere. They have no chance of winning even one Electoral College vote in the 2012 presidential election. None. Zero. Zip. And they have only themselves to blame.” (William Rivers Pitt, Truthout); “There’s something to be said for actually examining the differences. In some cases not choosing the trod foot may bring us all closer to that unbearable amputation. Or maybe it’s that the people in question won’t be the ones to suffer, because their finances, health care, educational access, and so forth are not at stake.” (Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch.com)
Solnit’s post insinuated that members of the “far left” railing against the two-party system and talking about not voting for Obama were part of a “rancid sector” of the left. She called for this sector to not let a thirst for purism in candidates get in the way of participation in electoral politics. She also appeared to accuse this sector of suppressing the vote by arguing presidential elections are now merely a choice between the lesser of two evils yet, unlike Democrats, these people do not take action every four years to ensure candidates are not allowed to participate and gain popularity. So, who is really suppressing the vote?
Similar Arguments Were Trotted Out Four Years Ago
Four years ago, these were some of the arguments proffered by liberals against voting for a third party candidate: Paul Rogat Loeb asked citizens supporting Ralph Nader or the Green Party’s Cynthia McKinney to “help shape the political landscape” and not let a “desire for pure and uncomplicated stands” throw away a “historic chance to move forward.” Tom Hayden wrote, “Progressives thinking of voting third party this time consider the historic chance to elect Barack Obama president. Such an open gesture would be enormously important to the people who most fervently favor Obama — young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and labor for example — and go a long way to heal and unify the progressive movement this time around.” Earl Ofari Hutchinson made this somewhat schizophrenic declaration, “The odds are that in this hyper-charged, history making election with much on the line for the Democrats in the end Nader will still be little more than an election curiosity. But then again he may not be, and the terrifying prospect of spoiler Nader in this case spoiling things for Obama is no joke.”
In 2008, the arguments were there were important differences between GOP candidate John McCain and Obama. This was not the time for third party candidates to try and grow their ability to have influence in politics; after the election was when to organize and mobilize people. Obama had a chance to make history. Youth, African-Americans, Latinos and labor had a chance to participate in history and Obama would give these demographics access so change could be effected.
Specifically, in regards to Obama, his support for policies like retroactive immunity for telecommunication companies involved in warrantless wiretapping was just so he could get elected. He was not saying what progressives wanted to hear in some cases but he was thinking about what progressives wanted and would begin to implement the agenda they favored when he was president.
There was one major constituency that could be said to have followed through on their commitment to use access to Obama to get change: the LGBT community. Organizations and individuals with money, along with people like Lt. Dan Choi who chained himself with other veterans to the White House fence, used their power to win the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” They collectively put Obama in a position where he was forced to say he supported the idea of same-sex marriage. As for other groups, like unions and advocacy organizations that supported the fight for healthcare reform, they let the Obama administration put them in the veal pen and chose first to fight for the public option instead of single-payer healthcare. Then, these groups abandoned a push for a public option for corporate legislation—the Affordable Care Act (or Romneycare)—that sold consumers to insurance companies through an individual mandate.
The Five Stages of Support for Obama
The first year saw progressives telling those critical of Obama to give him a chance. They were in denial. By the second year, there was some sense of betrayal. They were angry. An “enthusiasm gap,” as the pundits called it, opened. People chose to just not vote or participate in Democratic political campaigns in the 2010 Election. Meanwhile, the Koch-funded Tea Party was on the rise. This brand was winning over voters and the Obama brand that had convinced people there would be hope and change was stale.
Also, in 2010, progressives bargained. Their expectations were lowered. They took a closer look and admitted they had been projecting their own hopes and aspirations for America onto him. He really was not some messiah come to right all injustices in the country. Those being critical of him were now being petulant, sanctimonious and unrealistic. They were card-carrying members of the Professional Left, who were told they did not get how change is always incremental.
The result was the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party initially failed to organize against Republicans looking to obstruct extensions of unemployment benefits, appointed General David Petraeus to replace General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan and continued a war in a country often regarded as “the graveyard of empires,” committed to a permanent troop presence in Iraq [that Obama later ended with Bush’s withdrawal plan], contributed to a culture which led to the BP oil disaster by indicating renewed support for offshore drilling one month before the disaster, kept the option of a national public-financed healthcare system off the table as Republicans cried foul about a socialist takeover of healthcare and talked death panels, refused to advance the minor reform that labor unions desired, the Employee Free Choice Act (pretty much the only real demand unions had for Obama), continued the use of rendition through a footnote in an executive order, chose to use military commissions, or, in some cases, the denial of habeas corpus rights to detainees, refused to prosecute former Bush administration officials for torture and release photos of the abuse that soldiers inflicted on detainees, failed to close Guantanamo, put the Consumer Financial Protection Agency under the administration of the Federal Reserve and stalled on the appointment of Elizabeth Warren.
The onset of depression came. Particularly, younger people were cynical and dejected. Many who took action in the Occupy movement setup camp in public spaces to demonstrate because they were disappointed in Obama. Injustice had only been perpetuated. The 1% had not been held accountable for their crimes against the 99%. In fact, Obama had populated his administration with bankers.
In the final year of Obama’s term, progressives had election madness to distract them. The slate of the best clowns the culture warriors and robber barons of America could find—Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann—all earned their attention. When that was over and Romney was the GOP’s nominee, they had come to accept they would be voting Obama. No matter his faults, he was not someone they perceived as crazy. He also was not a candidate of the 1% like Romney. And he won’t roll back civil rights, women’s rights or gay rights that are a part of the status quo.
Progressives’ often serene acceptance is a gift to Obama like Romney, as a GOP candidate, is a gift to the president’s re-election campaign. Neither Obama nor Romney is willing to discuss Wall Street fraud, widespread government surveillance, war crimes, the state secrets privilege, indefinite detention, the PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo Bay prison, drone strikes, significantly reducing fossil fuel consumption, the Afghanistan War, the military industrial-complex, the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, “free” trade agreements, restoring the Glass-Steagall Act, breaking up too-big-to-fail banks, single-payer healthcare, the state-by-state war on unionized workers, capital punishment, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, empire-building, etc. Muting themselves ensures these issues will simply become more pronounced and entrenched in politics and society.
A win in this election is not as important as how he wins. Coasting into a second term without any progressive or liberal groups posing a threat to his ability to manage democracy guarantees he will promote and support even more policies detrimental to society and the people of not just America but the world. It means he will stall even more efforts to effect change than he did during his first term.
A Growing Discontent with Winner-Take-All Politics
As I wrote in a previous post, an increasing number of people favor an alternative to the two parties. A recent Suffolk University poll conducted in cooperation with the USA Today found fifty-three percent of “unlikely voters said a “third party or multiple parties are necessary.” Only about a third of the “unlikely voters” found “the Democratic and Republican parties do a good job of representing Americans’ political views.” Twenty-three percent of unregistered Americans said they would choose a third party candidate. Eighteen percent of registered voters said they would vote for a third party candidate.
These numbers reflect growing discontent toward the two most prominent parties. More and more Americans are choosing not to vote, because they do not think the system represents them (a completely rational decision yet one which demobilizes people and strengthens the plutocrats or owners of America).
In conclusion, there is a pretzel logic that holds respectable liberals or progressives captive and in a loop. The logic generates behavior that ensures voters are in the same position on Election Day that they were four, eight and twelve years ago. It makes certain they will be in a similar position four years from now, where people are lamenting the absence of democracy.
Voters in both parties believe there is choice in presidential elections. If the people really had a choice, Obama and Romney would not be presidential candidates in this election. The reality is there is no choice. There is only the illusion of choice.
Both Obama and Romney stand before Americans citing what they consider to be the other’s most frightening and upsetting attributes. It only serves to perpetuate and reinforce the worst aspects of the system. At some point, a few have to stand up and say no more. They have to break from this horrendous tradition of completely vacuous and morally bankrupt politics, which is why it is refreshing to see writers like The Nation’s John Nichols support the inclusion of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the debates and why I have taken the time to pen this essay.