Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Kevin Gosztola’s post on safe voting strategies quotes historian Howard Zinn’s claim that “we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls.” But Zinn veers away from an important insight by concluding “and choose on of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.” I completely agree that voting isn’t the most important thing citizens do (they still should do it, obviously; I’m not saying it’s trivial). What matters most is what they do between elections. Ongoing civic engagement is what matter most. That is true for political parties as well, and it is why recent third party runs for president have been vanity projects.

You can tell by looking at what those candidates have done besides running for president. Did Ralph Nader try to drum up support for third party candidates down ticket? Did he try to build up party infrastructure after the election? Creating a credible third party is an enormous project, one that will need to be measured in years if not decades. It requires an ongoing commitment from both citizens and those who would lead them. It also requires a lot of unglamorous grunt work – identifying candidates, compiling contact information, phone numbers, walk lists, and so on.

Ralph Nader wasn’t much interested in that, was he? He didn’t seem to have an appetite for anything that didn’t involve a microphone and a spotlight. I have little patience for those who think the two major parties are corrupt, that anyone who votes for them is a credulous dupe helping to prop up a rotted system – and don’t lift a finger between elections to plant the seeds for an alternative. There are plenty of opportunities for that kind of activity to happen, too. All you have to do is look for any issue where people feel passionately but the Big Two have avoided.

The best issues will be ones where local activists can participate. Financial reform, for instance, would not be suitable. While neither Democrats nor Republicans are in favor of cracking down on Wall Street1, there aren’t any good ways for most citizens to act. But for as angry as people are about that, there isn’t a good way for most citizens to push for action.

Here in Ohio an issue like fracking is much better suited for that kind of approach, and I’ve tried to document that on my site for months now. People can and have been pushing for ballot initiatives, demanding regulatory agencies do their job, urging elected officials to act, and so on. It’s an issue without a political constituency, one that people can get involved in, and something many people care deeply about. That is exactly the kind of ferment that creates demand for a third party, and wouldn’t it be lovely if the Greens were here lending a hand? But they aren’t. And the people who are sounding off the loudest on the awful state of the legacy parties appear to be more interested in establishing the purity of their intentions than in highlighting what they presumably regard as small scale (non-national) problems, parochial concerns unworthy of their attention.

Yet it is precisely in these political spaces where a third party will have to emerge. The people engaged at that level are the real third party activists. Those who proclaim the need for alternatives might want to consider giving the occasional nod towards those efforts – even if it means being ignored or criticized for dwelling on minutia. Independent and local efforts need to be translated into seats on city councils and school boards, then into seats in statehouses, then seats in Congress. Democrats and Republicans need to become persuaded of the credibility of that party, and feel comfortable jumping to it without jeopardizing their careers. Only after all that has occurred does it make sense to go for the big enchilada.

The real measure of a third party isn’t getting a presidential candidate on the ballot in all fifty states; it’s in building up a base of elected officials from the ground up. If you want to know about the viability of a given third party, have a look at that ballot on election day. Is it represented at the bottom as well as the top, or is voting for its presidential candidate also a straight ticket vote? If the latter, chances are pretty good it’s basically an exercise in narcissism. Those who vote for that candidate can congratulate themselves on their noble refusal to compromise their values, but they will be largely and deservedly ignored. Voting for a third party that has a strong regional presence and a toehold at the national level makes a lot of sense. Voting for one that only shows up with a moon shot presidential run every four years makes none.


1. Spare me talk of Dodd-Frank. William Black put the Great Swindle in perspective: “If you go back to the savings and loan debacle, we got more than a thousand felony convictions of the elite. These are not, you know, tellers or something. We today have zero convictions, zero indictments, zero arrests of any of the elite, non-prime lenders that, through their fraud, drove this crisis.”