by Jan Baughman
(Swans - June 16, 2008) As the 2008 presidential election antics evolve, the third-party candidates (Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney, Bob Barr, and others) remain virtually nonexistent as far as the mainstream media coverage is concerned. However, the visceral reaction to Nader's presence, in those rare mentions, remains strong. That he has no right to run, his time has passed, he's an egomaniac, he ruined it for the Democrats in 2000 and 2004, is repeated time and again. And yet, what exactly is he -- and the other forgotten candidates -- spoiling? The reign of the two-party system, which is steadily moving us ever farther away from true democracy; and the further degradation of free speech, which at last check still covered the right to run for office, and the right to vote.
We have strayed so far beyond the American childhood legend that anyone can become president -- a notion that on the surface was strengthened by this years' barrier-breaking candidacies of both a woman and a non-white male -- and yet, we've confirmed that anyone with such aspirations must be a progenitor of, and subscribe to the doctrines of, the moneyed elite or the Ivy League curricula. Others need not apply. They can't even afford to. That Ralph Nader is a Princeton and Harvard graduate perhaps serves to increase his "spoiler" status, since he has fought his entire career against the corrupt system created and perpetuated to the benefit of the elite on the backs of the majority non-Ivy-Leaguers. It is not a democratic system he is working within, but a corporate-controlled machine he has to battle every step of the way, from an ever-increasing distance.
While we -- Swans editors, contributors, readers -- are generally in the company of like-minded individuals on political and social matters, with similar stances on foreign policy, health care, taxes, civil rights, abortion, the environment, and the like, opinions immediately digress when the mention of voting for a non-Democrat arises, something we've confronted since this publication began. One is suddenly an outcast set to ruin the election and therefore the hopes of this country. And yet, why should I, in this democracy, not have the unfettered right to vote for a candidate who represents my vision? When was the Constitution amended to state that only a Republican or a Democrat has access to the office of president? I recently asked a colleague if, as a Democrat, she was proud that her party used all legal means to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot in 2004, or that the two parties control the debates and keep other parties' candidates out? How will you feel when only one party controls the country? The answers were a sheepish no and no, and a confident that will never happen...
And yet, recall the televised presidential debates of yore, sponsored by the League of Women Voters. To their acclaim, in 1987 the LWV withdrew its sponsorship in protest of the restrictive conditions placed on them by the two main parties; to our detriment, the Republican and Democratic Party leaders usurped the debates and formed a corporate-funded "Commission on Presidential Debates" headed by Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., former chair of the Republican Party and Paul Cook, Jr., former chair of the Democratic Party, guaranteed to keep all "fringe" candidates out of the public eye so that they cannot raise issues contrary to the elites' agenda and have the opportunity to increase their popular support through exposure in the mainstream media. Ross Perot was the last Independent candidate included in the debates (1992). In 2000 the two main parties set rules that would limit access to the debates to candidates with greater than 15% support, a number that is intentionally daunting to achieve without press coverage. You see the patterns that connect.
So why do they, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney, Bob Barr, and others, run for the office of president against these odds, knowing they cannot win? Because they are fighting for ideals that have nothing to do with the pursuit of power. They seek to serve on our behalf, for the betterment of society as a whole, and we should embrace their passion and encourage their efforts. Third-party candidates have been instrumental in pushing the envelope to achieve great strides in American history without winning major elections, from ending slavery to gaining women's rights. See Sam Smith's insightful analysis of the role of third parties throughout history. As Smith observes, "change often comes not from the top or the center but from the edges."
Without the likes of individuals willing to sacrifice for the common good, we the People are sure to find ourselves increasingly powerless with no hope of influencing change. If we continue to turn a blind eye to these visionaries, it will be a great discredit to their efforts, those of their forbearers, and those who await us in the future. We need to take control of the political agenda and make it our own, not what corporate marketing departments determine we need. If Eugene Debs were to make a magical reappearance on the political scene would you rebuke him, tell him to keep quiet, not to spoil the party?
To channel Voltaire, I do not agree with who you are voting for, but I will fight to the end so that you might cast that vote. Please do the same for those of us on the edges.