A friend and I had an animated discusson last night about Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, and Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, for President. My friend is furious, fearing that Johnson will become a spoiler, keeping Hillary Clinton from winning. Johnson (NM) and William Weld (MA), two former Republican governors, comprise the Libertarian slate, the stronger of the two alternative tickets.
“Did you hear Johnson the other day? He didn’t know what Aleppo (Syria’s largest city and a focal point of the war) is. He didn’t say where– he said what,” possibly confusing Aleppo with a similarly-named Spotted Panther or someone suffering from Hansen’s Disease. Johnson “took responsibility” for the blunder, as if there was anyone else at fault for his ignorance.
“I’m still angry about Nader,” said my friend. Nader is Ralph Nader, the pioneering consumer advocate whose Green Party run in 2000 most likely cost Al Gore a clear victory in Florida and thus the election. Nader admits pulling away a net of 12,000 Florida votes from Gore. This would have changed the result. Nader disingenuously points to the Supreme Court’s infamous decision, which stopped the Florida recount, thus throwing the election to Bush. But if Nader had not run, Gore would have been a clear winner, and no recount would have taken place. Even those who see few meaningful differences between the parties must admit that the 21st Century would have been different with Gore in the White House.
My friend and I agreed also that 2016 is not the right time to launch an attack on the two-party system, given Trump’s patent unfitness for office. Yet, the question remains: If you believe that America’s two-party system is failing, will there ever be a better time?
The Flawed System
The system is corrupt, ineffective and inefficient. Congress especially is a quagmire, with office holders spending almost 20% of their time raising money for …reëlection. No wonder so little gets done. There are some dedicated, hard-working lawmakers in spite of the system, not because of it. Assuming the lawmakers to be well-intentioned, they do not have time to do the people’s work or they do so at the risk of raising money to support reëlection.
Both major party candidates are disapproved by more than half of people questioned. Each party’s primary had a forceful populist movement. Trump’s campaign defeated 16 opponents in seizing the nomination. Bernie Sanders did not fare as well, running an enthusiastic second. Sanders threw his support to front-runner Hillary Clinton and got some props at the convention. Sanders has not been a significant force in the Clinton campaign so far. Not all of his supporters have embraced her candidacy, and she has not forcefully pushed Sanders’ agenda.
If Not Now, When?
There is a fertile field for a third-party candidate, who can pick up Sanders’ progressive followers or the disenfranchised Republican establishment. Jill Stein has not broken out of the pack. Sanders himself has maintained his position that electing Clinton is the only goal this year. On the right, Independent Evan McCullin has barely broken the water’s surface. Nominally an alternative to Trump, McMullin is effectively stuck at the kid’s table, left to debate whether he, unlike Johnson, is a serious candidate.
My friend may be right: there is no political will for a third-party candidate, or for a coalition of parties common to non-American democracies. The two-party system may be America’s single most resistant viral strain. The gravitational pull is so strong that politicians like Sanders, the late Arlen Specter or – gasp! – Ronald Reagan, are more likely to change parties than to embark on a new movement. Trump found it easier to become a viper in the Republican nest than to build one of his own–and he’s in construction!
In today’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks suggests that the parties are ripe for realignment, with the Sanders following finding common ground with the Trump Republicans, and moderate Republicans finding a home with the Democratic establishment. This would be a convenient resetting, but for the serious racial and social differences, which Brooks does not consider. He mentions that African-Americans were Republicans prior to the FDR realignment. He fails to mention that the abolitionists were called radical Republicans or that southern Democrats were segregationists until 1968. That was when they left the party en masse as a rebuke to Lyndon Johnson for his Great Society.
“Bullshit!” I imagine my friend saying. “There are fundamental differences in how the two parties view the role of government.” At the moment, it’s true. Historically, those differences were not as extreme or rigid as they are now. I’m relatively certain that the growing role of non-white people in elections accounts for this change. If America was truly a post-racial society, the pols could go back to a more flexible notion of bipartisanship and a coherent government.
The instability of each party makes third-party candidacies attractive, even necessary, although they are viable only as disrupters of the status quo and not as players in the system. They are external expressions of the internal party realignments taking place. [ninja_form id=1]
I concluded that either my friend does not see the need for fundamental change in America or believes that the green grass must grow from the ground up, not from the top down.
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