Do people still think the United States is the most democratic nation in the world? What do we exactly mean by "democracy"? Is one's freedom to spend as much money as one desires on political advertising the sign of a healthy democracy? Or has our out-of-control electoral spending in the wake of Citizens United brought about the death of democracy? Millionaires, billionaires, and Super PACs have poured millions of dollars into the 2012 presidential election. So how much is my little vote worth if I don't have millions of dollars of cash on hand to sway the votes of others?
As a history teacher, I love to remind folks that back in the not-so-good old days of the late 18th century, when our country was founded, our republican "democracy" was not that much to write home about. Suffrage was limited to only white men who owned property. So even I, with my little-to-no accumulated wealth (and the only property I own is the labor of my own body which I sell on the market) — even I, privileged straight white man as I am, might not have been able to vote. So we celebrate how things have changed since then. Blacks got the right to vote. Women got the right to vote. Poor people got the right to vote. And as I learned in the 2000s when I worked at a homeless shelter and helped homeless people register to vote, even people without a stable address or a roof over their heads have a right to vote. And thanks to the generation before my own, 18-21 year-old men and women also have the right to vote. Because if our government can draft us to fight its wars, then we better at least have the right to vote for or against war.
"End War Afghanistan"
An anti-war protester outside the presidential debate at Hofstra University, October 16, 2012
But this is something of a "whiggish" history of American democracy. A weird term, yes. "Whig history" is generally a history of unflinching progress, as if as time goes by life just gets better and better and more fair and more just for everyone. But is that really the history of American democracy? Sure we have taken many steps forward, but I contend that for every step forward we have also taken a step back.
Let's look back at the presidential election of 1912 for example. It's one of my favorites presidential elections of all time because American voters actually believed they had more than just one or two good candidates to pick from. And shouldn't one sign of a healthy democracy be a diverse array of candidates for voters to select from? Or do we really believe that democracy is best served by our current two-party system where voters are provided with just two major choices every four years. Back in 1912 things were different. Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, won the electoral college in a landslide, but he split the popular vote among at least three other strong contenders. In fact, the 1912 election is the only one in American history where at least four candidates won over 5% of the popular vote! In second place in both electoral college delegates and the popular vote was Theodore Roosevelt, former Republican President who ran this time on the Progressive Party. In fact, President Taft, the Republican President and the incumbent in the race, won less votes than his former fellow Republican, Roosevelt, who switched parties to challenge Taft. This would be the equivalent of, say, Ronald Reagan running on a third party ticket in 1992 to challenge George H.W. Bush's re-election! Can you imagine parties getting split like that: a former President bucking his own party to challenge the re-election of the President representing that party? That's crazy, right?
President Taft only won two states: Vermont and Utah. Former President Roosevelt and the Progressive Party — what we today would call a "third party" — won six states and basically kicked Taft's ass. Now some would say that the grand old party, the Republicans, got screwed when Roosevelt left to run on a third party ticket — that perhaps Roosevelt and Taft split the "Republican" vote and that's why Wilson won so handily (he won 40 states). But we shouldn't assume that there are naturally these two parties and that any deviation is a spoiler! It's not like every Nader voter in 2000 would have voted for Gore if Nader hadn't have ran for President. And, similarly, we should not assume that every Roosevelt supporter would have supported Taft if the Progressive Party had not ran Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, as a third party candidate, won 27% of the popular vote! Wilson only won 41% of the popular vote. Was this the best third party showing in history? Well, no. That's because in the nineteenth century third parties actually won the presidency! Take Lincoln for example. When he and his Republican Party won the White House in 1860, they were a new party — a third party of sorts — and they won. And before 1860, party politics were all messed up. Sometimes there were situations that looked awfully like our modern two-party paradigm: for example, the Democrats vs. the Whigs in the Age of Jackson (1830s and 1840s). Or, hey, even the Federalists vs. the anti-Federalists in the 1780s before we even had a Constitution. (And afterwards, too: Thomas Jefferson's victory in 1800 was a revolutionary moment in American politics. It was the first time there was a change of power in the White House, from one party to another.)
But the sleeper hit of 1912 was not Roosevelt. It was Eugene Debs, presidential candidate of the Socialist Party. This was America's Socialist moment, when "socialism" meant what it really meant and was not just some "gotcha" word used to slap onto pro-capitalist centrists like Barack Obama. In some ways, I think we are living through another "red scare" in this country. "Socialism" and "communism" are seen today as dirty words. I suspect that this is just a continuation of the Cold War, as if cranky conservatives still don't get that the Cold War ended twenty years ago and that we need not be on the look out for "red" spies among us. And personally, I think socialism is a fine idea, and if I was a voter in 1912 I probably would have supported Debs.
The Socialist Party Ticket in 1912 (Source: Wikipedia)
Eugene Debs did not win any states in the electoral college. In fact, I don't think the Socialist Party has ever won a state in the electoral college. But he received nearly a million votes (out of fifteen million votes cast). He won 6% of the popular vote. 1912 was the year when Socialists broke the 5% barrier. In our modern day, that would mean guaranteed ballot access for the Socialist Party in almost every state in 1916; and it would mean guaranteed access to federal campaign funding for 1916 as well. And if Debs was polling over 5% he would have been included in the televised debates. Basically, if Debs and the Socialist Party were as strong in 2012 as they were in 1912, one in twenty Americans would be voting Socialist this year, and you would have seen a Socialist Candidate debating with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on TV!
So what makes 2012 so different than 1912? One thing is the consolidation of the two-party paradigm. In 1912, the Republican Party had only been dominant for fifty years. There was no saying that the Progressive Party wouldn't rise to prominence as a recurrent third party or perhaps even displace the GOP back down to its former "third party" status. But things changed. The Russian Revolution and the "red scare" in the U.S. in 1919 and into the 1920s meant the slow death of the Socialist Party (which was torn by infighting in response to these events) and other left-wing challenges to the center (Communism; Anarchism; etc.). The two major parties also upended things themselves, and consistently renegotiated their party platforms over the twentieth century to ensure their continued survival. When Wilson won the Presidency in 1912, he did so thanks to what was called the "solid south": Southerners opposed to racial equality supported the Democrats for about a century following the Civil War. It's as if they could never forgive the Republicans for freeing the slaves. It wasn't until the 1960s, during the Civil Rights era, that a southern Democrat like L.B.J. would actually support racial equality (which is, of course, largely why the U.S. South is no longer "solid" for Democrats, but rather "solidly" Republican. The race issue in the 1960s pushed Southerners out of the Democratic Party, and somehow the party of racial injustice — the Democrats — became the party of racial justice. And somehow the solid differences between North and South completely flip-flopped, and now Republicans are as entrenched in the South as Democrats are in the North. This is a strange history indeed.)
Presidential Election Results by County (1912).
Democrats in blue.
Republicans in red.
"Other" (including the Progressive and Socialist Parties) in green.
Now, in the wake of Citizens United, the two major parties are spending millions of dollars on television advertising. Meanwhile, third party candidates are using the internet and social media to try to challenge the entrenched duopoly. Third party candidates in 2012 have had to fight tooth and nail just to get on state ballots, as both the Democratic and Republican parties have used their legal arms to try and remove third party challengers from the ballot, especially in swing states. Third party candidates have attempted to sue the Commission on Presidential Debates for violating anti-trust laws and for illegally excluding qualified candidates from the debate process. But it seems most Americans are ignoring these candidates' valiant efforts to save our democracy. With all the changes a century can bring, I wonder if we might ever again witness an election like the election of 1912.
Will our democracy survive?
"Save America, Dump Obama"
A Tea Party protester outside the presidential debate at Hofstra University, October 16, 2012
I am hopeful that we can change things. I think that the two-party paradigm's days are numbered. All it will take are millions of Americans choosing to vote for whatever party and whatever candidate they prefer, regardless of "electability." Strong third party candidates, like Roosevelt in 1912, can help upend the two-party system. But to do so, we, the voters — we, the democracy (the rule of, by, and for the people) — must vote for change. There are many good reasons why to vote third party this year. For me, it is enough to recognize that both Obama and Romney support endless wars and oppose civil liberties here at home, to know that I must vote third party. But I also think that all Americans who believe that our "democracy" can be better — more fair, more just, more inclusive, more dynamic — should vote for a third party candidate, if only just to help topple the two-party paradigm. It may not happen this year, or four years from now. But it can happen if we keep at it.
So, will our democracy survive? We will have to vote on Election Day and check out the results to find out. Here are five things to watch for on Election Day.
Five Things to Watch For...
1) Best Libertarian Party Performance Ever?
Third Party Presidential Election Results (Select Parties), 1972-2008
(Source: I made this!)
Gary Johnson, former two-term Governor of New Mexico, is running on the Libertarian Party ticket for President this year. The Libertarian Party was founded in 1971 in the midst of the Vietnam War. The party has been consistently anti-war for four decades. Gary Johnson's platform calls for an immediate end to the War in Afghanistan and the semi-secret drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen. He is also calling for the repeal of the Patriot Act, of the National Defense Authorization Act (which Obama signed into law and allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens without charge or trial). His platform on civil liberties is decidedly stronger than either the Democrats' or the Republicans'. Being Libertarian also means supporting a women's right to choose, marriage equality, and other freedoms that the government has no business regulating. On economic issues, libertarians support a laissez faire "free" market, free of most regulations and restrictions including labor laws and environmental laws.
Look at the gold line in the chart above to see the Libertarian Party's performance in presidential races since 1972. The party had its best-ever performance in 1980 when Ed Clark headlined the presidential ticket in that year's diverse presidential race against incumbent Jimmy Carter (Democrat), Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, and independent challenger John Anderson. Perhaps Anderson's presence and good showing (over 6% of the popular vote) helped encourage more voters to vote third party that year, and Clark benefited from that situation. Meanwhile, since 1980 the Libertarian Party has struggled to win even 1/2 of one percent of the popular vote in subsequent contests.
I am predicting that Gary Johnson will break the 1% barrier this November and give the Libertarian Party their best-ever showing. If he does so, I will attribute much of his success to the so-called Ron Paul Revolution. Ron Paul, although a registered Republican, is the most famous face of libertarianism in the United States today. His multiple attempts to win the Republican presidential nomination have helped him build a huge base of support among disaffected Republicans and Democrats. Young people are particularly drawn to libertarianism. While Ron Paul lost in his effort to secure the Republican nomination this year, he has chosen to withhold nominating the winner, Mitt Romney. Will he endorse Gary Johnson? It does not seem likely, but he has been at least quietly suggesting that his supporters should check out Gov. Johnson's candidacy and see if he deserves their support. If every Ron Paul supporter from the Republican primaries voted for Johnson instead of Romney next month, Johnson could possibly win as much as 10% of the national popular vote. But I will be shocked if he does not at least win over 1% of the vote. That's all he needs to give the Libertarian Party their best performance ever.
2) Best Constitution Party Performance Ever?
Third Party Presidential Election Results (Select Parties), 1972-2008
(Source: I made this!)
If you have never heard of the Constitution Party before, I'm not surprised. Look at their results in presidential contests above, and you will see that a Constitution Party candidate has never won more than 1/5 of one percent of the popular vote. But I suspect this will change in 2012. The party's presidential candidate is Virgil Goode, former U.S. Congressman from Virginia. Goode's candidacy is making waves. His achievement of ballot access in Virginia, a swing state, has reportedly pissed off Mitt Romney who knows he will lose votes to Goode among many loyal Virginian conservatives. Overall, Goode has helped the Constitution Party gain ballot access in almost enough states to win the electoral college. (He is just shy by a few electoral college votes.) But he's on the ballot in enough states, including swing states, to make a difference in this year's race. While Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party are more to the "left" of Mitt Romney on social issues and on issues of war and peace, Virgil Goode and the Constitution Party are more "right" — more conservative — on many issues, including immigration and other social issues. And, with many conservatives feeling only lukewarm about GOP candidate Mitt Romney, I suspect Goode will win over 0.5% of the popular vote and give the Constitution Party its best-ever showing.
3) Best Green Party Performance since Nader ?
Third Party Presidential Election Results (Select Parties), 1972-2008
(Source: I made this!)
Now look at the chart and note how the Green Party's performance suddenly plunged below the other two parties in 2004 and 2008. Why was this? I suspect it had much to do with the Democratic Party's intense effort to shame Green Party voters for "spoiling" the 2000 election. Elsewhere I have written about how there is little reasoning behind that assertion, that not all Nader supporters would have backed Gore, and that if anyone should be blamed for Al Gore's loss it is Al Gore and the Democratic Party themselves who deserve the blame. But the effect of the "spoiler" narrative was chilling on the Green Party. The Green Party would not support Nader again in 2004 or 2008, and so Nader ran on an independent ticket in those years, perhaps pulling away many potential Green Party supporters. (But again, we don't know if Nader "spoiled" it for the Greens. And it is not fair or just to blame him for that, either.) Instead, I blame the Green Party itself that decided in 2004 to only campaign in "safe states," that is, to avoid the "swing states" to avoid "spoiling" the race for Democratic challenger John Kerry. In 2008, many progressive probably supported Barack Obama instead of supporting the Green Party, and so they performed very poorly once again in that presidential election.
Based on this chart, we might assume that the Green Party is on its way to oblivion (just like Ross Perot's Reform Party disappeared in the 2000s. Perhaps it is the curse of third parties that after they run a "celebrity" candidate — a Perot or a Nader — that they must then fall apart after they lose their brief moment in the spotlight.) But I don't see that happening this year. This year the party nominated Dr. Jill Stein as their presidential candidate. She has helped the party achieve ballot access in nearly forty states, placing the Green Party in fourth place behind the Libertarian Party in terms of ballot access for the 2012 contest. Stein's anti-war, pro-civil liberties, pro-environment and anti-Wall Street positions — under the headline of a "Green New Deal" — is attracting special attention in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement which Stein has largely affiliated herself with. In my opinion, anti-war voters should oppose both Obama and Romney and recognize that Johnson (Libertarian) and Stein (Green) are the best options for voting to end the wars. Progressives will split their vote between the two (as well as support the more minor Socialist parties on the ballot in some states). But I predict that Dr. Stein will easily make the best Green Party showing in twelve years (since Nader). She can do it by winning 0.5% of the national popular vote. And I believe she will pass that mark.
4) Spoiler States?
The third party "spoiler" narrative is still famous from the case of Ralph Nader's excellent 2000 performance. But to say that Nader "spoiled" Gore's victory nationally is incorrect. In only two states did Nader receive more votes than the difference between Gore and Bush. Those two states were New Hampshire and Florida. Florida is the more well-known example, because the electoral college hinged on the outcome of Florida's vote. In fact, most people recognize that if the recount had been completed (without U.S. Supreme Court intervention) that Gore would have won Florida. Still most people think Bush won more votes in Florida, but actually Gore won more votes there. This is just one of the many reasons why the "spoiler" narrative about Nader is a myth. And yet news media have been playing up the potential "spoiler" effect of both Johnson's and Goode's candidacies in 2012. So what should we watch for on Election Day?
Everyone knows the election hinges on Ohio. According to Nate Silver, it looks like Obama is favored to win Ohio. But Gary Johnson could be a problem there. One poll even put Johnson's share of the Ohio vote at over 10%. If that actually happened, he would no doubt win more votes than the difference between Obama and Romney. The problem with predicting Johnson's effect, however, is that his Libertarian candidacy is bound to pull voters from both "left" of Obama and "right" of Romney. The Libertarian position is neither "left" nor "right" but truly a third path. It is not clear whether Johnson will pull more votes away from Romney or from Obama or whether most of his supporters would simply not vote if Johnson was not in the running.
Nate Silver is even more confident that Obama will win Pennsylvania, but this is a state where the Republican Party has been working hard to try to get Gary Johnson off the ballot. In fact, the only "page one" New York Times story on Johnson's candidacy this year focused on the GOP's nasty efforts to try to kick Johnson off the ballot in Pennsylvania. Well, Johnson will be on the ballot in Pennsylvania, but it is not clear whether he will win enough votes to be a factor in the Romney-Obama battle.
Currently Colorado looks to be one of the closest "swing states" in the union. And being just north of Gary Johnson's home state of New Mexico, there is a big chance that Johnson will do well there, as he is the only western candidate on a major ticket. And westerners, I suspect, favor libertarianism more than other Americans do.
Besides Colorado, Virginia seems to be the other close "swing state" right now in the polls. Here Virgil Goode rather than Gary Johnson may be the big problem. Virginians know Goode's name. It is Goode's home state and he is a former congressman there. The Republican Party has tried hard to kick Goode and his Constitution Party off the ballot in Virginia, but they have failed. There is a good chance Goode will receive more votes in Virginia than the difference between Romney and Obama.
Meanwhile, I haven't heard much at all about Jill Stein and the Green Party as a potential spoiler in this year's race, even though it is the poor Greens who have been the scapegoat of "spoiling" ever since the Nader-Gore-Bush contest in 2000. Stein's home state of Massachusetts will most definitely be won by Barack Obama, despite also being the state where Mitt Romney was once Governor. Stein has polled best in the Northeast, as high as 3% in one poll. But that won't be enough to make a difference in the Northeast where Obama and the Democrats will win handily.
It will be interesting, though, to watch some of the not-so-"swing states" on Election Day, to see if voters come out in greater support of third party candidates there knowing full well that there is no risk of "spoiling" the vote in those states.
Nate Silver gives Obama a 95% chance of winning New Mexico, but it is also the home state of Governor Gary Johnson, a former two-term governor there. Some polls have put Johnson above 10% in New Mexico. It will be interesting to see how many New Mexicans go for Johnson, and whether that affects the Romney-Obama race.
Mitt Romney will most definitely win Texas and all its electoral college delegates. Knowing that, will many libertarians go to the polls for Gary Johnson? As the home state of libertarian hero Ron Paul, I'll be interested to see if Gary Johnson does exceptionally well in a "red" state like Texas where voters need not worry about "spoiling" Mitt Romney's chances.
Barack Obama will definitely win California. So will millions of more progressive voters, knowing this, come out for Jill Stein and the Green Party? I'll be interested to see where Jill Stein wins the most votes nationally. Her total percentage of the popular vote will hinge on large "blue" states like California where she can safely draw away progressive voters from the Democratic Party with no fear of "spoiling" Obama's chances.
Ditto for New York. I have been advocating that anti-war New York voters support Dr. Jill Stein and the Green Party. Millions of New Yorkers could do so — even give Stein as much as 25% of the vote here — and Obama would still safely win all of New York's electoral college delegates. Let's see if Stein can win a huge number of votes in a safely "blue" state like New York this year.
5) Death of the Two-Party Paradigm?
Total Third Party Presidential Election Support, 1960-2008
(Source: I made this, too!)
Finally, we will want to watch on Election Day to see what the total third party vote is. The chart above shows the percentage of the national popular vote given to third party candidates (here defined as all candidates outside the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans). The chart shows that rather than seeing a general increase or decrease in support for third party candidates over the past fifty years, we have instead experienced a constantly shifting terrain of support. Sometimes third parties have taken as much as 20% of the total national vote (as in 1992). But more commonly the total third party vote is around 1 or 2% of the national vote. Why has third party support shifted so much back and forth over the past fifty years?
My best explanation for the above data is that people vote third party when there is a very attractive and noticeable candidate running outside the two major parties. In other years, when there is no such "celebrity" candidate to vote for, support for third parties seems to decrease back to "normal" levels, which I'll put at 1-2% of the popular vote. In other words, there are consistently somewhere between 1-2% of Americans who vote against the two-party paradigm. These people are third party loyalists or otherwise voters disenchanted with the two-party paradigm. And it may not be that these are the same people every four years, but perhaps we simply see 1-2% of the voting public every four years feeling this way: "The two major parties don't represent me. I'm gonna vote third party."
Now let's examine the peak years in the chart above. First there was 1968. That was the year that pro-segregation candidate George Wallace ran on the American Independent Party ticket against Republican challenger Richard Nixon and Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey. President Lyndon Johnson had declined to run for re-election, and I guess his Democratic Party was bound to lose. But there were more seismic changes going on. This was the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and L.B.J., a Southern Democrat from Texas, had broken ranks with his party's long-standing opposition to racial equality, by supporting the African-American Civil Rights movement. L.B.J.'s shift meant that the "solid south" of the Democratic Party would crumble. Who would pick up the pieces of the "solid" segregationist South? Enter George Wallace and his pro-segregation platform. By offering a third party position during a volatile election year, he was able to actually win fives states in the electoral college: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Wallace also won about 13% of the national popular vote. This explains the great success of third parties in 1968.
The next strong year for third party candidates was 1980. That was the year independent candidate John Anderson ran against incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. Anderson, in fact, was not a "third party" candidate, since he ran as an independent, unaffiliated with any third party. He did not win any states, but he pulled over 6% of the national popular vote. You might also recall from my earlier chart that 1980 was also the best-ever performance for the Libertarian Party; they received over 1% of the popular vote that year. I suspect that Anderson's popular independent candidacy made voting "third party" more palatable for American voters that year. Because even without Anderson's good showing, 1980 still would have been a solidly good year for third parties thanks to the Libertarian Party's performance.
But the best year for third parties in the past half century was 1992, the year when independent candidate Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote. As I wrote before, this was probably the best "third party" showing in a presidential election since Roosevelt's performance in 1912. But, like John Anderson in 1980, Perot was not really a "third party" candidate. He ran as an independent, unaffiliated with any party. It may be that Americans are more willing to vote for non-partisan candidates like Anderson and Perot than support an official "third party" candidate. Either way, Perot did not win any electoral college delegates in 1992, but he did make a huge dent in every single state, and many people consider that Perot pulled votes away from Republican incumbent George Bush and helped Bill Clinton win the presidency.
1996 was also a great year, again thanks largely to Ross Perot, this time a candidate of the Reform Party. Again, Perot won no states or electoral college delegates, but he won over 8% of the popular vote and helped launch his Reform Party to solid third party standing. His good numbers ensured ballot access across the United States for the Reform Party in 2000. But unfortunately, Reform candidate Pat Buchanan did not even win 1/2 of one percent of the popular vote in 2000, effectively losing the Reform Party's ballot access everywhere and bringing this potentially viable "third party" back to the periphery of national politics. This November the Reform Party is barely even on the map.
So what will happen in 2012? In my opinion, for democracy to survive, we need strong third parties that can continue to grow and provide a realistic opposition to the two major corporate-funded parties. But, unfortunately, the data from the past fifty years seem to demonstrate that third parties don't really grow. Instead, they seem to perform exceptionally well when they have "celebrity" candidates, but then collapse (like the Reform Party in 2000 and the Greens in 2004) when those celebrity candidates are no longer on the ballot. There aren't really any "celebrity" candidates this year, with the possible exception of Gary Johnson who, among all the third party candidates, is the most well-known and nationally popular. But I think that 2012 will be a year for party building rather than one-time peak performances. And that's a good thing. It is great visibility to have a Perot or a Nader on the ticket and win a huge share of the popular vote. But that kind of "growth" is unsustainable. Instead, what we need to see for our democracy to survive is to see third parties grow more slowly. If they make slow but steady progress over the next few election cycles, by the 2020s perhaps we will see a new "normal" in third party politics. Instead of 1-2% of the popular vote as the "normal" result, perhaps we will see 5-10% as the new "normal" in the 2020s. Perhaps the new "normal" will mean third parties winning a state or two here and there in the electoral college. All of this is possible — just look at what happened in 1912.