As I'm sure all of you know by now, we are in a Presidential election cycle in which the majority of the American people are less than inspired by the Presidential alternatives offered by the two major political parties. One of those candidates seems to have a support ceiling under the 50% threshold, while the other is falling toward a support sub-cellar that may not even be visible yet. Time will tell, of course, whether Hillary can convince a majority of us to be "with her," and/or whether Trump will be able to make his campaign as great as he allegedly wants to make the country.
In the meantime, 20% or more of the voters are looking at alternatives. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are two that have enough support to show up in national polls: Jill Stein, the nominee of the Green Party, and Gary Johnson, the nominee of the Libertarian Party. Ms. Stein is running as the default alternative for Berniecrats and other progressives who don't trust Hillary to expend any real effort to advance a progressive agenda. And Mr. Johnson? Well, as a political philosophy, libertarianism tends to span the traditional ideological divide in politics. They're conservatives on taxes, welfare and government spending generally, and liberal on abortion, civil rights generally, and the environment.
The presence of one very left third-party candidate, and a third-party candidate who appeals to voters on the left and right, seems to suggest that the challenge of attracting supporters may be greater for Hillary than it will be for Trump. Given the fact that Hillary is leading Trump by an average of 8% in the polls, she seems to be meeting that challenge. Thus, for the moment, I'm not looking at either Stein or Johnson as a "spoiler," a la Nader; if things change, of course, I'm prepared to take a different view of them.
But even if they are not spoilers, I have a very strong objection to these third parties and their candidacies: why do you only show up in Presidential election years? Is it because you're just trying to live off of free media attention given to the presidential race generally? Or is it from a naive worship of the Presidency as the one office in this country that has the power to change everything?
I pose those questions only because those, to me, are the only two logical alternative possibilities. I don't believe that either the Greens or the Libertarians fail to understand the way in which power is divided in a federal system. But that means that, as political organizations advancing candidates and policies, both parties are unforgivably lazy. And that's a shame, because I think that both parties have ideas worth advancing, and worth greater political support than they are now getting, such as alternative resources and concerns about law-enforcement policies.
Bringing ideas to the forefront of a campaign is the only way to prevent it from becoming a contest of personalities. Unfortunately, in an "either-or" contest, it becomes incredibly easy for the major parties to become lazy and to turn the focus of voter attention to personalities. That didn't happen in the 1992 Presidential election, which inspired record voter turnout and led to a debate about the federal deficit that actually led to action on the deficit--by an Administration and a Congress controlled by the party falsely responsible for running up the national debt.
But that only happened because of the presence of a third-party candidate, Ross Perot, who had the means and the will to organize and operate a truly national campaign. Perot was and is a billionaire, and one who made his fortune largely off of government largess. It was easy for him to put a campaign together almost overnight. And he was his crusade's only candidate; his Reform Party offered no one for Congressional or state government seats. Still, for a time, he made a real difference.
And that's the kind of difference any serious third party should be trying to make. It should not try to just show up for Presidential races and somehow hope that lighting will strike. It should be serious about raising money and backing candidates in every single election year, to make sure that its voice is heard on a regular basis, and to make sure that it can obtain power in other parts of our Federal system. Imagine, for example, what a single Green Party Senator who was serious about the Green Party's platform could do, under current Senate rules. For that matter, you don't have to imagine it; you already have the equivalent of it in the form of Bernie Sanders. For crying out loud, give the guy some helpers, so that he doesn't have to go it alone in the Senate. Or, for that matter, imagine what a single Green Governor could do; he or she could, under the ACA, put a single-payer health care system into place.
If the Greens and Libertarians committed, beginning with the 2018 election cycle, to operating in this fashion, I can absolutely guarantee you that it would not belong before you had a political climate that had more than two voices. You would have as many as four, and possibly more. And, in that scenario, you would have a clearer focus on ideas--because ideas would become the glue by which coalitions are built and elections are won. Coalition-forming, historically, is how progressive ideas have been advanced in this country; for that matter, it's how political parties are formed in the first place.
But things are never going to get better unless third parties in this country buckle down, work hard and fundraising and recruitment, and otherwise resist the easy lure of free media in presidential years. Governments in this country are formed, and re-formed, every two years, not every four. America's third parties need to wake up, accept that fact, and act on it. America's future may depend on their doing so.