Sunday, November 4, 2012

First Things First - Third Party Candidates Later

Every 4th of July, my family gathers around to watch the 1972 movie of the musical "1776." Over the years, its lines and lyrics, many of which are direct quotations from the founders' assorted writings, have become an entrenched aspect of my meditations on American politics. Over the last few weeks while discussing the upcoming election, one particular exchange between John Adams and Benjamin Franklin has been on my mind:

(Quoted lines start at 2:45, if you are low on time)

John Adams:
"Mark me, Franklin... if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us."
Benjamin Franklin:
"That's probably true, but we won't hear a thing, we'll be long gone. Besides, what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We're men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don't secure that, what difference will the rest make?" (emphasis mine)
These lines mark the monumental compromise made by the first Congress regarding the legality of slavery, a decision that sowed the the seeds for the Civil War eighty years later, but allowed for the creation of the independent United States. Our history since is spattered such compromises, agreements struck between the abhorrent and the ideal. This Tuesday, I will be one of the millions of Americans making their way to the polls to decide, among other things, who will be the next president of the United States -- and I will have to accept a compromise in order to move forward.

You see, I do not love Obama. Voting for Romney is unthinkable. Yet, the option of supporting a third party candidate who falls closer to my values, such as Jill Stein, is an equally unacceptable possibility. This is hardly a unique problem; even Epic Rap Battles of History alluded to the general dissatisfaction doubtless felt by many voters when considering our deeply flawed two-party system in their latest rap. Some of my friends are adamant advocates for opting out of this system, and will give their votes to the third-party candidates of their choice. I respect their right to vote for whomever they want to support, and I am thrilled to have friends who are passionate, involved citizens, when so many of my peers are content to sit back and let our parents' and grandparents' generations make the policy decisions.

Yet I cannot agree with my friends' decision to vote for third-party candidates, especially when it comes to third-party candidates for President. "Be the change you want to see in the world," is the slogan recited back to me when I point out the ineffectual nature of voting for third party candidates in our current political system. I love this line; I have magnet on my fridge that says the same thing. Hell, I'd get a tattoo of that statement, if I was a tattoo-getting girl.

Here's my problem: claiming that casting your vote for the candidate whom you think should have a chance is "being the change" advocates an overly-simplistic view of global politics. Call me cynical, but deals are a luxury that is only affordable in theory. In reality, what "should be" and what "is" are vastly different narratives, and we have to strike the best balance between the two that we can.

In the case of the presidential election of 2012, the most pressing issue for consideration - a bigger deal than the economy, the environment, or any aspect of the healthcare law, in my opinion - is the likelihood that the next president will choose two new justices for the Supreme Court, replacing the likely-to-retire 80-year-old Ginsburg and at least one of the other three justices over the age of 70. Should Mitt Romney be elected, he would appoint conservative justices reflecting his and his party's beliefs. While such an outcome is desirable from a Republican standpoint, it would transform the Supreme Court into a 7 - 2 conservative majority. With the country split roughly halfway between liberals and conservatives of varying degrees, such composition of the court would hardly represent the will of the population in their decisions. Alternatively, should Obama be reelected and appoint one or two justices, the current 5 - 4 conservative-liberal split would continue, or at most tip the slim 5-4 majority in the liberals' favor.

But it is not the specific makeup of the court that concerns me so much; rather it is the decision of Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission, made by our current court, that has loomed large in this election in the form of Super-PACs and endless campaign spending. Should the conservatives of the court gain two seats, the chance of a reversal becomes nil -- after all, the outcome of Citizens United is consistent with the contemporary Republican party's pattern of taking power from government and handing it to business.

What does all this have to do with 3rd-party politicians? As a feminist and pacifist, why would I vote for an only moderately-liberal president who has failed to close Guantanamo, authorized drone strikes even against American citizens, and allowed the two years of Democratic congressional majority to be handicapped by a truculent Republican minority? Why not vote for Jill Stein or Rocky Anderson and join my friends in opting out of the mainstream?

The answer is obvious - with the millions upon millions of dollars spent by the Obama and Romney campaigns and their associated PACs, a third-party candidate doesn't have a chance of gaining more than a tiny portion of the popular vote -- and with the Electoral College's winner-take-all system, that portion is transformed from a vote for the third-party candidate to a vote against that candidate's mainstream counterpart. Were I to vote for Jill Stein, I would in essence be voting against Obama, since the loss of my vote would reduce Obama's lead on Romney. If I want to ensure a politically progressive president makes it to the White House, I have to swallow my dislike of some of Obama's actions in office, and put my vote behind the Democratic candidate who has the chance of winning.

Do I like this reality? Is it fair or right? No. And I would love our country to reach a point where we resemble the Netherlands, with a smorgasbord of candidates to choose from each election, and a political body forced to adopt negotiation and coalition government as the order of the day in place of one party ruling by majority. I believe we can get there if we work to develop the organizations and candidates that we want in our future. But it is also necessary to recognize that we can't get there overnight. The Republican and Democratic parties have decades of establishment machinery behind them. We must work to build our own establishment, our own machinery -- but we must also ensure that the American political environment remains a place where a third party might actually have a chance to grow.

This brings me to the great compromise of this election, that I and - I hope - many others will make on Tuesday. Please, consider what you are doing. Neither we nor our politicians are demigods, and we need to recognize that without setting in place the elements necessary to reverse Citizens United, there will be no future possibility for the creation of viable third parties. Should we fail in laying this groundwork, we will be dooming a generation of American politics to live in the shadow of elections bought with corporate money, and posterity will truly have no reason to forgive us.

First things first - Independence, America. The rest can be achieved after the polls close on Tuesday.

And now, since you've made it all the way through the post, here's that Epic Rap Battles of History video I mentioned earlier. Please enjoy, and don't forget to Vote!

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