Nuts, Nuisances And Nonpersons

Editor's Note; This is an excerpt from Micah Sifry's new book, Spoiling for a Fight: Third Party Politics in America (Routledge, 2002).

The democratic impulse is a muscle that must be exercised regularly; when people grow up in a political culture that devalues their participation and treats them as passive objects to be manipulated, that muscle atrophies.

The future of America's leading third parties -- the Greens, the Libertarians, the New Party, the Minnesota Independence Party, the New York Working Families Party, and the Vermont Progressives -- depends entirely on their ability to build those muscles. Can they?

While public interest in third-party alternatives remains high in the abstract, the actual level of tangible resources available to these projects to tap and channel that interest is fairly low. Three factors are critical: money, organizers, and public awareness -- the most precious and intangible of political commodities. This awareness can come from third parties' own efforts to project themselves into the public eye (high-level races, celebrity candidates, cutting-edge issue campaigns) as well as from sympathetic media coverage.

While the two-party duopoly keeps generating grassroots interest in fresh alternatives, if America's leading third parties are to truly thrive, there will have to be an alteration in the media's attitude toward the third-party phenomenon. Despite their current and historic contributions to the democratic process, third-party candidates are generally treated as nuts, nuisances, or nonpersons. The night that Jesse Ventura won in Minnesota, on-air correspondent John Hockenberry of MSNBC openly sneered. NBC's Tom Brokaw asked Ventura if he should be addressed as "Governor Jesse Ventura, or Governor Jesse 'The Body' Ventura." You could almost hear the snickers from the control room. The New York Times front-page story on his win couldn't resist poking fun at his roots in the professional wrestling business. Robert Scheer, a liberal columnist for the Los Angeles Times, said on his radio show on KCRW, "The people of Minnesota should be spanked for letting this happen."

Press coverage of the Reform Party shenanigans was equally telling. Granted, some of the oddballs who presented themselves at the party's meetings deserved criticism. But opinion magazines of the center-left and center-right, including The New Republic and The Weekly Standard -- places where so-called opinion leaders go to get their dose of conventional wisdom -- took remarkably similar approaches. Along with extensive investigative-features reporting on Perot, Buchanan, and Fulani's involvement in the party -- much of it quite good -- these magazines reveled in the opportunity to make fun of the average Americans who were attracted to the party. Their reports on its 1999 convention in Dearborn, Michigan, where support for Jesse Ventura produced a resounding rebuke of the Perot-Verney leadership of the party and set off Jack Gargan's ill-fated chairmanship, were full of derision. Their reporters seemed to be more interested in their own ability to write a colorful put-down than address any serious questions about the party's future.

For example, Dana Milbank's report in The New Republic on Jack Gargan's unexpected rise went out of its way to cite Gargan's "enormous ears" as evidence the "Perot legacy" would live on. One wishes that such talented journalists would feel as free to turn their poison penmanship at the truly powerful in America, as opposed to those average citizens who simply dream about opening up the political system to a little change. But such writing about the powerful is rare, for all sorts of obvious reasons.

To my knowledge, only three mainstream outlets -- ABC News, USA Today, and The Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, delegated a full-time reporter to the third-party beat in 2001. And even though these reporters did their jobs with much gusto, they often had to fight to get their stories aired or published.

Few journalists wore as many of their biases on their sleeves as Tucker Carlson, a young Republican who made his mark at The Weekly Standard and then vaulted, with his bow tie, to CNN's "Crossfire," where he played the conservative to Bill Press's liberal. An interview he did in mid-July 1999 with third-party advocate and former independent Governor Lowell Weicker was quite revealing of the mainstream view of such efforts. "Why burden Americans with another name on the ballot?" Carlson asked Weicker. "It seems to me that third-party candidacies aren't going anywhere. Protest candidacies as yours, I think we'd both agree, make people cynical. They see a name on the ballot. They think, 'he's not going to get elected.' You know, this is why American politics is pointless, because people who can't win run." Carlson seemed to be saying that he would prefer it if there was just one candidate on the ballot at a time.

But this notion of democracy as a burden and third-party candidates as bothersome wasn't just held by up-and-coming right-wingers like Carlson. The very same attitude imbued The New York Times' editorial attacks on Nader's campaign. His was "a self-indulgent exercise that will distract voters from the clear-cut choice represented by the major-party candidates.... The public deserves to see the major-party candidates compete on an uncluttered playing field." Contorting themselves in knots, the paper's editorialists were at pains to explain why they had criticized the Commission on Presidential Debates for excluding Perot in 1996 but agreed with its decision to exclude Nader and Buchanan in 2000:

We argued that since Mr. Perot had run a strong race in 1992 and still had a broad national standing four years later, he had the right to debate President Clinton and Senator Bob Dole. This year, however, neither Ralph Nader nor Patrick Buchanan has yet reached the status of a candidate with demonstrated national support. Should that change as the campaign progresses, the commission can respond accordingly. For now, the public deserves to see Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore lay out the substantial differences between them, without interference from third- or fourth-party candidates who have not built solid constituencies.

Actually, in 1996, Perot was at 8 percent in the polls when the commission arbitrarily decided to exclude him; four years later polls showed Nader at anywhere between 4 and 6 percent when the commission snuffed his debate bid. In both cases those numbers showed "solid constituencies" in support of their candidacies. The Times also paid no heed to polls showing a majority of Americans wanting Nader and Buchanan included in the debates.

The Times's editorial attacks on Nader's candidacy, and by extension all unsanctioned third-party behavior, were truly startling when read against other statements made by the paper on the issue of democracy. Not only were the paper's editorialists strong advocates of reducing money's role in politics, they had several times in the not-too-distant past stood up and roared against attempts to close the ballot to unwanted candidates.

In January of 2000, the paper of record lambasted George W. Bush "and his New York henchmen -- Gov. George Pataki and the Republican Party chairman, William Powers" for indulging "in a shameful display of Soviet-style politics." Their crime? Rigging the state's Republican primary so that Bush would be the only candidate on the ballot. This was explicitly an editorial in favor of a multicandidate election, since the Times was advocating on behalf of Steve Forbes's and John McCain's efforts to get onto state ballots. The paper even ran a map showing New York's "democracy-free zones" -- congressional districts where those candidates had their petitions challenged "and voters may therefore have their choices narrowed because of an unfair and outdated system."

A little more than two-and-a-half years earlier, the Times congratulated Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania for vetoing a new set of ballot access rules that would have drastically increased the number of petition signatures needed for third-party candidates to get on the ballot there and shortened the period during which they could be collected. Noting that third parties were on the rise nationally, The Times scolded the state legislature for trying to monopolize its hold on power. "The legislators might keep in mind that it was the Liberty Party of 1840 that prompted people to think about the idea of abolishing slavery, and an upstart Republican Party that introduced a politician named Abraham Lincoln," The Times concluded.

As public opinion leaders at the nation's most prestigious newspapers and journals justified closing their minds to vigorous public debate and political competition, the country's public broadcasters were given the same message by the Supreme Court. Once upon a time, twenty-odd years ago, the High Court ruled that a "central tenet of the First Amendment [was] that the government must remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas." But then came Forbes v. Arkansas Educational Television Commission. On May 18, 1998, the court turned its back on its own First Amendment doctrine, ruling that a state-owned public television station, the Arkansas Educational Television Commission (AETC), could legally restrict a 1992 congressional candidates debate it organized to just the Democratic and Republican nominees, even though it shut out a ballot-qualified independent candidate named Ralph Forbes. The Forbes decision was bad news for minor parties and maverick candidates and another stake in the heart of democratic civic culture.

In a manner eerily reminiscent of its earlier ruling in the New Party's Timmons case, the Court's 6-3 majority blithely skirted the essential facts of the case. (In fact, it was the same majority of six in the Timmons decision.) In his opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "Forbes was a perennial candidate who had sought, without success, a number of elected offices in Arkansas." (The same was true of Abraham Lincoln in Illinois before he was elected president.) In fact, Forbes had twice been a serious contender for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor of Arkansas, receiving 47 percent of the statewide vote in 1990 and carrying 15 of the 16 counties within the Third Congressional District -- where he next sought office -- by absolute majorities. In 1992, he decided to declare for Congress as an independent, and managed to collect more than 6,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot. But even though he was on the ballot, the AETC staff excluded him from their debate because they deemed him not viable. They noted his lack of a paid staff or a formal campaign headquarters (he was running his campaign from his home) as well as the fact that the local media weren't planning to report his vote totals in their Election Night coverage as proof that he wasn't a serious candidate.

It did not trouble the Supreme Court majority that the AETC had included similarly weak candidates -- including one who raised less money than Forbes -- in debates it sponsored in Arkansas' other congressional districts, solely because they were Democrats or Republicans. Instead the justices seemed satisfied that AETC's decision to exclude Forbes was "a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral exercise of its journalistic discretion." But there is nothing neutral about suppressing the speech of unpopular candidates. Even worse, AETC was allowed to do this even though it was a government agency running five public television stations, paid for by state taxpayers, with a board appointed by the governor. Most Americans would object if the government started printing the words "not viable" next to the names of some candidates on the ballot. But that, essentially, is what the Supreme Court allowed the AETC to do in the Forbes decision.

There are no shortcuts to third-party growth. And in addition to fairer coverage, today's third parties need tangible evidence that they are making progress if they are to keep their adherents' support and thus keep generating financial and volunteer support. I can see several paths forward. One is to use the existing openings at the level of nonpartisan races to elect local officials and produce modest innovations at the policy level. The second is to work hard to change the rules of elections, by enacting reforms like instant-runoff voting, fusion, public financing, same-day voter registration, nonpartisan redistricting, and free TV time for candidates (if not a Citizens Channel). The third is to run head-on at vulnerable major-party incumbents, deliberately spoiling for a fight. And the last is to somehow reorient politics by making an issue so salient voters decide to abandon the old liberal-conservative paradigm for something new.

Micah L. Sifry, senior analyst with Public Campaign, is the author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America (Routledge, 2002).
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