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As election day approaches, some are making the case for voting third party for president.  But the credibility of one should be measured first, and measured at the bottom of the ballot - not the top.

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Kevin Gosztola's post on safe voting strategies quotes historian Howard Zinn's claim that "we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls."  But Zinn veers away from an important insight by concluding "and choose on of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us."  I completely agree that voting isn't the most important thing citizens do (they still should do it, obviously; I'm not saying it's trivial).  What matters most is what they do between elections.  Ongoing civic engagement is what matter most.  That is true for political parties as well, and it is why recent third party runs for president have been vanity projects.

You can tell by looking at what those candidates have done besides running for president.  Did Ralph Nader try to drum up support for third party candidates down ticket?  Did he try to build up party infrastructure after the election?  Creating a credible third party is an enormous project, one that will need to be measured in years if not decades.  It requires an ongoing commitment from both citizens and those who would lead them.  It also requires a lot of unglamorous grunt work - identifying candidates, compiling contact information, phone numbers, walk lists, and so on.

Ralph Nader wasn't much interested in that, was he?  He didn't seem to have an appetite for anything that didn't involve a microphone and a spotlight.  I have little patience for those who think the two major parties are corrupt, that anyone who votes for them is a credulous dupe helping to prop up a rotted system - and don't lift a finger between elections to plant the seeds for an alternative.  There are plenty of opportunities for that kind of activity to happen, too.  All you have to do is look for any issue where people feel passionately but the Big Two have avoided.

The best issues will be ones where local activists can participate.  Financial reform, for instance, would not be suitable.  While neither Democrats nor Republicans are in favor of cracking down on Wall Street1, there aren't any good ways for most citizens to act.  But for as angry as people are about that, there isn't a good way for most citizens to push for action.

Here in Ohio an issue like fracking is much better suited for that kind of approach, and I've tried to document that on my site for months now.  People can and have been pushing for ballot initiatives, demanding regulatory agencies do their job, urging elected officials to act, and so on.  It's an issue without a political constituency, one that people can get involved in, and something many people care deeply about.  That is exactly the kind of ferment that creates demand for a third party, and wouldn't it be lovely if the Greens were here lending a hand?  But they aren't.  And the people who are sounding off the loudest on the awful state of the legacy parties appear to be more interested in establishing the purity of their intentions than in highlighting what they presumably regard as small scale (non-national) problems, parochial concerns unworthy of their attention.

Yet it is precisely in these political spaces where a third party will have to emerge.  The people engaged at that level are the real third party activists.  Those who proclaim the need for alternatives might want to consider giving the occasional nod towards those efforts - even if it means being ignored or criticized for dwelling on minutia.  Independent and local efforts need to be translated into seats on city councils and school boards, then into seats in statehouses, then seats in Congress.  Democrats and Republicans need to become persuaded of the credibility of that party, and feel comfortable jumping to it without jeopardizing their careers.  Only after all that has occurred does it make sense to go for the big enchilada.

The real measure of a third party isn't getting a presidential candidate on the ballot in all fifty states; it's in building up a base of elected officials from the ground up.  If you want to know about the viability of a given third party, have a look at that ballot on election day.  Is it represented at the bottom as well as the top, or is voting for its presidential candidate also a straight ticket vote?  If the latter, chances are pretty good it's basically an exercise in narcissism.  Those who vote for that candidate can congratulate themselves on their noble refusal to compromise their values, but they will be largely and deservedly ignored.  Voting for a third party that has a strong regional presence and a toehold at the national level makes a lot of sense.  Voting for one that only shows up with a moon shot presidential run every four years makes none.


NOTES

1. Spare me talk of Dodd-Frank.  William Black put the Great Swindle in perspective: "If you go back to the savings and loan debacle, we got more than a thousand felony convictions of the elite. These are not, you know, tellers or something. We today have zero convictions, zero indictments, zero arrests of any of the elite, non-prime lenders that, through their fraud, drove this crisis."
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Comment Preferences

  •  Well said... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Subversive

    I totally agree.  I wish we truly had a third party, focused on labor and environmental issues, but I agree that there appears to be a lot of "laziness" about starting smaller and working your way up.

    Every four years, we hear the usual pontification about voting for a third party when they have NO chance to succeed without starting small first.

    A note to anyone thinking of voting for a third party and against Barack Obama on Tuesday:  Come Wednesday, one of two men will be the next president and it WON'T be your third party candidate.  Ask yourself if the next four years will be better with Romney in office.

    I'm sure a lot of noble people proudly went to the ballot box in 2000 and voted for Nader.  How did that Bush presidency work for you?

  •  Hmmm (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shahryar, Bisbonian

    In my state of Oregon two parties have candidates in all levels of the ticket: The Green party and the Progressive Party.

    It isn't the presidential candidates who do the work, it is the rank and file membership who get all of these people on the ballot.

    If you meet these people, talk to them, you get a real sense of their commitment and intelligence.

    Easy to put them down on a blog that doesn't allow people to cogently and at length provide an alternate view.

    Oh, but how brave to belittle them when no one will write a lengthy rebuttal.

    Bravo.

    "In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act". -George Orwell

    by ZhenRen on Sun Nov 04, 2012 at 08:03:09 PM PST

    •  I wrote at the end that (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ZhenRen

      it made sense to vote for a third party with a strong regional presence and a toehold at the national level. It sounds like the Green and Progressive parties are well on their way in that respect where you live.  In that case, vote third party!

      Nothing is stopping you from a cogent, lengthy rebuttal, either.  Drop it in the comments, write your own diary or post something to your web site of choice and link to it in the comments.

      •  ha! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ZhenRen

        now is not the time, if one wants to keep rating privileges. Any defense of a 3rd party vote will draw a large amount of HRs. It's not worth the time, at this point. At least not here.

      •  Markos, the dkos owner (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Shahryar

        has a policy prohibiting any expression of support for a third party. Violators are routinely banned.

        "In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act". -George Orwell

        by ZhenRen on Sun Nov 04, 2012 at 08:15:08 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I've noted my support for third parties a number (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Mindful Nature, Odysseus

          of times safely.  You're allowed to personally support 3rd parties, as many of us aren't truly Democrats.  What you're not allowed to do is advocate for third party candidates in races in which a Democrat is also running, with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders, who has shown that he's actually more wedded to the principles espoused by the democratic Party platform than most other Democrats in name.

          I agree that the the more sensible thing for third parties to do is to start at the lowest levels and build support up.  You simply aren't going to get credible numbers of votes if all you do is run a top level candidate, unless you've also got the millions to self-finance, as Perot did.  Where I disagree is in calling it 'laziness'.  As you point out above, third party activists can be among the most dedicated of people, and merely calling them out with the 'Nader' smear is trite at best.

          •  Safely? (0+ / 0-)

            It all depends on what day you support a third party, and how much value Markos puts on your contributions here, apparently. On a bad day when the site owner is in one of his moods, support for a third party will definitely get you banned.

            Support for third parties is expressly not allowed. Markos has made this clear. He basically has told third partly supporters to "go fuck themselves."

            If you do a search of banned members, this will bear out.

            "In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act". -George Orwell

            by ZhenRen on Sun Nov 04, 2012 at 10:36:06 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  Greens really putting up an effort in Oregon. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ZhenRen

      http://www.pacificgreens.org/

      I mean look at all that intensity!

  •  Vermont has a successful 3rd party (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    llywrch, progressivevoice, Odysseus, danps

    The Vermont Progressive Party has 2 state senators and 5 state reps in addition to a number of municipal offices across the state. Their existence on the ballot creates left wing pressure on the democrats and has forced them to pass single payer a ban on gas fracking and a number of other important reforms. They've accomplished a hell of a lot more than any of Nader's Quixotic runs for President have.

    But as you said, there's no substitute for issue based activism between elections.

    "Poor man wanna be rich, Rich man wanna be King, and the King ain't satisfied till he rules everything." Bruce Springsteen.

    by Johnnythebandit on Sun Nov 04, 2012 at 08:25:19 PM PST

  •  And, btw, speaking of 'laziness'... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mindful Nature, koNko, Odysseus

    John Boehner is apparently running unopposed in Ohio's eighth district.  Democrats couldn't be bothered to put up a real candidate.  Some Republican (Masters or McMasters or somesuch) who ran against him in the primary in 2010 pretended briefly to be a Democrat, but seems to have disappeared between the primaries and the general this time around.

    With Congress' approval rating at an all-time low, and John Boehner presiding over the most do-nothing House ever, Dems couldn't be bothered to even try to take his seat.

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