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Friday, August 2, 2002

From the Outside Looking In


By Alexa Llewellyn


You're the political scientist. If we were to start a party, what would it look like?

Quoted in "Spoiling for a Fight" by Micah L. Sifry (Routledge Press, 2002)

Former editor at The Nation and a senior analyst at Public Campaign, Micah L. Sifry recently participated in a book party at Abandoned Planet Bookstore.

In an evening coordinated by Green Party activists June Brashares and Jim Dorenkott, Sifry began by speaking in general about third-party politics. Later, he was joined by Supervisor Matt Gonzalez and Medea Benjamin to discuss perceptions of the Greens.

In his book, Sifry centers on several recent efforts of third parties - including the successful campaign of Jesse Ventura as a Reform candidate for governor of Minnesota, the effects of Ross Perot's decision to run for president as well as the rise and fall of the Reform Party, the creation and eventual decline of the New Party, and Ralph Nader's run as the Green Party candidate for president in 1996 and 2000. The audience was too polite to point that all of his examples of successful third parties (other than the Green Party) were either disbanded or struggling.

The beginning of the talk at Abandoned Planet centered on the difficulties of third-party politics, including campaign financing, media coverage, and being seen as the "spoiler" in tough races. Sifry talked about the senate race in Minnesota, where Paul Wellstone faces Republican and Green Party challengers. He suggested that because Wellstone is a liberal Democrat in a tight race, Greens shouldn't run a campaign against him.

Since the audience was entirely Greens and/or Green supporters, this stance was rejected by the majority of the audience. But the discussion does lead to any interesting question Should candidates not campaign because they might be called spoilers and turn the campaign against mainstream candidates whose ideology closely resembles their own?

When we talk about "spoilers," we are basically continuing to buy into the two-party system. Wellstone is an incumbent with a political war chest that befits someone who has been in power for several terms. He is a liberal in a fairly liberal, populist state. Yet he is in one of this year's tightest senate races. Is it the third party's fault that Wellstone has disenchanted enough of his voters that he is in the closest race of his political career? Is it the Greens' fault that Wellstone has alienated so much of his core base that the Greens are expected to get enough votes to make a difference in a senate race where they will be outspent by both parties?

The other key is the issues that are introduced by the parties. Since the Democrats and Republicans have standard political platforms that rarely change from election to election, attention in a campaign isn't given to difficult issues that may lose votes but still should be explored. Sifry pointed out several issues that were first raised by third parties including women's suffrage, social security, and civil rights. Every idea was radical at one time and the person who first introduces a radical idea into the public's consciousness runs the very real risk of being dismissed. When an idea is introduced over and over again, it eventually emerges into the public's consciousness and becomes seen as an acceptable idea. But the originator of the idea is still painted as a radical.

The issue of "spoiling an election" also presumes that only two parties can win an election. It lends the appearance of a two-party system so essential to U.S. politics that a new political element/issue cannot be introduced even to raise political discussion or give the voters more options.

But offering voters more options, such as third parties, shouldn't be seen as a radical or "spoiler" idea. As Sifry wrote in his dedication, directed to all those who purchased his book, the purpose of politics should be to create a broader and deeper democracy.