Major and minor
The two-party system invariably gives rise to cries of protest from third-party or independent candidates that they are overlooked at election time.
That is what happened at a debate last week that included all five candidates on the ballot this year in the race for governor. Emily Peyton, of Putney, running as an independent, said, “I’m working very hard to refresh democracy.” And she criticized the media for ignoring her. “The press is not giving you the choice, they are not doing what elections should do,” she said. “And elections are about choosing the best leader. So they are not allowing you to see my platform.”
The corollary of this criticism is that the Democratic and Republican parties are both captives of corporate interests and that only in looking beyond the two major parties will voters find a meaningful alternative.
So if third-party and independent candidates are fertile ground for new ideas, why are they ignored? The reason has to do with the way our politics are structured and what it means to be a major party candidate.
The two political parties are not simple entities. Being a Democratic candidate is not the same as being a candidate for the United States Marijuana Party or the Libertarian Party. Parties are coalitions, and to win the nomination of a major party a candidate has to hammer together a broad coalition among a host of interest groups. The complexion of the two major coalitions differs from each other, but the process of creating a coalition inevitably involves negotiation, compromise and the blurring of the candidate’s message.
Thus, a person who becomes the Democratic or Republican candidate automatically wins greater attention from the media because he or she represents more than the point of view of one person or narrow ideology. By the time the candidate has won nomination from a major party, he or she has already done the hard work of winning the support of a broad constituency. It is the broad constituency behind the major party candidate that earns him or her the greater share of media attention.
Sometimes the message-blurring process of the two major candidates leaves the voters dissatisfied and they conclude, as George Wallace used to say, that “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference” between the Democrats and Republicans. When the two parties fail to address major issues, a window opens for third parties or independent candidates. In Vermont the Progressive Party grew out of Burlington’s progressive politics led by Bernard Sanders in his years as mayor.
Over time the Progressive Party achieved enough success in elections that it drew more and more attention from the press and became a threat to the Democrats, supplanting them in Burlington for a time and taking on the role of spoiler in statewide races.
Third parties often follow the success of iconoclastic individuals, such as Sanders. One of Sanders’ heroes is Eugene Debs, the socialist leader of the early 20th century. Other third-party candidates who have had an impact include Wallace and Ross Perot. Perot in 1992 tapped into concern about the federal deficit that, in the view of many voters, was not being addressed by the two major parties.
The ultimate spoiler was Ralph Nader, running as a Green Party candidate in 2000 and throwing the election to George W. Bush.
It is not for lack of interest that reporters and editors tend to slight the minor candidates, nor is it from a lack of respect that they refer to them as “minor.” As soon as one of them catches fire, develops an organization, establishes a coalition, reporters pay attention. They are always looking for a good story, and Sanders has been one of the most interesting stories in recent years.
There is a chicken-and-egg problem, of course. A candidate may complain that it is hard to catch fire if no one pays attention. But it is not the job of the press to provide attention unmerited by political accomplishment, and accomplishment happens out in the political trenches where Sanders labored long and hard before his successes in Burlington.
In Vermont the Progressives have faded from an active role in the top races. Martha Abbott, the Progressive candidate for governor, decided not to pursue her campaign against incumbent Democrat Peter Shumlin. But the write-in candidate who narrowly lost the Progressive nomination, Annette Smith, plans to pursue the race as a write-in.
Our system is open to people trying a range of strategies, but politics is a demanding endeavor. Once you have become a major party candidate, you have gained the stamp of approval from a sizable swath of the electorate and your voice deserves to be heard.