The Proud History of Wasted Votes
Last month in Houston the Green Party nominated Dr.Jill Stein and human rights activist Ajamu Baraka as their candidates for president and vice-president. Given that I’d once run for state office as a Green, Wisconsin Public Radio invited me to spend an hour on the network to talk about the role of third parties in 2016. Predictably, the issue of voting for a third party being a spoiler or wasted vote came up. The idea that we only have two choices in elections, and that every other choice is worthless is so deeply ingrained and intoxicating that even brilliant people who show know better like NYU scholar Clay Shirky fall for it. He says: “The system is set up so that every choice other than ‘R’ or ‘D’ boils down to ‘I defer to the judgement of my fellow citizens.’ It’s easy to argue that our system shouldn’t work like that. It’s impossible to argue it doesn’t work like that.” Wow, how brilliant. Bet you never thought of that before.
Shirky and others are correct of course that major party candidates will probably always win the presidential election. But does he seriously believe that third party votes are nothing more than deference to the judgement of major party voters; i.e. wasted votes? If so, that’s an absurd position reflecting a profound misunderstanding of the historic role of third parties in America as both symbols of resistance to corruption AND as advocates for public policy ideas that (when we are lucky) the major parties eventually take up. Kevin Zeese believes third party candidates are often "democracy heroes," a view I have much sympathy for. Examples:
In 1844 the major party candidates were Whig Henry Clay and Democrat James Polk. Clay was the “lesser evil” because unlike Polk he was hesitant to call for annexation of the Republic of Texas, a position that would inevitably lead to war with Mexico. Significantly, both Clay and Polk were slave owners. That year James Birney ran on the Liberty Party ticket on a strict abolition of slavery platform, sixteen years before the start of the Civil War.
Did Birney voters waste their votes?
In 1892 the Democrats and Republicans fielded two mediocrities: Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. That year the new Populist Party nominated James Weaver who ran on a platform that boldly called out the major parties complicity in enabling the corrupt capitalism of the time: “The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty.”
Did Weaver voters waste their votes?
In 1920 women could for the first time vote for president in all of the states. What were their establishment party choices? Republicans nominated lightweight Warren Harding who urged a “return to normalcy” after the tumultuous World War I years. Democrats nominated Ohio Governor James Cox, a man who supported many progressive causes but caved in to the anti-immigrant sentiment of the time and endorsed the “Ake Law” which banned the teaching of German in the schools. He said that teaching German was “a distinct menace to Americanism.”
In 1920 the Socialist Eugene Debs ran for president from the prison cell where he was serving time for speaking out against the war. He received over 900,000 votes, a dramatic symbol of resistance to the establishment’s war on the Constitution.
Did Debs’ voters waste their votes?
In 1924 Wisconsin’s Fighting Bob LaFollette ran an inspiring third party campaign against Republican Calvin Coolidge and Democrat John W. Davis (a Democrat who supported the “separate but equal” doctrine that kept the schools segregated). LaFollette stood against child labor, for progressive taxation, and for a wealth of additional measures we today either take for granted or still have not got to.
Did LaFollette’s voters waste their votes?
In 1948 another Progressive, former Vice-President (serving under FDR from 1940-144) Henry Wallace, challenged Democrat Harry Truman, Republican Thomas Dewey, and Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. Wallace earned less than 3 percent of the national vote, but his campaign courageously called for an end to the disgraceful "Un-American Activities Committee." Moreover, he insisted on speaking at integrated rallies, a radical position in racist Jim Crow America.
Did Wallace's voters waste their votes?
There are many other examples, from environmentalist icon Barry Commoner’s 1980 run with the Citizens Party to Ralph Nader’s much maligned 2000 Green Party effort. Say what you want about Nader “spoiling” the election, but the fact remains that a quarter million registered Democrats in Florida voted for George W. Bush. Moreover, Nader remains as the only candidate to call for a Marshall Plan to revive America’s inner cities, a position that the major parties better take up soon lest we see the continuation of the despair leading to unrest and chaos.
Most of you reading this rant have probably spent your lives voting for Democrats and Republicans. You’ll probably be scared into doing it again this year. All I ask is that you consider what voting for the establishment has gotten us over the last 30 years: the bipartisan invasion of at least four countries, trade deals that decimated the USA’s manufacturing base and wages, the abandonment of almost every New Deal and Great Society program, tax policies that support urban sprawl, deregulation mania that wrecked the economy, mass incarceration and the militarization of the police, a massive and unaccountable Homeland Security apparatus, Soviet style assaults on whistleblowers, health reform written by private insurers and pharmaceutical companies, and the virtual elimination of competition for most congressional seats. Meanwhile media censorship of third parties and consequent low vote count for them keeps reform platforms out of the public eye.
Maybe YOU have been wasting your vote?