Losing Game

“The General Public has no notion
Of what’s behind the scenes.
They vote at times with some emotion
But don’t know what it means.”

– W. H. Auden, 1935

Rarely does American politics excite. Even after the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency, the best that the Democratic Party could do was to rally around the dour candidacy of John F. Kerry. With an atrocious war on and a miserable economic future for large sections of the population, and with the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison scandals, all indicators suggested that the Bush era would end before it could fully consolidate. But Kerry fell short in the popular vote (48.3 per cent) and well short in the electoral college (251 to Bush’s 286). Apart from the western, mid-western and north-eastern States, Kerry could win nothing. Nothing in the South and nothing in that swathe of States that runs from Iowa to Florida, from Indiana to Arizona. To be fair, in the three “battleground” States of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, the gap between the two candidates was very narrow, and charges of voter intimidation and voter fraud against the Republicans linger (in early 2005, Congressman John Conyers released a report, “Preserving Democracy: What Went Wrong in Ohio”, which presents some of the evidence). Not for nothing did a website hastily appear after the election with the name, “Sorry Everybody: an apology to the world for the re-election of George W. Bush”.

One little-mentioned fact about the 2004 election is that the minor parties earned their lowest percentage of the popular vote since the 1988 election. A tide of minor party support that began with Ross Perot’s run in 1992 seemed to shrink. Ralph Nader’s run on the Green Party ticket in 2000 was blamed by many liberals for taking votes away from Al Gore of the Democratic Party, particularly in closely fought Florida. With the incentive not to repeat that, many voters wished to register their disapproval of Bush by voting for the Democratic candidate. In 2000, as many as 2.9 million people voted for Ralph Nader; in 2004, only 400,000 went for him (he ran as an independent; the Green Party of the United States won only 118,000 votes, less than 0.01 per cent). Yet, even with such a low turnout for the minor parties, Kerry could not carry the day.

In 2004, Barack Obama was the most powerful presence on the Democratic side. A keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, he mesmerised the party and many in the country with his talk of hope. “Do we want to participate in a politics of cynicism,” he asked, “or do we participate in a politics of hope? Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!” The message of hope over cynicism and fear resonates with many people in the country, and it catapulted a little-known community organiser, lawyer and activist into a major political figure (Obama could not get credentials to go to the 2000 Democratic National Convention).

The excitement generated by Obama is of course because of his remarkable oratorical talents and the air of cool authenticity that he exudes. It is also because he is black and is comfortable talking about the complexities of culture and community in the world. But it is also because there is a deep-seated sense of hope among a very large section of the U.S. population (particularly the youth) that Obama will be the one, the messiah-figure, who will be able to liberate the political arena from manipulation and fear, from money and privilege.

The millions who come out to see him and to greet him are moved beyond his programme, beyond the nitty-gritty of what he says about this policy or that policy. They are taken with his presence, in almost a religious way. And they are taken by each other, by the Obamamania of which they are a part. Obama borrowed a slogan from the world of community organising (We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For), which is one way of seeing how the enthusiasm is not simply for a man and his message but much more for the man as the lightning rod for all kinds of hopes and aspirations.

How does one run against this kind of a phenomenon, against this Obamamania that can as easily pack Berlin’s Tiergarten with 200,000 people as it can move 80,000 people to gather at Denver’s Invesco Field to anoint Obama as the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party?

The Republican Party ought to get shut out completely in this election cycle. But things are not so easy. They benefit from a series of institutional and cultural factors that work against the Democrats. First, the entire electoral college system preserves the power of each of the 50 States, which means that those with much greater populations do not undo those with low populations.

The Democrats are strong in the densely populated States (such as New York and California) where, it turns out, the population is more diverse. The ethnic diversity is significant because the second important factor is that with a black candidate, there will be a residual discomfort among sections of the white population, which will be slyly mobilised by the Republicans. This vote is in these smaller States, where their margins will give the Republicans numbers in the electoral college. It should be remembered that Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral college.

John McCain will rely upon these advantages. The savvy choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate increases the uncertainty of the elections as she offers both youth (she is 44 to Obama’s 46) and a first (the first female Vice-President to Obama’s first black President). Sarah Palin might draw some people, and add to the slim fraction of the electorate that still holds faith in the Bush agenda, and those who are unwilling, for whatever reason, to jettison the Republican Party. The politics of fear that Obama derides is alive and well, and it is effective. It will not disappear overnight.

McCain will not have an easy task. But if it is hard for him, it is even harder for the minor parties. Scott McLarty, National Media Coordinator for the Green Party, told me that it was “very difficult” to run their candidates against Obama. “If Hillary Clinton had been the candidate, it would have been far easier.” Nonetheless, there are several minor parties that have fielded candidates.

Ralph Nader, the perennial challenger, spurned the Green Party in 2004 and is not its candidate this year. He is running as an independent, with the charismatic Matt Gonzalez as his running mate. Nader held a rally in Denver during the Democratic convention, where he told the 4,000 college-age people in attendance: “Every politician I’ve ever known from the major parties starts flattering the people. Oh, how they flatter the people! Because that’s what gives the people weak knees.”

As the journalist Jesse Hamilton reported, Hollywood actor Sean Penn, a guest speaker at Nader’s rally, confessed that he did not know whom he would vote for, and a young woman wore an “Obama ’08” T-shirt to the rally. It is hard not to get weak knees when confronted with as appealing a candidate as Obama.

Forty years ago, the distinguished American historian Richard Hofstadter bemoaned the narrowness of the U.S. polity. The two-party system, he wrote, is not a consequence of history and tradition but is indeed built into the very constitutional and legal system. “Our entire electoral arrangement,” he argued, “the absence of proportional representation, the exorbitant cost of political campaigns, the legal difficulties in getting on and staying on the ballot in many States, even the quasi-official role of the majority parties as supervisors of elections – all these things work against the rise of minor parties. The method of electing a President with the winner-take-all system in the electoral college, the very leadership function of the presidency itself, work to keep power in the hands of the two major parties.”

The two parties dominate the structure of electioneering, deciding through arcane rules who gets to be on the ballot and who gets to enter the media-spectacle debates. The party leaders set up the rules for the contests, and the party financiers pour money into the campaigns of those who are seen as viable by the leaders. The public chooses a candidate from among those already selected by a representative elite. This is what political scientists call a plebiscitory democracy.

Since the 1800s, two parties have dominated the U.S. electoral landscape – the Democrats and the Republicans. For a brief time in the early 19th century, the Whig Party held sway alongside the Democrats, but the issue of slavery destroyed the party and sent its base and leaders into the refashioned Republican Party.

Over the years, a series of parties of various political complexions has emerged to challenge this consensus. Two early examples are the Free Soil Party and the Know Nothing Party, the former against the extension of slavery and the latter against the extension of immigration. Both parties dissolved into the Republican Party. These two major parties have since morphed in various ways, absorbed different political visions and class fragments. Until the 1930s, both parties had strong populist strains alongside a commitment to the stability of business. Neither was a class party in the European sense, and so neither evolved into a Labour Party of any kind (a Labour Party was formed in the 1990s, but it has made no impact).

The most significant “third party” challenge came in the aftermath of the collapse of agrarian prices in 1873. A revolt by farmers joined with the nascent working-class organisation, the Knights of Labor, created the Populist Party, which lasted for two election cycles (1892 and 1896). The party’s programme called the Omaha Platform combined the grievances and hopes of farmers and wage-workers (notably railway workers) into an anti-monopoly ethos. Ignatius Donnelly, who drafted the Platform, bluntly wrote, “What is liberty worth to the man who is dying of hunger? Can you keep a room warm next winter with the thermometer 30 degrees below zero by reciting the Declaration of Independence?” Four years after it made an impact on the national scene, the Populist’s star waned as the Democrats adopted significant parts of its platform (the two parties had the same man, William Jennings Bryan, as their presidential candidate).

Quirky parties dot the landscape of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the Silver Party (1892-1902) and the Vegetarian Party (1948-1964). In 1992, the billionaire-tycoon Ross Perot was dissatisfied with what he saw as the evisceration of American power by free-trade agreements, overseas military expeditions and too much social welfare. Perot personally financed his campaign, took advantage of the populist strains and channelled it through his own irreverent brashness. He won almost 19 per cent of the vote in 1992 although when he ran again four years later, this time as the candidate of the party he founded, the Reform Party, he earned only 9 per cent (still a respectable figure). Perot’s sort of cultural disdain for professional politics was mirrored when his party successfully ran former World Wrestling Federation champion Jesse “The Body” Ventura for the governorship of the State of Minnesota (in 1998). The Reform Party has since floundered (Nader ran on its line in 2004, and this year it is running a party apparatchik).
Apart from the Republican Party, there are two other parties of the Right that command the sway of significant sections of the population.

The Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, is the third largest party in the country, with an amalgam of commitments that are premised on personal freedom from state control (to free markets, to freedom of choice in social matters, to freedom from state control). This year the Libertarian Party picked former Georgia Congressman and former Republican Bob Barr as its candidate. Barr takes a very strong position on withdrawal of troops from Iraq but carries with him all kinds of unpleasant baggage from his Republican past (including unaddressed accusations of his fealty to the white supremacist Citizens’ Council and his sleazy role in the Clinton impeachment process).

he other party of the Right is the Constitution Party, founded in 1992 as the U.S. Taxpayers Party. This party replicates the Republicans in many of its positions although, not being in the mainstream, it is more honestly able to articulate its anti-immigrant positions and its unhinged economic proposals. Neither the Constitution Party (150,000 votes) nor the Libertarian Party (397,000 votes) made a significant showing in 02004, and they are unlikely to grow as long as the Republicans do their work for them.

The Left picked up the populist and progressive strains from the 19th century and carried them into the present. The Socialist Party of America ran their leader, Eugene Debs, for President from 1904 to 1912, winning 6 per cent in his last outing (he ran once more in 1920, from prison, but did dismally). The communists absorbed the energy of the socialists in the 1920s and 1930s (in the late 1920s, the Communist Party of America had a membership of close to 25,000). A combination of repression and sectarianism, the population’s experience of the golden years of growth in the U.S. (from the late 1940s to the 1970s) and faith in the two major parties meant that the Left resided in the margins of political life (although it played a central role in the major progressive struggles of the 20th century, the civil rights struggles in particular). There is still a Left presence in the electoral sphere: some abjure the process, others throw in their lot with the Democrats, and some run their own candidates.

Others support the Green Party. As its name suggests, the Greens are mainly environmentalists although their ranks are also filled with anti-war people and those who would like to be socialists but dare not speak the name. With a progressive programme, the Greens have been able to attract the support of several far Left groups as well as the consumer advocate, Nader. This year, the Greens are running former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney for President and hip hop activist Rosa Clemente for Vice-President.

The Greens use the election as a time to lay out a set of alternatives. As Rosa Clemente pointed out sharply, “I don’t see the Green Party as an alternative. I see it as an imperative.” McLarty, of the Greens, agreed with this but said that the real purpose of running was to try and attract 5 per cent of the electorate, which would earn the party national status and so federal funds for the next election cycle.

The Greens are on a mission to work through the institutional straitjacket of the two-party system. It is an ambitious strategy. “We are in this to build a movement,” said McKinney. “A vote for the Green Party is a vote for the movement that will turn this country right-side up again.” But will an electorate terrified of a “third Bush term” be brave enough to check the Green box instead of the Democrats? It seems that this is not the year for the minor parties, but then, given the system, each election cycle seems like the wrong year.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

This article was originally published by Frontline, India’s national magazine.


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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).