After hearing about the arrest of the Green Party presidential candidates outside the presidential debate in Hempstead, New York, last Tuesday, it struck me as remarkable that in a country that enjoys touting its democratic values and patriotically masturbating to our founding fathers (with the other hand held across your heart), we would so callously overlook one of the most profoundly heartfelt warnings from two of them, John Adams and George Washington, about the dangers of having a two-party political system, “each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” These were wise words spoken by wise men that we seem to have, at best, forgotten or, at worst, ignored. Today, we so carelessly accept the disenfranchisement of third-party candidates in our system and fall back on the reassuring (but, in my opinion, false) justification that we are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.
Steering clear of the issues about voting for third-party candidates, it is clear that one of the perpetual problems third-party candidates face is a lack of political exposure, in part due to the enormous power over American politics that the Democratic and Republican Parties exert. For example, the Commission on Presidential Debates is financed and run by the Republican and Democratic Parties – no wonder our lovely Green Party friends and other third-party candidates have been excluded election after election. Major media sources like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News all but ignore third-party candidates, helping reaffirm their exclusion from our political discourse or at least relegate their role to that of the “disruptive candidate” who will pull votes away from could-be winners. The one third-party candidate who did break the cycle and actually win a significant amount of the vote was Ross Perot in the 1992 election, taking nearly 20% of the popular vote. Of course, Perot was able to run such a successful campaign at the time by spending more on campaign advertising than either Clinton or Bush thanks to his enormous personal wealth.
Yet its clear that spending millions in advertising revenue isn’t the only thing you need to attain a strong political following. In 1920, Eugene Debs, running as the Presidential candidate for the Social Democratic Part, received 913,693 write in votes, totaling 3.4% of the popular vote. Yes, that’s right – nearly a million write in votes in an era before the internet, in large part thanks to incredible efforts at labor organizing around his campaign and widespread discontent with the established postwar political elite. In 2000, Ralph Nader received 2.4% of the popular vote, again in an era where political organization and information-sharing was largely done offline but thanks again to significant organizing efforts on behalf of labor unions and universities. Today, we live in an era of unparalleled access to free information at our finger tips, with the vast majority of news and information shared over the web through forums, blogs, and online news sites. Major media companies have seen their stranglehold on access to information enjoyed during the era of television, radio and the newspaper slowly erode as the blogosphere has opened up smaller, independent sources of news to greater publicity. Social networking itself has helped increase political awareness of various social and political issues, with one Pew Research Center study finding that 26% of US social network site users believe the platform is very important in recruiting people to get involved in political issues that matter to them.
Some candidates have taken full advantage of the online world. Ron Paul’s recent run in the Republican Primary, for example, was far more successful than many originally thought it would be thanks to his incredibly robust online campaign. Third-party and fringe candidates are utilizing the web more and more as a means of disrupting the powerful Democratic and Republican political machines and bypassing the inherent mainstream media bias. For example, two of the major third-party candidates, Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, had their own debate over a Google+ Hangout with voters submitting their own questions last Thursday (despite facing some minor technical difficulties).
As we become more and more dependent on the web for our information, more opportunities will arise for third-party candidates to spread their message and reach potential voters. The question will be whether third-party candidates can outplay the established political parties on the web and make their message heard over the din of the mainstream political uproar. Attracting donors and voters is far easier now than it was ten years ago and perhaps might give our founding fathers some hope (were they alive and tech-savvy) that our political system might become a bit less binary.