The not-quite-impossibility of a third party win

Image for post
Image for post
A photo finish is a win, image courtesy of Noah Salzman and Wikimedia Commons

As America once again slogs our way toward an election in which the two major party candidates are wretched in their own ways, many of us on the left are debating with ourselves — and with the Democrats — regarding for whom we will vote. A third party candidate — someone from the Green or Democratic Socialist Parties, for example — appeals to those of us whose priorities are policies like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal — the latter in its full form, not as watered down by Biden, called the “Green New Deal, minus the crazy” by those who do not want to see their comfortable carbon footprint shrink. But the constant riposte of the Democrats is that we live in a binary system in which their candidate or the other guy are the inevitable winners, and you wouldn’t want to vote for the other guy, now would you. I am told over and over that a third party candidate cannot win, and therefore, if I vote for one, my vote is thrown away.

This is a false dichotomy, since anyone whose name is on the ballot is in a legally easy position to win. The fact that large blocs of voters feel themselves compelled to vote for either of the major parties makes a third party win improbable, but not impossible. What can happen is not restricted by what some people calculate as what is likely to happen. A couple of key facts need to be taken into account here to support the argument that I will make.

First, in 2016, No was the implicit winning candidate for president. Well over ninety-two million eligible voters cast no ballot that year, and despite the sneering that Democrats will cast in their direction, I understand their choice. The Democrats and Republicans have created a system in which many voters are so busy working multiple jobs and filling out insurance documents as to have no time for politics, and our electoral system with its flood of money for broadcast advertising drowns out the much more reasonable messages of parties like the Greens or Libertarians. The fact that No was preferable to Clinton or Trump should be an alarm to the major parties, but they have chosen this year to repeat the same error that we have endured in most elections since before this century began: a boring corporatist Democrat running against a lunatic Republican. Obama was different in 2008 and brought in a lot of people who would not have otherwise voted, but he forgot that lesson and got re-elected as a boring corporatist.

The second point is that in our first-past-the-post voting system, the candidate who gets the plurality of votes is the winner. That is obvious, but its implications escape the Democrats. Increasing numbers of Americans identify as liberal or progressive, and among Democrats specifically, that change is even more significant. This matters because if we have a three-way race among Republicans, Democrats, and progressives — whatever the latter’s party may be called — the winner only needs thirty-three percent of ballots cast plus one vote.

To achieve that total, the progressive candidate needs to deliver the message to like-minded Democrats and to eligible voters who routinely choose to stay home. The progressive platform — when it is honestly presented, rather than being distorted by either Democrats or Republicans — is one that will appeal to many Americans. Medicare for All, for example, enjoys the support of almost seven out of every ten of us. Offering working people a way out of medical debt and the fear of dying needlessly, a guarantee of better wages and access to education at all levels, and an opportunity to work in good jobs that allow all of us to breathe and to drink water from the tap sounds to me like a winning strategy — at least sufficiently winning to gain that thirty-three plus one result that we need.

This will require money, since gaining the attention of voters is done through advertising. We can talk about campaign financing in the future. For now, we have to work within the system as it is, and Bernie Sanders has shown the way. His technique of raising funds from small donors is due in part to his personal popularity, to be sure, but it is also a result of his appeal to the people for whom he was going to work, his donors. Democrats and Republicans work for corporations and billionaires. A progressive candidate promises to be the employee of the people, and Sanders demonstrated that the people will provide the funds to get the message out.

That message cannot be co-opted or silenced by the major party establishment. Obama’s work to stop Sanders from getting the nomination must not be allowed to happen again. With a progressive party that has separated from the Democrats, our candidate can be the third party’s choice without having to deal with the corporatists in the Democratic primaries. This candidate will have a solid argument for appearing on the debate stage with the other two in the general election, especially as progressive support is not diluted by the centrists in polls.

To do this, we have to be organized, and we have to refuse to give in to the Siren call of the Democrats. They have promised progress next time if only we will vote for their lousy candidate in this election, and that check has bounced every time. It is time to break with them. The only vote that is thrown away is for someone we do not support.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store