Why We Should Vote For Third Party Candidates
Sep 13, 2010

Why We Should Vote For Third Party Candidates

The political discourse in the United States is dominated by the relationship between the two major parties. Almost all commentary is described in this highly partisan context and third party or independent candidates are essentially ignored. I discuss here several of the important reasons behind why we should be supporting third party candidates.

The first factor is the issue of framing the public debate. When there are only the republicans and the democrats in the public discourse, the issues are cast without any larger context and perspectives and can only go as deep into an issue as the parties actually differ. When the parties agree on issues such as extensive support for the military industrial complex and corporations, support for Israel, support for the war on drugs etc., these issues and alternate perspectives on them are just gone from the public discourse because neither side chooses to bring it up as a way to attack the other side. The republicans and democrats are far more similar on many important issues than the supposedly polarized, partisan presentation of them in the media would have one believe. We need to included 3rd party candidates with a much wider group of perspectives in order to have an intellectually honest representation of the issues and to frame the issues in a larger, more inclusive context.


Secondly, third party candidates actually change the policies and rhetoric of mainstream candidates even when they are not elected. By showing a following among the populace (demonstrated by your votes) and by framing the debate in a way that takes into account third party views it forces mainstream candidates in these new directions as they aim to attract support from the third party's supporters and address the public discourse in the new, wider sense.  We will see later with the Tea Party in the U.S. and the Green party in Canada just how much the mainstream parties can actually be affected in a real way in their rhetoric and policies because of third party candidates.

Thirdly, when 3rd party candidates (or ones who are significantly distant from their party but use the label as a political convenience such as Ron Paul) actually get elected they can do legitimate good even though they are not party of the dominant views. They can sit on committees relating to their key issues, they can exchange their support for a shifting of bills slightly in their direction, they can build momentum for their issues both among law makers and the public and several other legitimate things. While a bureaucrat and not a politician, Elizabeth Warren has almost singlehandedly provided the entire momentum behind the consumer finance protection agency created in the recent financial reform bills. While the first two points acknowledge the importance of third party candidates even if they don't get elected, we see that that importance is even higher if they do get elected.

Finally, while the other points are pragmatic, voting for third party candidates is also a moral issue in line with upholding democratic principles. Voting for the candidate that best represents us is at the core of democracy, and we hardly represent our positions in society if we choose a candidate less suited to our views.  If a democrat or republican legitimately is that best candidate then great, but if a third party candidate represents a closer view to your own then I think there is a moral imperative to support that person, pragmatic concerns regardless.

Now I should address the primary objection usually raised to voting for third party candidates, namely that it is a "wasted vote" and is better to vote for the "lesser of two evils". I concede that at times this argument has merit because while the established parties are far more similar than they are different, there are legitimate differences that matter to the lives of citizens and ensuring the best of these choices win has merit. That said, it should apply only when the race is close and further should be accompanied by supporting the third party candidate you wished you could vote for but didn't in different ways. When the vote isn't going to be close (something we can usually tell through polling some time before the election) then supporting the third party candidate will help to shift the subsequent framing of the debate and shift the winning candidates policies. Most importantly we acknowledge that our society is one that the influence of our vote is not just at a single election but carries on between elections and even influences subsequent elections. By giving a strong show of support in an election for the policies of a third party, it makes the elected mainstream candidates want to appeal to these people and shift their policies. At later elections, platforms will be designed tailored to move towards these directions knowing the support exists. As such, while there is a time and place for "lesser of two evils" thinking, voting for third party candidates can and does make a difference both in the immediate future and the longer term.

One of the best places to affect these changes and support is in primaries and leadership races. Not all democrat candidates, say, are alike and getting a more progressive candidate through the primaries can make a huge difference in all the ways I mentioned. Even when the larger democrat vs republican debate is somewhat fixed by the realities of jurisdiction and the times, getting the best mainstream candidate through the primaries is one of the most direct and important places democracy occurs. The same goes with completely third party candidates (those that don't even use the mainstream labels for political purposes), supporting them early to build momentum, to get them exposure, to get them on the debates etc are all critical. Listening to Ralph Nader describe the enormous difficulties his campaign faces fighting the established institutions to even get the most minimal legitimacy and exposure is a humbling experience about the difficulties of being a third party candidate.

I conclude with two examples of the influence of third parties. Firstly, the tea party in the US which has exploded in popularity in recent years as a response I think to the difficulties of the economic crisis and ensuing anti-government motivations.  What we are seeing in constituency after constituency as tea party candidates win primary nominations and rise in legitimacy is that the entire rhetoric is getting dragged far to the right. We no longer debate  "is such and such government policy good" we might instead debate "does the government have any right to tell us what to do". As these people get elected the shifted rhetoric and framing of the debate will be followed by shifting policies - something we are seeing today what with higher than normal levels if antigovernment sentiment in Washington. Third parties (whether you choose to call this a third party or not is a matter of definitions) make legitimate differences. As a second example consider the green party in Canada. In the 21st century elections they have steadily increased their popular support becoming an established, federally funded political party, albeit with no seats. However when Dion ran for the liberals in the last election, the party essentially used the Green's entire environmental plan and used it as the key plank if their platform. Clearly the growing appeal of the green party and environmental concerns led to this choice to rather radically shift policy and rhetoric far to the left on environmental issues. They ultimately lost, but the point remains that the influence of a fringe third party can be very large at framing the debate and shifting policies and support.

The result of all this is the simple conclusion that voting for a third party candidate that you most support is a very legitimate and in most cases the best option from both a pragmatic and moral standpoint.

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