Reporter's Notebook

The Hunger for a Third Party in 2016
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Readers debate the need for, and the merits of, third-party candidates against the Republican-Democratic duopoly.

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Red ... Blue ... Green?

For a big dose of third-party discourse, here’s a 90-minute video of their presidential debate from 2012, moderated by Larry King and featuring Jill Stein of the Green Party, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party—a few names you probably haven’t heard of:

A ton of reader email has come in regarding our discussion of third parties. Here are some of the best ones making the case for the Green Party, starting with reader Robert:

Like your reader Gary, I would also like to see increased coverage of the Green Party’s political platform from The Atlantic, and from media outlets in general. To preface, I am not an official member of the Green Party, and I caucused in support of Bernie Sanders during the WA state caucuses. I am currently deciding between voting for Hillary Clinton and Jill Stein in the November elections. (I don’t think Sanders is quite toast yet, but he is in the toaster and someone’s about to plunge the lever.)

I will put my main argument first: Mrs. Clinton is not offering a concrete or dramatic enough plan to combat climate change. We know that climate change is an existential threat with the potential to radically destabilize human society on a large scale; we know that our food production system is at great risk; we know fossil fuel energy companies have many federal politicians in their pockets; we know that the fight against our own polluting activities will require organization and mobilization on a scale never before seen the history of mammalian life on Earth. (In fact, this exact argument has been made in The Atlantic: “Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War”).

The Green Party is the only party that makes environmental issues the overwhelming top priority that it needs to be for the next 100+ years. I know that national politicians in America right now are loath to touch any environmental issue with legislation due to the risk of obstructionism, but this is the single most important issue that humanity has ever faced, and likely will ever face.

Here’s a followup from Gary, the Green Party guy who started this reader thread:

I find Jon’s objections less than convincing. His statement here is perplexing: “While I certainly understand the frustration of having to express one’s political views through only one of two choices…I don’t really see how increasing that number to three or four choices really improves on that.” If you’re dissatisfied with the election platforms of both Democrats and Republicans, denying them a vote and electing some other party is a clear and obvious improvement.

As for how many people out there support 100% of the Green Party platform, why not ask the same of Democrat and Republican voters? How many of you support 100% of their policies? Anyone who says yes probably hasn’t done much research, but I invite you to take the survey to see how you do.

This next reader, John, questions Gary’s leading premise—that the left’s priority is identity politics, not labor—and then criticizes voting for a third party:

I think it’s misguided to accuse Democratic politicians of opting for “identity politics” over jobs, wages and benefits for the poor and middle class. First of all, these are not mutually exclusive; they are equally important. Labeling it “identity politics” makes support for gay rights, civil rights for minorities, and equal rights for women seem shallow and “buzz-wordy”—mere campaign gimmicks. Let’s not forget that these are vitally important issues that Democrats for decades have fought hard for.

Secondly, who has fought harder for higher wages, workers’ rights, job training programs, job creation through infrastructure spending, social security, and health care benefits more than the Democrats? Have we forgotten that Republicans have worked diligently to cut wages, benefits and health care spending, while fighting against infrastructure spending and job training?

I get that many of us want Democrats to accomplish more, and that progress on economic issues has been a hard slog. But turning to the Green Party is hardly an answer. It’s just reacting exactly the way Karl Rove hopes we will; Republicans want nothing better than to have a faction of liberals go off on a quixotic Green Party crusade and hand Trump the election.

But this next reader, Joseph, makes a really good point how third parties should focus their firepower on state and local elections, not national ones:

Several readers are agreeing with reader Gary, who made a pitch for the Green Party by arguing that the two major political parties are grossly inadequate, especially when it comes to the working class and organized labor. Here’s James with a quick nod:

Even though I’m gay, I have come to feel identity politics have become camouflage for the Democratic party’s sellout of the poor, organized labor, and the middle class. So yes, cover the Greens and other real left-oriented movements.

Another reader, Oliver, wants to “voice my strong agreement with Gary’s words”—and does so with many bulleted points:

  • The Democratic Party’s driving concern in 2016 is identity politics. This is unfortunate given how dire Americans’ bread-and-butter suffering has become since the Great Recession. For those who claim the party can and must do both, history shows that the two inevitably undermine one other.  Either we come together as workers or we move apart as identity groups.
  • Both Sanders and Trump have at least recognized the problem, but both candidates are flawed in the ways described by Gary and in some additional ones as well. With Trump, for instance, there’s a basic credibility gap as well as a philosophical problem. He has said many things which suggest he cares about regular Americans, but whether he means them or not is anyone’s guess.
  • Hillary Clinton is at this point completely unacceptable on bread-and-butter issues. She presided over the approach to government that led us to this point, all the while taking rich folks’ money for professional and personal gain.
  • The conflation of opposition to immigration and racism is wrong, unfair, and tragic given that American citizens need assistance now more than ever. For those who still believe illegal immigration is harmless or that free trade benefits U.S. workers, I struggle to see how they justify these positions other than by admitting that they are more concerned with the welfare of foreign workers than U.S. workers. That’s a defensible position, for sure, but not one on which you can win any kind of office in the United States.
  • For all these reasons—and in addition the reality that there is currently no party in America which takes bread-and-butter issues seriously—you should consider covering the Green Party more.  I’m not sure if the Green Party is the way to go, but Gary’s premise that you should be looking to represent more serious voices in this area is 100% spot-on.

Jon, on the other hand, is much more sure than Oliver that the Green Party isn’t the way to go:

While I certainly understand the frustration of having to express one’s political views through only one of two choices [Democrats or Republicans], especially when those views are nuanced and well considered, I don’t really see how increasing that number to three or four choices really improves on that when there are hundreds of very important and very controversial issues that voters vote on. This may lead some to suggest direct democracy. But both this and the evergreen messianism of the third party in American politics simply fetishize process over results. Let me explain.

Reader Gary wants to see The Atlantic “expand its political coverage to include the election platform of The Green Party.” I asked him to make the case for that third party and here’s his considered reply:

From the media coverage I’ve seen, it’s quite clear that the Democrat and Republican approaches are unsatisfactory. The leadership of the two establishment parties have confused the success of American corporations with the success of the American population, despite many reports of individual Americans having little savings. As long as the share price of corporate America’s stock goes up, the economy is doing fine, ergo American citizens are doing fine, despite the fact that few of them own stock. Plus, the U.S. Equity market can be bought into by the affluent worldwide. Global investors are the real beneficiaries of American economic policy, not the mainstream of the American population.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have both noticed the problems of ordinary Americans, but in my view they each represent a political dead end. Sanders wants to spend money he can’t raise and Trump wants a time machine to get back to the way things used to be.

Political dialogue between the two parties is poisoned.