U.S. officials like to prattle on about pro-democracy movements in countries like Iran or China, but election season is a good time to assess the state of our own “democratic system.”
Set aside claims to establishment of “democracy” at the point of a gun overseas, and ask, instead, whether American elections truly are “free and fair.” In truth, I think we are overdue for a pro-democracy movement in the U.S.A. (Let’s leave out the distractive argument that the U.S. is a “republic” not a “democracy” shall we? )
The 2010 midterms are giving us the first tsunami of corporate cash. Unleashed by the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, corporations are flooding campaigns from coast to coast. It is commonly estimated that as much as $4 billion will go to the Republican and Democratic parties -- six to one for Republicans, as corporations do their biannual side-switching. Too-easily hacked electronic voting machines remain a problem, as Nevada computer science students recently demonstrated. Corporate media treats elections like a hybrid of Super Bowl and circus.
But American democracy has deeper problems than even those.
Think of the Republican-Democratic two-party monopoly as a parallel to how corporate monopolies work. When a transnational company like Wal-Mart gets government subsides (infrastructure paid for by local government), free or cheap land, and tax breaks, locally-owned small businesses -- which don’t get all that corporate welfare -- are driven out. The Democratic and Republican parties’ political monopoly works just like Wal-Mart does in small towns across the country: competition is crushed and an already powerful, wealthy minority is furthered emboldened to act against the public interest; it faces neither accountability nor electoral opposition.
In Haiti, President Jean-Baptist Aristide was overthrown in a U.S.-backed kidnapping and coup; his Lavalas Party members are banned from the ballot and murdered.
In the U.S., parties that might provide alternatives to the Republicans and Democrats face more subtle and structural exclusion.
With a D or R by one's name, a candidates gets automatic ballot access. Everyone else must go through an often expensive and challenging process just to get on the ballot.
Each state makes its own rules. Some states, like Texas, demand as many as 200,000 petition signatures gathered within a tight time-frame, usually only two weeks. Third party candidates’ petitions are closely checked for accuracy, so that a candidate must gather considerably more than the allotted number of signatures ensure ballot access. The higher the political office the more difficult it is to get on the ballot.
The Democratic Party ratcheted up the obstacles for ballot access by harassing presidential candidate Ralph Nader with expensive law suits in a number of states in presidential years since 2000. In 2010 Pennsylvania races, the same tactic is being used against Green Party candidates, some of whom have had to pay as much as $80,000 for Democratic Party legal fees.
Public opinion polls are used to reinforce the pre-selected “choice” of candidates. Democrats, Republicans and an occasional Independence Party candidate – or, on rare occasions, an extremely wealthy independent candidate such Ross Perot – are listed by pollsters, but candidates of the Green Party, Libertarian Party or other political parties on both the right and the left usually are ignored. For the poll takers, and thus for the people who answer their questions, those small party candidates don't exist.
Sponsors of public debates -- even the League of Women Voters, a 503c tax-exempt non-profit that is supposed to be non-partisan -- determine who will be included in debates based on percentages in those same polls. It’s a Catch 22 . If a party or candidate is omitted from public opinion polls, they will not gain the 5 percent or more support required by the sponsors to be part of debates.
The undeniable result of ballot access laws and rigged public opinion polls is that the grip of the two “major” politicial parties on the electoral is strengthened and efforts toward a truly free and fair election process are undermined.
Media--both corporate-owned and independent/alternative, even progressive media--almost always completely censor third party candidates. I’ll give examples from my state of Minnesota:
- In its Minnesota gubernatorial candidate debate, Twin Cities public television excluded Ecology Democracy Party (formerly Green) candidate Ken Pentel and the Green Party's, Farheem Hakim. Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, a slightly more moderate ex-Republican counter to right-wing Republican Tom Emmer and Democratic former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton have been heard in multiple debates. Third party candidates were interviewed on a segment of the public TV station's low-viewer “Almanac” show; they were treated like political popcorn available during to the main meal of major party candidates.
- Minnesota Public Radio, one of the major financial powerhouses among National Public Radio affiliates, echoed TPT’s format: real debate coverage and in-depth interviews for Democrat, Republican and Independence (traditional Republican) candidates. All third party candidates were crammed into a single one-hour segment. None were interviewed in depth.
- Even in a story called “David-Goliath challengers,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the region's biggest newspaper, mentioned only Democrat or Republican challengers to Congressional incumbents. Ken Pentel, got a short story in the Star Tribune, announcing his run for Minnesota Governor. Progressive challenger Cavlan is omitted from stories about Democratic incumbent Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in his first re-election campaign.
In this tumultuous Year of the Tea Party (a “third party” that isn't a party but which gets massive media coverage), some Democratic supporters may be all for excluding third party progressives because they see that as crucial to beating back the extreme right-wing. In their view, small parties should be shut out so that those who opposed to the election of TP crazies have no alternatives but Democrats.
But, what such liberal partisans don’t recognize is that when you censor candidates you also censor issues.
Most glaringly, the U.S. occupations/wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- with bi-partisan supported funding -- have been erased from the mid-term election. The hundreds of billions of dollars added to the national deficit by those wars don’t register on the Tea Party “debt rage” meter. Bipartisan assaults on civil liberties through continuation and expansion of Bush policies like the PATRIOT Act isn’t pointed out.
Democrats’ refusal to freeze home foreclosures -- even as bank fraud is exposed -- isn’t challenged. Bi-partisan tax-breaks for corporations outsourcing jobs and for highly profitable companies that continue to lay off workers while paying their chief executive officers an average of $12 million a year, are not part of debates even though the economy is supposedly is the central issue of this year's campaigns.
What Real American Democracy Would Look Like
- Public financing of political campaigns is critical, now that “corporate persons” can donate unlimited amounts of money and often do so without disclosure.
- Broadcast media must make airtime available to ALL candidates, as a condition of using the public airwaves.
- Right wing evangelical churches or the League of Woman Voters or any other 503(c)3 non-profit organization must be investigated and penalized when it violates its tax-exempt status with partisan participation in political campaigns.
- Instant run-off voting (IRV) must be expanded so that people are not pressured into “lesser evil” voting that makes it impossible for true representation of voters’ views (often better articulated by third party candidates). Minneapolis now has IRV in local elections.
- Obstacles to voting, whether ID laws or lifetime bans for ex-offenders, must be ended. A real democracy aims for more citizen participation not less. Too many state laws are designed to discourage voting by some segments of the public. With their myth of “voter fraud,” Republicans aim to limit voter participation further -- especially participation by the poor and people of color who generally don’t support their party.
Every other Western democracy -- and new democracies around the world -- have multi-party, proportional representation in their legislative bodies. Only the US has this “winner take all” system. Americans might ask themselves why no new democracies have chosen our form of representation.
The U.S. Constitution did not establish the two political parties -- nor outlaw third parties.
Ultimately, democracy is far more than voting every two to four years. It’s not about abdicating to elected officials -- who all too often represent their corporate sponsors rather the people who cast votes. Plenty of excuses are made for why most Americans are disengaged from politics but, since Americans average four to six hours for daily television viewing, there’s time for civic engagement.
Want your local public school to remain open and be fully funded? Organize with fellow parents, students, teachers and community to challenge the school board’s decisions. Sick of corporate welfare sucking up local resources while public services whither? Get together with neighbors and co-workers and go to City Hall. Want to bring the troops home? Stop making excuses for President Obama and the Democrats and re-ignite the non-partisan anti-war movement.
It’s finally time to recognize that politicians only act in the public interest when there’s public pressure -- backed up by the fear that they will lose elections. As long as progressives remain held totally hostage to the Democratic Party, all we’ll get is marginal change that’s impossible to believe in without self-delusion.
Third parties have long been front-runners in strengthening American democracy with a legacy of slavery abolition, women’s voting rights, labor and civil rights. More recently, IRV and campaign finance reform are issues most forcefully supported by those outside the two major parties. The last two years of Democratic capitulation to corporations and the permanent state of war should be a wakeup call for progressives -- with third party allies -- to launch the pro-democracy movement our country so desperately needs.
Lydia Howell is an independent journalist in Minneapolis, winner of the Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She hosts “Catalyst: Politics & Culture” on KFAI Radio.