I’m going a little off track now from my normal topics and going to discuss my random thoughts on electoral politics. The idea popped into my head after reading another blog where the participants discussed these issues, and it made me recall the run of the Green Party in New Mexico in the 1990s, where I had a little involvement. This is also a place to get these ideas out of my head and into something coherent. As I have had a case of writers block, this is also an attempt to get me writing again.
My first participation in a presidential election, after I turned voting age, was in 1996, and I voted for Ralph Nader, running on the Green Party. By then I was nominally radical minded, and I accepted the critiques of the two party system as inherently unrepresentative. The Green Party seemed like a breath of fresh air, presenting an alternative to the two party duopoly and the potential for a solid progressive third party. Of course Nader didn’t win that year, and Bill Clinton, that centrist Democratic Leadership Council lackey, was elected for a second term.
Now lets go back a little bit to look at the Green Party in New Mexico. It was founded in the early 1990‘s and had a small base around Santa Fe. It took off in 1994 with the gubernatorial election that year. Activist Roberto Mondragon ran for governor on the Green ticket, facing off against incumbent Democrat Bruce King and Republican challenger Gary Johnson. Johnson won the election in the three way race that year with 49.8 percent of the vote, compared with King’s 39.9 percent and Mondragon got an impressive 10.3 percent of the vote.(1) After this The Dems accused the Greens of costing them the election, or “spoiling” the vote, saying that all the Greens would have voted Democrat if Mondragon was not in the race. On the other hand, Mondragon brought in more voters that would not have voted otherwise. Nevertheless the Democrats never let the Greens live that down.
Now lets jump to 1997 where in the 3rd congressional district there was a vacancy when Bill Richardson was appointed as ambassador to the United Nations, the beginning of his career in the Clinton administration. The Greens got involved in that election by running Carol Miller, facing off against another centrist Democrat, Eric Serna, and right-wing Republican Bill Redmond. Miller ended up with 16.78 percent of the vote. Republican Redmond won that special election with a plurality of 42.75 percent of the vote, compared to Serna’s 39.75 percent. (2) As the 3rd district is a heavily Democratic district, it was a shock to the political establishment in New Mexico. They once again blamed the Greens for being spoilers. Yet there was a lot of resentment among liberals and progressives with the Democrats, especially for running the centrist Serna among other issues, and the bigger picture showed how the liberals and progressives in the party were being ignored or taken advantage of.
Going to the next year, 1998, there were congressional elections in each of the three districts in New Mexico. With the untimely death of Steve Schiff in the 1st district that represented Albuquerque and the surrounding areas, a special election was called early that year. The Greens were involved in that election heavily, running activist Bob Anderson, going against another centrist Dem, businessman Phil Maloof of the Maloof dynasty, and Republican Heather Wilson, an Air Force veteran.
Now Maloof, to put it lightly, was just a dumbass. He was one of the sons of a family that got rich from beer distribution and sports franchising, and his public appearances showed he was totally inept for the job. Myself, I remember seeing him campaign on campus and asking him about an issue, he said “call my office.” I never did, but a friend of mine did, and his office didn’t even know his stances on the issues. As he was very rich, he spent millions of his own money on the campaign in the special election and in the general election. One couldn’t drive anywhere in Albuquerque without seeing a Maloof campaign sign. Alas it was no good.
Once again many progressives were pissed at the lousy choice their party gave them, and many voted for Anderson in this special election, who got 14.72 percent of the vote. Maloof got 39.62 percent and Wilson won with 44.58 percent plurality. (3)
Later that year in the general election all three ran again, with the results slightly different. Maloof adopted a strategy of moving his positions to the left to attract Anderson supporters. This took some steam out of Anderson’s momentum but did not win him the election. Wilson won again with 48.44 percent of the vote, Maloof getting 41.88 percent, and Anderson getting 9.64 percent (4)
These elections showed a few things. One, liberals and progressives when offered an alternative will gravitate toward that. Also that the Greens began offering a real alternative in the electoral arena. But yet this was not meant to last. The liberals still within the Democratic party began seriously attacking the Greens, challenging their ballot access and the like. On another note they began organizing within the Democratic party more, and the party was more responsive. For example in 1998 the congressional election was held again in the 3rd district, and the Dems ran Tom Udall, a likable semi-liberal politician, to run against Redmond, and Carol Miller once again ran on the Greens. Many Green voters went back to the Democrats, Udall was easily elected, and Miller only got 3.56 percent of the vote that year (5). Afterward the Greens in New Mexico still were involved in elections but they faced more restrictive ballot access, internal infighting, and many supporters leaving to go back to the Democrats. All of these were similar factors in the 2000 presidential election.
In 2000 the presidential election featured two non-incumbents from the two major parties, George W. Bush of the Republicans and Vice President Al Gore of the Democrats. The national Green party ran Ralph Nader for president on their party ticket. There was much momentum for Nader’s campaign, as he was a well-known consumer advocate with household recognition, much anti-globalization activism that carried over to the election, and there was much discontent with the Democrats and their boring ass candidate, centrist Al Gore and his choice for vice president, rightist Joe Lieberman. It wasn’t expected that Nader would win, but would offer an alternative to voters, and if he got 5 percent of the vote the Greens would qualify for matching federal funds that could be used to grow the party. There was much opposition from Democrats that year too who said that the Greens were spoilers again, and that “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.”
The results of the 2000 election is, as they say, history, in that the Supreme Court got involved in the vote count. In the case of the Greens, Nader got less than 3 percent of the national vote.
What happened afterward shows the limits of electoral politics in a two party system. Liberals and progressives were understandably freaked by the Bush administration, and with the anti-war movement wanted to get Bush out. The only alternative for that was the Democrats, and that was John Kerry that next election in 2004. The Greens ran another candidate for president, wanting to get away from a personality cult around Nader, and Nader stated that he was not interested in party politics but ran an independent campaign with very little enthusiasm.
The Greens are still around but they hardly even matter anymore. They went from getting double digit to single digit percentages in the elections they ran in, and they ran in fewer and fewer each year. And with Obama, who would be one of the most liberal presidents in a long time despite his many flaws, there is no enthusiasm for a progressive third party. For myself, with more knowledge about Nader (6) I see the continuing support for his presidential runs as ludicrous. For those who once said there is no difference between the parties, under Bush there was a significant difference to matter to support the other two party candidate.
Overall, the American system is a two party system, with a winner take all result, and with the Electoral College. A third party can only get influence if they address issues and appeal to constituents the other two parties do not, or get to a point where they replace one of two main parties. The Greens served a purpose for a while but that purpose is long gone. For those working for social justice know that electoral politics is not the only way to go. If done it should be done tactically and realistically, to advance issues rather than to get votes. I can say more about the Greens but this will be all for a while, as this is not the place for a thorough analysis of them. But for anyone doing studies of third parties, the Green runs in the 90s are a good place to look at.