Questions for Micah Sifry, author of "Spoiling for a Fight," a book that chronicles the plight of third parties in American politics.
1. In your own words, tell me about the book 'Spoiling for a Fight'.
Well, 'Spoiling for a Fight' is a book I wrote that was the culmination of more than 10 years of tracking efforts by Americans to break out of the two-party box. It started really with the anti-incumbent movements of the late 80s and early 90s that we saw happening around the term limits issue, and talk-radio kinds of rebellions over things like the congressional pay raise and that culminated in the candidacy of Ross Perot (search) for president. That was probably the single biggest story about third party politics in our generation. The fact that nearly 20 million people voted for Perot in 1992 and four years later, after all the mistakes he made and the way that he drove his grassroots movement into the ground, he still got 8 million votes. It's a pretty important phenomenon and not one that the mainstream media was paying much attention to.
Alongside that, I look at how some other major efforts to build third parties during the 1990s kind of rose and fell. The two get the most attention in the book are the Green Party (search), which is of course the vehicle for Ralph Nader's (search) presidential campaign, and then a less well-known effort called the New Party (search) which was an attempt to revive a long-standing practice called fusion, a cross endorsement through which minor parties used to thrive and play quite a significant role all across America until the practice was banned in just about every state except New York.
So those three stories are at the core of the book and naturally things like Jesse Ventura's surprising victory in Minnesota and the successes of other independent candidates to get elected to major office like the governor of Maine, Angus King, or the governor of Connecticut, Lowell Weichert, they pepper the book as well.
2. Are you involved with or writing about Ralph Nader's 2004 campaign?
I’ve done some writing about both Nader's campaign as well as the debate within
the Green Party over how to approach the 2004 election. So I have had a couple of pieces, mostly for The Nation, and I think also for tompayne.com, motherjones.com, and the Washington Post had a piece that I did in the Outlook section there after Nader announced his candidacy.
So, I am following it. I have a very different view of it than I did four years ago when I was mostly supportive of Nader's run; this time around I think it's a profound mistake.
3. Do you believe that Ralph Nader is a 'spoiler'?
I try not to use that word. I think that there’s a value judgment embedded in the word spoiler that we should avoid. The voters make up their own minds, and by definition, the exercise of your democratic right to vote as well as your democratic right to run is not an act of spoiling. Every candidate has to earn their votes and it's wrong for the Democrats and Republicans to assume that they own anybody's vote. That's the implication behind 'spoiler.' I think that the more fair way to describe is — "Will a vote for Ralph Nader hurt John Kerry (search) and therefore help George Bush get re-elected?" and I think yes there is a danger of that happening. There's not much evidence that Nader's natural base of voters was clamoring for him to run, unlike in 2000 when there really was a base for a protest candidacy on the progressive populist left. This time around he's sort of imposing himself and I don't think that it's likely that he is going to do as he predicts, which is get more votes from disaffected Republicans, conservatives and independents. There's just very little evidence of him actually doing that.
4. What can be done about the spoiler effect in the United States?
We clearly have to update our whole electoral system. This system that was designed more than 200 years ago, when there was no sense that we could do anything other than winner-take-all. We are clearly living in a different time and yet we haven't done anything to take that into account.
Proportional representation systems are the norm. In the rest of the world that's how they give out representation, whether it's to the legislature or to elect an executive. Those systems have the benefit of ensuring that everybody gets some representation and that whoever is elected to the executive office, generally speaking, has a real majority behind them. We instead have this duopoly system, where both parties carve up the electorate in advance and guarantee themselves safe seats in 90 percent of the congressional races. The result is very low turnout. People feel, 'What's the point of voting?' There isn't much competition; there isn't much choice. Fewer voices, fewer candidates means less discussion of a broad range of issues less diverse viewpoints being expressed, if you believe in the marketplace of ideas, the idea that a robust competition between candidates and ideas leads to the best ones rising to the top. What we have instead is something that is bred thru mediocrity and a lack of accountability, a lack of political accountability on the part of people who hold office.
There are ideas for changing this in a variety of ways. Instant runoff voting is a partial solution that would allow people to rank their choices. In cases where you have more than two people on the ballot you can avoid the wasted vote syndrome, the possibility that if you vote for a candidate who is from a new party or a minor party that you feel you are just wasting your vote on them. That's an important change. I think public finance in an election is an important change, because right now whichever major party candidate makes it to the ballot, they've been pre-selected by money. They've had to go through an invisible money primary that in many cases in determinative of who can run in the first place. That means all kinds of people who otherwise might be very strong representatives of their communities never even get on the ballot, never even think about running, because they simply don't have money and they don't have lots of connections to wealthy people.
So those are very important changes. I think we need to move away from the idea that the only form of representation should be geographic. That made sense when Americans lived in settled communities, they didn't move around very much. Most of us will move several times in our lifetime. It may make more sense to allow us to vote, at least one branch of the legislature, not based on geography but based on interest. Finally, why do we have voting on a working day? Why not make it on a weekend? Why not make Election Day a holiday? Why not make it possible for people to register to vote on Election Day? There's no technical obstacle to doing that. Six states do it as is, and the turnout in those states in significantly higher than the rest of the country.
All of these things would enhance participation; they would enhance participation. Again, to go back to the notion of the marketplace of ideas, you can't have a marketplace if you only have two people competing with each other. The traditional behavior of duopolies is that they carve up the market so that they can jointly raise prices and they can impose their choices on the people who they are supposedly selling to. That is basically what we live under today.
5. What is it about Ralph Nader that attracts so many voters despite the fact that winning is unlikely?
He has a long-standing reputation as a truth teller and a defender of the little guy. A lot of that is well earned. In the late '60s and early '70s, he was a pioneer and a crusader for some very very important legislative reforms that led to things like the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and a whole range of health and safety measures that probably saved millions of lives, and probably saved people billions of dollars. So, in a political wasteland where there are very few elected officials who you can point to and say they really had this kind of effect, people look for heroes and they want to believe in the myth of Ralph Nader. He's also constantly traveling, speaking on college campuses and reaching out to young people. His brand of idealism resonates with some people who approach politics very idealistically and that's a very good thing.
My complaint about Ralph Nader, and I consider him a friend, he's someone I’ve written about for 20 years, my complaint is I don't understand why, given the conditions of this political cycle, a presidential candidacy is compelled. He can protest for all the things he's protesting for, mobilize young people, raise the issues that are being neglected, demand that the debates are true debates and so on, without being a candidate. I think he could do them more effectively than he is now.
6. How do you think Mr. Nader will fare this year?
I think he's going to do much worse than last time, of course no one has a crystal ball and things can develop that would change that scenario. But assuming that this is going to be a close election between Bush and Kerry, I think a lot of Nader's support in the polls is based partly on name recognition and partly on the fact that Kerry is not such a strong candidate so far. Unfortunately, when third party candidates try to intervene in close elections they do very poorly.
There are two kinds of situations where a third party candidate does better. One is a runaway, where a candidate is so far ahead and the other is so weak, that it would be pointless to vote for the weaker one of the two. Then you can see people transferring their votes to a stronger protest candidate. The other scenario is the Jessie Ventura scenario, when a third party candidate figures out how to bust the major parties duopoly, taking votes from both of them at the same time. Thus avoiding the whole dynamic of the wasted vote and spoiler accusation and so on.
I don't think that's going to happen for Nader at all. Not one person, certainly not more than a few, of the people that were among his supporters in 2000, the important individuals and organizations that lent support to him, not one of them is lifting a finger in his behalf this time. He's just going to have a tough time just getting on the ballot in most states. I think he's also alienated a number of people in Green Party who were, in fact, the people he said he was trying to help build a major third party in America. That was one of the telling factors to see if his 2000 campaign was a success. Four years later, had they succeeded in building this vibrant party? One could argue that they were making some headway then Nader decided to walk away from them. I consider that a highly anti-democratic choice by him that he would not even submit to the democratic process of the Green Party and it's deciding on whom it would nominate for the 2004 election.
7. Do you believe that the Green Party will nominate Nader at their convention?
I think the Greens are going to be very badly split. What we will see happen in all likelihood is an illustration of the internal weakness within the Green Party. It's a loose federation of state parties, which has always been, by design, decentralized. There is no way to compel individual state parties from going there own way. The only thing that would compel them is the idea of being part of something larger and stronger. They are going to disagree about what to do in 2004. I think the debate within the Greens between people who take a rather pure and stubborn position that no matter what the circumstances they should run the strongest candidate, the strongest campaign, and campaign everywhere, in which case they should nominate Ralph Nader, because he is the strongest in terms of media recognition and so on, versus others who think it's important to act strategically and with an eye both to defeating Bush and not alienating millions of people who vote for Greens in other elections. This view is also aimed at maintaining the viability of the Green Party as something more than a fringe ideological party. I suspect that they will not resolve this split, it is too strong and the result will be a very bad fracturing between different states and probably within some states.
There is a consensus candidate running, named David Cobb (search), who is not anywhere near as well-known, and not presenting as sharp-edged a line of attack as the people that Peter Camejo (search) represents, and is hoping to pull together. David Cobb is getting a good number of delegates too. I think, sadly, that they are going to find no way of resolving this. There are just different values at work here.
For some people the Green Party is a form of self-expression. When expressing your values becomes the most important thing about belonging to a third party, you get ideological sectarian party that never get beyond 1 percent of the vote. They become sects and places where people mostly just talk to each other and argue with each other and imagine that they are having some impact on the world when the party takes a position or issues a press release, and have no sense of how irrelevant they are. Then there are other people who view the Green Party as a means to an end, which is changing the direction of America. For them, it's a tool through which to force new issues into the mainstream that gets the major parties to respond, or perhaps to become a party that supplants one of the major parties. These people — obviously this is where my sympathies lie — are trying to do something much harder, but much more important. These are often Green Party elected officials who understand what it is to actually run and win office, and not just be witness to power but actually exercise power. They understand what it is to be accountable to voters. They understand that when they get elected they aren't just being elected by Greens but also people who are probably Democrats as well as Republicans and independents, and that you can't sneer at those people all the time. Those people, I think, realize that the election of 2004 at the presidential level is mostly a referendum on George Bush. It's not a referendum on putting out all kinds of new choices to the country. It's simply about do you want to hire this guy for another four more years or do you want to stop moving in the direction that he's taking the country. That is the fundamental underlying debate, not just for Greens but also for many other liberal and progressive voters. Many of them have already made up their minds, and I think a lot of Greens, the more sensible ones, understand that and are trying to tack with that wind. They then have to deal with the ideologues and again the people who in a very self-indulgent way believe that this is about taking a stand, making demands and acting as witness against the bad exercise of power. There are all sorts of noble reasons for that and over the course of American history we have lots of little parties that do that sort of thing but they don't have an impact if that's all they try to do. So I think that's the crossroads facing the Greens this year.
8. Can you tell me a little about the 'Iraq War Reader' and your new book?
The 'Iraq War Reader' is actually the second of two anthologies that I have done with a colleague named Christopher Cerf. We did a book called the 'Gulf War Reader' about 15 years ago. Both were intended to be guides to the issue of how did we get into this part of the world, what’s the history that brought us to this impasse? They allow a reader to study the debate over going to war from all sides. You can read everybody from Anne Coulter to Noel Chamsky in the 'Iraq War Reader.' Then, we look over the horizon at what the likely outcome of the war would be. We actually had several pieces in the book that, I'm sad to say, predicted that things would be complicated and difficult. Winning the war was hardly the problem; it was winning the peace afterwards that needed to be looked at. I'm glad to say we had several articles in the book, in addition to several speeches by President Bush, and Condolleeza Rice and Colin Powell, where they laid out their case for going to war. We also had other articles that said the evidence of weapons of mass destruction is not proven, and the proof of the connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda doesn't exist and thus the basic justifications for going to war, the two main ones, don't hold up.
The new book, coming out in July, is really completely different. It's about an issue I have been involved with for many years and that's the issue of money and politics. The name of the book is 'Is that a Politician in your Pocket?' It’s all about the ways that big money and politics hurts average people in their everyday lives: how your health is endangered, how your pockets get picked, how the environment is spoiled, how your safety is endangered, and how the public treasury is being looted — all because wealthy special interests buy access and influence from our elected officials and turn that into all kinds of special favors that line their pockets and hurt the rest of us.
9. What do you say to people who think voting for a third party is throwing away your vote?
I think that the only people who throw away their votes are the ones who don't vote. Every vote has an impact on the public debate and whoever gets elected. They all look at the math, they all look and see who voted and what for, what it represents, and how they should respond to it. So the only people who are really wasting their franchise are the ones who stay home on Election Day and don't bother to go vote at all. Then, it's just a question of whether your comfortable voting for someone your unhappy with because you want to take a compromise view or do you want to vote for someone who is as close a match to who you are and what your beliefs and values are. I think people should approach every election on it's own merits. There is no one answer to that question. Sometimes it's important to send a protest message because there is no significant difference between the two major candidates, other times, it's important to make sure that one candidate not hold office and you take your chances with the next guy.
Questions for John Anderson, former GOP congressman:
1. In 1980, why did you decide to run independently?
I decided to run as an independent in 1980 after participating in no less than nine Republican primaries, number one, because it was clear to me that the universe of voters in most primaries was limited in vision to the point where Reagan was clearly going to be the nominee. Then, more fundamentally and more importantly, I felt that the debate by that time revealed such wide differences between the putative nominee, Ronald Reagan, and myself that there ought to be another voice in the presidential race, other than the Democratic nominee, to bring to the voters some issues that I thought would simply be ignored.
2. What do you feel are the biggest hindrances to an independent or third party candidate?
There isn't any question; it's the structure of our voting system. The fact that we have a plurality, first-past-the-post voting system which has led to 15, and this is astounding to most people, 15 out of the 43 presidents elected in the life of our republic have been elected with less than a majority of votes cast. With the plurality system it is very very difficult for an independent or a third party candidate to ever assemble the kind of support that is needed to win.
3. Tell me about your advocacy of instant runoff voting
I advocate instant runoff voting as a substitute for our present plurality, first-past-the-post system because it would engender new life and new meaning into the electoral process. Voters could rank order the candidates: my first choice, my second choice. That's assuming, of course, that there are more than two candidates in the race. Then with modern computerized machinery, very quickly, when the vote count was held, you would see whether anyone had 51 percent or an actual majority of the votes cast. If that were not the case, then the counting would resume, but the candidate with the fewest number of first choice votes would be eliminated. Those ballots would then be recounted for the second choice named on that ballot, and if that produced someone with a majority of the votes, then the election would be over. It's a simple method of computing a vote by insisting that the winning candidate have a majority and that to reach that majority voters would have the option of a runoff choice or a second choice, if the candidate that they had named as their first choice, did not receive the majority of votes. There's nothing alien or strange about this. Runoff elections are used in about a score of states today, in primaries where if no one has a majority, the two top candidates then, in a month later, run in a runoff. We're suggesting with instant runoff, that you can do it in one election. You eliminate the necessity of a second election where you have attenuated interest, and you have all the additional costs and expense of running two elections. You could do it in one election and it would 'enthuse' the voting population to believe that they could vote for the best candidate, their first choice, and wouldn't mean that if he didn't have a majority on the first bout that they would end up electing the worst candidate, in their opinion, instead.
4. How did you feel, personally, about being called a 'spoiler' candidate?
Well, it was insulting to be called a spoiler when I ran in 1980. It was untruthful in the sense that I had not entered the lists as an independent candidate to spoil anybody's chances. It was to enhance the opportunity of the voters to have a broader range of choice, and be able to exercise that choice in a multi-candidate race, without thinking that they were throwing their vote away. Which is the case now in our present configuration, of an electoral process, an electoral system, that I have referred to as first-past-the-post. The idea that voters by casting a vote are going to end up spoiling the race, is obviously a deterrent to any third party or independent candidate entering the race. I think it has given us a sterile political process and in fact, in the 2000 election, as contested as that election was, barely 51 percent of the people who could cast a vote actually did. So we have this diminishing pool of voters, this diminished interest, and I think that we are much the poorer for this system to which we cling.
5. Do you believe that Ralph Nader will be a 'spoiler' this year?
In the sense that we have this first-past-the-post system, and we do, the votes that are cast for him might go to President Bush's Democratic rival, John Kerry, yes I think that when the election is over, we very likely will have another president elected with less than 51 percent of the vote, a minority president. The same old charge will be hurled back and forth, that the third party candidate has somehow spoiled the election. I used to say, back in 1980, 'What's to spoil? What's to spoil about a process that is fundamentally as flawed as this first-past-the-post system that we now have.' We ought to change the law. It wouldn't take a constitutional amendment with all of the agonies of going to three-fourths of the states, and having it ratified in all of the legislatures as well as the two-thirds vote by each house of Congress. Simply, by referendum, by initiative, or if legislators were sufficiently lively to the challenge they could vote through a change in their electoral system, allow the kind of rank order ballot that I have described. We could do it simply by a statutory change in the election system.
6. What does it say about the political climate of the United States when a third party or independent candidate has been a factor in the outcome of the last five elections and may still be a factor in this sixth election?
I think the fact that an independent or third party candidate is a factor in the election without ever electing anyone of that description indicates that there is a feeling out there that we ought to have a broader range of choice. There is nothing about a presidential election that makes it absolutely imperative and inevitable that we limit the voter to simply two major party candidates. There is a hunger in the fact that these candidates are running, and the fact that we keep electing these minority presidents, as we did. Clinton was a minority candidate for president in 1992, Nixon was elected initially as a minority candidate, literally, about a third of our presidents have been elected in that manner. I think it is revealing, the fact that there is a hunger in the electorate for a new approach, and the real challenge is to wake people up to the fact that it wouldn't be as difficult as some people seem to think to hand the voter a ballot and say you can name a runoff choice, as well as your first choice. I think it would increase participation. It would increase interest. I think it would broaden the discussion, when you brought independent and third party candidates into the running you wouldn't get the kind of sterile polarized campaigns that we are getting already in this 2004 election.
7. What do you say to those who think voting for a third party is throwing away your vote?
I say to them that to the extent that we continue to challenge a system that is electing minority presidents, that is keeping people away from the polls … Freedom House did a poll of all the nations that have democratic forms of government where they have regular elections, we are 139th as far as our overall participation by the eligible electorate. Those could vote and should vote, and have a voice in the selection of the president of the United States. So I think there's a clear challenge out there, and if people could only see that it could be overcome, the difficulties that I have described that have attached this 'spoiler' label to every third party or independent candidate could be taken care of. If we looked at the electoral process itself and say we have to make a fundamental change give people the chance to rank order the candidates and we would have a healthier electorate a more participatory electorate and I think a stronger democracy.