American graffiti: The problem with third-party candidates

The U.S. seems to simultaneously fear and make fun of Ralph Nader and his ilk.
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The U.S. seems to simultaneously fear and make fun of Ralph Nader and his ilk.

Recently I noticed a stop sign with "Ralph" inserted in huge spray-painted letters after the word "Stop." I assumed the sentiment was meant to be anti-Ralph Nader. In 2008 Nader has become such a joke, it is hard to fathom anyone losing sleep over his presidential campaign.

But I support third-party participation in government. It would open up the debate and make the political process more real and less staged. Nader's reoccurring candidacy is to make a point. He may be a broken record, but he's repeating an important mantra: Americans should not be backed into a corner every time, voting for the lesser of two evils. He is shining a light on that fact with his tradition of running as a third-party candidate. It is symbolic.

This summer, Nader reportedly said that Democrats who plan to vote for Obama as the lesser of two evils are living under "political slavery." A woman in the audience asked Nader what he thought of the saying, "A vote for Nader is a vote for McCain." Obviously Nader did not agree; otherwise, he would not be running. He asked her if she thought he was a "second class citizen" and then called her a "political bigot."

The sign "Stop Ralph" and the saying "A vote for Nader is a vote for McCain" are both knee-jerk reactions. Political passivity and low voter turnout is the norm in America. In this respect, attacks on third-party candidates unlikely to poll any serious amount of the vote are baffling. In this country, third parties are simultaneously feared and laughed at.

Another guerrilla sign, this one stenciled on a pillar heading to I-5 away from KeyArena, says in big black letters, "Vote your hopes, not our fears, vote for a 3rd party." This fear of third parties and the resulting monopoly of the two main parties have narrowed our sense of viable candidacies. Fear of third-party candidacies has caused people to place short-term interests in one candidate ahead of belief in debate and the democratic process.

The impact of outsider candidates early in the election suggested how things might look without the two-party monopoly. This year would have been dynamic if Ron Paul had the support and resources of a real alternative party, and likewise for Dennis Kucinich.

Peer pressure by middle-ground politicians and big media pundits has made candidates like Kucinich and Paul clowns instead of what they are: Serious patriots voicing viable policy choices. Romney, Giuliani, Thompson, and McCain all snickered whenever Paul would list reasons we are in Iraq and why we should not be there. Kucinich was prodded with a gotcha question in one debate that uncovered his belief in the possibility of UFOs. From that moment on, he was branded a loon. These tactics denigrated the candidates and created a narrative bent on ensuring only the most status quo of candidates were left standing: Republican and Republican Light.

For now our politics resembles an editorial cartoon that has stuck with me for years: Two campaign posters are side by side. In one, a man cuts off a single arm; in the other, the man cuts both arms off. Two bad choices: Pick whichever one hurts less, but it will hurt no matter what.

In 2000, Gore and Bush seemed so similar, it was hard to see any difference. As I watched one of their debates, a guy walked up to me and said, "Why are you watching these two cheese dicks?" I was embarrassed as I thought about the question. An economics professor once told me, "Kids vote for Democrats, and adults vote for Republicans." I wonder who he would say votes outside of the two-party box? Minnesotans voted for Governor Jesse Ventura.

Obama has been influenced by independent thinkers. He has at least given lip service to the anti-war message Kucinich pushed, and that is a hell of a lot more than any front runner has done in a long time.

The "Ralph" stop sign might have nothing to do with Nader. Maybe it's a non-political statement. Ralph may simply be the name of a wannabe tagger, or a random expression. But the demand that he, or any other third-party candidate, should cease efforts to participate in our democracy is a bad sign.


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