Third Parties & Social Change: When Third Parties Hurt Ordinary People

From the June 2012 PNL # 815

Madis Senner

In the summer of 2000 I told the new priest at St. Mary’s Episcopal in West Harlem that I was voting for Nader because there was no difference between Republicans and Democrats. “Not true,” he said. He told me that he had spent his whole life working with the disadvantaged and that there was a big difference: Democrats cared about the poor.

When I look back at that moment and see what has transpired since then, it is clear that he was right. Worse, third parties can undermine progressivism and the struggle for social justice.

You’ve heard it from the Greens and others—Big Money owns the Republicrats, making them indistinguishable. The idea that they are the same is a myth. While both parties are beholden to Big Money, history shows that there are big differences between them.

Meaningful Differences
Consider what has happened since 2000. Had the environmentalist Gore won, he would not have signed legislation to allow fracking. That is huge! Clearly, Gore would not have nominated conservatives like Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court, who gave us rulings like Citizens United. Arguably, the neocons would not have persuaded Gore to invade Iraq, and the pursuit of Al Qaeda might not have resulted in an invasion of Afghanistan.

Big differences remain. The Ryan budget, as Dana Milbank of the Washington Post notes, is “helping the poor by hurting them.” Ryan wants to cut safety nets and reduce Medicare to fund tax cuts for the rich. Mitt Romney has said that he does not care about the very poor.

Then there is the Republicans’ war on women (see page 9). Cut funding for preventive health, eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, halt the Paycheck Fairness Act that would give equal pay to women for the same job….

What little gains we achieved with Obama’s Healthcare plan, the Republicans have vowed to overturn. Closer to home we have a contentious congressional race to unseat Anne Marie Buerkle (24th) by Democrat Dan Maffei and Green Ursula Rozum. Maffei lost to Buerkle in 2010 by a mere 600 votes.

The Greens feel that Maffei is no different than Buerkle. Really? Buerkle’s conservative score of 91.2 ranks her 15th among 435 representatives. Her score was 56.7 points higher than Maffei’s. She has taken the Norquist pledge not to raise taxes; she is pro war; she is against preventive health for women; and she has consistently voted the Republican line, so we can expect her to vote for the Ryan budget.

Rozum’s entry into a close race will help Buerkle and ultimately keep the Republican majority in the House. A Post Standard article in May supports this, citing a poll showing a tight race swinging more to Buerkle with the entry of Rozum.

Ed Griffin-Nolan, a former PNL editorial committee member, wrote in the Syracuse New Times that Rozum’s entry was a “game changer” and asked why Greens would knowingly help the budget-slashing, climate change-denying, shoulder-shrugging, pipeline-hugging, Pentagon-booster Buerkle.

Worse is that Buerkle is a very divisive figure that has drawn the ire of many. Should Rozum siphon off enough votes to help Buerkle win, blame will be focused on the Greens and possibly even on progressive causes. Greens will deny this, but we need only to look at their dismal showing in the national elections since 2000, when many blamed Nader for helping elect Bush. What makes their poor performance even more startling is that it was at a time of rapid growth for progressivise institutions such as SPC.

A More Nuanced Decision
Third parties are vital, but we need to be judicious in voting for them. There are big differences between the two parties, differences that will hurt the most vulnerable among us. While many of us in the struggle for social justice live a simple and modest life and willingly accept hardship, is it right for us to have the poor and disadvantaged suffer because we want to make a statement?

It is also important to see a strategy and purpose in voting for a third party. Locally, many of us are chagrined as to why the Greens are running Rozum, when they know it will help Buerkle. This risks angering many and is not a way for the Greens to build momentum to win their first local election. Your vote does count. Please don’t make it count for injustice and help one of the most conservative members of Congress return to Washington.


Madis is a local activist who has worked on a range of peace and social justice issues.