circle_small.gif (2760 bytes)
order materials



System stacked against Nader, Buchanan 
By James P. Pinkerton
July 1, 2000

Ralph Nader has been making speeches for 40 years, and it shows. Although he'll never have - nor does he seem to want - the soaring oratory of a John Kennedy or the emotional chain-pulling of a Ronald Reagan, he knows what he wants to say; he had a text for his 105-minute acceptance speech as the Green Party presidential nomination, but it was clear that he knew it by heart.

And so Nader rarely broke eye contact with the audience as he speechified about everything from the 19th-century populist revolt to his struggle against the auto industry in the 1960s to an account of his recent 50-state listening tour. With Nader, there are no honeyed words; it�s all spinach - and there is indeed a market for rhetorical vegetables. 

Yet, the fact remains: The U.S. electoral system - as opposed to that of most democratic countries - will never give him or his party power. The only relevant question is, can he hit the magic number of five? 

If Nader wins 5 percent of the nationwide vote in November, the Greens will be guaranteed federal funding for their next presidential campaign. For people with a lot to say but no much money to help them say it, cash from Uncle Sam is hard to refuse; Pat Buchanan left the Republican Party because he wanted the $13 million that Ross Perot's Reform Party will get this year. Meanwhile, the Democrats and Republicans will each get five times as much government money - not that they need it. 

Indeed, Nader and Buchanan ignoring their vast ideological differences have formed an alliance on one issue critical to both of them: access to the huge national audience that will be watching the presidential debates in October. The Commission on Presidential Debates has decreed that only candidates with 15 percent of the vote in public opinion surveys can take part; the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll shows Nader with seven percent and Buchanan with four percent. 

Speaking of Al Gore and George W Bush, Nader said, "They should overcome their fear of facing new ideas and alternative voices." Of course, if Nader gets in the debates, so, most likely, will Buchanan.

This is the central irony of fringe politics in America: The structure of the U.S. electoral system is so stacked against third parties that the ideology that motivates them in the first place must take a back seat to process questions. As Dean Myerson, coordinator of the Green Party convention, put it, "The big three for us are ballot access, public financing of campaigns and proportional representation. 

Of those three, proportional representation will be the toughest nut to crack. In America, all national elections are "first past the post." That is, the candidate who gets the most votes gets all the victory. By contrast, in most other democratic countries, some form of proportional representation system is in place. That is, if a party gets a certain minimum of the national vote, typically 5 percent, it is guaranteed that per- centage of seats in the legislature. Such a system obviously encourages small parties, since they need not win a majority anywhere in order to win a share of power. In countries with proportional representation, multiparty coalitions are the rule; so it is, for example, that Greens are part of the government of five Western European countries. 

Closer to home, election law in multiparty Mexico also enables the Greens to play serious power politics. In the national elections to be held Sunday, the Partido Verde Ecologista has forsaken its seeming natural allies on the left to make a throw-the-incumbents-out alliance with the right wing opposition party, led by Vicente Fox.

One can argue about whether the American system, with, its overwhelming two-party bias, is better or worst than the alternatives, but this much is certain: It's not going to change anytime soon. And so the Greens are stymied. In a country that counts more than half-a-million elected officials, just 79 are Green. 

The Greens contend that Nader will give them the visibility they need to become serious political players. He may well succeed in getting them over that 5-pereent presidential hump, but that minor victory will guarantee them government money, not government power. 

James P Pinkerton writes for Newsday. He was domestic policy advisor to President George Bush.

top of page

Copyright � 2001 The Center for Voting and Democracy
6930 Carroll Ave. Suite 901    Takoma Park, MD  20912
(301) 270-4616 ____ [email protected]