From 1804 onwards there were only two or a maximum of three candidates running for the highest office. The exception was 1824 and 1836. In 1824, nominations were filed by regions and there were a total of five candidates seeking the Oval office. That race had no significant issue separating the candidates and it became more of a contest of personalities and regions (History Central, 1824 Popular Vote). Again, in 1836 there were five contestants for the White House with Martin Van Buren winning the race as a Democrat beating three other candidates from the Whig party, which was becoming a strong opposition. It must be remembered that by this time the candidates were being nominated by a nominating convention.
Since the mid-1800s America’s presidential race has primarily been a two-party contest with an occasional third party candidate making lackluster attempts at the White House, giving the impression that we are constitutionally wedded to a two-party system. Only in 1856 did a third party candidate Millard Fillmore of the Whig-American party received about 22 percent of the public votes-the largest that a third party candidate would ever receive.
This should tell us that the public dilemma around Ralph Nader’s participation in the national race is not new. Third party candidacy has succeeded only when either of the two strongly opposing parties became weak or disintegrated.
The Federalist party of the 1700s died to be replaced by Independent Democratic-Republican and then again was replaced by the National Republican. Later the traditional Democrat-Republican party (not the Independent) split into the “Democrats” and the “Ind. Democrats.” The opposition of National Republicans was replaced by the Whigs, which became a strong opposition to the Democrats. In 1856 the three parties that contested in the national elections were the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Whig-American.
As history underscores, for over a hundred years the American national elections have been a contest between the Democrats vs. the Republicans. Hence most Americans do not think beyond the dual party system and find it hard to break the mold in spite of the fact that traditional Republicans were at one point of time more liberal than the Democrats. (Abraham Lincoln was a Republican). Seeing how the October 4 debate revealed very few differences between Gore and Bush, Republicans joining the Democrats to form the old Democrat-Republicans (of the 1700s) may not be too far off in the future. How amusing and ironic indeed!
American politics, particularly at the national level, has always been more about personalities than party ideology. The recent elections will be no exception. There has been more discussion about Al Gore’s stiff personality than his views on Medicare for immigrants. There have been more discussions about Bush’s cockiness than on whether he will or will not support first trimester legal termination of pregnancy, though his views on second-trimester abortion is clear. There have been moments in American electoral history that the only point of contention between the two parties was tariffs on import commodities. One party wanted to increase it, another wanted to reduce it. Much like the debate on taxes today-one party wants to decrease it, another wants to keep it the same or increase it. In such nuanced election campaigns only the style begins to get noticed and makes for radical differentiation. It should come as a no surprise that in the personality contest for the White House, the guy with a charming smile, right number of baby kisses and a penchant for witty entertaining punch lines may come out the winner.
Time is ripe for a third party development and success now!
What is new about the political campaigns of today is not the absence of Third Parties or the lack of support for them at the national level, but that Third Party candidates find it hard or impossible to even get into the “Presidential debates” without proving voter support of 15 percent that is counted through arbitrary polling and not census. Complaints that our current popular parties have given into soft-money is not the only truth about our society-a bigger and a more hidden fact is that our media networks are detrimentally influencing politics. They are attempting to make news and money simultaneously while endangering democracy. The chances of Ralph Nader winning, as much as some Californians want it, maybe slim but he poses an intellectual and a social-conscientious challenge to Gore and Bush that is necessary when personality more than substance is beginning to differentiate the two candidates.
Though money has always played a big role in politics and it should not be a surprise that it does now—the difference between then and now is that today the costs of campaigns have become equivalent to a billion-dollar Hollywood productions. Those who work in the government particularly close to the seat of power know that fundraising is the most critical issue that decides entry into the presidential race. The pressure to raise funds starts way before the election year begins. Fundraising needs have become constant and chronic. A British political analyst once stated, “In America the short term limits don’t help the fundraising mania either.” A four year term, or in the case of the house legislator a two year term, which in Shiva’s cosmic time is a millisecond is equally small if not that minute in politics. As such, the pressure to fund raise for the next elections begins the day a candidate wins. The candidates (like Clinton) are forever on a campaign—to gain visibility, popularity and money. This may explain why Gore did not care to feud or spar with Bush in the “Election Debates” on October 3. He preferred looking at the audience and campaigning for himself! As long as traditional parties get the money or have access to money, Third Party candidates are not going to get their feet into the national dialogue let alone succeed.
So where does all this lead us in our current political tamasha? It should make it obvious that Ralph Nader, who raises some of the most important and pointed questions about our economy and growing class differences will not win and will not even be invited to the Presidential debate. This should worry many immigrants and Californians who are part of the significant “undecided” or the “swing vote.” Californians are and have also been, historically, strong supporters of Third Party candidates.
Though some of us Indian-Americans belonging to non-Christian faith may celebrate Liberman’s (an orthodox Jew) Vice-Presidential nomination the polls still does not tell us how popular Lieberman is in rest of America which is significantly different from California and certainly Silicon Valley. How many Ph.D.s, engineers, masters degree holders, women CEOs do you know in Oklahoma? Or South Dakota? Or Mississippi?
When I talk about Bush’s possible victory, people in Northern California seem perplexed and a little amused. “Bush,” they exclaim, “that party boy who does not seem too bright.” The American public that prefers a more self-depreciating Caucasian leader—if one was to be elected—who does not give the image of a “pampered Frat Boy” with a lot of confidence but not much substance. Though some of the criticisms against Bush, whether based on mere perception or deep analysis maybe true, it does not remove the reality that Bush has money on his side and the support of lots of people who live outside the Moonbeam states (California and the Pacific Northwest).
For many wealthy Indians, who seem to be more separated by class rather than language or religion from their own lot and from others outside their ethnic community, Bush might have been the best choice merely because of his conservative economic policies of low taxes and corporate welfare. Other issues may become non-issues. When one is making enough money to send ones children to expensive private schools, public education receives little attention or becomes of no concern to the wealthy. For some of us who come from countries with great class divide, parties that address these issues may appear unimportant or irrelevant. But ignoring the community can force heavy costs on individual and family success. We all live in a community and must see the connection between us. India’s deteriorating environment and political corruption has been due to this lack of sensitivity to community connection and hence the inevitable consequence of lack of community involvement and participation beyond voting rituals that require nothing more than remembering the candidates’ names.
In this election Indians can teach Americans the importance of “voting.” Remember the image of the 90-year-old woman carried on a stretcher to the voting booth in her remote village that became the symbol of “Indian democracy.” In this election America can teach India the importance of “open and well moderated” election debates that is accessible to all citizens and residents. Both have to learn that personality, family name, style, and public image cannot replace substance and integrity. I am not sure which country will teach that.