Alternative Parties Are No Alternative

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November 2, 2006

The State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently upheld a lower court decision removing Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli from the ballot for US Senator. Although Romanelli submitted 94,000 signatures, 27,000 more than required, the Democratic Party was able to successfully challenge enough of them to keep the Green Party candidate off the ballot. What's interesting about this is not the Democrats' concern about the Greens siphoning votes away from the Democratic Senate candidate in a close race, but the way in which the Green Party was able to gather the resources necessary to collect so many signatures. It is an instructive lesson about the cynical nature of politics, and the futility of trying to change the established order by supporting alternative parties.

It costs a lot of money to get on the ballot in a statewide race in Pennsylvania. Therefore, when Carl Romanelli submitted more than enough signatures, political pundits wondered where the money came from to collect them. They didn't have to wait long to get their answer. An investigative column in the Philadelphia Daily News revealed that almost all of the $66,000 spent by the Green Party came from donors who are active in the Republican Party and supporters of incumbent Republican Senator Rick Santorum. For example, a Washington, DC lobbyist and former policy advisor to Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist donated $1,000 to the Green Party. His client list includes a Halliburton subsidiary which received hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraq War reconstruction contracts. Another lobbyist who gave $1,000 represents the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and was involved with Rick Santorum's "K-Street Project" effort to ensure that Republicans would receive almost all major lobbying jobs. California publisher James Holman, who spent $700,000 of his own money to support an antiabortion initiative in that state, donated $5,000 to pro-choice Romanelli's campaign.

Why would Republican lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry and a Halliburton subsidiary, and a pro-life activist, donate large sums to a candidate who is decidedly antiwar, pro-choice, and an advocate of socialized medicine? I think the answer is pretty obvious. In a close race that pundits see as crucial to Democrats gaining control of the Senate, it seems logical that supporters of Rick Santorum, the Ayatollah of Family Values who compared homosexuality to bestiality and is the darling of Anita Bryant Republicans, would also give money to a candidate who will siphon votes away from his liberal Democratic opponent.

Another example of the impotence of alternative parties to influence political events was my own experience with a group affiliated with the Republican Party called the Republican Liberty Caucus. Their declared mission was to elect libertarians to office on the Republican ballot, Ron Paul being the best example. However, when I became involved with them, it seemed they were more interested in destroying the Libertarian Party than they were in electing libertarians. When they found out I was a former activist in the New Jersey Libertarian Party, some of them requested that I try to persuade other libertarians to support Republican candidates. When I refused, they virtually banished me from the group. I realized they did not want to make the Republican Party safe for libertarians. They wanted to make elections safe for Republicans.

Once in a while there is excitement generated when an independent candidate like Jesse Ventura gets elected, or comes respectably close like George Wallace in 1968 or Ross Perot in 1992. However, these candidates do not steer very far from the political mainstream, and subsequent attempts to form alternative parties based on their campaigns proved feeble. In 1972 followers of George Wallace organized the American Independent Party, which nominated as its presidential candidate an obscure congressman named John Schmitz. He got little more than one percent of the vote, and his real claim to fame came as the father of notorious Mary Kay LeTourneau, the school teacher sent to jail for giving birth to a child whose father was her thirteen year old student. Ross Perot's Reform Party fared little better. After a hostile takeover by Pat Buchanan in 2000, and backed by $16 million in public financing, they only got about two percent of the vote. Ironically, their biggest impact was in Florida, where large numbers of elderly Democrats in Palm Beach County mistakenly voted for Buchanan when they thought they were voting for Gore. Even Buchanan admitted later in an interview there was no way he could have gotten so many votes.

Sometimes alternative parties are ripe candidates for a "hostile takeover" by ambitious leader wannabes who couldn't care less about ideology but simply want to make enough of an electoral splash to get the attention of statist power brokers. A good example is the New Jersey election for Governor in 1997. Murray Sabrin, a conservative financial expert, became the Libertarian Party candidate for Governor and succeeded in raising enough money from other libertarians throughout the country to qualify for public financing and participation in debates with the two statist party candidates. However, his performance in the debates was lackluster and after spending over a million dollars (including half a million from public funds), he got only five percent of the vote. Nevertheless, he got a lot of attention from conservative political operatives in the Republican Party. Two years later they recruited him to run in the primary election for Senator against a moderate Congressman supported by the "country club" establishment. One day I was listening to a radio show when Murray called in to announce his opposition to naming a publicly financed student center at Rutgers University after the late civil rights activist Paul Robeson. A sincere libertarian would have announced their opposition to public financing of any building, regardless of who it was named for. But as a conservative Republican, Murray was pandering to the racist instincts of his political base. He lost badly, but it was an instructive lesson about the difference between conservatives who campaign like libertarians, and the real thing.

One wonders why, in the face of insurmountable odds and countless failures, alternative parties keep plugging away. In sociology there is a concept called organizational maintenance, which is the imperative motive that keeps any group in existence even after they no longer have any practical use. Like the military/industrial complex that has to continuously create markets for its products by instigating wars, alternative political parties must continue to justify their existence. There are both financial and psychological motives involved. Paid staffers, campaign managers and consultants have monetary incentives to recruit candidates and raise funds for the party and campaign committees. In the aforementioned Sabrin campaign, almost half the money raised went to pay professional and marketing fees. Psychological motives may be more compelling. I've seen very talented, knowledgeable and experienced persons waste their valuable time and resources to feed their self-esteem by getting their names on the ballot and in a few newspapers. Some of them have an almost orgasmic reaction every time they see their name in print.

In a parliamentary system, alternative parties do have more impact. In Israel, religious parties, though relatively small, exercise disproportionate influence because of their willingness to support any coalition government that will concede their social agenda. Usually, the narrower the agenda, the easier it is for smaller parties to gain concessions. However, a small party with a broad ideological agenda would be faced with the choice of compromising its principles to achieve a small share of power, or remain forever on the outside looking in. Whether it be Parliament or Congress, as the Green Party case in Pennsylvania illustrates, support for alternative parties can do little more than serve the interests of one statist clique in conflict with the interests of another statist clique.

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Ken Bank's picture
Columns on STR: 12

Ken Bank has done some writing (including movie reviews) from a historical and libertarian perspective, and his background includes masters degrees in history and business.  He used to be active in the Libertarian Party but has given up politics.  He currently resides in Barnegat, New Jersey.  He is a retired real estate broker, and currently works part-time as an investment manager and consultant.