Now that I’m done with analyzing the Third Party debates, here are some general thoughts I have about them and the respective parties as a whole.
First of all, these are the best debates to watch if you want to hear a good range of policy being discussed. The third party candidates, right and left wing, talk about the issues you will never hear at the main debates. Not only that, because they’re not trying to pivot to the center and appeal to the lowest common denominator, they hold firm to their ideals and are unapologetic on their positions. At the best debates for third parties (2004 and 2008) you get an especially great range of stances. 2004 in particular was the perfectly tossed salad, with Libertarians, Socialists, Greens and Constitutionalists respectfully hashing it out. Despite the overlap, (two left and two right) each party had a unique niche to fill. Even in the more unbalanced debates like 1996 and 2012, there’s a lot more respect between the players, and more of a focus on “my party believes this…” rather than the personal insults and blame game of the main debates. Unlike the Democrats, if someone called the Greens or Socialists “the most liberal candidate who ran this year!” as Republicans often do, they would proudly own the title and say “that’s exactly what America needs right now!” Conversely, while I vehemently disagree with their policies, at least the Constitution candidates own their evangelical stance, rather than try to downplay, deflect and pivot center as the Republicans do after their primaries.
Now, with that said, the short-comings of the Third Party debates lie in the overall weaknesses of their candidates. They tend to be extremist, or have a lot of unwanted baggage with their good ideas (see: Stein with her batshit ideas on Wi-Fi, GMOs and more.) As often as not, they’re uncharismatic or in some way flawed orators. Or, and this is a big one too, they just kinda blend together. This is especially true in the aforementioned years when the fields were skewed too right or too left. After a certain point listening to three different versions of the same answer you stop caring. But also, it happens because these people are not representing themselves so much as their parties. Since they’re smaller, and trying to fill a specific niche to stand out, the third parties are more monolithic–there aren’t competing wings and personalities in them like the major parties. So, Libertarian 1996 isn’t much different from Libertarian 2004.
With the exception of Nader in 2008, nobody really blew me away with their skills at demolishing another candidate…but really, they’re not trying to. Unlike say, Bush v Kerry, those 4 candidates at Hofstra that same cycle were not there to tear the other guy down and “win.” They’re there to be heard, and give their party just 20 minutes in the spotlight to speak their piece and maybe, hopefully, win a few votes and converts. It’s a different game.
I think the best candidates I saw were, in no particular order: Nader, (Independent), Cobb (Green), Ron Paul (Libertarian), Fulani (New Alliance), and Rocky Anderson (Justice). They had very reasonable stands on the issues I could absolutely support. They were each very good orators, not without their faults in this category, some of them, but they could hold their own in a general debate against the major candidates were they ever given the chance. Some of their shortcomings: Nader’s voice is a bit too monotone and soft, Cobb is too whiny and lispy, Ron Paul could’ve done more to emphasize the liberal appeal of libertarianism, Fulani ought to have not framed her movement solely on black America, and Rocky needed to do more to differentiate himself and his party in a world where the Greens have “non-Democratic left” cornered. But of course, all candidates have flaws.
I’d give special shout-outs to Brisben (Socialist), Erik Thompson (Independent), Brown (Socialist), Willa (Socialist) and Gary Johnson (Libertarian) for having their hearts in the right place despite their significant drawbacks. These people were largely awkward orators, and in the case of Thompson, didn’t have his platform fully thought out, and in terms of Johnson has no knowledge of foreign policy. These people would get destroyed in a general debate, and would lose big time even with the backings of major parties. They’re good people and have some good policy ideas to look into though, hence the shout-out.
I’d also give separate shout-outs to Bo Gritz and Phillips (Taxpayers/Constitution). Even though some of their ideas (particularly in Phillips’ case, militant gay bashing and anti-abortion in all circumstances) make them nonviable to me personally, I give them a lot of credit for their oratory skills. In Phillips’ case, his political maneuvering deserves attention as well. This man founded a whole party by himself, took it from the small fledgling Independent Voters Party debate in 1992, and built it up into the 5th largest party in the US. And you might say “ooh wow, 5th largest!” all sarcastic, but when you consider how long it took the Libertarians to build themselves up, or all the other third parties which rose and fell in this time, or how hard it is to get ballot access in one state let alone 40+ states, that’s very impressive. The Constitution Party, while I loathe everything they stand for, appeared in all but one cycle of these debates, tied with Libertarians for the most amount. And Phillips himself participated in 3 cycles worth of debates, the most of any candidate. I give a lot of props for his vigor and talent at debating.
I won’t pick out a “worst” candidate. But the Constitution Party candidates tend to be my least favorite because they go against everything I stand for. And there were some mediocre orators and truly bizarre people (Michael Levinson) that I saw. But I wouldn’t call any of them the “worst.” To even get to where they are and put themselves out there takes guts. Many were at least as good as some of the weakest major party candidates in history like Mondale, Dukakis and Ford. And the difference is those guys had every resource in the world. Some of these third partiers like Erik Thompson were just bold men with a desire to fix the country. They deserve praise, not scorn, even if some of them aren’t exactly the best candidates ever.
Party by Party Analysis
The Socialist Party is a dying, sad shell of what it once was and what it ought to be. It gives me no pleasure to say, believe me, because I would love to see a resurgent Socialist (or Democratic Socialist, or Social Democratic) Party emerge and elect a President. Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas are some of my all time favorite Presidential candidates in history. And again, the three candidates I saw: Willa, Brisben and Brown were all good people. But they’re also old, tired, unexciting, white haired relics. They need a younger face, if they even have one, and probably a re-branding. Bernie has proven there is a growing audience for Socialist and Social Democratic governance. They just need to accept that they’re never gonna make it as a Party—the name is too toxic. Re-brand and rename (but keep the same policies) and/or infiltrate the Democrats as part of a progressive wing and help us try to take over the party and shift it back to the left, where it was before 1972.
The Libertarian is the 3rd largest party in the US and the one with the most potential still to grow. They were absolutely on the right track with Johnson in 2012—play up both the rightist and leftist aspects of Libertarian policy. Their problems up to that point were framing themselves as Off-brand Republicans, and why go for the knock-off when you can just have the real thing? I just hope Johnson’s loss doesn’t lead them to double down on the crazy right-wing stuff again after this election. Johnson failed this golden opportunity to grow and reach 5% to get funding because he’s an idiot. The lesson that should now be learned is that, even if you plan on governing as an isolationist, you need to educate your candidates on foreign policy. There’s no excuse not to know that stuff when you’re going to be receiving foreign diplomats and traveling. Unfortunately, they’ll probably never have a better election to capitalize on than 2016. It’s impossible to overstate how bad Johnson blew it.
Unlike the Libertarians, the Green Party seems to be getting worse and worse. They had one of the top 5 best Presidential candidates of all time (in terms of progressive, far-sighted policy platform) with Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000. Cobb was really good too, but undoubtedly a step back. I don’t even know who their 2008 candidate was, but they weren’t good enough to get into the third party debates that year. And Stein is a complete joke. When she talks, it doesn’t feel genuine at all. It feels like your grandma going “Weed is great…am I right fellow kids??” She’s an awkward orator, yelling, swaying back and forth, talking very slowly like she’s fumbling for the right stump speech checkpoints as she goes. She made a fool of herself on a Reddit AMA where it was revealed she knew nothing about policy. She’s adopted ridiculous anti-vaccination, anti-GMO and anti-WiFi positions. She’s a joke candidate, the personification of the weird, goofball hippie. Someone on Reddit summed it up best: “I think she’s more concerned with making a big show of protesting and getting arrested than actually leading.”
The Constitution Party is going to need to rebrand or die just like the GOP itself. It was born in the early ’90s at the height of evangelicals gaining ground in the GOP and Buchanan’s “cultural war” speech. It claims “spiritual founder” status of the goddamn TEA Party, which is absolutely nothing to be proud of. As the boomers die out, so will it. And unlike the GOP as a whole, I don’t see how it could save itself. The Libertarians (and if they’re smart, the GOP) will already have the fiscal conservative/small government (so, Libertarian) factions locked up, and will claim to be strict Constitutionalists themselves, which is this party’s whole MO outside of being the socially conservative party. If the Constitutionalists absorb the Trumpists and TEA Party, they will be toxic to the rest of America and continue to alienate the new generation. Compare the applause they’d get in the debates at ’92, ’96…somewhat less in ’04…then Nader put their candidate on the ropes in 08…and then they received no applause on many answers in 2012. Times are changing.
As I said earlier, the New Alliance, Natural Law and now the Justice Parties died (or are going to die) because they limited their audience or went after a niche that was already locked up, and didn’t do enough to differentiate themselves. New Alliance was basically a protest party against the Democrats for taking black votes for granted. I totally understand the feeling, as I think they’re throwing LGBTs under the bus too and they know we can’t do anything about it because the GOP is so much worse. Still, limiting yourself to just 13% of the population off the bat is a recipe for failure. The Natural Law and Justice Parties are generic right and left, respectively, without any distinguishing characteristics to justify their own existence against the established Libertarians/Constitutionalists and Greens/Socialists. That’s not to say I didn’t prefer the Natural Law party to the Constitution Party, and Rocky Anderson to Jill Stein.
And finally, we have the IVP, or Independent Voters Party. They only lived through one cycle, and existed purely to offer their own party nomination and resources to whoever earned it, even if that person was already a member of another party. In some ways, that lone 1992 experiment was my favorite debate. You had some of everything there: the lunatic fringe in Levinson, the young intellectual in Erik Thompson, a Socialist, a more Libertarian-ish candidate and most prestigious of all the founder of the Constitution Party. In some ways it was the purest debate I’ve seen, allowing everyone a voice. Seeing both the best candidate there in Phillips and the worst candidate in Levinson continue to run for many cycles thereafter, one as the proud founder of a new political force and the other as…well, Michael Levinson…also adds to the strange attraction this party has on me. It added to the “what if” and how that night spawned at least two wildly different political trajectories. The fact that I still can’t find out anything about the IVP online adds a mysterious quality as well. I think America needs something like the IVP again.