BOSTON -- The other night while attending the world premiere of a PBS documentary on the trials and tribulations of third party presidential candidates it became glaringly obvious why none of them have a shot in America today: Everybody seems to love the somewhat cosmopolitan concept of a viable third party, but finding someone who is actually voting for a particular candidate or supports the emergence of a particular party is a daunting task.
On the walk to the small theater just outside of Boston where the film, Crashing the Parties: 2004, was being screened, I actually prepared myself for uncomfortable small talk with the filmmakers if I was the only one who showed up. Instead, the theater was filled nearly to capacity with 300 energetic and talkative people. Along a buffet spread of vegetables and dip, small throngs lamented the poor ballot options available to them and the sorry state of politics today. But ask them who they were voting for and with the exception of a few Naderites and one Bush supporter, all I found were supporters of John Kerry.
The successful third party these folks envision is not really a third party at all, but a utopian view of the party they are currently supporting. It ties in with the age-old American tradition of government bashing. When Democratic partisans describe their perfect alternative party, it sounds like the Green Party. With fiscal conservatives it sounds like the Libertarian Party. The Constitution Party, with its unabashed focus on religious issues and a clear pro-life stand, looks to be manna from heaven for cultural conservatives.
And yet none of these parties enjoys widespread support. The only recent third party that actually garnered a substantial number of votes was the Reform Party, which didn't really stand for anything much in particular. Except, of course, the one thing even most partisan, party-line folks can get behind: The whole system is screwed up, and we need somebody to get under the hood and fix it. Think about it: When Pat Buchanan tried to infuse a pesky message-based agenda into the Reform Party the whole thing went down in a contentious, writhing ball of fire.
FURTHER, IF ANYONE WAS inclined to consider voting for a third party candidate on the way into Crashing the Parties, it is unlikely they still felt that way walking out. Directors Al Ward and Peter Koziell have done a brilliant job of capturing the presidential candidates of the Green, Constitution, and Libertarian parties, along with Mr. No Party, Ralph Nader, in their natural habitats. Most of them come off as lovable idealists, and there is a sense that their commitment and utter disregard for the odds is quite special. But none of them look like individuals ready to lead the most powerful nation in the world.
At one candidate forum during the New Hampshire primaries, for example, the film captures Libertarian contender Gary Nolan fielding a question from a college student as to what he would do as president to end human rights violations in China.
"Nothing," Nolan answers. "If you want to do something about it, buy a plane ticket, grab a rifle and go to war. I know you don't like my answer, but I refuse to pander."
Another libertarian candidate, Aaron Russo (a big-time Hollywood producer, who counts the Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd classic Trading Places among his credits) shouts at an audience, "I own me, you own you, and we can do whatever the hell we want to do!" It's an appealing sentiment for wackos like myself to be sure, but not likely to play well with swing voters and soccer moms.
Green Party candidate David Cobb is seen attempting to make the best of a nationwide campaign, solo in a compact car -- no staffers, no press secretaries, no advance team. "When you travel alone, there is time for genuine thought and contemplation," he explains hopefully. A few minutes later he is railing to a roomful of bored schoolchildren (clearly NOT of voting age) about the woes of America's "racist, classist, sexist system." Once again, not the most marketable slogan.
THE FEISTIEST MOMENTS OF THE FILM, however, come when people challenge the candidate's right to run at all. At one Nader house party, a Kerry supporter pickets outside with a sign that reads, "Don't Pillage Dem Votes." Meanwhile, back inside the house Nader seethes in that low key way of his, calling the Democrats "whiners and carpers" and labeling their efforts "the signs of a decadent party."
Nader later finds a friendly audience with Neighborhoods Against Subsidizing Stadiums. How much pull this group has nationwide is an open question. Well, no, it isn't actually. They have none, but don't tell Nader! He's in a bad mood and needs to be soothed by friendly voters!
The presidential candidate libertarians finally settle on, Michael Badnarik, likewise becomes colorfully animated when it is suggested a vote for him is a wasted vote.
"If you were in prison and you had a 50 percent chance of lethal injection, a 45 percent chance of going to the electric chair and only a 5 percent chance of escape, are you likely to vote for lethal injection because that is your most likely outcome?" he asks one audience.
No matter how much the majority of Americans enjoy complaining about the two-party system, it is unlikely that they will come to view voting Republican or Democrat as a national "lethal injection" anytime soon. This suggests that third parties find themselves in a bit of a catch 22. They won't find a wide audience until they moderate their views, but no true moderate candidate with the burning desire to be president is going to run on a third party ticket while the prospects for those parties are so poor.
But even if they can't win in 2004, Crashing the Parties, shows that they are nevertheless able to put on one hell of a show.
(Crashing the Parties will air on PBS just ahead of the first presidential debate at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 30.)
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