2024 needs transformative solidarity to overcome corrupt, authoritarian forces unleashed with the help of past third-party campaigns...
By Ernest A. Canning on 5/1/2024, 9:35am PT  

At a moment when, as President Joe Biden has aptly warned, both "democracy" and "freedom" will be on the ballot in November, third-party myopia poses a clear and present danger to survival of constitutional democracy in these United States.

Metaphorically, the word "myopia" refers to "cognitive thinking and decision making that is narrow in scope or lacking in foresight or in concern for wider interests or for longer-term consequences." It is a metaphor that, in this current cycle, can be applied to the Presidential campaigns of Green Party candidate Jill Stein, People's Party candidate Cornell West, and the independent candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Third-party myopia lies in the near mathematical certainty that none of these three candidates can secure a single electoral vote, let alone the 270 needed to become the next POTUS. It also lies in the failure of progressive third-party candidates to recognize the potential for "blowback" --- for example, the creation of a supermajority of corrupt, democracy-subverting rightwing SCOTUS ideologues as an unintended consequence of past third-party Presidential campaigns. Myopia can also be found in the polemic canard that there's no ideological difference between the two major parties. That thinking is false on countless levels, but especially when it comes to the very core of our democracy: voting rights. On that score alone, the two major parties are polar opposites.

By their very nature, third-party campaigns are divisive --- a truly unfortunate circumstance at this pivotal moment in our nation's history. But if ever there was a time for We the People to unite in our resolve that, in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth", it would be on Nov. 5, 2024. Only "transformative solidarity" can save our precious constitutional democracy.

Here's why...

Stein, West and RFK Jr.

According to pre-election polling, of the three third-party candidates challenging Biden, ostensibly, "from the left", RFK Jr., has, early on, garnered the most support. Where Democratic strategist James Carville recently expressed the belief that Junior might hurt Trump more than Biden, others, like The Hill's Niall Stanage opine the reverse is true.

RFK Jr., particularly with his polling advantage, provides the most robust target for Biden campaign ads. Kennedy's campaign is an obvious right-wing billionaire-funded scam which hasn't even fooled his own family. More than a dozen of them recently traveled to Philadelphia to endorse Biden. JFK's grandson described Junior's campaign as a "vanity project" and an "embarrassment".

Some of us are old enough to remember Kennedy's father, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. His bid to become our 37th President was cut short by an assassin's bullet. We remember RFK Sr. as a brilliant champion of racial and economic equality. RFK Jr., however, who embraces right-wing conspiracy theories, is no Bobby Kennedy (Sr.).

The Stein and West campaigns both pose a serious threat precisely because many voters regard their progressive bona fides as exceeding those of our incumbent President. Both Stein and West have sought to exploit the "uncommitted" votes cast in the Democratic Party Presidential Primaries by offering up harsh assessments of Biden's delay in pressuring Israel's hard-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end the carnage in Gaza. That pressure from the Biden Administration, according to Israel's Haaretz, appears to be producing positive results as Israeli troops are reportedly pulling back from southern Gaza. (Biden also warned Netanyahu not to retaliate against Iran's ineffective missile launch --- a launch that itself was triggered by Israel's strike on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Syria.)

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a leading proponent for casting "uncommitted" Democratic Presidential Primary votes, was asked if she'd vote for Joe Biden if the election were held today. She replied: "Of course. Democracy is on the line."

Tone deaf RFK, Jr. not only supports Israel's heretofore relentless Gaza assault, but went so far as to question the need for even a temporary ceasefire.

Hard math

A critical element of third-party myopia arises from hard math. There is no real prospect right now for a third-party presidential candidate to secure a single electoral vote, let alone the 270 electoral votes needed to win a presidential election.

Unlike parliamentary democracies, where a division of multiple progressive parties does not foreclose the formation of a coalition government and the selection of a progressive prime minister, U.S. presidential elections involve a state-based Electoral College system that makes it virtually impossible for third-party candidates to win a presidential race, at least without a huge national groundswell. There are no signs of such a groundswell.

With the exception of Maine and Nebraska, each State awards all of its Electoral Votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in the state. Third party candidates must overcome significant obstacles simply to secure a place on the ballot in each state. The near certainty that they will lose, even if ballot access is acquired, is reflected by the fact one must go back 56 years, to the 1968 Election, to find a third-party candidate who won any Electoral College votes.

Voting is both a fundamental right and an exercise in civic responsibility. Because elections have consequences, political maturity and civic responsibility include an appreciation for potential adverse consequences of casting a ballot for a third-party candidate with no real chance of winning. That same reasoning can be applied to the dwindling number of Liz Cheney Republicans who have come to understand that a second Trump term could be, as she characterized it recently, a death knell for democracy. In a system where only one of two candidates will become the next POTUS, not voting has a similar impact as voting for a third-party candidate. This year, "with democracy on the ballot", civic responsibility mandates that honest conservatives vote for Biden as well.

Nader's dangerous false equivalency

The claim, first advanced by former third-party candidate Ralph Nader and subsequently embraced by the Green Party's Jill Stein, that there is no real ideological difference between the two major parties is a dangerous and lazy canard. On bedrock issues that are vital to the preservation of democracy, such as voting rights, the two major parties are polar opposites.

One need look no further than Democracy Docket, the website of former lead Democratic Party attorney Marc Elias, to find a plethora of cases in which Democrats and voting rights advocates have turned to the courts in hopes of fending off relentless Republican assaults on the basic rights of registering to vote, casting a vote and having votes tallied accurately as cast.

GOP voter intimidation --- and the antipathy towards democracy on the part of judges they appoint to the bench --- dates back to at least 1962 and 1964 when William H. Rehnquist "personally challenged" African American and Hispanic voters at the polls in Phoenix, Arizona. Rehnquist would ultimately go on to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court after his nomination to the Court by Richard Nixon and promotion to Chief by Ronald Reagan.

In our two-part coverage, (here and here), of landmark U.S. Senate voting rights hearings in 2011, we echoed the warnings expressed by civil rights litigator Judith Brown Dianis about the GOP's role in "the largest legislative effort to roll back voting rights since the post-Reconstruction era." Ever since, the GOP's relentless War on Democracy has proceeded apace both within GOP-controlled State legislatures and at the GOP-controlled U.S. Supreme Court.

The fundamental differences between the two major parties on this issue was central to the eloquent "Voting Rights Speech for the Ages" delivered by Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) in March of 2021. If two ethically-challenged Senate Democrats had not joined with Republicans that year to exploit Senate filibuster rules to block two vital democracy-enhancing federal election reform bills, Republicans would not have succeeded in gerrymandering their way to a feckless U.S. House majority in 2022.

Judiciary on the ballot

The fact that one of our nation's two major political parties has devolved into a top-down, fascist organization led by an "oath-breaking insurrectionist" who has called for "terminat[ing]" the U.S. Constitution, underscores the accuracy of Biden's assertion that, come November, democracy itself will be on the ballot. But, the hard reality is that, at least since the founding of the right-wing billionaire-funded Federalist Society in the 1980s, the question as to who should serve on the U.S. Supreme Court is one that has been addressed by voters --- often unknowingly --- every four years when U.S. citizens elect a President.

As MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell observed recently, "your vote lives after you." Our quadrennial elections don't just determine who will serve as POTUS over the next four years. They determine who will serve on SCOTUS for the next 30 to 40 years.

Again, hard math reveals that at least one short-sighted Green Party campaign undermined democracy by enabling the Republican Party and right-wing billionaires via the Federalist Society to pack the Supreme Court with a corrupt, authoritarian super-majority of right-wing ideologues.


Within the Intelligence Community, the word "blowback" refers to the unintended consequences of previous covert actions. For example, the 1978 Islamic revolution that led to a Muslim fundamentalist regime in Iran --- which continues to be openly hostile to U.S. interests --- has been described as the unintended consequence of the 1953 CIA-engineered coup that overthrew the democratically elected, secular government of Mohammed Mossadegh.

Within our domestic politics, right-wing billionaire control of the U.S. Supreme Court via a supermajority of six right-wing "radicals-in-robes" can appropriately be described as a form of electoral "blowback" --- the direct, unintended consequence of at least one pivotal, ill-timed Green Party presidential campaign.

The electoral math of the 2000 Presidential election is inescapable. Setting aside issues of voter suppression and tabulation irregularities, according to the official tally, George W. Bush became our 43rd President by defeating Al Gore in Florida by a 537-vote margin. That same tally revealed that 97,488 Floridians voted for the Green Party's Ralph Nader that year --- more than 181.5 times Bush's margin of victory in the Sunshine State.

As New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait observed in 2016, Nader, who had falsely depicted Gore and Bush as "ideological twins", never disputed the math. Instead, as expressed in a 2004 CBS article, Nader's "consistent retort is that no party owns a citizen's vote." (That may be true. But the issue isn't ownership. Rather, it is the unintended consequences of a failed and divisive third-party campaign.)

Bush's 537-vote "victory" in 2000 led to the appointment of two right-wing Justices (John Roberts and Samuel Alito) to the U.S. Supreme Court, 62 judges to the U.S. Courts of Appeal and 261 U.S. District Court judges.

In 2016, votes for the Green Party's Jill Stein in three states --- Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania --- exceeded the electoral gap between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in those states. However, as Stein asserts, exit polls suggest that only 25% of her supporters would have voted for Clinton; 15% for Trump and 55% would have stayed home.

A net Clinton gain of 10% of the Stein vote would not come close, she argues, to overcoming Trump's vote totals in any of those three states.

There are multiple reasons for the 2016 debacle: widespread revulsion amongst progressives tied to DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz's plot to undermine that year's Bernie Sanders campaign, and the Democratic Party's failure, over multiple election cycles, to fully educate the public as to the extent to which their decisions to vote third-party, or to fail to cast a Presidential vote at all, can impact the makeup of SCOTUS for generations. But the failure of Stein and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson to appreciate the long-term consequences of running in doomed-to-fail, 2016 third-party campaigns must also be included in those reasons.

Electoral blowback from the 2016 election came not only in the Republican appointments of three corrupt Federalist Society SCOTUS ideologues (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett) but also in Donald Trump's appointment of 54 judges to the US Court of Appeal and 174 District Court judges. All of whom now enjoy lifetime appointments to the federal bench.

During Chief Justice Roberts' tenure, the corrupt ideologues on his Court have handed-down a series of decisions that have overturned long-standing precedent, undermined democracy, corrupted or disempowered our political institutions, rolled back personal liberties and enhanced the now very real, ominous prospect that our cherished constitutional democracy could be transformed into an authoritarian oligarchy.

Need for "transformative solidarity"

The problem does not lie in the substance of third-party platforms.

The Green Party, and now the People's Party via Cornell West, have made the same valid, if somewhat overgeneralized, criticisms of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party as those advanced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during his 2016 and 2020 Democratic Primary campaigns.

The case could be made that, mathematically, Sanders, in both instances, came far closer to securing the Democratic Party nomination than the Green Party ever came to securing so much as a single Electoral College vote during their many years on the Presidential ballot. Indeed, prior to Biden's "decisive win" in the February 2020 South Carolina primary, Sanders was considered the "front runner" for the Democratic Party nomination.

But the core difference between third-party campaigns and Sanders' intra-party challenge is by no means confined to math.

By their very nature, progressive third-party campaigns are designed to peel votes away from Democratic Party presidential candidates --- this, despite the fact that many Democrats now belong to the progressive wing of the Party as it has tracked substantively leftward in recent years, particularly during the Biden Presidency.

By contrast, Sanders' intra-party primary campaigns embodied a far-sighted decision --- and, all signs suggest, a very successful one --- to build a progressive movement from within the Democratic Party itself. In addition to its positive impact on the Biden Administration's substantive, far-reaching policies, Sanders' campaigns bolstered the creation of an increasingly formidable, 103-member Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Indeed, Sanders' campaigns built-upon and furthered progressive movements that transcend electoral politics.

Activist Leah Hunt-Hendrix, co-author of Solidarity: The Past, Present and Future of a World-Changing Idea (2024), noted, when recently interviewed by Review of Democracy, that a line can be drawn directly between Occupy Wall Street through Bernie Sanders' campaigns and to the creation of the Sanders-Biden working groups following Biden's 2020 nomination. Those working groups, she observed, had a "very big influence on the Biden administration", such as the incorporation of "ideas about the Green New Deal into the Inflation Reduction Act."

Hunt-Hendrix regards the concept of "transformative solidarity" as something intentionally cultivated and constructed --- a majoritarian movement that is welcoming, inclusive and recognizes that "you can't have individual freedom that is separate from the collective well-being." She contrasts that with "reactionary solitary", which she describes as "small and exclusive."

While no one would question the progressive bona fides of a Jill Stein or Cornell West --- or even RFK Jr., in his earlier iteration as a progressive champion --- the myopic tactical decisions by all three to run as third-party candidates are both counterproductive and dangerous. With the very survival of democracy on the line, one would hope that the electorate, including disaffected Republicans, comes to appreciate the need to vote this year for the Democratic Party's nominee for President. The very survival of American democracy may now depend on it.

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Ernest A. Canning is a retired attorney, author, and Vietnam Veteran (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968). He previously served as a Senior Advisor to Veterans For Bernie. Canning has been a member of the California state bar since 1977. In addition to a juris doctor, he has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science. Follow him on twitter: @cann4ing

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