Re-evaluate the power of the political party: Politics for the Upstate Student

Posted by Julia Grigel

Something is clearly not right: Jimmy McMillan ("The Rent is 2 Damn High" guy) is going to run for president. Better yet, he's doing it as a Republican.

In case you missed him in last fall's gubernatorial race (or the rest of the New York State elections that he's been a part of since 1993), he was the one with two curiously round tufts of silver hair for a beard, ridiculous mutton chops and black gloves that he attributes to over-exposure to Agent Orange and other chemicals in Vietnam. He ran on "The Rent is 2 Damn High" ticket (the party platform is self-explanatory) in the 2010 elections for governor of NY. Now he has his sights set higher.

Although he ran on "The Rent is 2 Damn High" ticket, McMillan was a registered Democrat. But those days are over: he will run his presidential campaign as a Republican to avoid facing Obama in a Democratic primary. Besides, "the Democratic Party sucked," said McMillan of his sudden turnaround. Hey, I at least give him props for his honesty — it's not easy to come by in politics.

He recently attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., where he cozied up to Republicans and waved his shoe around in support of "our brothers and sisters in Egypt." It seems that McMillan now has a "thing" for shoes — when asked whether or not he would support gay marriage in 2010, he explained that if somebody wanted to marry a shoe, he'd support that.

Okay, so Jimmy McMillan is a funny dude. But the implication of his presence at the Conservative Political Action Conference for politics in general is that our system has become confused and downright messed up. The fact that a single-issue candidate must choose one of two political parties to represent his values speaks quite poorly of our party system.

It seems illiberal to have a system in which "popular sovereignty" refers to the right to choose between two parties. Especially when both parties are confused about what they really stand for because they are so busy trying to please the majority. A majority who — can you blame them? — don't understand what these glossy political euphemisms actually mean in the first place.

Third parties tend to get a lot of negative press because they just don't have a place in our voting system. The fact that so many people were mad at Nader for campaigning in 2000 and "stealing" the election from Gore is an insult to the tenets of democracy. A Nader ought to be able to run in every election. The two-party system simply doesn't cut it when so many people want to see a progressive agenda.

Will we ever see a multi-party democracy in the U.S.? It's doubtful. We've had two parties since before Washington warned against having two parties. It's tradition. It's what we're used to. It makes watching elections feel like watching football.

In order to change the party system we'd need to change the voting system. First, we would have to do away with the Electoral College (and as we know from our fifth grade social studies class, changing the constitution is tough). To give third parties a fighting chance, we'd also need to abandon the winner-takes-all method of voting, which goes hand in hand with a two-party system.

The grand flourish to this idealistic sequence of changes would be a switch to a runoff voting system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, thus preventing a third party from "stealing" votes from another candidate who might otherwise win. In turn, a runoff voting system would allow for more candidates —like McMillan!

For some instructive (albeit radical) thoughts on the ills of democracies such as ours, it's often helpful to look at the villainous dictator of the day for his constructive criticism. And indeed, we can find some interesting wisdom on the problems of the party system in dear old Quaddafi's 1980 manifesto, "The Green Book."

Perhaps with some inspiration from Marx, Quaddafi informs us that "all political systems in the world today are a product of the struggle for power between the instruments of government." He goes on to say that "a party's aim is to achieve power under the pretext of carrying out its program democratically."

So here we have a power-hungry dictator telling us that a democracy's party politics are essentially a fight for power and control. We certainly don't need to read his denunciation of party-based democracy to make our own judgments. Quaddafi was obviously a little crazy back in 1980, and by now has totally gone off his rocker.

But, if nothing else, his brazen criticism of party politics serves as food for thought. And even the presence of McMillan in politics, as he pushes a fringe issue from within the Republican Party, makes us think about what our parties really stand for. The chance of seeing any significant reform is unlikely, but it's worth hoping for.

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