Three months lie between us and the election in November. The airwaves will likely be long on attack ads and self-righteous politicians boasting about how much more family oriented or moral or conservative or gun friendly they are than their opponents.
The PAC attack ads will saturate the television and radio. We will be inundated with lies, half-truths, and out-of-context statements. Sincere statements and policy positions will be in there somewhere, but amid the noise, they will be hard to hear.
All of it so far, and in the future, will roll off of me. I have a very simple way of making election political decisions. I vote Democrat. Period. My grandfather was a straight-party voter. He came to know the Democratic party through the Tom Pendergast machine. It’s likely my grandfather received some benefit from his affiliation with the machine. More importantly, as an auto worker and one who lived through the darkness of the Great Depression, he saw only one party willing to do anything for common people. He said at one point that he would vote for Satan as long as he ran on a Democratic ticket.
My dad, on the other hand, was a reactionary who resented change. He only voted Republican. He was a many-issue, one-issue voter: He loved guns and was afraid the government was going to come take them. He vehemently condemned abortion. He hated communism with the fervor of Joe McCarthy. He detested illicit drugs. He was a real law-and-order kind of guy. He didn’t like Black Americans protesting in the streets (and believed the Soviets were behind the Civil Rights Movement). He derided anti-war protesters as agents of subversion.
I’ve only ever voted Democrat, as I have never met or heard of a Republican who really gave two shits about the welfare of the working person and the working poor. I do not vote against my interests, since my interests include a robust social safety net, free college tuition, and universal, free healthcare. There are no Republicans who stand for those issue that I know of. At least the Democratic Party makes some nod to those issues.
Some of my friends bemoan the two-party, winner-take-all system we have. They pine for a third-party candidate. I, too, wish we had a third party. But the third party needs to get involved at the local level before it can become viable for the presidency. Although I agree with all the Socialist Party USA and Green Party positions—and have views even more radical—I am suspect of them. They only come out of the woodwork once every four years to run for president. Otherwise, they are absent, at least around here.
Where are Green Party and third-party candidates for the city council? The mayor? The school board? While the local elections around here are nonpartisan, everyone who runs for a city council position gets started with a party, and most voters know what party the nonpartisans are connected with. I want to see a Green run for a position in city government. I want to see Green Party principles applied to fixing sidewalks and picking up the trash, maintaining sewers and running the airport.
The county legislature, one of the more corrupt in our local circles, is a Democratic stronghold. In my district, whoever wins the Democratic primary takes the seat in the general election. I don’t see third-party candidates lining up to run for county elected positions. County offices not glamorous. County politicians have to show up at baptisms and funerals. They have to participate in neighborhood meetings and get involved with nonprofits. The pay is subpar. The position, at least in Jackson County, Missouri, demands 30 hours a week or more for the $25,000 a year in compensation.
Once in a while, we might have someone who calls him or herself a Libertarian run for a Jackson County legislative position. But in my years as a voter, I’ve never seen an independent or third-partier take a campaign seriously. They don’t get out and raise money. They don’t attend forums or show up at neighborhood meetings. They whine about being on the outside. They say they are unfairly treated—by media, political parties, and the general public.
I ran for the county legislature in 2006 as a Democrat. It was a primary election against an entrenched politician, a fellow Democrat. I busted my ass. I had to raise money from individuals, organizations, and unions. There was no way I could run a legitimate campaign on my money. I would have gone broke buying the signs, the literature, and the T-shirts. I had to convince people to believe in me, and the most tangible evidence of that belief was either a vote or a dollar or both.
With a list of probable voters in my hand, I went door-to-door all summer, rain or shine. Some days were so hot that I had to take extra shirts to change into once the one I was wearing soaked through. I went into rough neighborhoods. I walked sidewalks in posh quarters. I talked to all kinds of people.
Most people who answered their doors gave me a little of their time and I handed them my literature. Several times, people invited me up to their porches to visit with them and their friends. On a couple of occasions, my prospective voters filled me with lemonade. On hot days, I was often offered cold water or a step out of the heat into the air conditioning.
I knocked on over 3,000 doors. Some of those doors were slammed in my face. People were sometimes very nasty. On at least two occasions, when I told a person I was a Democrat, they told me I was an agent of the devil. A couple of people said I was responsible for aborted fetuses and dictatorial government. Some bashed immigrants and black people and talked about crony-ridden unions.
Calmly, of course, I stuck to my principles. No one wants people to have abortions, I said. But I am not a woman and would never have to go through the heart wrenching circumstance of an unwanted pregnancy. I live in an immigrant neighborhood and have seen how hard undocumented immigrants work. As far as I have seen, not one immigrant has taken a job that someone else would fill. I have Black neighbors and friends. I believe in labor unions and am a union man myself.
One time, I walked into a Quaker meeting. The house was a sturdy but old two-story in Northeast. A man invited me into the living room, where about ten people sat on dilapidated couches and chairs. The women wore bonnets. The men were dressed simply in plain colors. I excused myself for bothering them at prayer. “We were waiting for the Word of God,” one of the men said. “We were waiting for you.” They listened politely to my introduction and spiel. They offered me something to drink and wanted to share their food. They asked intelligent questions about what I wanted to do on the county legislature. When it came time for me to go, they all stepped forward and laid their hands on my shoulder. “Go with God,” one of the women said.
I lost the race but it taught me a lot about running for office. You just don’t show up and demand attention and expect support. You cannot offer an alternative unless you get out there and do all the things demanded of a politician and political campaign. You have to be willing to work, to sweat and to walk and shake hands. You have to meet people where they are and be sincere in your words and actions. You have to ask people and organizations for their support. You have to ask for money—otherwise those yard signs, pamphlets, and T-shirts don’t get made. It’s all part of a larger process.
Yes, there was a smoky backroom. I had to run the gauntlet of jaded party operatives that try to keep the gates. I had to shake the hands of people who believed they deserved recognition just because they thought they were someone important.
In the end and despite all of them, my name appeared on a ballot. People voted for me. Even today, ten years later, there are party operatives who are still angry at me for running against their boy. But some party people also remember that I went up against a formidable candidate and did better than anyone expected.
And I made a difference. The politician I ran against had become comfortable in his office. He had become sloppy and had some ethical difficulties. My run against him made him clean up his act. While I can’t call him a friend today, I can call him an acquaintance. I am happy to see him when he comes around the nonprofit I’m involved in. He has done a lot of good for us. I’m happy to have him at his post.
My circumstances changed after I ran for office. We adopted a son. I didn’t have time for the party machinations, fundraisers, and meet-and-greets. Over time, I lost the precious footing and recognition I gained from running for office. Once you get involved, you have to stay involved or people forget about you or see you as someone who wasn’t serious about public service to begin with.
But if I were to run for office again, I know what to do. I’d be a third-party, socialist candidate. I’d build my bona fides with the Socialist Party USA or the Greens. If they weren’t around (and in Kansas City, they are not), I’d run as a democratic socialist in the Democratic Party. I’d be relentless. I know how to do it. I understand what it means to be a politician and the importance of politicians—people who make public service their careers. I also understand that as a third-party candidate or a fringe Democratic candidate, it would take a miracle to win.
A third-party, progressive, left-wing party must infiltrate the structures of government from the bottom up. They have to put in time on unpaid school boards. They have to serve time in city councils picking up trash and fixing sidewalks. They have to get involved in the mundane business of running city council districts, county and state legislative districts. They have to get themselves elected to regional levee districts and rural fire-and-rescue boards.
I’m all for a third party. I invite third-party candidates to come to my house. I want them to show themselves and ask me for my support and my money. I would go door-to-door for a legitimate third-party candidate. And I’d tell if they were legitimate by how much they were involved in local politics at the neighborhood, city, and county levels. I’d expect that they would have a little money behind them. I want to know that they had a list of voters in their hand and that they were serious about knocking on doors and taking knocks on the ego.
But I also know why we have a two-party system. It’s not written into the Constitution but the founding documents set up a structure in which only two parties will work well. The winner–the one with more than 50 percent–gets it all. The parties depend on their bases and fight for the independent vote. That’s the shenanigans we’re going to see. It’s not about people who are going to vote Democrat or Republican, regardless of who runs.
The efforts of candidates of both parties in the congressional and presidential races are going in three directions. The first is to insure the base. Another is to snag the odd independents that will get them to 50.1 percent. Third, the parties and and their allies are going to try to convince as many people in the other’s base to stay at home.
American politics almost always turn into bloody, ugly grudge matches. It’s almost as if these fights were built in by design. The only way a third party is ever going to make it is to start playing that game on the local level to get that 50+ percent.
Don’t start at the presidency, start at my sidewalk. Run for office. Get a taste for elective politics. Get people on your side. Quit the whining and get to work.