Ever since the Republican and Democratic parties passed laws in the late 1890s and early 1900s effectively rigging the electoral system to thwart other parties from gaining a sustainable foothold in local and national politics, most voters have shied away from supporting third-party candidates, fearful of “wasting” their votes.
But not young people. In 1980, independent presidential candidate John Anderson got 19 percent of the 18-to-21-year-old vote, triple his national average. In 1996, Ross Perot drew 15 percent of that same group, double his overall showing. And in 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader did quite well among voters under the age of 29 in states with large university populations. For example, he got 16 percent of their votes in Massachusetts, 10 percent in Wisconsin and 8 percent in California, compared with his dismal 3 percent of the national total.
Young people flock to third parties for all sorts of reasons. They’re looking to improve the world, not just their own bottom lines. Few own homes or have families. Most have little to lose. So, the classic conservative appeals to protect their income or property from the taxman have little resonance. It‘s a time for personal and political experimentation, of staking out one’s own identity. And first-time voters, who are predominantly young, don‘t have the same habits and partisan attachments of their elders.
The Greens are benefiting from this perennial phenomenon in a big way. Campus Greens chapters have sprouted at nearly 150 colleges in the wake of the Nader campaign. And many of the party’s leaders, including Ben Manski, one of its five national co-chairs, are under the age of 30. Jason Kafoury, the lead organizer of Nader‘s ongoing super-rally appearances, is just 24. The party recently elected a 22-year-old to the Providence, Rhode Island, City Council, with the help of students from Brown University. John Eder, the party’s sole elected state legislator, up in Portland, Maine, is only 33.
With youth comes nearly boundless energy, optimism and fearlessness. For a party that managed to raise just $300,000 in the last two years — less than one-30th of 1 percent of the amount raised by the Republican and Democratic national parties — this is an invaluable resource.
But many young people bring inexperience and naivete to the table, too. For every Green that I have met who emphasized issues like livable wages, affordable housing, corporate responsibility and access to health care, I have encountered as many who just wanted to rant about hemp, Pacifica Radio, Mumia abu Jamal, and similar left indulgences.
Dean Myerson, the Green Party‘s national coordinator, admits that the party has the ongoing task of keeping its most enthusiastic hardcore adherents engaged while trying to make practical political judgments about where to focus its attention. “All political parties are subject to the whims of their more flamboyant or less practical members,” he notes, adding, “That aspect is stronger for third parties because we do not have a strong existing identity.”
The problem of youthful self-righteousness was in full and painful view this past midterm election as the party sought to build on Nader’s 2000 presidential bid. It ran serious, hardworking contenders for statewide offices in more than a half-dozen states, but got the most widespread attention for a very weak candidate it put up for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota, where progressive Democrat Paul Wellstone faced a very tough Republican challenge. Instead of listening to many party elders who felt Wellstone deserved the party‘s support, or who counseled avoiding the race to concentrate on more promising efforts, many Greens stubbornly insisted on their right to ignore reality.
“I think it’s presumptuous to tell anybody you can‘t run,” 25-year-old Juscha Robinson of the party’s coordinated-campaign committee told me last summer. While she was right in principle, in practice the Greens‘ bid for Wellstone’s seat did nothing but reinforce the party‘s image as indiscriminate in its choices — an image that is only partly deserved.
No movement for change anywhere has ever succeeded without the involvement and leadership of young people, and it is far too soon to write the Greens off history’s stage. With the leadership of both major parties seeming to march in lockstep behind President Bush as he plunders the treasury for his rich patrons and leads the nation into wars of aggression abroad, the potential failure of these audacious policies could conceivably boost the Greens — or some other alternative formation — into a much larger role.
But political organizing is also about making wise choices within the context of what is now, not only what might be in the future. And what with discriminatory access to the ballot, media bias against outsiders, and lopsided fund-raising gaps, the political system is already stacked high against third-party efforts. Progress is possible, especially at the local level and only with hard work on issues that matter to average working people, along with strategic efforts to open up the system through political reforms. Youthful energy wants instant gratification, but there are no shortcuts to meaningful social change. That‘s a message many young people attracted to the Greens may not want to hear. Others may just take it as the challenge of a lifetime.
Micah L. Sifry is the author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America (Routledge, 2002).