TOPICS > Politics

Third Parties: Against the Odds

October 22, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDON: When Bill Clinton comes to town, it’s on Air Force One, a brass band awaits, there’s a phalanx of Secret Service agents, the press turns out in force, and so do the crowds. Bob Dole travels much the same way.

Not so for Harry Browne. He arrived in Boston last month by himself on USAir, coach, no Secret Service, no press, and a crowd of two. It’s a way of life when you run for President under a third party banner. Browne is the Libertarian candidate for the White House. Ralph Nader is the Green Party’s candidate. John Hagelin is carrying the banner of the Natural Law Party, and Howard Phillips is the U.S. Taxpayers Party nominee. They face impossible odds. With the exception of Nader, they are hardly household names.

SPOKESMAN: We believe America has to go back–

TOM BEARDON: They have only a tiny fraction of the money available to the Democrats and Republicans. They have a hard time attracting national press attention; even getting on the ballot is a laborious process. In 47 states, third party presidential candidates must circulate petitions and collect thousands of signatures. Only 10 states require Democrats and Republicans to do that. Allan Lichtman teaches a class at American University called America’s Presidential Election.

ALLAN LICHTMAN, American University: The difficulty of getting on the ballot state by state is surely a barrier deliberately erected by the major parties to keep third parties out of the field of play. And there have been numerous lawsuits over a very long period of time which have been necessary to reduce those barriers even to reasonable limits, although they still certainly exist.

TOM BEARDON: But even if they clear the hurdles, it’s still difficult to reach voters. There isn’t a lot of money to buy commercials, and the national media seldom give a lot of space to third parties. So Libertarian Browne has gone around the national press.

SPOKESMAN: You’re listening to Jerry Williams on WRKO.

RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Harry Browne is here. He’s the candidate for the Libertarian Party on all 50 ballots across the country, and his book is called Why Government Doesn’t Work.

TOM BEARDON: Bill Winter is in charge of media for Browne.

BILL WINTER, Libertarian Party: His campaign is really focused on two areas. The first is talk radio, where he’s had enormous success and has appeared on hundreds and hundreds of radio programs and reached tens of millions of Americans, and the other one is the Internet, which is really the communications venue of the future.

TOM BEARDON: The Libertarians have a very sophisticated display on the Internet’s World Wide Web. All of the third parties have Web pages, but the Libertarians have dubbed Browne the official president of cyberspace, where he has won 11 out of 18 Internet popularity polls, beating out both Clinton and Dole. The Libertarians attribute their candidate’s Internet popularity to their anti-government theme, which is apparently popular among so-called computer nerds.

HARRY BROWNE: We are the only ones who have the message. We are the only party presenting a program that says we are going to reduce government to a fraction of its present size. We are the only party that is asking the American people, would you give up your favorite federal program if it meant you never had to pay income tax again? We are the only party that has finally–(applause)–

TOM BEARDON: The Libertarian platform is simple. The party believes that any government solution to any problem simply doesn’t work.

HARRY BROWNE: People everywhere recognize, they nod their heads as soon as you start saying government doesn’t work, it doesn’t deliver the mail on time, it doesn’t educate our children properly, it doesn’t keep the city safe. Why in the world would you think the next government program is going to work any better than the government programs that preceded it? Government doesn’t work, but freedom does. Government doesn’t work. (applause)

TOM BEARDON: The platform promises to abolish the federal income tax, radically reduce the size of the federal government, shut down overseas military bases, and legalize drugs, the last in order to end what they believe are the disastrous, violent consequences of the war on drugs. Browne has refused federal matching funds, saying that’s a form of government welfare. Still, the Libertarian campaign war chest has grown to $2.5 million.

HARRY BROWNE: Is this a great time to be a Libertarian? (applause)

TOM BEARDON: This 25-year-old party has raised enough money to get on the ballot in all 50 states two elections in a row, something no other third party can claim. The party appears to be finding the most fertile ground for its ideas among so-called “Generation X’ers” and people in the computer industry, like Peter Everett, who attended this fund-raiser in Boston. He’s a 36-year-old computer software engineer now studying to go to Harvard Medical School.

PETER EVERETT, Libertarian Voter: Libertarians are what marketing people call the early adoptives. These are people who are attuned to new ideas, new trends, new, new technologies.

TOM BEARDON: Everett and his wife, Cristina Crawford, live in a suburb outside Boston with their 22-month-old daughter, Kathryn. Crawford is also a software designer.

TOM BEARDON: Are some people a bit suspicious of you when you tell them you’re a Libertarian?

CRISTINA CRAWFORD, Libertarian Voter: I think in most people’s minds, there’s the Democrats, there’s the Republicans, and then there’s fringe groups. You don’t know whether I’m a Communist or whether I’m Lyndon LaRouche, or whether I’m, you know, a Mooney or what.

TOM BEARDON: The Green Party is also struggling to get out of the fringe category. Their candidate, Ralph Nader, is already well known but has made it onto the ballot in only 21 states. The Greens have an essentially pro-environment platform. They’re also pushing affirmative action and local control of the economy and government. But Nader doesn’t endorse all of it.

RALPH NADER, Green Party Candidate: The Green Party has about 80 positions on various subjects. Many of them I don’t know much about. I don’t like to take a public position on subject matter that I’m not familiar with. On the major issues of cracking down on corporate crime and campaign finance abuses, building democracy, pursuing sustainable economy for jobs, and strengthening the rights of labor, consumers, small taxpayers, and voters, we’re all in agreement.

TOM BEARDON: Nader mostly travels about by car, holding rallies and making speeches. He says challenging the two-party system is his main reason for running.

RALPH NADER: We’ve got to work together to break up that two-party duopoly in Washington, which is really one corporate party with two heads, Republican, Democrat, wearing the same makeup.

TOM BEARDON: In the crowds that Nader draws, it’s less suits and ties and more tie die and ponytail. His support comes from environmentalists, consumer activists, and students. He’s big on the college campus circuit, where he talks about the abuse of power by multinational corporations.

RALPH NADER: In the last 15 years or so, we have had a singularly pronounced concentration of power in the hands not just of corporations but of the global corporate format.

TOM BEARDON: Like Browne, Nader also uses free media, hopping from one TV station to the next to be interviewed. But he prefers more intimate settings like this small potluck dinner at a local supporter’s home. Nader admits he really doesn’t want to be president, and he’s clearly not running to win. He decided early on not to accept matching funds, and because he’s spending less than $5,000 of his own money, he is not required to disclose his personal finances, for which he has been roundly criticized.

TOM BEARDON: Why won’t you talk about your finances?

RALPH NADER: Because no one is contributing to my campaign. I’m trying to convey about getting private money out of public elections and having public elections financed by well promoted voluntary checkoffs on the 1040 tax return up to $100 per person, with some free time on radio and TV.

TOM BEARDON: In Maine, the Green Party struggled for 10 years just to get on the ballot. Now they have to get at least 5 percent of the presidential vote in the state to stay on the ballot. Nader’s so-called un-campaign makes that a somewhat empty proposition. Nancy Allen, co-chair of the Green Party, says the Greens would like to push their local candidates and build the party from the ground up, instead of having to spend much of their resources promoting their presidential candidate to stay on the ballot.

NANCY ALLEN, Green Party: It seems highly unfair and one of the very difficult ballot access laws that a state party that’s forming must run a national campaign with a presidential candidate and have to get a certain percentage of that vote.

TOM BEARDON: The four-year-old Natural Law Party has managed to get on ballots much more quickly than either the Greens or the Libertarians. Headquartered in rural Fairfield, Iowa, their presidential candidate, John Hagelin’s name will appear in 43 states. The Natural Law platform calls for a flat tax, medical savings accounts, school choice, and family values. It also endorses transcendental meditation, or TM, as a key method of solving America’s and the world’s problems. The party wants to make TM available in the public schools.

JOHN HAGELIN, Natural Law Candidate: TM should be available to students because it can boost IQ, it can restore brain wave coherence for students who are under stress or recovering from drug dependency.

TOM BEARDON: But in 1977, a federal district court ruled that TM was a religion and couldn’t be taught in the public schools because it violated the First Amendment.

JOHN HAGELIN: There’s one judge 20 years ago in New Jersey who felt that there might be some question, some concern about teaching TM in the schools. The transcendental meditation program is not religious or philosophical in nature; it’s a technique prescribed by doctors to millions of Americans to combat stress. It also has very good effect on the function of the brain.

TOM BEARDON: The party thinks TM would foster world peace. The platform calls for the creation of a prevention wing of the U.S. military in which five to ten thousand soldiers would participate in what the party calls proven peace-promoting technology of transcendental meditation. Hagelin is a Harvard-educated physicist who most recently chaired the Department of Physics at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield. He’s taken a leave of absence to campaign. The campus features two large golden domes that students and professors use for meditation. The university was founded by followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, onetime guru to the Beatles. The Maharishi has a copyright on transcendental meditation. The campus also contains a K through 12 school called the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment. Before starting class each day, students spend 10 minutes in transcendental meditation.

TEACHER: By essentially enlivening this value of pure consciousness through the meditation, then we’re enlivening these different aspects of the mind and body as well.

TOM BEARDON: This Physics class was learning about the Maharishi’s Unified Field Theory and Vehdic Principles.

STUDENT: Having thus seen the grand purpose of Ir Vehd, we enter into the different aspects and structure Ogis, the different values of physiology.

TOM BEARDON: And out in the hallway, students are encouraged to sign up for instruction in Yogic Flying, a technique also endorsed by the Natural Law Party platform. Party members go to great lengths to stress the party has no affiliation with the University or the Maharishi. They say they’re trying to get away from being labeled the TM Party and have broadened their platform since the party was founded. But at campaign headquarters, just blocks away from the Maharishi’s School of Management, many of the volunteers and campaign workers have some affiliation with the university. Kingsley Brooks, the campaign manager, was a TM teacher who once attended the university.

KINGSLEY BROOKS, Natural Law Party: I would say that in 1992, a tremendous amount of our success were people who–many people who practiced transcendental meditation, but it was done on a very informal level, and that helps us tremendously in establishing infrastructure, as you will, across this country. But it’s grown way beyond that now. I would say people who practice TM are a minority now of the people who are members of the Natural Law Party.

TOM BEARDON: The Natural Law Party isn’t the only third party with spiritual overtones.

HOWARD PHILLIPS, U.S. Taxpayers Candidate: The U.S. Taxpayers Party is the only political party in America committed to the elimination of legal abortion.

TOM BEARDON: Howard Phillips of the U.S. Taxpayers Party also talks a lot about religion.

TOM BEARDON: Why are you running for President?

HOWARD PHILLIPS: To bring a government to power which will restore the federal government to its limited constitutional boundaries and restore American jurisprudence at the state and local level to its original biblical presuppositions.

TOM BEARDON: I gather then that there is a religious aspect to your platform.

HOWARD PHILLIPS: The declaration acknowledged that we’re endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, that God is the Creator, and that we are His creatures, God is sovereign, the law is the will of the Sovereign.

TOM BEARDON: Phillips left the Republican Party in 1974, after two decades of service. During the Nixon administration, he headed the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. Now he says he’s running as the Taxpayer Party candidate because Patrick Buchanan wouldn’t accept the nomination. Like the Libertarians, the Taxpayers Party platform calls for the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service and the income tax. The party is also staunchly anti-abortion rights. The Taxpayers Party likes to think of itself as an alternative for those who may think Bob Dole is too liberal. Peg Luksik, the campaign manger, said pro-lifers and conservatives are where the party gets many of its supporters.

PEG LUKSIK, U.S. Taxpayers Party: I think we’re looking at the birth pangs of another party. People are, are–they feel disenfranchised; they feel disillusioned. A lot of them are retiring into apathy. We give people the opportunity to be proud as a candidate they voted for and to vote what they believe.

TOM BEARDON: The U.S. Taxpayers Party is on the ballot in 39 states. But American University Professor Lichtman says even though polls show a growing public interest in third parties, a breakthrough into the mainstream is unlikely.

TOM BEARDON: Does it take a personality, does it take a platform, or does it take both?

ALLAN LICHTMAN: If America, heaven forbid, got embroiled in a situation like Vietnam, that might create a truly burning issue which in combination with an extraordinary personality could create the circumstances conducive to a third party rising to really challenge the big boys in American politics.

TOM BEARDON: But regardless of whether they ever win the White House, Lichtman says third parties have long played a major, if little known, role in American politics.

ALLAN LICHTMAN: It was third parties, for example, who first introduced ideas like restricting slavery, granting suffrage to women, establishing minimum wages, controlling child labor.

TOM BEARDON: Undaunted, the third parties are still struggling to get their message out, hoping to draw enough votes in November to survive until the next presidential election.