Where’s the Candidate That Represents Me?

This editorial appeared in the February 2, 2004 edition of AlterNet.org.

Disenfranchised voters in more than 40 states lose the chance to not only influence the 2008 presidential election but also the course of history.


“I’d rather vote for what I want and not get it,” said Eugene Debs, who ran for president five times in the first two decades of the 20th century, “than vote for what I don’t want, and get it.”

On Tsunami Tuesday, Feb. 5, I was really hoping to have the opportunity to vote for what I want.

For years, the presidential primary here in California, where nearly 13 percent of all Americans reside, was not held until June. This consistently meant that election after election, nearly 13 percent of all Americans exercised absolutely no influence at all on the selection of the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees.

However, when my state this year joined more than 20 others in scheduling our primary for the first week in February, many of us hoped that, at last, we would be able to vote on a full field of candidates who would come before us debating the full range of issues confronting our nation and our world.

No such luck.

With only seven primaries or caucuses down for the Republicans, and a mere four for the Democrats, most of the original candidates, in both parties, are already gone. Before even the end of January, the Republican field had been whittled down to just four candidates and the Democrats down to just two.

So in the end, tens of millions of voters, in both parties, in more than 40 states, will simply not have the opportunity to cast a vote for their first choice for president.

This disenfranchisement was particularly excruciating, after last Wednesday’s withdrawal of John Edwards, for what the late Paul Wellstone called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” That wing is hardly insubstantial. Progressive Democrats of America claims to be the fastest-growing political advocacy group in the country. The new Air America radio network is thriving. Millions of “netroots” citizens, every day, not only visit websites like AlterNet, Common Dreams, DailyKos, and MoveOn — but also use them to generate collective political action.

But not one of us will have the opportunity next Tuesday to express our political sentiments by voting for an unambiguously progressive presidential candidate.

This profoundly undemocratic dynamic hardly applies only to those who share my politics. The same frustrations will be severe next Tuesday for conservative voters who might have wanted to vote for candidates like, oh, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson or Duncan Hunter. I have little more than contempt for voters whose primary political agenda is to bash immigrants. Nevertheless, our democracy is hardly well served when most of those voters, nationwide, never get the opportunity to express those sentiments by casting a vote for Tom Tancredo.

Votes cast for longshot candidates in both parties could have had an enormous impact on the health of our democracy … if only those candidates had not been forced out so early. If all voters nationwide had the chance to cast votes for all candidates, they could send powerful messages to the eventual nominees about what they hope to see incorporated into both party platforms and the next presidency. If certain candidates failed but still did well nationwide, or even “better than expected” — in money, in volunteers and in votes — then the nominee might have concluded that there was a critical mass of support for the things that candidate was about.

But not if virtually all the candidates are gone before the end of January.

In addition, if the primaries and caucuses in this volatile political season do not decisively settle on party candidates, the results will be hammered out at the conventions — in Denver in August for the Democrats, in St. Paul in September for the Republicans. If 2008 sees the first brokered conventions in a generation, failed candidates, wielding small but critical contingents of delegates, could have emerged as the crucial powerbrokers in choosing the nominees. Although most had given up on him actually winning the nomination, that was certainly the scenario many Edwards supporters had begun to envision after the results came in from two state primaries and two state caucuses.

But then he dropped out before the end of January.

D.H. Lawrence said, “The ideas of one generation become the instincts of the next.” History tells us that the American electorate is hardly set in stone — 45 percent hard left, 45 percent hard right, and an all-coveted 10 percent “in the center.” The center has moved over time. Those of us on the left know that a great many ideas and initiatives that were once considered far out — women’s rights, civil rights, human rights, gay rights, labor protections, environmental protections — are now much more in the mainstream, much more commonly accepted, much more now “centrist.” And votes for candidates who espouse positions outside the mainstream, beyond the contemporary boundaries of political discourse, can be votes to shift the center of gravity of the public policy debate.

Unless they leave the race before the end of January.

Failed presidential campaigns, many times in the past, have helped to drive the engines of American history. The American people did not elect Eugene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy as president in 1968. However, their candidacies had an enormous impact on bringing a unilateral, illegal and very unwise war of choice to an end. “Fear not the path of truth,” said Kennedy, repeatedly during his campaign, “for the lack of people yet walking on it.”

The American people did not elect Adlai Stevenson as president in 1952 or 1956. However, the Illinois governor was distressed to learn that atmospheric nuclear tests were raining radioactive poisons upon plants and animals and human beings practically everywhere on Earth. So he made a nuclear test ban one of the strongest planks of his 1956 campaign. That helped to build a worldwide citizens movement, joined by moral giants like Albert Einstein, Norman Cousins, Bertrand Russell, Linus Pauling and Albert Schweitzer, that produced the Limited Test Ban Treaty signed by John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in 1963.

And perhaps the best example is Eugene Debs himself. In five campaigns, he talked about women’s suffrage, child labor, workplace safety in the mines and the factories and the railroad yards, economic justice, a world without war. In 1920, he actually ran for president from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary! Why? Take note, anti-war activists. He had been sentenced to 10 years for protesting American entry into the First World War, violating, according to the courts, the Espionage Act of 1917. “For President,” said the campaign poster, “Convict #9653.”

Over the years, failed presidential candidacies have pressured the structures of power. They have injected new ideas into the public square, inspired new generations of activists and accelerated our progress on the road ahead. They have served as beacons in the political night.

And, indeed, arguably as a direct consequence of this kind of movement-building, when Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1933 — 75 years ago this spring — it is fair to say that he set out, at long last, to enact the Eugene Debs agenda. (In this context, too, we undoubtedly need to credit Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign of 1912, which lost, but put forth an astonishing progressive platform.)

Victor Hugo said, famously, “No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.” But how will the time for such ideas ever come if our system does not allow most of us to vote for those who articulate them before their time has come? If politics, as every undergraduate knows, is the art of the possible, then stepping into that voting booth ought to be an opportunity to expand the parameters of political possibility.

But not if our broken presidential selection process prevents almost all of us from voting for what we want.

Posted in 2008 Presidential Campaign