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OP-ED | We Treat Third Parties Like Pariahs, And Our Democracy Suffers For It

by Susan Bigelow | Aug 29, 2014 1:00pm
(7) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Election 2014, Election Policy, Opinion

It looks like former State Rep. Jonathan Pelto will be left off of the ballot for governor this fall, which will be a relief to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s re-election team. It’s also a sad commentary on the way we treat minor parties in this state, and how the two-party monopoly squeezes out much-needed competition.

I’ll admit I wasn’t a fan of Pelto’s candidacy; I felt his important points tended to get lost in a sea of hyperbole and vitriol. He had every right to run, though, and he seemed poised to appeal to a constituency of teachers and union members that had felt slighted during the Malloy years. I fully expected Pelto would gather the signatures he needed, and maybe pick up the endorsement of some of the unions who have been furious with Gov. Malloy.

None of that happened. Unions who felt betrayed by the governor during the fight over state employee concessions in 2011 and again over teacher tenure and education reform in 2012 are now lining up behind his re-election campaign, leaving Pelto high and dry.

Union leaders actively shut Pelto out, and some went as far as attacking his record. SEIU 1199NE President David Pickus said that Pelto, who has been a consistent pro-union voice, “. . . had no support for unions in 2001 when he was strategizing against Connecticut workers and aligning himself with disgraced former governor John Rowland.”

It didn’t end there. The Connecticut Education Association, which on the issues should have been one of Pelto’s biggest allies, actually blocked him from collecting signatures outside their convention. They went on to endorse the governor’s re-election campaign.

Union members may agree more with Pelto or another minor party candidate, but the organizations don’t feel nearly strong or confident enough to actually break their alliance with the Democratic Party. Unions know that if they want to remain relevant at all, they have to align themselves with one of the two major parties — and one of those utterly despises them. So what choice do they have?

The upshot is that, of this writing, Pelto believed he had failed to gather the signatures he needed to qualify for the ballot. Part of this is his campaign’s fault, but fearful, weak unions and a system that makes ballot access for minor party candidates obnoxious and difficult didn’t help.

But it’s not just organized labor that’s feeling pressure to stay with the two party monopoly — the Connecticut Citizens’ Defense League, a pro-Second Amendment interest group, endorsed Tom Foley today over independent Joe Visconti. This is puzzling: Foley’s views on gun control have been waffling and ethereal, while Visconti has made his entire campaign about restoring gun rights. Visconti, who did manage to qualify for November’s ballot, also said he’d received some “vitriolic” Facebook posts from CCDL board members, and was facing pushback from other organizations that favored Foley.

Even the two bigger “minor” parties in the state, the Working Families Party and the Independent Party, have largely made headlines in recent years not by winning elections on their own but instead by cross-endorsing Democrats or Republicans, respectively.

The problem here is that we’re stuck in a two-party rut, and we have no good way of getting out of it. This is our system, and it’s (mostly) worked for us since the Civil War, but there are a lot of very significant drawbacks causing problems.

First, this system actually works against democracy, because a lot of voices by necessity don’t get heard. Unions and progressives may not like where Connecticut’s Democratic leaders are going, but they have no real option other than running primary after primary and trying to drag the big party to the left. The same is true of groups on the right.

Another effect of having a two-party monopoly is polarization — the two big parties know that one or the other will win, so they can throw all their energy into blocking and winning at all costs instead of trying to build coalitions.

Voting reform might have an effect on this. California’s “top two” primary system is a good start, and so are a lot of alternative voting schemes that let people choose a second choice. Making ballot access easier and more straightforward would help, as well, as would more consistent inclusion of minor party candidates in debates and public campaign financing.

Our democracy needs to evolve to ensure everyone’s voice is heard — and make sure that the sort of election we’re facing, where the only real choices are between bad and worse, never happens again.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(7) Comments

posted by: thomas hooker | August 29, 2014  5:54pm

Susan, this country has operated on a two-party system for more than two centuries.  Our parties are called “broker parties” by political scientists, because they incorporate often largely disparate interest groups and ideologies.  So far from resulting in “polarization,” as you suggest, in fact, American major parties require candidates to raise support from often disparate constituencies. 

Yet I agree with you that the Republican Party has now moved to a pole.  Democrats, on the other hand, are basically right where they were forty years ago.

Mr. Pelto simply had no support, except, that is, inside WNPR, whose pundits devoted incredible amounts of airtime to his fringe campaign.  His failure was due to no grand design, but to a total lack of interest from anyone.  He was always seen as a fringe candidate, one whose only purpose was possibly taking a big enough handful of votes away from Dan Malloy in order to put Tom Foley into the governor’s mansion.  And that’s why so many Republicans were actively supporting him.

He was simply never even a viable minor candidate.

posted by: Susan Bigelow | August 29, 2014  9:05pm

This idea of “broker parties” is the ideal, but it hasn’t really been true for several decades. Parties are now more about who you are, where you live, and what your ideology is than anything else. Dems in 1974 had a lot more hawks, a lot more pro-business folks, and a lot more Southerners than they do now, for example.

posted by: bob8/57 | August 30, 2014  9:33am

bob8/57

Are you advocating a one person two votes system? Not that it matters because whatever clever voting schemes are put forth they won’t fix a broken system that better represents money than people. To fix that we would have to scrap our system and go to a system where people elect representatives, who then form ruling coalitions and appoint a Prime Minister who answers to them, not campaign donors. It’s our fixation with electing the person at the top that dooms us to corporate rule. The money man wins, and it takes corporate money to win elections. This leaves Governors and Presidents beholding to the money that got them elected, with the voters all but forgotten.

posted by: shinningstars122 | August 30, 2014  10:29am

shinningstars122

Susan I agree what you wrote about Pelto you just can not simply “create” a new political party just to get on the ballot.

I believe that what may come to fruition is two viable third parties, one for conservatives and one for progressives.

The thing is that either of these two will need to negotiate and leverage their votes with the two much more powerful and established parties to help promote compromises in furthering legislation and actually governing.

Currently that is not the case with the two party system.

I think we might see a national movement, other than the teaparty, after these midterms if it ends out playing out as business as usual.

This may be the catalyst.

As Obama tees up another trillion dollar on going war and both Democrats and Republicans continue to be manipulated by special interest and big money.

As for Connecticut I think we should have open primaries to start off.

It could shake things up with surprising results.

This would encourage more folks to actually vote and participate.

Also stream lining the petition process so that it it is consistent through out the 169 cities and towns of our state.

posted by: thomas hooker | August 30, 2014  11:14am

Susan, you are correct that the Democratic Party had “a lot more Southerners than they do now.”  Of course, that was because in 1964 and 1965, pushed by a Democratic president and northern Democrats, White Southern segregationists bolted the party.  Urged on by Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which reached out to those disaffected Whites, the states of the Old Confederacy became overwhelmingly Republican.  The Democratic Party in the South became overwhelmingly African-American, while the Republican Party in the South became almost exclusively White. That is why today, it is the Democratic Party that is standing up for civil rights, while the Republican Party engages in a nationwide campaign of voter suppression.

When you write that party affiliation is more about “who you are and where you live, you are correct.”  Over 90% of registered Republicans nationwide are Caucasian, while just over half of registered Democrats are.  The other half is comprised of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans.  The Democratic Party, for a century and a half in the North, has welcomed in new immigrants: Eastern Europeans, Italians, Irish, and minority religions- Catholics and Jews.  Recall how much antipathy there was toward Democratic and Catholic presidential candidate John Kennedy in 1960.

But it is not clear that the Democratic Party has changed since 1964, while it is abundantly clear that the Republican Party has.  Lowell Weicker said as much recently.  Supposed “moderate” Republican Chris Shays was soundly rejected in the primary for Senate by conservative Linda McMahon.  And John McKinney, who voted for gun control, was also soundly rejected by Republican voters in this New England state in favor of an anti-gun conservative in Tom Foley. 

Connecticut has noted the increasing extremism of the Republican Party, and over a few years, registered its opinion of that change, loud and clear.

posted by: art vandelay | August 31, 2014  10:33am

art vandelay

@Susan, For once I have to agree with you.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS | September 1, 2014  6:18pm

The two party system needs to go.You can replace it with the system of proportional representation.

Because of our peculiar electoral law, the American government is divided between two parties.  The American people are not.
Michael Lind.