The lies the ‘third parties’ tell us

Neglecting a pragmatic approach to the US political system may rouse a crowd, but renders ‘outsiders’ irrelevant.

Third party candidates line up for debate
The Constitution Party's Virgil Goode (C) makes a point as Jill Stein (L) from the Green Party, Rocky Anderson (2nd L) of the Justice Party and Libertarian Gary Johnson (R) look on [AFP]

One of the real problems in the seemingly interminable US campaign season is that the more candidates talk, the more the public thinks said candidate might be lying.

There are big lies, like most of what Mitt Romney said during his “Me Too” parade in Monday’s final debate between he and President Obama, but there are also smaller, more problematic lies. It’s these smaller lies that often go unnoticed by a US public that is woefully uneducated on basic government and civics, which results in frustration, disappointment and cynicism towards government.

That’s where the Presidential Third Party Debate of 2012, hosted on Tuesday evening in Chicago, comes in. There was a lot of lying going on by the men and the woman on stage, not intentionally, not maliciously, but lying nonetheless – which is one of the reasons why third parties are not taken seriously in the United States.

While tonight was touted as a “Third Party Debate”, in reality it featured four political parties: Green, Justice, Constitution and Libertarian. However, in the US, any political party that is neither the Republicans nor Democrats is referred to as “third party”, similar to how anyone who’s not white in this country is referred to as “a minority”.

It may not make sense, but that’s the nomenclature.

Lack of accomplishment

The candidates themselves were arranged from the far-left Jill Stein (Green Party) to the far-right Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) and answered a series of questions from former CNN talkshow host Larry King. The topics covered were far-ranging, creative, and the answers were impassioned.

Inside Story US 2012:
The other parties – excluded but not silenced

However, the debate itself did not accomplish much.

The reason for this is because the candidates spent time giving speeches and laying out ambitious and highly unlikely policy goals, when they should have been spending their time laying out a plan for how to accomplish their goals. For example, candidates across the stage agreed that aggressive US foreign policy, the use of drone attacks and illegal wars in the Middle East needed to end.

And they all proclaimed that as president they would unilaterally end these wars.

That’s where the lying comes in. Yes, it is possible for a president to simply declare an end to any war. However, it is not as simple as picking up the phone and telling the Joint Chiefs of Staff that you want everyone cleared out of Afghanistan by next Thursday.

There are negotiations to be made with other world leaders, schedules for draw-downs to ensure the security of not only US soldiers, but citizens in the region. And on top of all of these factors, there remains the challenge of executing such policies when Congress, in both houses, will likely not favour such a radical change in policy.

Lack of pragmatism

That was the problem with the third party debate. None of the candidates on stage actually spoke as if they were one day actually going to be president of the United States. If any of the candidates on stage ascended to become the first Libertarian/Green/Justice/Constitution Party president of the United States, with a Democratic controlled Senate and a Republican controlled House, how exactly would they expect to enact policy?

Would they work with Republicans and/or Democrats? Would they attempt to recruit people into their party? What would be the plans for resistance against such a leader by these two parties – who would likely resent an “interloper” in the White House?

The failure to address any of the basic structural elements of the United States government made all of the promises and rhetoric idealistic at best and out-and-out lies at worst. The candidates on stage must know they could not accomplish half of what they talked about, policy-wise, but rather than addressing their goals against the realistic back-drop of Washington, they held a pep rally that masqueraded as a debate.

This is by no means a call for the status quo to remain, or an attack on third parties – which are a vital example of the still-functioning democracy in the US. However, when you seek higher office the goal is to lay out plans that can actually work, not to fool the public with pretty white lies that can rouse a crowd – but have no chance of ever coming to fruition.

In that regard, the candidates on Tuesday were just like Mitt Romney the night previously. Tuesday’s candidates and Mitt made vast promises that were impossible to keep, given the realities of our government structure and the world around us.

The only difference is that Mitt can at least tell people that, once in Washington, he might get the chance to try. No-one on Tuesday’s stage could even muster the words to suggest that they’d ever actually inhabit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – which makes the whole evening one big lie. 

Jason Adam Johnson is an US professor of political science and communications, political commentator, and writer. He is the author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.

Follow him on Twitter: @DrJasonJohnson