Election 2000: It's Your Battle to Win
A Message to Students from Robert Roth, author of A Reason to Vote
Cleveland State University is a commuter school, blue collar, in a union town. During my college years, most of the students here would have been Democrats. I am speaking to a class of 150 political science majors. I ask, How many of you are Republicans? An awkward silence. Ten seconds pass. Two hands push up through the vacuum. Okay, how many are Democrats? Three hands. Three hands? I think, incredulous. Any more? I ask. More silence. Five students out of 150 align themselves with the two main parties.
Cleveland is the second city on a tour to promote the release of this book, A Reason to Vote, and this is my first college class. I scan the class looking for some kind of a reaction. Interest, maybe? Instead I find glazed eyes. I am, by my own admission, a passionate, political "junkie," a baby boomer who grew up caring about politics. I realize that far more than ten feet separates me from the teens who sit sprawled out in chairs in long, wide rows before me.
I am distanced by a generation, by 30 years of partisan scandal, big-ticket political payoffs, and vicious, campaign attack ads. I read the headlines in the newspapers today and shake my head at how far politics has fallen since I was a kid. These kids have no comparisons. For them, I am told, national politics is a fraud, politicians are fools. They grew up with that. Do you want to know who bears the brunt of all the mean-spirited nonsense that goes by the name of partisan politics these days? Where the damage is being done? Right here in this classroom and classes like this one--in this entire next generation. Students don't care, and few of them vote because, as they see it, their vote doesn't count for anything anyway. Are they wrong? Republican and Democratic recruiters don't bother showing up on college campuses anymore because there's no interest. Our democratic foundations are eroding and no one seems to know what to do about it.
Florescent lights beat down from the ceiling. I tell the students my story. I say that I grew up in a political family believing that politics could be a channel for positive social change. I believed that, I tell them. I say that I knew I wanted to be a U.S. senator as a young kid, that I worked for Bobby Kennedy as a high school senior, that I lost faith in politics after four years at U.C. Berkeley (a '60-style "War College," I tell them, drawing scattered chuckles) and that I got back into politics only a few years ago when I thought I could make a difference with a new political party. My fire had been rekindled and I wanted to help educate the American people about substantive issues. Instead I was the one who got the education. I got a wake-up call in how our democratic rights have been usurped.
Do you know much about third parties? I ask the class. Blank stares come back at me. I tell them that they are not alone. Few Americans do. I tell them why. I tell them about Florida and the 250, 000 signatures you need if you want to run for statewide office as a non Republican or non Democrat, a total that far exceeds the signature requirements if you wanted to get on the ballot in every country in Europe, as well as New Zealand, Australia and Canada combined. I tell them about how the signature requirement for a new party to get on the ballot in North Carolina had been 10,000 until 1982 when a new party got on the ballot and the North Carolina state legislature increased the requirement to over 51,000. Eyes widen a bit; there are a few muffled gulps. I tell them about Pennsylvania where a new party has to collect 25,000 signatures to get on the ballot, but still has to register over one million voters in the state as new party members to stay on the ballot for the next election, or else it is thrown off the ballot and has to go out and collect those 25,000 signatures all over again for the next election. This burdensome exercise happens for new parties--but not Republicans and Democrats--election after election, until they give up hope and quit, which many often do.
I talk about some issues that are not being debated: preventive medicine, the genetic engineering of our food supply, renewable energy technologies to keep our world both fueled and clean. These are issues that are ignored by the two parties as the substantive differences between them disappear. The electorate has been kept divided by hot-button, talk-show topics such as abortion and gun control, issues that are most certainly valid, but certainly not more so than health care and food supply and the education of our young people.
I am immersed in these ideas but it strikes me that most of the students have never heard them discussed by a political party until now. There is a stirring in the undercurrent. I start getting interrupted by questions--eager, intelligent questions; after a few minutes it's like a dam is bursting and the hands go up and they want to know!
What do the courts say about these unfair ballot laws? one student asks. Well, I say, judges are appointed by the Republicans and Democrats and many judges, maybe even most judges, do not want to change the system that got them their jobs, so overturning ballot access laws is tough. But third parties are working hard to force the changes anyway.
Isn't a vote for a third-party candidate a wasted vote? a girl in the back corner asks. After all, the candidate is not going to win, she says. I agree that this is the spin we have been hearing about third parties for decades. But remember, 64% of the people who could have voted in the last election did not vote for either a Republican or Democrat. That means the two parties are in the minority. I say that I believe that a vote for someone you don't believe in is the wasted vote, that a "knee-jerk" vote for a Republican or Democratic candidate is the wasted vote. But a principled vote for a candidate who supports what you believe in is never wasted. And if enough people vote that way, your candidate will win.
Another student interrupts me and says, But won't votes for a third party candidate steal support away from a major party candidate and ensure that the "wrong" candidate gets elected? Didn't Ross Perot take 20 million votes away from George Bush in 1992 and give Bill Clinton the election?
I hear this question a lot. First of all, we live in a capitalist, competitive society. Everyone--you as students, your parents in the workplace, professional athletes, musicians, artists, your professors--all of us face competition from all directions all the time. And as a society we consider this to be a good thing. It makes us stronger, more competent, better at what we do. So how come the Republicans and Democrats can exempt themselves from this sort of competition? What is it that lets these lawmakers, who enforce antimonopoly laws against a Microsoft and an Intel, pass regulations that basically outlaw any serious competition from outside their own ranks? And regarding Mr. Perot, if he did indeed take all those votes from the Republican Party, then do not blame him. Shame on the Republican Party. Shame on the GOP for being so out of touch, so arrogant, that 20 million of its followers would jump ship and support a man that nobody really knew anything about--that is how desperate the American people were for change. Make no mistake about it, Ross Perot's candidacy served this country and our political debate well. It was he who forced the issue of a balanced budget on the Republicans and Democrats, and it was he who introduced campaign finance reform into serious debate. I tell them our country needs more genuine political debate, not less, but we won't get it if we allow the two parties to sterilize the political process.
Someone asks, How does the Natural Law Party platform differ from the Republicans and Democrats? I say that right now U.S. public policy is up for sale to the highest bidder. America has an agricultural policy that serves the short-term economic interests of the agrochemical industry, not the long-term health, environmental, and economic interests of the nation. In the same way, we have an energy policy that serves the short-term economic interests of the oil and gas industry, not the long-term interests of the nation. And we have a foreign policy that is largely dictated by defense contractors; it serves their short-term economic interests and not necessarily the interests of the American people and the world.
America's public policies are not only up for sale; they are disjointed. The problem is that life is not disjointed, life is not fragmented. Life is a seamless whole. We know from science that everything is connected together, everything influences everything else. What we do to the water supply in the wheat fields of the upper Midwest influences the soil and forests and air in New England, Canada, the whole world. The Natural Law Party recognizes the wholeness of nature and believes that public policy must be based on this integrated platform of life, not broken up into bits and pieces and sold off to special interests. That is why, if you look at our platform, you will see the constant themes of sustainability, prevention, renewability, natural. These ideas may have sounded "new age" twenty years ago, but today they are informed, practical, down-to-earth, common sense. And you and your generation, I say, if you agree with this, then you have to work to make sure that these are your public policies, because no one is going to hand them to you. With class time running out, I'm asked a final question, What can we do?
Vote, I implore. Get involved. Find out about the Natural Law Party and America's other parties. Read about them on the Internet. Demand that your local press give coverage of their platforms. But do not believe that just because the economy is good and crime is coming down that what those lawmakers are doing in Washington does not effect your life. It does. It most certainly does. And if you and I are not casting our votes to shape public policy as we see fit, then who is making those decisions? Thomas Jefferson said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. While we are sacked out on our couches, surfing through 500 channels, there are special interests at work who are "helping" lawmakers to shape public policy in their own best interests. It is up to you to act, I say. Other generations at your age fought for American independence, fought principled wars for freedom and peace in the world. You don't have that burden. But you do have the responsibility to take back democracy. It is your battle to fight. The battleground is in the courts, the media, and the ballot box. It is your battle to win and I believe deep in my heart that you will win it.
I am surprised and pleased by the applause. I find myself looking deeply into the eyes of the kids sitting in the front row, and thinking rather disheartenly about my own generation--a generation which once held such promise to do good--and how we have grown too busy and too distracted to even vote. It is your generation's fight, I think to the students before me. And it looks like you may have to win this one on your own.