Minor parties deserve ink

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Date:  2010 / 10 / 27

Section:  Opinion > Letters to the Editor

By Oliver Steinberg - University alumnus

 

Congratulations to the Minnesota Daily’s aspiring journalists, who published a so-called "Election Guide" on Tuesday that completely omits any information, even the names, of over half the gubernatorial candidates.

Seven candidates for governor are on the ballot. A vote for any one is equal to a vote for any other. Votes cast for minor parties count just the same as votes for major parties. Thus, all ballot-certified candidates ought to be included in voter guides, in debates and in public opinion polling.

News reporters and academic analysts are missing a story and misleading the public with their self-imposed blackout against these candidates. Is this blacklist motivated by ignorance or laziness? No, it seems to be ideological. Press and pollsters follow a cut-and-dried approach. Their thinking is this:

Minor candidates don’t have much money, but "you can’t be elected without money," and nobody can possibly imagine any other newsworthy purpose to a political campaign besides getting elected.

This cynical formula measures candidates by the moneybags behind them, not by the merit of their platforms and principles. It typifies the shallowness which afflicts American political journalism. There’s a steady stream of horse-race stories, derived from selective polling that offers, in this case, three choices instead of seven.

Maybe you don’t know that minor party candidates, unlike major party nominees, cannot qualify for a position on the ballot just by paying a filing fee. To be on the ballot, they must gather thousands of valid signatures within a two-week time frame. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

As we were circulating nominating petitions for the Grassroots Party candidates, hundreds of people told us they supported our positions but were afraid to sign petitions — afraid "the government" or "the police" would retaliate against them for exercising constitutional rights. I believe there’s some kind of a news story right there, if you think about it.

Well, if you exclude candidates from debates and polls and ignore them in news stories, that easily turns the claim that "they can’t get elected" into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, the four left-behind minor party candidates know the odds of being elected are against them, yet that doesn’t make their campaigns irrelevant and unimportant. Their role is to act as political guinea pigs for popularizing innovative or controversial political ideas. Small parties open up the clogged ideological arteries inherent in a stalemated two-party system.

When dissenters attract enough votes to upset the political equilibrium, the professional politicians begin to embrace the minor party planks and incorporate them into their own platforms.

In the mid-19th century, the Liberty and Free Soil parties voiced anti-slavery sentiments, defying conventional political wisdom of that era. Later, the Populists of Ignatius Donnelly’s day demanded reforms like votes for women, direct election of U.S. senators and an income tax. During the Great Depression, the Socialist Party’s proposals inspired Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact workplace safety laws, unemployment insurance, Social Security and the rest of our now-threatened social safety net.

Even without getting elected, the minor party candidates have a way to win, because their ideas may be adopted — so that their voters can be co-opted. That might well be the ultimate outcome of the Tom Horner campaign, when the dust settles.

So why not report about the other, lesser-known, sources of dissenting ideas? At least report that there are seven, not just three, tickets in the race for governor. Then, voters won’t be looking at their ballots and saying: "Who are all these people, and why haven’t we heard about them?"