Third-Party Candidacies vs. Voting for the Lesser Evil

Submitted by Phillip Smith on
Last week's < a href="" target=_blank_>feature article on the Zeese and Thornton campaigns (Zeese is running for US Senate in a tight race in Maryland and Thornton is running for governor of Connecticut—links in the article) included a discussion between Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance and Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation on the possible benefits and liabilities of third-party campaigns. That discussion provoked a lengthier (and continuing) exchange on a nomination-only list for leading drug policy reformers, and I think it should be a topic of serious discussion here among the unwashed masses as well. Both Thornton, running as a Green, and Zeese, running a "unity" campaign as the Green-Libertarian-Populist nominee, have clearly rejected the clarion call of the two-party system. From a pragmatic perspective, the fundamental question is whether working outside the two major parties will bring success on drug policy reform faster than attempting to bring either of the two major parties (most likely the Democrats, given the Republicans' social conservative base and penchant for the "war on" metaphor) around to a palatable position on the issue. For some reformers, defeating the Republicans is everything. What if Zeese pulls enough votes from the Democrat to throw the Maryland senate race to the Republicans and—nightmare scenario—the Republicans keep the Senate by one seat? There will be much howling and gnashing of teeth among Democratic loyalists, just as there was after the 2000 presidential elections, when much of the party faithful blamed Ralph Nader for costing Al Gore the White House. Zeese and Thornton and their supporters will undoubtedly—and fairly—respond that they are not beholden to the Democratic Party and are as entitled to seek peoples' votes as either the donkeys or the elephants. Besides, again echoing the post-2000 discussion, they will say, there's not that much difference between the two major parties. I guess that's a matter of perspective. If you look at the broad contours of drug policy, there is a broad, bipartisan consensus on the status quo. From that viewpoint, Democrats are no better than Republicans on drug policy. A particularly progressive congressional Democrat might work toward a kinder, gentler drug war, perhaps sponsoring a bill that reduces the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, for instance, but none are saying we need to do away with the peculiar institution of drug prohibition in its entirety. But coming in for a closer look, there are significant differences between the two parties when it comes to nibbling away at the edges of the drug war. The congressional votes on the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would bar the use of federal funds to raid medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal, and the Higher Education Act's anti-drug provision both show Democrats much more likely to favor such reform at the margins. Is that difference enough to make independent or third-party campaigns that may weaken the Democrats a mistake? I'm not going to try to answer that question right now. Instead, I invite our readers to weigh in, and I hope that will include some of the people who have been discussing this already. Is Zeese a menace or a messiah? Is Thornton dashing after windmills or leading the way to a new politics? You tell us. (This blog post was published by's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

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