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The road less travelled by

With the fourth and final debate of the 2012 election cycle concluded, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have entered the final sprint of the campaign. The debate on Monday was, ostensibly, to be a showdown, a battle between two competing visions of America’s role in the modern global community. During the Republican primary and throughout most of the general election, Mitt Romney played the part of a hawk. John McCain, in one of the few foreign policy speeches at Governor Romney’s nominating convention, listed close to half a dozen countries – Iran and Syria to name just two – and seemed to hint that he, at least, would advocate military action in one or more of them. As for President Obama, although his counterterrorism playbook is drawn mostly from the previous administration (increased drone strikes and the troop surge in Afghanistan for example), his general approach to foreign policy and diplomacy is less reliant on the United States acting as the lone policeman for the world and focuses more on enlisting other countries to help America promote western style democracy around the world. It was actually a pretty uninteresting affair. There was really only one interesting thing to take from what constituted the substance of the debate, which was that Mitt Romney appeared to suddenly switch positions from the primary campaign, where he surrounded himself with foreign policy advisors held over from the Bush administration. Instead, Governor Romney spent most of his time on Monday night agreeing with the President’s foreign policy decisions on issues from Afghanistan to Syria to Iran and even to the drone program, often decisions which he had previously criticized, instead of drawing a contrast between their two visions. Undecided voters polled during and after the debate seemed to feel that the two candidates on the stage represented a particularly stale choice, without a lot to distinguish one from the other. The next night, however, there was another debate between four different individuals who are also running for president but that most people probably haven’t heard much about.

The participants in the 3rd Party Debate, moderated by Larry King, were Jill Stein, running as the Green Party candidate, Rocky Anderson with the Justice Party, Virgil Goode with the Constitution party, and Gary Johnson, representing the Libertarian Party. By way of a little background, Gary Johnson and Virgil Goode are both extremely conservative, more so than even today’s national Republican Party. They both argue that the Republican Party does not actually represent the true principles of small government conservatism. Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson are both pretty classic liberals, but rather than representing an alternative philosophy from Democrats altogether – as Gary Johnson and Virgil Goode do from the Republican Party – Stein and Anderson represent, basically, more ideologically pure versions of most of the principles the Democratic Party holds. In terms of mapping these individuals on an ideological spectrum, Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson are the left – the left being, again, an ideologically purer version of the Democratic Party – with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney occupying a sort of center left or center right. It’s also interesting to note that the two major parties are defined and are distinct from each of the third parties not only by their relative ideological moderation but also by their corporatist influences, mostly labor unions in the Democratic Party and religious associations for the Republican Party. Finally, Virgil Goode and Gary Johnson comprise the right which advocates a sharp restriction of the role and responsibilities of the federal government, popular ideas in this part of the ideological spectrum include abolishing the IRS and the Department of Education.

Interestingly, despite the ideological chasm between them, the four candidates in Tuesday night’s debate also found a lot to agree on. Not surprisingly, they all supported a real opening of presidential elections to third party candidates. All four supported ending the War on Drugs, though for different reasons. Perhaps the most persistent theme throughout the night, however, was the repeated assertion that both major parties in Washington D.C. were corrupted in one way or another. One of Stein’s most common points in the debate was the impact of the Citizens United decision on campaign financing and the sheer lack of oversight for corporate campaign contributions. Rocky Anderson threw back to Eisenhower’s farewell address where he famously warned of the Military-Industrial Complex (Anderson noted correctly that an earlier draft of Eisenhower’s speech had read “Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex”).

Perhaps one of the most stirring portions of the debate was the final question. Each of the candidates was asked in turn what they would propose if they could write one amendment to the constitution and be guaranteed that it would pass. Virgil Goode and Gary Johnson both chose to advocate for term limits for federal officials, arguing that much of the gridlock in Washington is caused by the perpetual state of campaigning and fundraising and that if senators and congresspeople were subject to term limits they would spend more time helping people and less time begging donors for cash. Jill Stein was also clearly worried about the influence of money in politics. Her proposed amendment would overturn Citizens United by declaring that money is not the same as speech and that corporations are not people. Rocky Anderson proposed an updated Equal Rights Amendment and added, to close his answer, “Major social movements in this country always start at the grassroots level. We’re the leaders, let’s make them follow.” This answer, and all four candidates’ mere presence on the stage displays an attitude towards governance seldom seen in today’s politics. It highlights the importance of these third parties in attracting attention to particular causes that real people should care about and in pressuring candidates on the main debate stage to adopt some of their positions or risk ceding votes to third parties. Most importantly, however, it displays a real and true understanding of what it means to live in a democracy.

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