It was all Nader’s fault. Never mind the butterfly ballots and the hanging chads. Forget about Palm Beach County’s sudden and accidental infatuation with Pat Buchanan(1) and Katherine Harris’s purging of thousands of legitimate black Floridians from the voter rolls at discriminatorily high levels before the 2000 election. It was all Nader’s fault. Don’t mention the fact that Gore would have won the election if he could have been bothered to win his home state or the Supreme Court hadn’t followed up it’s 7-2 ruling that Florida’s recount violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution with a 5-4 ruling that validated the same recount that they had just said was unconstitutional. Don’t talk about how Nader “stole” a mere 24,000 Florida Democrats while Bush made off with 308,000 of them. It was all Nader’s fault. Nader was nothing more than a scurvy little spoiler; a no account pie-in-the-sky fruitcake who knew damn well he didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the Presidency, but stayed in anyway out of either feckless idealism or some nefarious design to submarine the Democratic Party.
At least, that’s the version of events that has been promulgated by the monied rank-and-file of the Democratic Party, a group of folks who are about as progressive as a pair of pleated khakis and have a vested interest in keeping any left-leaning third party from gaining traction in American politics. It is nothing more than a manufactured narrative, created after the fact to create a fall guy for the party’s collective incompetence with the ancillary benefit of helping to silence the nascent American Left. It is a narrative born of the the statistical aberrance of an election of over 105 million votes being decided by 537 people and it’s end result has been the evisceration of anything resembling a promising progressive third party in the United States. In the 3 presidential elections that have taken place since Gore’s last stand in Florida,no candidate from a left-leaning third party has received more than 0.56% of the popular vote, a number which is almost 5 times smaller than the vote total Nader culled in 2000.
A portion of this decline in progressive third party support can be chalked up to the increased role of big money donors in a post-Citizens United political landscape, but most of it has it’s origins in a deep-seated fear of voting for a spoiler. Somehow, we as a society have decided that the intrinsic worth of a vote is not based so much on the abilities and beliefs of the candidate it’s for, but on the chances that candidate has of winning. With each election cycle we watch a bland parade of supposedly “liberal” Democrats go before us and we find ways to convince ourselves—if only for a moment—that voting for the lesser of two evils every 2 or 4 years is the best our representative democracy has to offer. At it’s core, the lesser of two evils strategy is little more than cynicism topped with a thin coat of pragmatic varnish; a tacit endorsement of a Democratic Party that has been slowly drifting to the right for the past 40 years and which offers only crumbs to a progressive base it knows will never leave because it has no place to go.
In West Virginia, the Democratic establishment has elevated the amalgamation of Republican policies in their party platform to an art form, often making it difficult to determine where one party ends and the next begins. A perfect example of this is Nick Rahall, a 19-term member of the House of Representatives from West Virginia’s 3rd district, which encompasses the southernmost portion of the state. This November, he is looking at perhaps the toughest re-election bid of his Congressional career as he faces off with Evan Jenkins, the second West Virginia Democrat in 4 years who has changed parties for the purpose of running against Rahall in a general election.
With Mitt Romney having carried West Virginia’s Third District by 32.2 percentage points in 2012, Rahall has predictably veered his campaign message to the right—with the notable exception of labor and union issues, which have always played well in the state—focusing intently on how much he loves coal, how much he loves coal miners, how much he loves West Virginia and how much he hates the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, of the 6 major TV ads Rahall’s campaign has run in 2014, 4 of them focus on his support of coal miners, hisdesire to keep coal in West Virginia, and his efforts to antagonize EPA regulations andcap and trade emissions programs. These claims are backed up by Rahall’s record, which most recently includes his support of The Protection and Accountability Regulatory Act of 2014, which would give coal plants carte blanche to belch out as much carbon pollution as they desire with out any repercussions.
On top of his reprehensible environmental record, Rep. Rahall is openly opposed to same sex marriage, has an A grade endorsement from the NRA, a score of 20 out of 100 by NARAL Pro-Choice America, a 30 out of 100 score by Human Rights Campaign, a 17% rating from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and an 18 out of 100 on the 2014 National Immigration Score Card. Put all that together and you have a man who sports the 8th most conservative record of any House Democrat and who aligns himself with his Republican colleagues from West Virginia more frequently than he does members of his own party. Add to that the fact that Rahall’s Republican challengers in 2010 and 2014 were both converted Democrats and it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the democratic process for most West Virginians—or at least those in the state’s Third District—has become a little more than a well-funded farce. On one side, you have a pro-gun, pro-coal, anti-environment, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT white guy and, on the other, you have a pro-gun, pro-coal, anti-environment, anti-abortion, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT white guy. It’s bipartisan politics at its very finest.
And yet, with its citizens mired in the morass of one of America’s most stagnant and ideologically static states, no third party has been able to make so much as a dent in the political consciousness of the West Virginian people. In 2012—a year where West Virginia’s nominal Left was so displeased with President Barack Obama that they gave 41% of their vote to an imprisoned felon in a closed Democratic primary—fewer than 4,500 West Virginians cast their votes for the Green Party’s Jill Stein in the general election, an abysmal showing that reflects West Virginia’s wariness of third parties and environmental activism more than it does their satisfaction with the political status quo. As it turns out, the people of West Virginia are so loathe to broach environmental issues that the state’s Green Party affiliate, The Mountain Party, is the national party’s only affiliate to omit the word “green” from their name.
Like most Green Party affiliates, The Mountain Party is young and engaged in the perpetual balancing act inherent to political organizations without a solid base and financial backing. Having only been in existence for 14 years, The Mountain Party is still running almost entirely on the passion and personal belief structures of their candidates, a state of affairs that lends itself very well to intra-party argument, but makes anything approaching a cohesive, well-vetted message next to impossible. Not long ago, I drove down to the state capitol of Charleston to speak with newly elected Mountain Party Chair Elise Keaton-Liegel about the challenges she was having in crafting a more unified party platform that looks past election day and reining in some of her more outspoken candidates.
“When they asked me to be Chair, I was like, ‘alright, if y’all don’t mind getting your feelings hurt’, cause I’m not pulling any punches.” Elise told me. “And it’s been interesting because I’ve already had major, major personality conflicts and issues come up and what I’ve realized is it’s like a dysfunctional marriage. I mean, the people who built the party and got it to where it is have done a good job—I mean, they’ve played by all the rules, they’ve got us here, but there’s no real…like…strategy, and I’m a strategist. I’m a chess player. I want to think 3 moves ahead. I’m thinking past November 4th. I know a lot of the candidates are like, ‘just get me through the election and we’ll see what happens,’ but I’m like, okay, what’s beyond that?”
For both the Mountain Party in particular and the Green Party in general, what’s beyond election day is normally a prolonged period of inaction. And, despite her stated intentions, this pattern of biennial hibernation will be hard for Elise to buck on account of the fact that it’s damn near impossible to play chess with a bunch of checkers pieces. Up until now, candidates from the Mountain Party have been a hodge podge of well-intentioned, passionate, but politically inexperienced Appalachian activists who consider pulling in close to 5% of the vote in a state governor’s race to be a major victory. Like Jill Stein—whose biggest electoral triumph at the time of her Presidential run was being twice elected a Town Meeting Representative for the town of Lexington, Massachusetts—the Mountain Party’s candidates have very little in the way of political credentials and usually run on little more than the strength of their ideas, which is a dangerous proposition for a disorganized party that routinely gives its candidates more than enough rope with which to hang themselves.
“The Mountain Party’s 14 years old.” Elise said as we sat outside a little coffee shop in the long shadow of the gleaming gold dome of Charleston’s capitol building. “And what do 14 year olds need? Direction, focus and discipline. Right? All 14 year olds need a little direction, focus and discipline. None of them want it and they think they know everything. 14 year olds, 15 year olds, they think they know everything and they’re wrong. So, it’s incumbent upon us to provide that direction, discipline and focus. We’ve got amazing people who are willing to step up and run for office and it’s just a matter of finding those folks and supporting them.”
What was unsaid, but very much implied, was that finding this new crop of Mountain Party candidates would eventually lead to the removal of some of the old guard who are becoming a bit of a liability to party.
“This party…it’s got a lot of name recognition, but not in the best way.” Elise told me. “You know what people are telling me about the Mountain Party down south? Well, I have a side business called Sisters at Your Service and I’m down there trying to make some money on the side and I finish cleaning this guy’s house—my husband and I do—and we’re sitting there talking to him and he goes, ‘Mountain Party…why in the hell would you take over the Mountain Party?’ He said, ‘It’s just a bunch of backwoods, toothless, conspiracy believing hillbillies.’ And it’s not just him. 4 people tell me almost verbatim the exact same thing with this snarl in their voice and I’m like, I’m not attached to it. I’m the analyst here… [and] I’m saying there’s going to be a major party revamp starting November 5th.”
For Elise, the prospects of the Mountain Party becoming a legitimate contender to the throne in West Virginia politics depends on people like Dianna Strickland, the Mountain Party’s candidate for Kanawha County Commissioner. Dianna, a native West Virginian, small business owner and mother of 3 is a newcomer to the party who fell into politics after a series of environmental disasters and bungled government responses all but bankrupted her pastry shop in Sissonville, a small town about 15 minutes north of Charleston. Strickland may be running as a third party candidate, but she certainly doesn’t look the part. She showed up about an hour before Elise did that afternoon, dressed in a very Clintonesque navy blue skirt suit and with the prim propriety of a woman whose parents might have sent her off to finishing school when she was a teenager. She was your typical, middle-class, minivan driving, PTA boarding soccer mom and yet, somehow, she was carrying the flag for a left-wing political party. How does something like that happen?
“This campaign came to me and landed in my lap.” Dianna told me. “I had been a lifelong Democrat and had always thought of a third party as being a spoiler. I was right in line with everyone else and then the Mountain Party came to me—and I had always agreed with their philosophy—so I started researching. I started researching the political candidates and the political history here in West Virginia and I came to the conclusion that the Democratic Party here had failed us. Right now, for example, we have a Democratic governor, 2 Democratic Senators and a Democratic President and everyone’s out of work, no one has a plan for the future and we’re still drinking poisoned water. So, if this is the best that the Democratic Party has to offer me then, uh, no thanks. I’ll try somewhere else.”
Unmet campaign promises and corrupt politicians are nothing new to the State of West Virginia. To quote Allen H. Loughy, a native West Virginian who quite literally wrote the book on his home state’s depraved, graft-ridden political past, “If political corruption were an Olympic event, West Virginia would be a strong contender for the gold medal.” One need look no further to the Kanawha County Commissioners race where this year’s Democratic candidate, Clint Casto(2), was recently arraigned on animal cruelty charges when a humane officer discovered that he had let one of his horses starve to death. What is new is having West Virginians whose views don’t occupy the political fringe finally divorce themselves from the intractable mess that is the state’s Democratic Party and strike out for greener pastures. Elise and the rest of The Mountain Party are hopeful that Dianna’s political epiphany is a sign of things to come, but that hope is tempered by the fact that much of the Democratic rank and file still view them with scorn and contempt.
“I have people telling me that it’s better to vote for the lesser of two evils than for the best candidate because you have more support that way.” Dianna said during our discussion. “They say if you don’t vote for the lesser of two evils you risk losing to the most evil by splitting your vote. Well, I disagree with that. I think it’s complacency and I think it’s shameful that people have come to accept this two party system as the only way. But it’s not the only way and so few people are willing to take that step outside the norm to do something about it. Even in the circles I run in—in the environmental circles I’ve recently been hanging tight in—people are stand off-ish of me. And yet, I’ve got my entire town of Sissonville fighting for me. My Republican-ass town of Sissonville on my side. Isn’t that great? They’re sending me money, they’re supporting me…and I’m really shocked. I really can’t tell you how shocked I am at how unwilling the Democrats are to support me. I’m shocked. I mean, we stand for the same thing, almost. I’ve got Republicans coming up to me and saying ‘good job’ and I’ve got Democrats turning their backs to me.”
“That’s because you’re the biggest challenge to their status quo,” Elise told her. “This is why the Mountain Party exists. You can come from opposite ends of the spectrum and still wind up at the same spot around the same values: clean air, clean water and a healthy West Virginia…this is the power of the Mountain Party. That’s why I say we’re Republicans, we’re Democrats and we’re independents. We’re young, we’re an adolescent and we have the ability now to identify the common ground, claim it and bring people there.”
Ultimately, Elise is right; maybe not in the way she wants to be, but she’s right all the same. The Mountain Party is an adolescent. And, like any good adolescent, The Mountain Party doesn’t really have an identity yet. It hasn’t figured out what it wants and probably couldn’t get it if it had. In order for The Mountain Party to become anything more than a quaint political afterthought, it needs to mature and that means excising some of the lunatic fringe that helped to create it. Got a climate change skeptic running for office? He’s got to go. A candidate who writes satirical novels about the leading lights of West Virginia politics conspiring to assassinate Barack Obama’s fictional Presidential doppelganger? You can’t have it. Party leaders who spend their time stumping about the truth about 9/11 and the NSA in a state that is the 2nd poorest, least healthy and most susceptible to drug overdose in the entire nation? It just won’t work.
The Mountain Party will not win a race in 2014. They simply do not have the infrastructure, the voter awareness and the candidates to do so. When I spoke to her last week, Dianna Strickland had a grand total of $600 in her campaign coffers—just enough for some signs, some business cards and maybe a small newspaper ad if she could scrounge together a little more cash. No one wins a campaign with a budget of $600, especially if it’s for a low profile office like County Commissioner where people often vote for a straight party ticket if they vote at all. But that’s alright, because for The Mountain Party this election should be about building, not winning.
In order to win races in the years to come, The Mountain Party needs to spend this election going about the thankless busywork of planting the seeds for their future success. They need to build up a solid voter base; to go out into the community and speak with their fellow West Virginians; to let them know that the tin foil hats are in the trash and that they’re not a bunch of out-of-touch granola eating hippies who don’t understand their plight. The party’s new guard—people like Elise and Dianna—must start dialogues with their friends and neighbors, dialogues that don’t focus on the negative aspects of a coal culture that is all these folks have ever known and loved, but on the benefits and jobs that will come from bringing solar and wind technology to the Mountaineer State. But, more than anything, they need to show the people of West Virginia that they’re serious—that they’re capable of doing more than standing on a soapbox railing against big coal and that they can effect real change in their communities—and none of that is going to happen before November 4th. Democrats and Republicans fight tooth and nail for our votes on one day every 2 years. If the Mountain Party wants to become a serious political player, they’ll do it by fighting for the people of West Virginia on all of the days that fall in between.
(1) Now, for those with a conveniently selective memory, Palm Beach County was the one Florida county where Pat Buchanan performed with a statistically improbable amount of success, taking in 0.8% of the vote when he only culled 0.29% of the vote across the entire state. When a statistical regression model is fitted to the other 66 counties in Florida during the 2000 election and then applied to Palm Beach County, it is estimated that the number of Buchanan votes would have been 326. In the actual election Buchanan got 3,411. That’s beyond anomalous. It’s impossible. Even the Buchanan campaign knew as much, asserting that it was absurd for the Bush campaign to assert that Palm Beach was “a Buchanan stronghold” when they had never so much as made a visit or aired an ad in the county because it wasn’t their natural base. In the words of Bay Buchanan, the candidate’s sister and campaign manager, “We do not believe they are all ours…We think there was clear confusion and we understand the confusion since we’ve looked at the ballot ourselves.”
(2) Given the fact that he doesn’t have a candidate website and I can’t find anything relating to any campaign appearances for Kanawha County Commissioner or the West Virginia House of Delegates, the only clues to Mr. Casto’s experience and policy recommendations come from his Facebook page. From what I can gather, Clint Casto works at his family’s general contracting and excavating company, is or was a volunteer firefighter and loves guns, motorcycles and Motley Crüe. Vote Casto 2014!