Thursday, June 26, 2008

This is What Democracy Looks Like: A Petitioner's Manifesto

The sun is blazing down on me and sweat drips from my forehead. The West Virginia air is humid and thick as storm clouds cluster in unpredictable colonies in the sky. I have been working as a petitioner on the Ralph Nader ballot-access campaign for almost a week now and although the work is exhausting it has helped me to truly understand the role that third parties play in American politics. At first I was terrified of approaching total strangers and talking to them about their politics; but now my words are more fluid, more familiar, and my self-esteem is less attached to the many rejections, blow-offs, and rude comments that I endued on a day to day basis.

Today I am stationed in front of a super market on the outskirts of Charleston. A woman with an empty cart approaches the store front and I say “Are you registered to vote in West Virginia ma’am?” to which I hear a sharp “No thank you, I’m in a hurry.” Just one of the literally hundreds of people I have talked to today. The rejection fades as I approach another couple, rejection, and then an elderly man. He stops slowly on my left, eyes skeptical as most are, and listens as I tell him that the clipboard in my hands is filled with the signatures of registered voters like him, who believe that third party candidates have the right to be on the ballot. He signs, and nods as he slowly adds “there ought’a be more choices.”

“Sign a quick petition for me today sir?” “Who’s on it? What! You have got to be kidding me! Ralph Nader! I don’t want him on the ballot! He’ll steal votes away from the democrats!” a typical democrat reply. But, this man seems interested in my response, which I appreciate. “Well sir, don’t you think that a candidate should win an election based on their own merit and not simply because there are only two choices? And if the two major parties are losing votes to independents, doesn’t that just mean they have lost touch with their constituents? Isn’t democracy about choice and doesn’t Nader have the right to be on the ballot?” He pauses, to digest my words, nods his head and says, “I see your point…ok I’ll sign.” I think to myself: I’m getting good at this! When I started petitioning for the campaign, I expected we would meet up with the bitter Democrats who believe that Nader lost them the elections in 2000 and 2004. The irony of course is that in opposing Nader’s access to the ballot they are sanctioning the ever narrowing scope of political dialogue. If the democrats are losing constituents to third party candidates like Nader, it is because they are not adequately representing progressive values not because Ralph is a spoiler. Having third parties like the greens and Ralph Nader, can only serve to make the Democratic party more accountable to its constituents, because they if they are not, they will lose more people like me, who believe that the Democrats are just as beholden to the special interests that are clogging the authenticity of our democracy as the republicans.

I am standing at a small pedestrian walkway between a mall and a bus stop. A man with bad legs, a shaved head, and no front teeth slurring a thick New Jersey accent storms through the alley yelling: “They can’t deny me food when I am hungry!” He asks if he can use my phone to call the train station, saying “I’m getting out of this place, I’m going back to Philly!” I hand him the phone. As he makes his call, I catch pedestrians on their lunch breaks and reflect on the previous day in front of the super market—it had ended with us being kicked out by the store manager for “soliciting.” There is a certain feeling of despair that comes over you when on top of all the apathy, rudeness, and opposition to our cause, we have the rug literally swept out from under us. One of Ralph Nader’s key issues is to end ballot access obstructionism, where state ballot access laws make it near impossible to run a candidate on the state general election ballots. On top of this already unfair and unjust obstacle, we live in a society where public spaces are rapidly being converted in to private spaces. Many Americans can go through their entire day without interacting with anyone: from the suburban home to the car, to the cubicle, to a self-check-out grocery store. Private shopping malls and “Town Centers” have become the public space of our time, yet they do not allow the same rights as genuine public spaces. Our lives have become so dependent on technology and dispersed that public spaces are becoming a rarity. A development in Huntington, West Virginia—one of our petitioning locations—is a prime example. “Pullman’s Square” is a recent development that has revitalized the down town with new shops and business locations (after sprawl and manufacturing job losses destroyed them). There is even what appears to be a public park with a fountain and lawn. On a Friday night this square is bustling with teenagers, couples, and families; but due to the fact that the area is owned by a development company, it was off limits to us petitioners, who had to stay a safe distance from it all as security guards watched us like hawks.

As the man finishes the phone call, he thanks me and stumbles off. I continue to petition the small pedestrian walkway that leads to the mall entrance until the sun begins to set behind the large apartment and commercial buildings and decide to call it a day. Being a petitioner is not easy, but it can certainly be rewarding when you run into people who understand the importance of third party candidates and appreciate Ralph Nader’s years of tireless service to consumers and democracy. As I finish the day my feet are tired and my throat raw. Sometimes it is difficult, but what keeps me going is the idea that third parties are an essential part of our democracy, and that our democracy is in great peril. This is what democracy looks like, people in the streets promoting a cause, fighting for change, raising their voices.

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