Want to know how disgusted people are with American politics?
You could review the polls: Congress is a serious bottom feeder, esteem hovering somewhere between televangelists and social networking. Want to be my friend?
I found an even better barometer the other night: More than 400 people -- of widely varying ages, races and socioeconomic status -- braved a driving rain in Oklahoma City to hear Ralph Nader rail against an election system that makes it all but impossible for third party candidates to compete effectively.
You can't get 400-plus people off their iPhones, iPads or iMacs long enough to show up to almost anything these days, except a big-time football game, a tax-free sales holiday or a Chick-fil-A grand opening.
Yet, here they were, in a Marriott Hotel ballroom, on a dreary night courtesy of Tropical Storm Hermine, cheering an old lion of American politics as he described a "two-party tyranny that has imposed a dictatorship on the potential competition by excluding them."
If that isn't evidence that American voters -- or at least Oklahomans -- are pining for major change, I don't know what is.
Nader, 76, has fought to open up the nation's electoral process for more than half a century, a crusade that mostly fell on deaf ears -- but one that now makes him a pariah among those who would be his natural allies.
Many Democrats blame Nader for George W. Bush's election, still seething whether the famed consumer advocate had not succumbed to ego to enter the race as a Green Party candidate. It is possible that he siphoned away about 90,000 Florida votes that almost certainly would have gone to Democratic nominee Al Gore.
That would have been more than enough votes to propel Gore to the presidency -- without the need for a recount, a cram session in hanging chads or a Supreme Court intervention.
Nader remains unrepentant. More importantly, his belief in a more-the-merrier electoral system seems to be finally gaining traction among an increasing number of voters distressed by the state of American politics.
"This is a very serious issue for our democratic pretensions," Nader said, "and we better pay attention to it.
"What's most dismaying is the liberals and progressives who are Democratic registered voters and are Democratic Party loyalists suddenly suspend their concern for civil liberties and civil rights for third party candidates and the right of voters to have a choice.
"It's OK if Pat Buchanan runs for president against George W. Bush but not if Ralph Nader runs against Al Gore or against George W. Bush. It's a double standard and we should drop all this siphoning votes, spoiling this and that, and just let people get on the ballot with minimum number of signatures and let the debate begin and let the best ideas prevail."
Oklahomans are clearly receptive to the notion. A bill that would have made it easier for third party candidates to secure positions on the state ballot nearly made it into law this year -- even though neither of the major parties has much incentive to open up the process.
Recent state polls indicate upwards of seven in 10 Oklahomans want to reduce ballot access barriers.
And, of course, 400-plus Oklahomans show up to hear Nader at an event that involved Democrats, Republicans, independents, Greens, Libertarians, even Pirate Party members -- a clear indication that something revolutionary is brewing among the Sooner electorate.
The problem is, the current system really does leave third party candidates with little hope of being much more than spoilers, swiping votes from major party candidates and tilting the elections.
Think two recent Oklahoma gubernatorial elections: Republican Frank Keating slipped into office in 1994 because Democrat-turned-independent Wes Watkins siphoned votes away from the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Jack Mildren. Eight years later, Democrat Brad Henry was helped when independent Gary Richardson corralled votes that almost certainly would have gone to GOP nominee Steve Largent.
Since our electoral system is winner-take-all, many voters won't seriously consider casting their ballots for independent or third party candidates -- regarding it as throwing away their votes because such candidates aren't likely to garner the 50 percent-plus-one necessary to actually win election.
Without a system of proportional representation -- employed by many other countries and even in some U.S. municipalities -- third-party candidates and independents are all but shut out of the governing process where their ideas could be fully debated and tested.
As it is, third party and independent candidacies all-too-often are the stuff of cynical political hijinks. This year in Arizona, for example, a Republican operative and legislative aspirant acknowledged he recruited three street people to run as Green Party candidates in hopes they will siphon away potential Democratic votes.
The Arizona case highlights an underlying problem in American politics: Many simply aren't paying attention. They vote for Republicans or Democrats because their parents did. They vote for the least worst. Or they don't vote at all, feeling their lone voice won't matter or be heard. The apathy and indifference breed cynicism and Arizona-like gamesmanship.
What if voters were as sharply focused on their political candidates and elected leaders as they are on the football depth charts?
"If the American voters were as smart as sports fans," said Nader, "we'd have a raging democracy."
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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