Will America ever elect a real independent as president?
There are lots of independent candidates running in 2012. Gary Johnson as a Libertarian. Tom Hoefling on the American Party ticket. Former Congressman Virgil Goode for the Constitution Party. Dr. Jill Stein representing the Green Party. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson on the Justice Party ticket. Roseanne Barr on the Peace & Freedom Party ticket. And many, many more.
Yet it still comes down to two candidates, a Democrat and a Republican. Why? History, money and because it’s always been done that way.
John Tyler was sort of an independent as president. He was dismissed as “His Accidency” by those who didn’t like him because he was elevated to office after Benjamin Harrison’s death. The Whig Party put him on the ticket to help carry the South, but kicked him out of the party after he vetoed a Whig-supported idea for a national bank. Even then, according to a White House site, he was successful with the Whigs in Congress on other measures (including a law that allowed more settlers to go West. We know how that turned out.)
Indeed more than a century later that still would be the challenge for an independent: governing. How would a president motivate a Congress that’s split between established Democrats and Republicans. Then again it’s done on the state level. Several states have elected independents as governors. One former independent governor in Maine, Angus King, is now a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
But no candidate for the presidency has ever won as an independent. Some candidates, such as George Wallace who ran in 1968, have gained attention. But no electoral votes.
Two American Indian women have been on national independent tickets as vice presidential nominees. The first was LaDonna Harris, a Comanche, on the Citizens Party ticket with scientist Barry Commoner. “Ms. Harris knows in her bones that asking such people to switch parties is like asking them to change religions. But that doesn't stop her from asking,” The Christian Science Monitor reported in September 1980.
Harris said at the time that if the party could gain 5 percent of the popular vote it would set itself up for federal funds – and a long term future.
An independent candidate did get more than 5 percent in that election (that was the year of Ronald Reagan’s landslide). But it wasn’t the Citizens Party; it was John B. Anderson running as an independent.
Winona LaDuke, who is Anishinaabe, introduced herself in her own language.
Aniin indinawaymuginitook. Niin gagwe gitimaagis noongom. Beenaysikwe indigo, idash, Winona LaDuke indizhinikaaz, Makwa niin dodaem. Gahwah bah bahnikaag ishkoniginiing indoojibaa. Miigwetch, Mazinnaggain ininiwug, Miigwetch indinawaymugunitook.
She was the vice presidential candidate for the Green Party twice in 1996 and again in 2000. In her acceptance speech, LaDuke said the campaign would be “the catalyst for the creation of a new model of electoral politics; not to run any campaign. This will be a campaign for democracy waged by private citizens who choose to become public citizens.”
That campaign for democracy was also about building more choices into the political system. “I believe that decision making should not be the exclusive right of the privileged. That those who are affected by policy – not those who by default often stand above it – should be heard in the debate,” she said. “It is the absence of this voice which unfortunately has come to characterize American public policy and the American political system.”
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.