By Blair Jackson
With political unrest sweeping the nation, America’s political climate is ripe for fresh ideas to rise to the forefront of public opinion.
Can new viewpoints be woven into a dialogue that is respected by both major parties and the American public at large?
Do third parties have a chance to shoulder their way into a two-party political picture?
Rebekah Kennedy, Green Party candidate for U.S. Congress, is hopeful. Kennedy’s campaign for the 2012 election will be her third attempt at running for office. In 2008, Kennedy ran for U.S. Senate against Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), garnering almost 21 percent of the vote — the highest percentage of Green Party votes in U.S. history. Kennedy ran again in 2010 for the Attorney General position but was unsuccessful.
“Eighty percent of Americans acknowledge that our government is moving in the wrong direction,” says the candidate, who is running for Arkansas’ third district seat. “The fact is that everyone knows that there is terribly wrong with the system. People don’t want what they’ve been getting. That’s why the Tea Party had so much success in the last election cycle. It’s because they’re different.”
Traditionally, third parties struggle simply to get on the ballot. In Arkansas, the Green Party
has had a longstanding battle with ballot access and legislation. After a 2006 ruling, the number of signatures for petitions for ballot access was dropped to 10,000. Since then, new legislation has been passed that has raised and lowered the amount of time to collect the signatures. Though these inconsistent deadlines have presented challenges to the Green Party, they have met the requirements each time since 2006.
According to Kennedy, the ballot access legislation is designed as a hurdle to third party candidates. “There’s no reason for them to be fiddling with the ballot every legislative session. (Policymakers are) trying to keep the Green Party off the ballot.”
Kennedy says that legislators have admitted that they prefer uncontested races because it is cheaper to run as an unopposed candidate. Without a Green Party candidate, there are more uncontested races, which according to Kennedy, is exactly what both major parties want.
“The majority of elections in Arkansas are uncontested, and that’s not something I’m willing to let stand,” says Kennedy, who became interested in running for office when she found her voter’s ballot held no choices that represented her opinions. “Change needs to be made in public policy…. Basically we don’t have the people ruling in the state. The state is run for the benefit of a handful of well-connected people.”
Kennedy defines the Green Party as a progressive political party that works to protect the environment and ordinary working people. Though the party shares pro-choice and pro-labor stances with the liberal wing of the Democratic party, the Green Party takes a much stronger position on the environment than either of the major parties.
“I can’t sit idly by and not be involved with the politics of this country when its leaders are leading in a way that will result in a world that’s not better for our children. Individual households are suffering terribly because of a lack of jobs. We’re experiencing a huge economic crisis because we don’t have enough money to stimulate the economy.
“Every election should be focused on jobs,” says Kennedy. And while Washington is buzzing with proposals and policies to stimulate the economy, the Arkansas Green Party candidate suggests that the economy could undergo a revival if the nation invested its resources in an environmentally sustainable infrastructure.
In a vision that teeters between futuristic and archaic, Kennedy outlines a plan for rail transportation, designed to move large quantities of freight with one vehicle instead of individual transports — all of which would eventually be powered by renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. “Diesel trucks are a monumental waste of energy,” says Kennedy. “We can’t waste energy. Burning fossil fuel means raising the climate, means threatening the stability of agriculture — which could lead to hunger, political unrest and ultimately war.”
For skeptics, Kennedy points out the revolution in Tunisia. Sparked by months of famine and further catalyzed by the self-immolation of a street vendor, the entire government of the North African country has been restructured within a year.
When you look at a more industrialized country, like the U.S., anxiety and consumer unrest has been caused by rising food prices and unemployment, and Kennedy proposes that by addressing the environmental factors that contribute to climate change, the nation could work to solve the root of these problems.
But environmental protection is not Kennedy’s main concern. “The earth has survived shifts in climates before. I’m not worried about the earth. I’m worried about 7 billion people and what we’re going to do for food if we destroy this steady climate that made the agricultural revolution possible.”
For most citizens, the potential demise of the human race doesn’t factor into the current unrest, but the heightened demand for banking reform and political campaign reform is providing an outlet for alternative views to reach a national audience, which Kennedy sees as an opportunity for change. “Right now part of what’s going to happen is a destabilization of some of the corrupt power structures that have been standing in the way of real power reform.”
With a policy platform that mirrors many of the sentiments of Occupy Wall Street, Kennedy strongly opposes catering to corporations and pandering to the interests of the wealthy, and while Washington bureaucrats are currently discussing major spending cuts in social services, Kennedy argues there are no cuts needed.
“We have a responsibility as a civilization to take care of our most vulnerable members,” says Kennedy, who thinks social security should be expanded into a true retirement fund. To finance this service, the Green Party candidate proposes a modest tax increase on those in the highest income bracket and a decrease in military spending.
“The United States has the lowest tax rate of high incomers in the developed world. Raising taxes would simply bring us more in line with the rest of civilization. To say we can’t afford healthcare. To say we can’t afford to fund basic services because we would rather make sure that people who make millions of dollars can hoard it or invest it overseas. To say that we can’t afford to have food for babies and medicine for old people, because we’re concerned that someone who’s making 1 million will pay 30 percent instead of 10 percent — that’s disgraceful.”
“We’ve got people in our country who are not paying their dues, and that’s why we don’t have enough money to run the budget.”
In response to protests over wealth disparity, attention has been called to the percentage of lower-income Americans who do not pay federal income tax, insinuating that 47 percent of Americans do not contribute to the federal budget. Kennedy dismisses these statistics as “propaganda.”
“(The statistics are) directed at the working class to put the impression on them that they are supporting a lot of poor people who don’t want to work. The information is spun in such a way to create the idea in the minds of working people that other working people are their enemies, and the result is that they vote in the interest of the top 1-2 percent of the income bracket.
“People with low incomes pay a higher percentage of their incomes on taxes than do those with high incomes. Those who are spending every penny, every month, are being taxed on every penny. Those who are able to save their wealth, or spend their money on services instead of goods, are not subjected to sales taxes.
“It’s disingenuous to look at a single measure of tax. The majority of people who don’t pay income tax are paying for Social Security Insurance and Medicare.”
Kennedy also believes that America should take a firmer stance on trade regulations instead of operating under a free trade policy. By engaging in trade with these countries, Kennedy explains, America is forced to compete with industries that offer cheap labor, made possible through practices such as child labor. Kennedy argues that the policy gives an advantage to countries with lax regulations, contradicting claims that the free trade policy creates an “equal playing field.”
Kennedy references the Fort Smith Whirlpool plant, which closed last year, shifting its side-by-side refrigerator production to an existing plant in Mexico. The company shifted other lines of production to existing companies within the United States. “That’s the sort of thing that’s going on in the third district,” said Kennedy. “It’s a benefit to the investor class, but it’s not a benefit to the ordinary working Arkansan in the third district.”
Kennedy views fair trade as an alternative system that supports trade with countries that uphold appropriate labor and environmental policies. To deter investors from exploiting poorly regulated labor forces and factories, Kennedy suggests a substantial tax on importing goods from countries that do not meet standard environmental and humanitarian regulations.
“The bottom line is that a multinational corporation doesn’t have a conscious. It has a wallet, and you have to make it cost something to do the wrong thing, or they’re never going to do the right thing.”
THE FORECAST: Partly Rainy with a Chance of Sunshine
By Janine Parry
According to Janine Parry, political science professor at the University of Arkansas, Kennedy’s chances of winning or playing the spoiler in the 2012 election are slim to none. The third district has been staunchly Republican since John P. Hammerschmidt won in 1966.
Parry says the district is so overwhelmingly Republican, that it’s difficult to get a well-financed Democrat to run for office. “It looks like a suicide mission,” she says.
Demographically, the third district is a giant suburb with citizens of high socio-economic status, some of whom work for one of the largest corporations in the world. Trending as fiscal conservatives, this demographic traditionally favors small government and low taxes. When you add a socially conservative element to the community, the result is an overwhelming Republican vote.
But there’s a silver lining to this cloud of “suicide mission” proportions. “Running for office isn’t just about winning,” says Parry. “It can also be about injecting new ideas into a dialogue that can become too polarized or too stale or both. If a new person can shake things up, then we’re the better off for it.
“The real contribution of third party candidates and platforms – as well as social movements like Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party – is that if they get, and maintain, enough attention, they can change the nature of the debate. That is, they can alter the agenda. Of late, we’re talking seriously about both the size and scope of government (not entirely new) and income inequality (somewhat rarer) because of the frustration and recent spates of activism that has ballooned out of a troubling economy. So while, the odds of winning a formal position are always slim for such groups, their ideas are quite often appropriated by the major parties.”