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The Spoiler: Ron Paul and the Democracy that Sets Us Up to Fail

Ron Paul-lover I'm not, but isn't it depressing that "spoiler" is the only function an independent candidate serves?

Continuing the primary pattern of 2012, Ron Paul has taken his turn basking in the GOP spotlight with a third-place finish at the Iowa caucus. Still, most pundits agree it's unlikely he'll get the party's nomination—even Paul himself isn't so confident—so some supporters have been calling for Ron Paul to run as an independent. If he does, it's not hard to imagine the outcome: He'll lose, splinter the conservative vote, and hand a victory to Obama.

How do we know this? Because that's what we assume about any independent or third-party candidate in a presidential election. When it comes to Congress, the results are a little more unpredictable—consider, for example, Florida's 2010 three-way race, in which GOP candidate Marco Rubio rode the wave of Tea Party fervor to beat out establishment Democrat Kendrick Meek and moderate Republican-turned-independent Charlie Crist. But in presidential elections, an independent is a "spoiler," not a visionary, the target of ire from the party most closely associated with his politics. Think Ross Perot. Or Ralph Nader.

Not that I'd call Ron Paul a "visionary"—some of his ideas are pretty damn regressive. Despite the crossover appeal he holds due to his anti-war politics and libertarian principles, he's far to the right when it comes to social and most economic issues. He's so far to the right, in fact, that many liberals are secretly hoping for him to run as an independent because it would all but clinch the election for Obama. A recent Washington Post poll showed that 85 percent of Republicans would vote for Mitt Romney in a general election—but that number drops to 66 percent when Ron Paul becomes a third option.

Ron Paul-lover I'm not, but isn't it depressing that "spoiler" is the only function an independent candidate serves? In the Occupy Wall Street era, an off-the-script option makes all the sense in the world. We're fed up with the political system and how it's funded, and many of us bemoan voting for the lesser of two evils. But when it comes to independents, we underestimate our own power of mobilization and assume they'll lose. We long for third-party candidates to win, but we give up on them before they start.

A Gallup poll in May found that 52 percent of the nation think a third party is needed. There are more independents than registered Democrats or Republicans—37 percent in all. There have been grassroots efforts to pick an independent, even as most people roll their eyes at the possibility. But why? This group is the one who swings elections. They're the ones candidates pander to in the presidential race. Every time an independent or third party candidate surfaces, he or she dares us to prove what's possible when we flex our democratic muscle. Why have we been too chicken to respond?

And while we're at it, why have progressives allowed conservatives to dominate the discussion? Independents are often characterized as Republicans with a libertarian tinge—the Ron Pauls of the world. How about envisioning another candidate that doesn't have to play by the DNC's rules?

For the 52 percent of us hoping for a system that's not dominated by lobbyists and party dogma, we can't sleep on the concept of "independent" just yet. Simply picture Ron Paul as your next president, and act accordingly.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Gage Skidmore

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