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Forget Third Parties – It Ain't Gonna Happen: Hijack The Democrats Instead

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Huge numbers of Americans are disgusted with both the Republican and the Democratic parties right now, and are hungrily clamoring for a third alternative.

I know, I know – imagine that! What’s not to like about one party that stands for greed, murder and destruction, and another that stands by for greed, murder and destruction?

Nevertheless, somehow things are not going so swimmingly in the world of American partisan politics. The arch-Republican in the White House has job approval ratings in the mid-20s and sinking. The former Republican Congress, equally regressive, was tossed out on their ears, losing control of both houses last year. Not to be outdone, the Democrats who gained control of Congress as the expression of an angry public demanding change have spent the last seven months responding to that mandate by doing ... well, virtually nothing. Now their standing in public opinion is slightly lower than Bush’s.

So it comes as no surprise that tens of millions of Americans are fed up with both parties and anxious to find something else that they can not only vote for in good conscience, but can actually win. I, too, have shared that dream, have voted third party, and have even volunteered for one during a presidential election campaign. Remember Barry Commoner? Remember his candidacy for president as the leader of the Citizen’s Party in 1980?

Yeah, well, I rest my case. Third party alternatives to hopelessly nihilistic Republicans, hopelessly equivocal Democrats, and the hopelessly self-serving lot of them make total sense except for one small problem. They can’t win.

Not literally, of course. Technically, a third party could win. It’s just that they don’t, and, short of some dramatic changes in the future, that will continue to be the case – that is, they won’t.

I don’t dispute the circular determinism in a statement like that, which is no doubt the first response in the minds of those advocating an alternative to the two bankrupt political parties now running (and ruining) the country. It’s quite correct to argue that continuing to believe that third parties can never win, and that a vote for one of them is therefore ‘wasted’, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s absolutely true that this is the first impediment to the success of a third party in America, and one which by definition must be resolved before any such party can possibly succeed. But what is too often left out of the discussion are the additional and quite enormous obstructions which are waiting right behind this first one to block the rise of a new party to power in America.

To begin with, there is the country’s ideological diversity. Compared to other democracies, ours has been historically pretty muted in this regard, though the range of popular ideological positions has increased somewhat in recent years, particularly as the Republican Party migrated from the center-right to the far right over the last few decades. But the comparative diversity of ideology in America relative to other countries is not really the point here.

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What is the point is that the degree of diversity we do have is prohibitive to a successful third party arising in the United States. Unless one is contemplating the rise of multiple new parties to viability (and here we’ve transitioned from hope to fantasy, I’m afraid), the resulting difficulty posed by this ideological diversity is pretty plain to see. Lots of people, for example, are disgusted right now with George Bush and his co-conspirators in the mainstream of the Republican Party. Most loathe him from the left, thinking he is an arrogant fool who is destroying virtually all the political values they hold dear. But others loathe him with equal intensity from the right, largely for the crime of not destroying those values fast enough. Between the Harriet Miers nomination and the immigration bill debacle, no small fraction of the sixty-five percent of America currently reviling the president are cavemen even more regressive than Bush (which may seem unimaginable to progressives, but is quite literally the case). And in-between are those of the angry middle, who are seriously disgruntled, but are reluctant to lean very far in either ideological direction for a solution to their unhappiness.

What’s the relevance of all this? Well, try to imagine a third party with a presidential candidate that could be viable. Some of the current crop of disaffected voters would be happy to vote for Ralph Nader to replace Bush, but many others would equate that to living under Mao. Likewise, many of those wishing for a third party, complete with its own presidential candidate, would be delighted if someone like David Duke carried their standard. If it is imaginable for progressives that it could ever get worse than Bush/Cheney, this is certainly it. Then, of course, in the center you have the Ross Perot sort of voter, who is dissatisfied enough with existing choices to entertain alternatives, but not something ‘fringe’ in an ideological sense.

Put all this together and you have a sufficient critical mass for precisely nothing. Except perhaps maintenance of the status quo. Thus, one huge reason that the rise of an alternative third party in the United States is highly unlikely is the insufficient support for a single specific alternative, even when there is substantial general support among the electorate for some other option beyond the two parties. The idea is great in theory, and even more compelling when a significant cohort of the public says they want a third party to vote for. But unless you see redneck-pickup-truck-with-a-gunrack-driving-god-fearing-Georgia-crackers voting for Angela Davis, and unless you see long-haired-herbal-tea-drinking-Berkeley-lesbian-housing-rights-militants voting for John Bolton, forget about it. Maybe someone like Mike Bloomberg would get a healthy number votes if he ran in 2008, but the former Republican would get few from the left, nor would the Jewish mayor of New York City get many from the right.

So, after the vast bulk of voters have cast their lot once again with either Republicans or Democrats, the remaining dissenters – even if they are large in number – will dissipate their potential impact across a panoply of choices. Some will vote Green Party. Some Libertarian. Some Reform Party. Some the other Reform Party. Some Constitution, Natural Law, Populist, Taxpayers, Socialist or whatever other party is on the ballot. Even if all of the votes for these alternative parties in aggregate amounted to a numerical challenge to the Democrats and Republicans (and they are currently very far from doing so), the individual share of each of these various representations of different ideologies would completely dissipate any substantial impact, and likely any impact at all, like the air going out of a balloon.

Those are two monumental obstacles to the potential success of a third party in this country, but we still haven’t even discussed what amounts to the biggest – namely, our electoral system. The term refers to the mechanism by which votes at the ballot box are translated into parliamentary delegates (or members of Congress) in a representative democracy. That might sound painfully straightforward and obvious, but the methods available for doing this are anything but, sometimes producing (far more painfully) obscure and mathematically complicated schemes which voters sometimes don’t begin to understand. Don’t know whether you prefer the Borda count over Bucklin voting, the Condorcet method, Single Non-Transferable Voting (affectionately known as SNTV), the Gallagher Index, the Sainte-Laguë or d'Hondt methods (or perhaps you are all about the cloneproof Schwartz sequential dropping method, instead)? No worries, neither does just about anybody else. This confusion is not a good attribute for an electoral system to possess, but there are many other factors to consider as well, and polities are frequently experimenting trying to find the best system (none are perfect).

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The question of electoral system choice may seem mundane in the extreme, but the consequences are enormous. Arguably, one of the factors which brought the Nazis to power was the flawed electoral system of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first (and, obviously, tragically failed) experiment with democracy. But even if a given system doesn’t crash that badly, another of the consequences to the choice of electoral systems – and one which is highly relevant to the present discussion – is the number of viable political parties which they tend to produce.

All the multiple variations of electoral systems can be boiled down to essentially two types, plus a third and increasingly popular form, which is simply a hybrid of the first two. One of the two types is known as proportional representation (PR). Among other attributes, it can have a satisfying simplicity to it and, more importantly for our purposes, it tends to encourage the existence of multiple parties that are at least moderately prominent in a given system. That is because the basic principle, as the name implies, is that each party is awarded a number of legislators in parliament that is proportional to the vote it receives in a single polity-wide election. Therefore, even a small party which could only garner, say, six percent of the vote would nevertheless gain representation in the legislature. In fact, it would have six percent of the seats, which would be likely to mean, depending on the size of the body, more than thirty representatives (most lower houses of parliament – the ones with the most power – seem to be about 500-700 members in size). And, since there can be a certain (virtuous or vicious) cyclical quality to the growth or demise of political parties – such that having representation in parliament makes it easier to gain more of the same, and not having it makes it harder – this system is good news for small parties.

But there are also certain prominent downsides to PR, as well. First, progressives should remember that it wouldn’t only be lefty parties benefitting from this system in America. Where PR produces Green parties in parliament, it also produces the National Front. Second, so many parties usually means the necessity of coalitions to form governments, and that often means instability – coalitions break apart, and governments fall in-between elections, sometimes frequently. Too much instability and enter the Nazis, stage right. And, on top of all this, even PR systems have a tendency to produce two major parties alternating in government (usually in coalition with one or more smaller ones), anyhow, which somewhat defeats the purpose if our goal is get a third party to govern, not that America is anywhere remotely near converting to PR, anyhow. No one is even talking about it.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)

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