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Mirror of Justice
Last week, a couple of commenters here and elsewhere expressed some disagreement with my reaction to Mike Bloomberg leaving the GOP to become a third-party candidate. It is no secret that my objection isn't to Bloomberg specifically, but rather to third parties in general. This post is going to annoy some of our readers, but let me briefly flesh that point out.
Generally speaking "the electoral college does not eliminate third parties ... [but] it suppresses them. Only the geographically concentrated third party can gain electoral votes." Althouse, Electoral College Reform: Deja Vu, 95 Nw. U.L. Rev. 993, 1005 (2001). This means that third parties ordinarily perform badly, and that is problematic enough as my fellow Althousian Eli Blake explains:
[Given t]he way the American system is set up, third parties exert a negative energy (i.e. Nader's 2000 run in which he siphoned off 92,000 mostly liberal votes in Florida, which elected a Republican Bush with a 537 vote plurality, or last year when Libertarian Jones siphoned 10,000 mostly conservative votes in Montana which helped the Democrat Tester pick up a 2,000 vote victory and gave Democrats the sixth seat needed for Senate control.) In each case, the third party candidate ended up shifting control of a major branch of the government but in a direction away from those of most of their voters.
In a parliamentary system, third parties exert a positive energy because they form coalitions and in the process influence the direction of the government towards the position taken by their voters. ... [But in the U.S. system,]" voters, even people who feel strongly about a position[,] are better served by deciding which of the two major parties fits their views and then working within that party to make their views more acceptable and eventually included in legislation.
In Eli's conception, the threat of third parties is confined to a (likely) situation where a 3d party isn't doing well, yet still syphons votes away from viable candidates, creating messy pluralities of the kind we saw in the 1990s when Bill Clinton became President twice without once winning a majority of votes. This isn't a constitutional problem, but it nevertheless poses a question of normative democratic theory.
Candidly, however, my bigger concern is success. Suppose you have the other, less likely situation: a regionally-concentrated party that actually wins votes in the electoral college (or, miraculously, any 3d party that starts to do well and routinely wins states in the Presidential election). Suppose Bloomberg leads a revival in a sort of northeastern moderate Republican movement that sweeps New England, for example, or suppose Nader won California. And recall that "[i]f no candidate receives a majority of the electoral vote, the House [of Representatives], voting state-by-state, with one vote for each state, selects the President from the three candidates receiving the most electoral votes." Althouse, supra, at 997 n.20. If all electoral votes are won by one party's candidate or the other's, the House contingency is a remote possibility; if a third party wins electoral votes, that possibility looms large. If a third party gains traction and starts routinely winning significant electoral votes - and of course, parties generally aim to succeed not to sit on the sidelines - the possiblity for the House contingency to routinely come into play (as the framers thought it would) becomes apparent.
Personally, I have no problem with that. But I see no reason to believe that the same people who now jump up and down about how terrible the two-party system is will not start jumping up and down about how the fact that elections are being routinely decided by the House means that the Constitution is broken, and needs amendment. And I have a problem with that.
Although the framers didn't anticipate the rise of parties, the structure they bequeathed us has been well-served by the two-party system, which has worked to keep the system stable. It is also significant that throughout American history, with brief deviations (e.g. the Progressive era) and interregnums as one party dies and another springs to life (e.g. the slow death of the Federalist party), we have remained a two-party nation, at least in terms of major parties. Always two there are - never more, never less. As one might expect of such an organism, the extraconstitutional two party system is both a product of and at the same time supports and compliments the formal structures the Constitution. I fear that an attack on the leaf will in time become an attack on the branch which will in time become an attack on the trunk.
To be frank, what I believe really lies behind the complaints about the two-party system - consciously or otherwise - is a desire to get one's own way. These folks' views aren't prevailing in the present system, and since they're such rational, reasonable, sensible people, with rational, reasonable, sensible policy views, obviously, if the system isn't producing winners who agree with their policy views, then the system must be broken. After all, any system that worked would produce rational, reasonable and sensible politicians espousing rational, reasonable, and sensible policies, like the ones that the 3d party boosters want. Since they aren't getting their way, and since that obviously means the system is broken, they want to change the system, believing that doing so will lead to them getting their way. And as I fretted above, when the reform is driven by such a mindset, when adding a third party inevitably leads to an unanticpiated result (and more to the point, when they still aren't getting what they want), they will inevitably go looking for a new thing to "fix." They will start looking for something else to change. When cutting off the leaf doesn't work, they will lustily eye the branch. And when that doesn't work, these rationalists will rashly fire up the chainsaw and take it to the Constitution itself.