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Brief comment on 3d parties

Submitted by Simon on Sun, 06/24/2007 - 9:52pm

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.

Post facto:
Misguided Missiles (8/22/07)
Brief comment on Huckabee's victory (1/4/08)
A less perfect Constitution, 2 (10/18/08)
In defense of parties (12/16/09)

Simon...You Bastard! You Vicious, Heartless Bastard!

....actually, I like your post quite a bit, but I so rarely get to bring out the John Cleese in me.

A couple of issues to think of however:

1) Much of the two-party structure emanates from the "first past the post" electoral process (which is hinted at in your piece but never named), which is the same process they use in England, where third parties ARE viable options. The difference is not explained away by parliamentary structure since there is no Constitutional mechanism keeping "coalitional" style governments from happening. In fact, I'd argue that there are no structural reasons keeping third parties down. The truth is Republicans and Democrats use legislative means to throw roadblocks that keep third parties from competing on a level playing field.

2) Bids like Ross Perot's or Nader's or a potential Bloomberg run do not represent true "third party" efforts. There is no banding together of people with a common interest, which you need in order to have a "party." It is instead a single individual's attempt to influence mass political behavior. Fundamentally it is a different kettle of fish, with different sets of problems, such as trying to develop an organizational group from scratch that can rival the Democrats and the GOP in getting out the vote, fundraising, etc.

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.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. There is an element of bad faith about many of the complaints about our system.

Somewhat related to the True

Somewhat related to the True Believer standard for determining vote fraud with 100% accuracy. "Our candidate didn't win, so the other side must have cheated."

Historically, third-party efforts in this country have been almost exclusively single-agenda efforts, usually economic or "social justice" populism of one form or another. Perot and his tax reform. The Free Silver movement. The Liberty abolitionists. The Free Soilers. The Socialist and Labor parties.

The hallmark of the predominant two parties has always been their "larger tent" coalitionist nature. Even the nascent Republican Party of the 1850's combined Whigs and free-soilers with the abolitionist movement.

The hallmark of the

The hallmark of the predominant two parties has always been their "larger tent" coalitionist nature. Even the nascent Republican Party of the 1850's combined Whigs and free-soilers with the abolitionist movement.

This is what I feel is the largest reason why there have not really been viable third parties. If there is a position that has a large number of advocates, one party or the other will end up co-opting the position as its own in order to draw these groups into the fold. It is only on issues like the current immigration bill where the issue shows factional faults in parties that it makes this process seem more evident.

As far as the Presidential system goes, I think that the Electoral college system is needed in order to avoid nationwide electoral chaos in a close election. There is a non-Constitutional aspect that could be addressed on state levels in the way that a state selects it electors. There is nothing that says they have to be winner take all. You could always do it by Congressional district. I think Maine does it this way. Although, I am loathe to imagine the parties getting into even more gerrymandering of districts in order to help the electoral count.

The two party system that has developed has been a force for stability in a style of government (Presidential systems) that can be somewhat unstable. I would think that a viable third party would either get engulfed or engulf one of the two major parties in a short period of time. I would think that our legislative branch would need major rules changes to operate if a third party existed for a very long time.

If there is a position that

If there is a position that has a large number of advocates, one party or the other will end up co-opting the position as its own in order to draw these groups into the fold.

If the experience of the post-Kennedy era suggests anything, it's that such a single-issue third-party position will be co-opted by the Big Two just long enough to break up the serious opposition, and then nothing will be done. Instead they'll spend a couple of decades using it as a base-rallier, hoping time will solve the issue.

Single-issue third parties are driven by an an upswell in passion over that issue. When the passion fades, so does the party. Even when the issue remains. The Big Two are invested in staying in power. Actually solving issues deprives them of the tools they use to keep the base riled up. On both sides, more are dedicated to the status quo than to anything else.

Rich, I think you're right

I think you're right that there's no structural mechanism that suppresses third parties in Congressional races, but as Ann explains in the article I cited, the electoral college acts to suppress third parties in Presidential elections. Of course, this suggests an obvious strategy to 3d parties, to prove themselves viable by competing in and winning Congressional races. A cynic might suggest there's a reason why most of the so-called third parties don't adopt this approach, one that has to do with the personal aspirations of the people around which they congeal.

I should add, since it's drawn criticism - maybe I should update the post - that I'm not criticizing anyone for wanting their views to prevail. This means you, Michael. My point is that the desire to prevail is often thinly veiled behind a depersonalized, pseudo-platonic concern that the "system" isn't working. The system works just fine. That your views aren't winning doesn't mean the system is broken. And that's true even if your view is shared by all the people in the middle - guess what! The middle may be the tiebreaker, but it isn't a majority.

getting our way

What actions do we take that AREN'T related to getting our way? Really.

That sort of petty insulting is awfully weak. I think much of the criticism of the current system is due to nothing more than familiarity with the myriads flaws of the system and the hope we might be able to do better.

The system we have sure ain't perfect. I'm a big believer in the whole "worst except for all the other methods" perspective in general when it comes to democracy, and I'm willing to credit it some here. It's proven robust, historically speaking, and stable, comparatively speaking. Obvious and significant virtues those, but they don't make it a crime of bad faith and peevishness to wish and hope we could do better.

We're for the most part locked into what we have now, and the same could just as easily have been said for any number of other slightly different approaches if the founders had gone with something a little different.

Maybe the 2-party system really IS nothing less than wonder and a delight that we'd be crazy fools to tinker with. Or maybe it's just a QWERTY keyboard.

When two sides lose their way....

Just a thought.

Let us speculate that the Democrats become more illiberal and that Republicans become more exclusive in their social and economic position. No single issue would drive a large number towards a third position. It would be large-scale disgust. To some extent, that is what is happening in regards to Bloomberg. He does not represent a single issue. It is quite possible that Democrats continue their move to the illiberal Left. It is also possible that the Republicans re-form behind a conservative candidate that does not reflect the moderate values of the center. Add to this trend the global events that urgently require action and a third party could give expression to a centrist majority long split under the two-party tents.

The early and fundamental compromise between our founding fathers, which placed unity over failure, imbued the two-party system with power from an underlying consensus about essential Constitutional values both parties shared (just barely at times). When this consensus stumbles and the two party system fails to represent at least a third of the people, a third party becomes viable. It may be just a wake up call for the two parties, but it is essential. Otherwise, polarization will produce political planks that do not represent the majority of moderates and centrists. To emphasize my point, it is possible that a damaged Rudy facing a battered Obama could give Bloomberg a real chance to win. The staying power of course, would have to be Congressional seats for Independents. As a group, Independents are more variable than Republicans or Democrats are becoming.

Our system has placed numerous obstacles in front of third parties. One should not ignore the trends however: given the failure of either party to represent my interests these days, I think Independent threats are inevitable.

where thethreshold lies

Right, and if an independent performs only comparably well to the major party candidates that say 1/3 plus of Americans are disgusted by, then what? In the absence of capturing a majority of electoral votes, Congress decides. Fricken' awesome, eh? Because it makes the government stable. So say the cheerleaders of the gospel of Incumbistan anyway. I guess I'm just a peevish kvetcher who thinks I deserve to get my way.

Sounds like Bull Moose all over again.

The threat might be inevitable; but it will likely have the same result as the Bull Moose party. The real problem we have is voter apathy. Since the vast majority of people do not participate in the primaries, we end up with poor choices. We also end up with poor choices because the selection system is too democratic. Other than Reagan, what decent choice has been given to us since the post '72 reforms?

Am I an elitist to want a return to the old style conventions? Possibly. I just think we can end up with better candidates and not have this crazy election season that starts two years out. If we want to keep the current system, then lets screw the current setup altogether. Lets just have a national primary in September and then the election in November, just like most statewide federal offices. The current system does more to fuel voter apathy than it does to fuel voter interest. While we have over 50% turnout in the general election, primary turnout rates are dismal. It is rare that it exceeds 20% of eligible voters. Those are your motivated and, usually, strongly ideological voters. The real choices are made in the primaries but the vast majority of the people have no wish to wade through that mess, especially when it starts so early. If the system is changed to hold a national primary (possibly with a runoff three weeks later with the top two) late in the process, more voters may become interested.

Why do I bring this up in a discussion on third party/independents? It is because I simply do not see an independent party that will do what needs to be done to become a viable alternative. Without a substantial slate of candidates at the federal, state and local level, it is hard to see how a third party could be taken seriously. An independent President with no help in Congress would be incredibly weak and would likely be getting undermined on a regular basis. Since no Independent/Third party currently makes a serious attempt at gaining Congressional seats, I can not take a challenge seriously. Now if someone breaks off, starts a party and gets some Members of Congress to go along with it, I would probably listen more. I think that is what it would take to start a credible challenge. Just saying "I'm independent" is not a viable solution to me.

Blowin in the Wind

I understand Brian's point, but I agree with Jim's observation. In my imagined birth of a viable Third Party I envision defections by some Republican and Democratic heavy weights bringing more defections in Congress. Without representitives adding to an organization of one, it would be hard for an Independent President to get much done. Was that the thinking behind Unity 08? If the Palestinians could get almost 80% to vote, we should do better. The problem is that long primaries provoke playing to the base. Shortening the primary run and perhaps some other structural changes could make it easier for the center to prevail over money, Party bosses and a system that "encourages" a two-party system. That third of the people should be better represented.

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