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July 07, 2006

Be Careful What You Wish For

Ross Douthat has an excellent post on the mismatch of intellectuals yearning for a third party savior and electoral opportunities for an unaffiliated challenger. The folks who're agitating for such a run come, he writes, from the moderate middle, "the people who think that taking the best ideas from both parties means mixing social liberalism with foreign-policy internationalism, quasi-open borders with deficit reduction, environmentalism with free trade." But the history of third party insurgencies shows a significantly less congenial ideology generally fuels runs: economic populism and protectionism combined with social conservatism and an aggressive foreign policy. Hardly the stuff supported by the dispirited intellectual set. In the end, it's infinitely more likely that a successful insurgent will emerge among the Roy Moores of the world than the Warren Buffetts. The Buffetts, after all, already have a party. It's called the Democratic Party and it comes complete with ballot access in all 50 states.

July 7, 2006 | Permalink


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Right on. A right-populist 3rd party candidate (ala Ross Perot) would hurt the Repubs in the 08 presidential contest just as a left-populist Nader did in 2000. A nutcase candidate, either left or right, is a danger but I'd run that risk when we have ideological and practical stagnation with the Reds and Blues both looking too purple.

Our system is wired for two parties. Good arguments can be had on whether that's a good idea. But when the two parties don't offer enough difference, the threat or actuality of a 3rd party challenger is a good way to blast apart the unity forged by big-money (PACs and lobbyists) support for both parties being me-toos. I'm thinking of the Progressive Era in the late 19th-early 20th century - whether that could ever happen again is an open question.

I'd favor one progressive reform: a federal law that required all states to open their ballot to third party candidates or parties for federal offices once some threshhold of popular support was demonstrated.

I don't know what that threshhold for ballot access should be, except to say it shouldn't be based on a parties previous success in prior elections. Having to jump through 50 state hoops is just too damned hard to be really the effective means of change that it could be.

The key is party versus candidate. The Constitution nowhere mentions political parties (although the founders clearly were aware of what they called 'factions'. A third-way choice should be open to candidates for federal office, but organizing and sustaining parties that last from election to election is probably impossible given our most recent history (WWI to the present).

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 7, 2006 12:50:04 PM

I'd favor one progressive reform: a federal law that required all states to open their ballot to third party candidates or parties for federal offices once some threshhold of popular support was demonstrated.

You have demonstrated your view of federalism in this statement.

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jul 7, 2006 1:16:51 PM

I think your idea for general 3rd party candidacy is a good idea, but I don't think it addresses the underlying problem. We complain a lot about PACs and corporate interests, but they have always been and will always be a part of our system. I think our current issues are really not related to the parties themselves but to the overwhelming electoral advantages of incumbents.
Off the top of my head I think the last numbers I read show incumbents winning between 92% and 98% of their seats. Incumbents that do not fear a reelection challenge have no need to listen to constituents other than the ones who provide money for reelection. I don't think that we will have a more open political process with more distinct parties until we mitigate the incumbent advantage. Everything else is a symptom, incumbency is the root cause of the problem.

Posted by: dominick | Jul 7, 2006 1:19:22 PM

I'd favor one progressive reform: a federal law that required all states to open their ballot to third party candidates or parties for federal offices once some threshhold of popular support was demonstrated.

This is a terrible idea. The far better reform would be ranked preference/instant runoff voting, which would be an enormous help to potential third parties (because it would eliminate the practical penalty for voting one's ideology).

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jul 7, 2006 1:25:15 PM

All of this pining is essentially a wish to re-create the John Anderson '80 candidacy. Douthat is of course spot on.

You could imagine that, because of the growth of professional, service, and information sector jobs, that such a campaign would be more popular than before. But not enough to win the presidency. Assuming the coalition would have to do more than take blue states, you'd have to somehow either win some states in the Deep South or Mountain West. The best thing you could hope for would be for no one to win a majority and throw the election to the House. But that doesn't seem like a good idea at all.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jul 7, 2006 2:01:00 PM

But wait! Nicholas! If the 2007 House is controlled by Dems, then Feingold could run as a third party candidate (to Hillary and McCain), and the newly majoritized Dems could select either HRC or Russ - whichever could get the most House votes.


I kinda like that idea. But wait! Feingold would take votes from HRC and then McCain might get an Electoral College majority. Life is so complicated....

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 7, 2006 2:28:04 PM

In my opinion, the ideology of a 3rd party candidate matters less than the candidate himself. However, a strong Dem or Repub is much stronger than a strong 3rd party candidate due to their natural advantage. All that said, what we all need is no more douchebags. I can't remember the last time I was actually inspired by a candidate in the general election. Thats pathetic.

Posted by: Adrock | Jul 7, 2006 2:28:19 PM

I don't like the notion of IRV, since it also does a little subversion of voters' will by the means it's calculated (Source) I'm a bigger fan of Condorcet or approval voting, since elections wherein voters rank preferences do some math voodoo.

Also, regarding the third parties we have in the country today: simply not viable election-winners on larger scales. Greens are ideologically opposed to corporate/PAC money, and Libertarians are likewise opposed to public funding. The financial system for US elections sucks, in part because it may as well have been designed to hamstring these two parties.

I feel that the future of successful third parties in America lies not in message content, but in message style - a party which wishes to have successs in the electorate must find a way of getting substantial numbers of non-voters to start voting. This is a matter of advertisement and approach, and have been exhibited in the campaigns of both Jesse Ventura and Kinky Friedman. I guess what I'm saying here: the future is Bill Hillsman.

Posted by: Jon O. | Jul 7, 2006 3:06:42 PM

What prevents sensible policy in this country is not any lack of "style" or the right candidate or extremism or whatever the hell else third-party lovers cite. It's corporatism, as instantiated in the current Republican party. Any third party would run into the same intransigence.

Posted by: Realish | Jul 7, 2006 4:27:17 PM

Jon O., thanks for the link. I read the post, and his complaints come down to: 1) it doesn't actually make it easier for third parties to achieve meaningful status; and 2) under a particular set of circumstances (which assumes a viable third party), results don't accurately reflect the desires of the voters.

Re 2): the scenario he outlines doesn't seem all that likely.

Re 1): great! Where's the downside? (Sorry, but I have no sympathy whatsoever for people who want a viable third party.)

A Condorcet system might well be a more accurate reflection of voter desires, but I don't see any serious effort to push it; IRV has some momentum behind it. IRV may not be perfect but it solves the spoiler problem, which is really the point.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jul 7, 2006 5:02:28 PM


Although the scenario outlined here doesn't seem particularly likely, it's also worth noting that that's mostly the fault of the labels he inserted in place of parties. Now, it's unlikely, in an IRV situation, that many Green votes will turn into Republican votes, or Constitution party votes turn into Democratic votes. At the same time, though, there are other parties where allegiances are a little more split (especially with the current troubles self-described libertarians have with the Republican party nowadays. And I'm talking actual libertarians, not the ones who shrugged off the Patriot Act.) Also, there have been some vague grumblings about centrist third parties recently (see Unity '08 and the Bull Moose blog), which admittedly to me taste like bitter medicine after the current bunch of fundamentalist conservatives, but regardless, are a possibility that we should consider the possibility of. If we're going to change to a new system, we need to know that that system will be able to handle what changes it provokes from the old system. IRV doesn't really solve the spoiler problem, though; it just does some math so the spoiler problem occurs in different situations.

Also, I don't understand why you have an issue with viable third parties. I can understand frustration towards the Green pary, sure - but splits are found in the conservative coalition as easily as in the liberals. Republicans would likely have to deal with not only the immediate threat of Libertarians (i.e. the money/idea conservatives) but also the slow growth of the Constitution and Reform parties (the God/isolationist conservatives.)

Posted by: Jon O. | Jul 8, 2006 1:07:09 AM

Douthat's dream platform certainly does seem unlikely to bowl 'em over in the peanut gallery, but who's more likely to blow up, Republicans or Democrats? And how likely is the post-Bush Republican party, which is slipping into more-or-less frank ethnic nationalism like an old sweater by way of the immigration issue, to stray far enough from illiberal populist nationalism to make space for an insurgent 3rd party on its right? They're more likely to cede space in the center.

Posted by: KH | Jul 8, 2006 1:16:55 AM

Jon O: I'm still not convinced that the problems with IRV are all that significant or likely to change any outcomes.

As for third parties, believe me--I would love to see a third party emerge on the right to take votes away from the Republicans. What I have no sympathy for is people who want a third party that reflects their own ideology. Like it or not, this is structurally a two-party system, and voting for a third party is just a refusal to make difficult choices.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jul 8, 2006 3:57:08 PM

Perot's run in '92 is the only way Clinton was able to win garnering only 43% of the votes. Without that third party, the conservatives would have taken over a lot earlier.

If there is to be any third party emerge, it will be because of the fractured Democratic party and not the Republicans. The Republicans are much more unified and on message. Democrats have drawn in every splinter group who champions only their own interests and not the interests of the Democrats as a whole.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jul 10, 2006 8:40:18 AM

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