The Third Party Delusion

Courtesy: Phoenix New Times

Americans are trying to go in two different directions simultaneously when it comes to third parties. 46% of respondents in a September 2012 Gallup poll supported the idea of a third party in American politics. Yet, a few weeks later on Election Day, over 98% of Americans voted for either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, despite a variety of alternative candidates. From these two statistics, we can deduce that many in the United States are eager to see a third party change the political landscape, but are unwilling to support third parties already in place. Americans often blame the two party system for the current gridlock and grand-standing, but they vote as if nothing is wrong. With the rise of Internet politics and growing dissatisfaction with the political establishment, the conditions for launching a successful third party have never been better. Yet, for whatever reason, third parties just seem to spoil elections for one major party, only to give victory to the other party (see Ralph Nader 2000). And so, amid heightened calls for an alternative political group, we must ask a basic question: Are Americans delusional about the prospects of a third party?

Whoever thinks that the Republican Party is not conservative enough on economic issues can always vote for Libertarian candidates. And for those who feel that the Democratic Party isn’t progressive enough, there’s the Green Party. It seems that there are large groups of the voting population that are right of mainstream Republicans or left of mainstream Democrats. Yet, the available alternatives, the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, can boast of only 142 and 133 elected officials nationwide, respectively. These two political alternatives are both ideologically estranged from the mainstream, and in this way they represent typical third parties. David Weigel of Slate writes that “historically, when a third party’s won double-digit support, it’s been explicitly right-wing…or explicitly left-wing.” So, we can see why third parties have generally failed up to this point: they are too radical to connect with mainstream voters.

The next potential area for a third party to grow would be in the ideological middle, neither far left nor far right. Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan recently wrote a book called The Centrist Manifesto, in which he proposes that the election of around five moderate, Centrist senators could force the America’s government back into the “rational middle.” Here’s how he explains his strategy:

“The first few Senate elections will be expensive, brutal slogs. Still, a national Centrist Party, mobilizing an entire country of moderate voters fed up with the current gridlock, can beat back the stale political status quo.”

While I wish Mr. Wheelan’s predictions would become reality, I can’t help but disagree with some of his underlying assumptions. One such assumption is that independents, once given a rational alternative, would rush away from the two major parties, and towards a moderate party. People who don’t associate with one particular party are not politically neutral, as Ray Teixeira argued in Think Progress:

“As numerous studies have shown, the overwhelming majority of Americans who describe themselves as ‘independent’ lean towards one party or the other. Call them IINOs, or Independents In Name Only.”

Clearly, the middle is not as hospitable to a third party as Wheelan or others assume. Also, the ideological fringes have not taken advantage of the alternatives made available to them. It seems obvious that most Americans want the kind of political change that they believe third parties can offer. It also seems obvious that alternative parties are not the best means to achieve this change. So, where do we go from here?

Rather than introduce a moderate third political party, and leave the two major parties as they are, we should strive to move both parties towards the middle, and leave the idea of a third party alone. After all, what’s the  god of having a candidate directly in the middle, when the two radical opponents still have the best chance of winning? No, we should instead work within the existing party system, and we will have more success. Here’s an example: the group “Americans Elect” held an independent primary to nominate an alternative presidential candidate in 2012. AE raised around $22 million, but couldn’t decide on a nominee. Money wasted. Those millions of dollars could have instead been used to promote moderate Republicans and Democrats in their respective primaries, a “counter Tea Party” of sorts. Instead, the money didn’t change the political environment at all.

The “Americans Elect” story serves to show that the money is there for alternative approaches to radicalism on either side. A May Gallup poll also shows that political support for moderate social and economic views is increasing in both parties. Here’s a thought: if independents really wanted more moderate choices in elections, they wouldn’t just start a third party with the odds stacked against its success. They would register as Republican or Democrat! That way, primaries would no longer consist of “I’m-more-radical-than-you-are” contests; they would actually be means of producing two more moderate candidates! So, even though the idea of a third party sounds pleasing to many of us, it just hasn’t worked. However, moderate uprisings within both parties could very well happen. And they could very well work.


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