July 14, 2004

On Third Partyism

A modest rebooting of this blog now that I’m back, on the recently discussed subject of whether it is a kind of infantilism to support political reforms in the U.S. to allow third parties to compete fairly at the polls.

The simple answer: it depends, but yes, often third-partyism is an infantilism, one I have been guilty of myself in the past. The basic problem with the most devout third partyists is that they either have woefully unrealistic models of the likely prospects of their own preferred third party or they lack any sense of a comprehensive alternative idea of political competition, and argue for third party competition as a purely ad hoc response to some particular dissatisfaction with the Republicans and the Democrats.

Greens or Libertarians, for example, probably would poll only marginally better in most cases than they do now after a breakup of the two-party duopoly. They might have regional strongholds that they’re denied now, and be able to send a few representatives to Congress or to state legislatures, but in Presidential races or even state-wide ones, I don’t see them being competitive for the forseeable future.

This is even more pressingly true for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Third-partyism here, especially in its Naderite form, really is a kind of head-in-sand wish-fulfillment scenario, a belief that progressive or left politics, once freed of its captivity to the Democrats, could be a powerful electoral force in general.

I would agree that a Democratic candidate who ran with some conviction and a strong sprinkling of populism might well be a roaring success with independents for the same reason that John McCain is, but that is a question of character: what is liked about such a politician is their honesty, their authenticity, not their ideology.

Stripped of a compensatory attraction due to the character of a candidate, a strongly left politics in most areas of the country would be a major electoral failure, and a simple third-party with a progressive character that was permitted to compete fairly within the present system would go nowhere, both on its own terms and in terms of its influence on the Democratic Party, which would probably move even further to the right in order to compete for the larger pool of independent voters rather than the small pool of hard-core progressive votes. As a voting base, progressives simply don’t compare in either fervor, geographic rootedness or numbers with the religious right, and can’t hope to accomplish what the religious right has in terms of seizing control over the Republican Party.

In conventional terms, the only third party that might benefit from a relaxation of the standard barriers to competition would be something like the Reform Party, a kind of independent-bloc soft libertarian party that could give a home to backers of McCain, Schwazenegger and other Republicans who don’t fit with the Bible Belt social conservatives who have seized control of the Republican Party whilealso drawing off some suburban Democrats and possibly working-class “Reagan Democrats” as well. If that’s what’s on offer, no, that’s not an infantilism, it’s a reasonable if unlikely third-party ambition—a parallel to the 19th Century formation of the Republican Party, a response to new social constituencies who found themselves effectively without any political party corresponding to their interests and outlook. The same may be true now for a variety of Americans, or it may not be true, but the most unrepresented American constituencies in this sense are not urban voters or rural ones, but instead the “swing” constituencies who are perpetually wooed by both parties but the bedrock voting base of neither. This is the only conventional “third-party” movement that I can see making any real political headway at this moment in American history.

Such a third party could also only succeed by first pursuing electoral success at the state level and in Congressional races and by placing reform of winner-take-all politics as its first and primary agenda. The more comprehensive and specific its alternative political platform was, the less headway it would make, as the most appealing parts of its agenda would be cherrypicked by the other two parties and electoral reform left quietly by the wayside. In a sense, this party would have to enter the political system by agreeing to back the agenda of either of the other parties in exchange for systematic reform of the current electoral system to create a level playing field, in a very conscious process of horse trading. That mission accomplished, the new party could then begin to flesh out an independent political platform of some kind. This is quite evidently not the strategy being pursued by Ralph Nader, now or in 2000, nor is it the strategy that any of the third-party Presidential candidates of previous years have pursued.

Third-partyism also makes some degree of sense if it’s articulated as a comprehensive program of political change designed to transit American politics to a more parliamentary mode, with many parties that have narrow ideological or political agenda and serve highly particular constituencies. This is a comprehensive change, rather than the normal argument for one or two “third parties” through minor tweaking of winner-take-all voting or reforming ballot-qualification requirements. This is not what most third-partyists in the United States seem to be arguing for, possibly because most people recognize that this particular reform is far from self-evidently desirable.

I used to think that a greater degree of ideological “sharpness” in our political system would be a good thing, but that seems far less desirable to me now: I don’t want to have to choose between two exaggeratedly single-view philosophies. A parliamentary politics with many, many parties seems an even more unsatisfactory halfway house between republicanism and direct democracy than our present system. I’d rather vote for a representative who strikes me as rational and fair-minded, even one who takes positions different from my own, than have to choose from a diversely sectarian menu and so divide my own political beliefs into fragments.