July 14, 2004
On Third Partyism
A modest rebooting
of this blog now that Im 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
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 theyre 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 dont 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
dont compare in either fervor, geographic rootedness or numbers with the
religious right, and cant hope to accomplish what the religious right
has in terms of seizing control over the Republican Party.
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 dont 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 thats whats on offer, no, thats
not an infantilism, its a reasonable if unlikely third-party ambitiona
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 its 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 dont 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. Id 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.