25 February 2010

The third-party delusion

Amidst all of the predictable incessant bitching about how the Democrats, in an entire thirteen months in power, have not yet managed to accomplish perfectly-easy tasks like completely pulling the economy out of the Bush recession, bringing peace to Afghanistan and Iraq, passing health reform, giving everybody in America a job, and generally delivering Utopia, we are starting to hear mutterings that the system is so broken and corrupt that a third party is needed.

Leaving aside the questions of whether American politics is in fact irredeemably corrupt and whether the Democrats have been under-achieveing -- neither is true -- who actually benefits from third-party talk? I speak here not of how things should be, but of how things are.

Our country has had lots of third parties in its history. There are lots of them right now. The number of them that have actually gotten anywhere is, shall we say, a round figure.

The only thing that a third party or third candidate has ever done is to tip an occasional election to the major party or candidate more opposite to itself. Perot tipped the 1992 and 1996 elections to Clinton, and Nader tipped the 2000 election to Bush. These examples, by the way, illustrate why the use of third-candidate votes to "send a message" to the system is a delusion. In practice, all that matters is who wins and assumes the office, not why they won. Did whatever "message" Perot's voters were trying to send have any impact during the Clinton Presidency? No, no more than the Nader voters' message made any difference during the Bush years. Clinton assumed the Presidency, and then Bush did. That was the only thing that mattered.

I would very much like to see a teabagger or other far-right party tip 2010, 2012, etc. our way. A third party on the left could not accom­plish anything except to empower Republicans in those years.

I see two-party dominance as a strength of the American system because it tames the fringes. In a completely proportional system such as (for example) Israel has, there is a hodgepodge of small parties in the legislature alongside the two big ones; every govern- ment has to be a coalition, and small parties can make exorbitant demands as a condition of joining one (thus, for example, small religious parties can impose religion-derived laws on a mostly-secular Israeli society).

Here, each of the two big parties is a coalition of groups which are forced to compromise with each other. Fringe elements can be heard in proportion to what their numbers warrant by becoming part of one coalition or another, but not to the extent of being too distracting to the political mainstream. Groups that aren't willing to compromise, and try to go the third-party route, get frozen out. If they do have an impact, the result is to benefit whichever of the two big parties is more opposite to themselves, as noted above. So small groups either work within the system and moderate their views, or work against it and get punished. Either way they can't force their own agenda on the mainstream, and radicalism is discouraged.

The Democratic party comes close to representing my own views on many issues. A party that came much closer probably wouldn’t be viable in the political mainstream. The political center on a lot of issues isn’t where we would wish it to be.

By far the biggest fringe group in the US is the Christian Right. When they became politically active 30 years ago, they gained some influence by joining the Republican coalition, and for a couple of decades the results seemed quite threatening, but the system mitigated the damage -- abortion remains legal, same-sex marriage is moving slowly forward, etc. If the fundamentalists had gone the third-party route in the American system, they'd have been frozen out and also bled off so many votes on the right that the Republicans could never have won anything -- it's too bad they were too smart to try that! But if the US had a proportional-representation system, and the Christian Right had gone the third-party route, they would have been the only large third party, and neither big party could ever have governed without forming a coalition with them, and secularism in this country might well have been wrecked by now. Certainly our social progress would have been seriously retarded, probably reversed.

If our country had proportional representation and third parties and candidacies were viable, people like Nader still wouldn't have much influence; the forces they represent are too few in numbers. It's the Falwells and Dobsons who would be empowered.

15 Comments:

Blogger TAO said...

Of course two parties isolates the extremes but then you also have to acknowledge, when asked the question, "...and how is Obama different than Bush..." that you are uncomfortable with the answer of "He isn't."

What changes between a democratic and a republican administration?

The special interests that benefit.

Trial lawyers, Oil Companies, defense contractors, health insurers, Wall Street, and the list goes on and on...

We have politics and policies being written by and for special interests and then you have to look at what the two parties are creating and ask yourself: How does this benefit me? How does this benefit the country?

Is repeal of DADT an extremist agenda?

Is running an economic policy that is fair to both Wall Street and Main Street an extremist agenda?

Is cap and trade, or a focus on being guardians of the environment an extremist agenda?

No not really...but to those with an economic interest it is.

Why has the support that the democrats enjoyed in 2008 disappeared? It wasn't because of extremist views...

If it wasn't for the anti war movement, and the civil rights movement, both of which were represented minority interests in this country, the Vietnam War and Civil Rights would never have come to the forefront....

While the extreme right only represents about 10% of the population they do control the debate today.....and they influence policy.

Without the same vocal protests on the left, without the threat from the liberals then the Tea Party and the Social Conservatives will cause both parties to tack to the right....

25 February, 2010 05:57  
Blogger Alessandro Machi said...

Not when both democrat and republican voters are disenfranchised.

Third party congressional candidates could have a huge impact this time around. You might want to research the most successful democratic president of the past 70 years, Bill Clinton, to see that Barack Obama has metamorphasized the democratic party into something not seen before.

One thing Mr. Clinton did was reduce his budget deficit each and every year he was in office.

If not now, when?

25 February, 2010 06:11  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Tao: that you are uncomfortable with the answer of "He isn't."

But only someone completely deklusional could come up with that asnwer.

What changes between a democratic and a republican administration?

Repeal of stem-cell research funding constraints, Sotomayor on the Supreme Court instead of another Scalia, Afghan war strategy based on actual knowledge instead of gut feelings and messages from God, end of official global-warming denialism, end of the stop-loss policy, end of official torture policy, serious chance of real health-insurance reform, serious chance of real re-regulation of Wall Street, etc.

Is repeal of DADT an extremist agenda?

Of course not. And I've been critical of Obama for not moving faster on that. But given the number of problems that Obama has had to deal with, it's not hugely surprising that it wasn't a top priority. It will be repealed this year.

Is running an economic policy that is fair to both Wall Street and Main Street an extremist agenda? Is cap and trade, or a focus on being guardians of the environment an extremist agenda?

No, those things are solidly mainstream positions within the Democratic party.

Why has the support that the democrats enjoyed in 2008 disappeared?

It hasn't disappeared. It has declined somewhat, as support for the party in power always does, especially when unemployment is this high.

The problems the Democrats are having getting stuff pased originate with Republican abuse of the filibuster. That problem is now being addressed. A lot more will get done this year.

the anti war movement, and the civil rights movement, both of which were represented minority interests in this country,

And which worked within the system. King regarded Johnson as an important ally. If the civil-rights movement had tried to form a third party, it would have achieved far less than it did.

While the extreme right only represents about 10% of the population they do control the debate today.....and they influence policy.

They influence policy, because they are part of the Republican coalition, thus proving my point. They certainly don't control the debate.

Without the same vocal protests on the left, without the threat from the liberals then the Tea Party and the Social Conservatives will cause both parties to tack to the right....

Which is why those vocal protests must be made as effective as possible by working as part of the Democratic coalition, rather than being wasted on a third party which would only drain off votes on the left and elect Republicans.

25 February, 2010 06:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

AM: Not when both democrat and republican voters are disenfranchised.

See my first paragraph. Not immediately getting everything you want doesn't constitute being disenfranchised.

Republican voters aren't disenfranchised. They lost the election.

Third party congressional candidates could have a huge impact this time around.

Yes, left-wing third-party candidates could tip seats to the Republicans, and right-wing ones could tip seats to the Democrats. Same as always.

You might want to research the most successful democratic president of the past 70 years, Bill Clinton, to see that Barack Obama has metamorphasized the democratic party into something not seen before.

I dislike a number of things about Obama, notably his excessive bipartisanship. I wanted Hillary to be President. It didn't happen. What am I supposed to do, sulk for four years?

One thing Mr. Clinton did was reduce his budget deficit each and every year he was in office.

Which is admirable, but he was able to do that because the economy was growing. Obama took office in the middle of a recession, which could easily have turned into a full-blown depression without the stimulus spending.

If not now, when?

When the recession is over.

25 February, 2010 06:47  
Blogger Holte Ender said...

Third parties, fourth and fifth parties, are pretty common in the European Democracies with coalition governments not unusual. But the bigger the country the more problems they have with it. I have lost track of the number of failed coalitions in Italy since WWII; the relatively small country of The Netherlands suffered a coalition government collapse just last week; the Lib/Lab Pact(1970s) in the UK was not a successful coalition, just a means of keeping the struggling Labour government in power.

Germany and the smaller Scandinavian countries have had relatively successful Red-Green alliances, what has helped those limited successes is a high voter turn-out and a well-educated, well informed electorate.

25 February, 2010 08:49  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

It probably also helps that the really dangerous fringe groups in European countries are very small, unlike our Christian Right. Imagine if the really militant Islamic fundamentalists made up about 10% of the population in, say, Britain or Germany. You'd much rather have them inside the big tent of one of the big parties than forming a third party of their own and holding the balance of power.

25 February, 2010 09:19  
Blogger TAO said...

Where is the healthcare reform? Where is the Wall Street Reform?

Iraq was winding down and still is....of course its becoming a vassal state for Iran...and Afghanistan is picking up....

Nothing has changed and I still stand by my first assertion that there is no difference in POLICY from a Democrat to a Republican...now one may be quite a bit a better executor of policy but the policies still the same.

By the way, I am not delusional...but I am not going to sit here and blind myself to reality by my own ideology because that makes one no different than ones opponent.

30 billion for small business vs 750 billion for Wall Street and small businesses generate over half our jobs...

Brillant, just brillant!

All I know is that Bush came to office and didn't have half the mandate that Obama had....

But yet he crammed more crap through Congress than Obama can even think of....

When I voted for a LIBERAL in 2008 that is exactly what I wanted...a Liberal.

Didn't get it so far....

If the democrats cannot produce true progressive policies that lead us to a more prosperous future then that is their business but I will go seek out a third party...

I want a democrat like FDR, and the democrats can't seem to find the guy....and they probably won't as long as they keep believing that they can get the votes by hovering in the center...

25 February, 2010 10:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Where is the healthcare reform? Where is the Wall Street Reform?

See the first paragraph of the post. There is a vast amount to get done. Both of those things are coming.

Nothing has changed

Bullshit. A lot has changed. I've mentioned several in my response above.

By the way, I am not delusional

Yes, you are, if you really believe what you're saying here.

But yet he crammed more crap through Congress than Obama can even think of....

I addressed this above. The reason the Democrats haven't been able to enact more of their agenda is that the Republicans have been abusing the filibuster in an unprecedented manner. To rectify this, the Senate rules will need to be changed.

When I voted for a LIBERAL in 2008 that is exactly what I wanted...a Liberal.

Like many people, you think the political center of gravity of the country is a lot closer to your own position than it actually is. Politics is the art of the possible.

I don't think you read the posting very closely, because you aren't addressing what it's about, which is third parties. Even if you find the Democrats unsatisfactory -- as I do in a number of ways -- my point is that reacting to this by supporting a third party will just result in Republicans winning elections.

We've already seen the consequences of that. Anyone who thinks it would have made no difference having Gore as President for the last eight years instead of Bush must be an illegal alien from Neptune.

25 February, 2010 10:43  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

This is actually a damn good posting in my opinion. Why? Because like it say's in the start ... something like .... it's not how it should or could be, it is like IT IS. That's the bottom line here .... actual "change" is inevitable .... however .... it doesnt come overnight, and with the way thing's are set up right now, there is alot of work to get done, so we will have to give in to a degree just to clean up alot of the mess. I have no doubt in my mind that the mindset will be very different several year's down the road .... but right now .... well .... it is what it is. You can either play in it .... or just walk away from it. I have been told as I have posted time and again .... that I am a fool for "voting" actually, but ... well .... I still do anywayz. So I admitted in a post that ..."Yes I do feel like a hypocrite, as several of those have asked me if I do for voting for the same people/ parties that I rant about". But .... that's just me .... I have alway's regardless of what I say .... have a record of voting for one of these two parties.

Thank You Mr.Infidel ....

25 February, 2010 12:44  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RC: Thanks. I imagine you know better than most people how necessary it is to deal with reality on its own terms. I get a little tired of people who seem to think that wanting something badly enough will make it possible.

25 February, 2010 13:06  
Blogger tnlib said...

Wonderful post. Actually I was getting ready to do something on third parties but it in no way would have been as good as yours.

When I voted for Obama, I wasn't looking for a saint or a messiah. I wasn't asking for or expecting perfection. I wanted someone who had the brain power to bring about change and move the country forward. I was not so naive as to think it would happen overnight. Politics doesn't work that way.

As you keep saying Infidel - but no one seems to be listening - the Republicans have done everything they can to make sure Obama fails. This at the expense of the American people for God's sake. I don't think there's been a president in the history of our country who has been stonewalled the way Obama has. Not FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Carter or Clinton.
Wonder if the color of his skin has anything to do with it.

Anyway, I'm gonna take my ball and go home. This game ain't going the way I want.

25 February, 2010 13:34  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks, TNLib. I do expect this year to be more productive than the last. The Senate Democrats finally seem to be absorbing the idea that they need to find a way to work around the filibuster, and Obama seems to be realizing that the Republicans -- maybe with sometime exceptions like Scott Brown -- won't respond to his bipartisan overtures.

As for brainpower, it would be hard to imagine a greater contrast than Obama and Bush.

I do hope that you meant that last paragraph sarcastically. We need people like you to stay involved. Let the cynics bug out, if they can't shut up.

25 February, 2010 15:06  
Blogger tnlib said...

Of course I was being sarcastic. Just making fun of the whiners.

25 February, 2010 16:02  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Good!

26 February, 2010 02:30  
Blogger magpie said...

Alternatively...
When fringe groups go the third party route, they can also self-destruct, or be called out for what they are and opposed by moderates or those further to the center.

Ironically this means they can be opposed most vociferously by those least dissimilar to them - for the latter have the most to lose from a split vote.

It was a coalition of two conservative parties in Australia that were most responsible for destroying a nascent far Right party over the last 10 years.

28 February, 2010 01:42  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home