28 November 2017

Some observations on minor parties

I recently watched the video below, which assesses how increasing the influence of third parties in US politics might change things:

A better term might actually be "minor parties", since in fact the US already has a variety of such parties beyond the big two.  The choice of term matters.  Advocates of a specific hypothetical new party like to call it a third party because that makes it sound like a unique alternative to the big two; in fact our politics is already crowded with such would-be challengers.

One obvious point is that we don't have to theorize -- we can learn a lot from the experience of other countries that do have minor parties with substantial power. Israel's political system, which doesn't divide the country into constituencies, is very conducive to small parties winning a few seats in the Knesset. What this means in practice is that small crackpot parties can hold the whole country hostage because they hold the balance of power between the big two. That's how, for example, small religious parties have been able to impose certain religion-based laws on an overwhelmingly secular society.

In Germany there are three or four minor parties that sometimes get as much as 12% of the seats in the Bundestag. Somewhat as the video predicts, this creates paralysis because two or three parties have to be able to form a coalition to function. Germany just had a national election and may be forced to hold another one soon because no one can agree on a workable coalition. The UK almost ran into the same problem after its last election.

The US system does have advantages. Any political force that wants to win a share of power must become part of one of the two major parties. This forces moderation of extremist views since they have to be able to cooperate with the other factions within that party. Such a group that insists on forming an independent party of its own (like the Greens and Libertarians) never wins any position of real power because the system creates such high barriers to entry for small parties. This means that people who can't compromise get frozen out, which is a good thing.

Also, it's not true that the US system prevents anything from getting done. The Democrats passed Obamacare, for example. If you want to get ideas translated into action, the way to do that is to work for a supermajority for the party you favor, not waste time on minor parties which will never get anywhere.

The reason the Republicans can't get anything done (thank goodness), despite controlling the whole government, is that they are too factionalized into groups that don't want to compromise -- that is, parts of their party function de facto like minor parties. So, for example, they couldn't repeal Obamacare because different factions had irreconcilable demands on exactly how it should be done. And their majority in the Senate is too small to overcome this problem.

Trump actually resembles the video's scenario of a minor-party President. He ran as a Republican, but he's far from a conventional one. Having alienated many Republicans, he doesn't have much actual base of support in Congress and may well end up being impeached because of that.

I suppose a minor party might grow to major size if it embodied some oddball position neither of the big parties does (pro-choice, nationalist, and anti-affirmative-action, for example, as the video says Perot's supporters were), but I think it's unlikely. There are too many different "oddball" positions like that for any one of them to command broad support. You'd end up with several "Perot" parties, not just one. And even if it were just one, it would still just end up draining off votes from whichever big party it most resembled, handing victory to the other.

Most people understand this. I'm "oddball" in the eyes of some in that I agree with the Democrats on most issues but am strongly pro-gun, pro-Israel, and not sympathetic to out-of-control immigration. But even if there were a minor party with exactly that combination of positions, I wouldn't encourage people to support it. It would simply drain off votes from the Democrats and help the Republicans. We have to deal with the system the way it really is.

The true effect of minor parties in the US is straightforward.  Minor parties on the right are good because they divide the conservative vote and help Democrats win.  Minor parties on the left are bad because they divide the liberal vote and help Republicans win.  I don't anticipate that they will ever have any other substantive effect.

I found the video above in this post on Crazy Eddie's Motie News, and most of my post here is adapted from a comment I left there.

7 Comments:

Blogger Harry Hamid said...

I've been involved with local third party politics for years. For the most part, I've stopped talking about it with my Democratic friends.

I do take their advice to be "practical" with my voting at times, and it seems to me that ANY political movement starts on the local level, so I concentrate on that.

But there have been times when my NOT voting for the Democrat has been a must.

First, the Democrats didn't run candidates at all in about half of the races here for much of the last decade (seriously - races for statewide office in which there was one candidate on the ballot, or a Republican and one third party candidate).

Second, there are Democrats I cannot vote for. Just can't do in good conscience.

I'm likely never going to call myself a Democrat. But I'll vote for them when theyd eserve it (and sometimes when they don't). I'll vote Green when possible. Libertarian when I have to. And Republican when I know a local judge and want to see them back on the bench.

I guess that's sort of called being an Indiependent. I don't know.

29 November, 2017 04:58  
Blogger Daniel Wilcox said...

Strong points on the danger of multi-party systems such as Israel (where I lived for a short time; I weekly follow their often rapid changes, new parties springing up, old ones fading away).

However, I'm done beyond done (to allude to a famous John Donne poem:-) when it comes to the two party system of the U.S.

Because of our system, I seldom have anyone to vote for (that has any chance of even placing, let alone winning). In the last 50 years, in fact, most of the time I have to write in a candidate because the only choice is between tweedle-dee Democrat and tweedle-dum Republican, neither of which offer substantive changes.

Both parties supported the Vietnam War, and many other recent wars, both parties supported the first-strike Middle East war, both parties support the current 7 wars the U.S. is fighting supporting Islamic regimes and Islamic jihadists, both parties support the massive bloat of excessive government, both parties support the massive deportation of impoverished refugees (look at the bad record of Obama, and now Trump:-( etc.

Besides, I'm not a Democrat or a Republican.

I wish I lived in a country such as Israel (where, true, sometimes tiny parties attain excessive influence), BUT at least I can vote knowing that my vote may make a difference!

Here in the U.S. the chance of Bernie Sanders or a Green Party candidate winning are almost nil.

I'm left of Bernie, and Bernie got left out, and I got left over;-)

And with the electoral college system, my wife and my vote (and millions of others') was about as effective as burying the ballots in our backyard;-)

29 November, 2017 08:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Harry: I could vote for a Republican if the Republican were actually a better candidate than the Democrat. These days that's vanishingly unlikely, though.

Refusing to vote for a not-good-enough Democrat increases the probability of the even-worse Republican winning. That's all the effect it has. There are some cases where a Democrat would be very difficult to vote for (for example, if he opposed abortion rights, as some Democrats do). I don't know what I'd do if I were facing a choice like that, but pretty much always, the Republican would still be worse. The proper place to deal with non-good-enough Democrats is in the primaries.

What matters is practical consequences. My standing around oozing with pure conscience and moral satisfaction because I didn't vote for that not-good-enough Democrat doesn't mean jack to the person who loses their health insurance, food stamps, minimum-wage increase, or whatever because I and a bunch of other people did that and let the Republican get elected.

Some minor-party supporters seem to think that making the Democrats lose elections this way will force them to move further left and therefore serves a practical purpose. It doesn't work, though. Practical politicians know that (a) moving as far left as such ideological purists want would lose them even more votes in the political center, and (b) it's pretty much impossible to satisfy the purists anyway -- they'll always find some reason why whatever is on offer isn't good enough. It makes more sense to write off the purists and try to compensate by appealing more to the political center.

Nobody remembers or cares what Ralph Nader thought he was trying to do in 2000. All that matters is that he helped Bush become President instead of Gore.

29 November, 2017 09:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Daniel: As I've said before, I think anyone who can look at the Bush II and Trump administrations and still swallow this "both parties are alike" thing is beyond hope. Democrats established the ACA and the CFPB, Republicans are trying to destroy them. Democrats have at least some record of protecting the environment, Republicans openly side with toxic polluters. Democrats are trying to fight global warming, Republicans deny it even exists. Obama established DACA, Republicans are trying to get rid of it. Democrats established what safety net the US has. Republicans keep trying to cut it back to pay for more tax cuts for the wealthy. And on and on.

The Electoral College is a huge flaw in our system, but we need to support a practical strategy for dealing with it, not use it as an excuse to not vote.

There is a lot wrong with the Democratic party, but the way to respond to that is to change it from within. Bernie Sanders's Presidential run is a good example of this. If he'd run as an independent, he'd have split the liberal vote and guaranteed that a Republican would win even without the Electoral College and Russian sabotage, and ultimately he'd have accomplished nothing. By running as a Democrat, even though he didn't win, he mobilized a lot of people to push for the agenda he wanted within the party.

I suspect that those "substantive changes" you want, like a lot of the changes I want, are things that can't be enacted now because they're generally considered too radical and don't have enough support. Progress is achieved step by step, not by trying to jump to the end when we're not close enough to succeed. For example, 100 years ago gay marriage would have been unachievable, and any energy spent fighting for it would have been wasted. But getting women the right to vote was achievable, so progressives wisely focused on that, and got it done. Universal health coverage wasn't politically doable in 2009, so the Democrats passed the ACA, which at least expanded coverage and got us closer to the point where universal coverage will be achievable. You hammer in the wedge narrow end first. If Obama had listened to the yelling and screaming purists and insisted on single payer or something else that didn't have enough support to pass at the time, we'd have gotten nothing.

I have a lot of problems with Bernie Sanders. He gives short shrift to racial problems and to most non-economic issues. He's rather a utopian and ideological purist himself and would probably have a lot of trouble getting much passed in Congress because he wouldn't be willing to compromise and take the half loaf he could get instead of the whole loaf he dreams of. I'm not sure he's knowledgeable about foreign policy or has the right instincts for national security. But if we somehow had another election tomorrow and he were the Democratic candidate, I'd vote for him without a millisecond of hesitation over Trump or any Republican, because at his worst he'd be light-years better than any of them.

29 November, 2017 09:47  
Blogger Rational Nation USA said...

Good post Infidel. It caused me to recall a situation my maintenance manager told me about 25 years ago.

Joe was one of three selectman in the small town in MA where he lived. The other two selectman almost never agreed and fought like cats and dogs. Joe ran the town!

29 November, 2017 15:05  
Anonymous PsiCop said...

Re: "I'm 'oddball' in the eyes of some in that I agree with the Democrats on most issues but am strongly pro-gun, pro-Israel, and not sympathetic to out-of-control immigration."
If those things make you an "oddball" then there are at least two of us "oddballs" out there.
Re: "As I've said before, I think anyone who can look at the Bush II and Trump administrations and still swallow this 'both parties are alike' thing is beyond hope." Although unlike many gun advocates, I recognize the opening clause of the Second Amendment (i.e. about the need for a "well-regulated militia") is meaningful, yet has been vociferously ignored by both sides.
Well, of course there are differences between the parties! But ... there is a lot of overlap. A ton of it. Daniel Wilcox pointed out a bunch of things they had/have in common. Another is their reaction to the '07/'08 credit/banking crisis. Neither party did anything to hold any of the parties involved accountable for their actions. No, both parties actually worked together to patch things over and keep everything moving along as though nothing had ever happened, even though something catastrophic (in financial and economic terms) absolutely had happened.
The bottom line is, both parties are beholden to many of the same powerful, monied interests. To contend otherwise is foolish. Those powerful, monied interests are essentially above the law because of that. Let me know when either of them decides to take them on ... then I might get onboard with them. Until then I remain an erstwhile GOP activist who is absolutely done with either party (because neither of them are the least bit interested in promoting my interests).

29 November, 2017 18:12  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Rational: Thanks. It sounds like Joe was the more pragmatic and sensible of the team -- something which is rarely the case with minor parties, unfortunately.

PsiCop: I find that particular "oddball" combination of views more consistent than their opposites (Israel is probably the only place in the Middle East where I'd be safe if people knew I was an atheist, for example).

Yes, the parties have commonalities, but there are very important differences, of which I cited several, and they almost all favor the Democrats. Real people suffer, millions of them, when other people act above-it-all and don't vote, and Republicans win as a consequence.

I do get a sense that, as with my earlier posts on things like Brexit and life extension, most people posting negative comments have barely even read the post. Certainly they rarely respond to specific points made in it.

30 November, 2017 08:47  

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