02 January 2008|
Two Is Enough
Why Third Parties Should and Will Always Fail in America
1. America's electoral system will always preserve its two party system
Duverger's Law is proven axiom of political science that states that a plurality electoral system, such as in America, tends to create a two-party system. By extension, only proportional representation systems (such as those in place in Europe), are conducive to the development of multiple parties.
The logic of Duverger's Law is as follows. In American political races, because only one candidate can be declared the winner, a high percentage of the vote, naturally, must be won in order to become elected. Most of the time it means 51%. In the Western European proportional representation system, by contrast, parties can receive as little as 5% or 10% of the vote and still receive seats in legislatures and appointments in cabinets.
Clearly, the thresholds for victory in the two systems are very different. When a party needs only 5-10% support to win office, as in Europe, it's easy to win. Naturally, voters are more willing to more cast votes for third parties because the probability of their success is so much higher, which is because they can win positions without being substantially popular.
In the plurality system, the difficulty of gaining the requisitve 51% to win generally allows only two parties develop as legitimate political players. Everything else is just throwing away a vote.
It is for this reason, and not the fault of corporations, lobbyists, unions or politicians, that America will never see a third party achieve long-term success. Certaintly, resurgent parties can become so large that they push out one of the two existing major parties, as the Republicans did in the 19th century. But such a situation is highly unlikely today, and they will never last in third-party opposition.
2. It's not bad: Two dirty politicians are better than fourteen
It is tempting for many readers to observe the futility of third party success under the American plurality system and clamor for America to implement a proportional representation system. Some even clamor for this in public discussion. However, this would be inappropriate, in addition to being unconstitutional, for several reasons.
First, third parties breed polarization. In Western Europe, where multi-party systems are the norm, neofascist parties, communist parties, ethnic parties and separatist parties not only exist, but win seats in legislatures. Once there, they generally waste valuable public resources by soiling the legislative process with their misguided idealism in the pursuit of discredited ideologies. When they are not casting protest votes and engaging in other such exercises in uselessness, they are abandoning their principles to form strategic alliances, merely to gain power. Their lasting impact is obviously harmful, and bad enough in the generally homogenous and relatively small countries of Europe. Were proportional representation introduced in the highly diverse, gigantic melting pot of America, however, the results would be disastrous.
In Europe, votes are cast for, and seats are won by, a myriad of parties dedicated to minority interests - even single-issue parties. Imagine the American voting blocs who could form successful political parties, simply by their ability to garner mere 5% of the vote in elections and thus win seats in Congress. The NAACP, Greenpeace, teachers unions, AFL-CIO, NOW, AARP, and the NRA immediately come to mind, and the full list is enormous. Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics would certainly form at least one party each to represent their ethnic interests, which they feel are well-worth the heavy hand of the US government. The Religious Right would have a party in order to institutionalize its theocracy, as would the Catholic Church for perhaps different reasons. It is not far-fetched to imagine that large and politically-unique states like California or Texas would form local-interest national parties, as well, ad infinitum. Needless to say, this is something no American wants, especially those who claim to dislike the political power of special interests.
It is understandable to express regret at the bilateral polarization of American politics. But it is certainly better than multilateral polarization, where nearly nothing would be able to be achieved. Gridlock would be epic, as the interest groups would themselves become the parties. Thank the framers of the Constitution for saving us from this potential mess.
It is also ironic that those who find the current state of political affairs disgusting are the ones who clamor for third parties. Yes, the two parties are full of dirty opportunists. So why would you want more of them?
3. Third parties tend to be extremist, polarizing and/or pointless
Libertarianism, the political position forwarded by this fine organization, is in good political shape. The percentage of the public identifying itself as libertarian (calling themselves "socially liberal and fiscally conservative") is up to 20%, now barely trailing liberals (24%) and conservatives (27%). Libertarian support is highest among well-educated voters, yet is still spread evenly across demographic groups. During the 2004 election, 17 million Kerry voters didn't agree that government should do more to solve the country's problems, and 28 million Bush voters supported gay marriage. Most of these voters are likely libertarians who are frustrated with their lack of alternatives.
Despite this potential support, the Libertarian Party achieves nothing close to electoral success. Why? Despite the aforementioned institutional obstacles, the LP's general philosophy still enjoys widespread popularity. It's close to enough to overtake the liberals (the Democratic Party postion) and conservatives (The Republican Party position) in popularity. So why do they still fail to even win 2% of the vote? Shouldn't they at least be pulling 10-20%?
The answer is because they, like most third parties, tend toward extreme positions. The reason for this is simple. If they don't offer a stark alternative to the GOP or Democrats, they offer little appeal. Why would anyone risk wasting a vote for a unproven third party loser whose policies aren't substantially different than a proven major party?
So the LP doesn't frame itself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. It doesn't talk about how moderate and reasonable it is. It doesn't talk about how libertarianism is an amalgamation of the best ideas from the Republicans and Democrats, and the ideals of most Americans. It goes for the extreme. It says "Get government out of your life," "Privatize welfare," "Evacuate Iraq now," and other similarly wild positions. And it thus dooms itself to failure.
But all is not lost for the libertarian orphans...
4. The two parties pander to the new movements, making third parties superfluous
So what happens to new political movements, if they can't form third parties? Easy. In the US, they just end up being adopted by one (or sometimes both) of the two major parties.
This is the main advantage of the two party system - in the long run, neither party stands for anything.
The Republicans went from the most popular party among blacks to being called plantation owners by blacks; they went from being anti-big business Progressives to being pro-corporate interests; and they went from the party of limited government to the party of interventionism and moralist legislation. The Democrats went from the party of racist Southern slaveowners and Jim Crow aficionados to affirmative-action and quota-loving race-baiters; they went from interventionists to isolationists in military policy; and they went from a Keynesian spending philosophy to an affection for balanced budget amendments.
Whether they are pandering to the Civil Rights Movement or the Christian Right, they are both after nothing but political success. All Karl Rove and James Carville want for their respective parties is to gain the support of large groups of voters, and they'll gladly adjust their candidates' platforms to do so. This is not, as many think, a bad thing.
The libertarians, when they are finally successful in attracting a solid political community (read: a reliable voting bloc), will be courted by one or both of these parties. As a result, libertarians will then be able to directly influence legislation - the holy grail of all political movements.
Who will act first? Libertarians were once highly respected members of the Republican ranks. Milton Friedman and Ron Paul are past examples of popular Republicans with libertarian sympathies. However, this courtship dissolved after 9/11, the war on terror, and the specter of gay marriage evaporated the Republican tolerance for social liberalism.
Libertarians were never popular among Democrats, but may potentially be in the future. Bill Clinton's crypto-libertarian Third Way, promoting subjects thought sacriligious among liberals such as free trade, globalization, and welfare reform, was the Democrats' most politically-successful strategy since they rode World War II. Should they recognize the intelligence in this position, and the libertarians who espouse it, they may paradoxically beat the GOP to the libertarians' side.
Which of the parties will end up first pandering to the nascent libertarian movement remains to be seen. But it should not be the concern of the libertarians themselves, nor any of our fellow political movements looking for an institutional home. History is instructive. Once full popularity of a movement is achieved, the parties pander accordingly.
5. Independent organizations can do the work
While we consider conservatism to be inextricably tied to the Republican Party, it was not always that way. In the 1940s and 1950s, conservatism was a dead movement comprised of a handful of septuagenarian anti-communists. William F. Buckley changed that. His magazine, National Review, became the vanguard of a movement which would slowly gain the public support necessary to regain control of the Republican Party. In 1964, conservative Barry Goldwater was trounced running on a platform nearly identical to the editorial positions of National Review. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected in a landslide running on a platform nearly identical to the editorial positions of National Review. That's how it's done.
Decades earlier, the liberals achieved a similar impact. Before the 1930s, socialist policies were viewed as disgusting and unconstitutional in free-market America. But thanks to the writing and advocacy of The Nation and The New Republic, the socialists were able to attract a groundswell of support for regulation, extortionate taxation, nationalization, and other gems they borrowed from the Bolsheviks. This support (thanks to its American rebranding as "liberalism" instead of socialism) eventually inspired the New Deal. And thus, the lasting nuptual between the Democrats and socialism was born.
It's best to remember that parties don't adopt new movements out of ideology. They adopt them out of strategy - when they can win elections by adopting them. It's up to us libertarians to get us there.
The above work is the opinion of The Prometheus Institute.