Friday, November 17, 2006

Are Third Parties Useless or Even Harmful?

Phoenix Roberts, editor of the Utah Ledger (a self-proclaimed conservative publication) posts a somewhat spirited debate between himself and someone named Bud about the wisdom of supporting third parties here. Bud chides the Ledger for supporting Senator Orrin Hatch over Constitution Party candidate Scott Bradley, whom Bud believes is a true conservative.

Before going any further, let me provide a little history. The Constitution Party was founded in 1992 as the U.S. Taxpayers Party. Scott Bradley is the Director of Telecommunications at Utah State University. He was a member of the Utah Republican State Central Committee for five years before joining the CP and running for the US Senate.

Roberts’ main contention is that voting for a third party is fruitless and is, therefore, a worthless pursuit. He asserts that the two-party system in the US is a permanent fixture, and he implies that if you want to get anything done politically you must support candidates only from the two main parties.

Roberts is particularly unhappy with the CP, as he contends that on three close 2004 races, votes for the CP effectively became “the equivalent of 2 votes for a Democrat.” Roberts is so upset about this that he resorts to name calling. “You boneheads do more harm than good. You remind me of Merrill Cook.” Ouch.

On his side, Bud repeats the CP mantra (I have heard it enough to wonder if it’s a religious chant), “Abraham Lincoln was elected President on a third party ticket called the Republican Party.” Bud is technically, but not substantively correct. Yes, the Republican Party was a third party, but it was nothing like the CP.

Prior to the founding of the GOP the two main parties were the Democrats and the Whigs. The Democrats trace their roots to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but so do the Republicans. Following the dwindling of the Federalists (which more closely followed the precepts of Alexander Hamilton) to almost nothing, the Jeffersonians (Democratic-Republicans) were the only real party. This large party eventually developed two factions: those with a somewhat more populist bent, called Jeffersonian Democrats, and those that believed more in the strength of the republic, called Jeffersonian Republicans. By and by they became two parties, the Democrats and the National Republicans. The latter soon became the Whig Party.

Lincoln served one term as a Democrat Representative from Illinois in the US House. But as the issue of slavery began dividing the nation, it also began dividing political parties. In the early 1850s the Whig Party fractured “along pro- and anti-slavery lines.” There was less fracture in the Democratic Party, which held onto its power base among pro-slavery constituents, although, a number of Northern Democrats left the party. With the Whigs falling apart and the Democrats taking a clear pro-slavery stance, Lincoln, like many others, found himself with no party to which he felt he could belong.

In 1854, a coalition of anti-slavery advocates (including Whigs and Northern Democrats) formed the Republican Party. The party was tenuous at first, but it recruited famous explorer John C. Fremont to run as its presidential nominee in 1856. The party gained a great deal of popularity in the North. It is imperative to note that a number of then current office holders switched parties to join the new Republican Party. Also, a number of influential people, including those that could help fund the party, switched ranks. This new party lined up major supporters very quickly and won the presidency with Lincoln just six years after its birth.

The reason I disparage Bud’s comparison of the CP to the GOP is that the founding and running of the CP bears no resemblance to the founding and running of the GOP. The US has had smaller parties ever since the beginning of the party system. Some of these smaller parties have occasionally had flare-ups of popularity, and some have even been able to get candidates elected to certain posts. But these parties either remain too small to carry any political clout or their heydays are short lived and they quickly flare out, like Ross Perot’s Reform Party.

While the GOP was tenuous in its first few years, it was a major political force almost immediately. Whigs leaving their floundering party and anti-slavery Democrats needed somewhere to go, and the GOP was it. There were other third parties around at the time, but few of those leaving the Democrats and Whigs went to those parties. Why is that? Those other parties simply had limited appeal and/or didn’t get (or were incapable of getting) their message out.

Current third parties can flatter themselves into thinking that they are going to be the next big thing; that they’re just waiting in the wings for one of the two major parties to take a dive and then the world will beat a path to their door. But this is extremely unlikely. If they are attracting a small percentage of voters now, they will likely continue to do so unless they go the other way and disappear altogether.

Having said that, I disagree with Roberts on the usefulness of third parties. I believe that third parties have a valid role to play in American politics. They provide a haven for opinions that are poorly represented in the major parties. Roberts may think that his statistics show that CP members caused three GOP losses in ’04, but who is to say these people would have voted at all had the CP option not been available? Those that feel disenfranchised often express their vote by not voting. Third parties give them a valid way to vote their consciences.

Roberts says that “the first principal of political power is "You have none if you don't win elections."” Well, third parties rarely have a place at the table with the big boys, but that does not mean that they have no political power. Roberts himself asserts that they can help swing election results. Making their voice heard can help influence public policy, even if they’re not the ones doing the policy making.

I would not discourage anyone from voting for, starting, or joining a third party. I would simply encourage them to understand the realities of doing so. They should go into it with their eyes open rather than believing fables about the popularity and clout of the movement.

7 comments:

Jesse said...

I know all about the CP. I used to be a member and even briefly served as SL County Chair. The problem with the CP is that they're all principle and no policy. You can't squeeze a single position statement out the party and good luck trying to get one out of a candidate. All of the candidates for the CP that I could vote for decided that doing a copy/paste of the state platform was enough for their campaign.

Add to this their adversarial attitude. They don't want to work with members of other parties, they don't propose bills, they don't go to legislative hearings. They endlessly carp about how bad things are and give meaningless platitudes as the solution. They talk a lot, but they have nothing to show for it.

Does the CP hurt Republican candidates? Of course. Do they help themselves in the process? Absolutely not. They've proven that they're disgruntled malcontents and not much else.

Jettboy said...

I am torn with this. Part of me believes that both parties are not to be trusted; especially the Democrats ;) A third party sounds good if I can find one that is conservative and viable. Yet, I also feel that third parties that can't get elected are a waste of a good vote. Those who hear you are mostly those who agree with you.

As for people voting for third parties who might not vote at all, I am not sure of that. It would be nice to see any studies done to prove that. My own limited experience has been that is only partly true. These days the voting populace is so divided and the stakes so much on edge that third party candidates are a problem. What someone does with their vote is their concern. But, until the vote has actual power then the voice is muffled, and ignored as idiots shooting themselves in the foot.

Personally, I am more comfortable with a group that has an outspoken voice within the recognized powers. The best way to make change is to be directly involved with the power structures. Put forward your own candidates in the political parties.

If a particular Independant party was widely accepted and had even half a chance, I think they would be significantly relevant. Right now they are not. It isn't because people say they are not (at least two Democrat leaning Independents were voted in nationally), but because they really aren't. By the way, the current Independent wins show that an Independent movement can survive because they are tied to a current power structure, not because they are completely Independent. If they get enough attention, but are not accepted by the Party, then go Independent. That does beg the question if they are truely Independent.

Democracy Lover said...

The Republican Party was born, as you describe, from the collapse of the Whig Party. The only way we will have get another major political party in the US is if either the Republican or Democratic parties collapse. Barring that, we would need some serious changes to our electoral process - elimination of the Electoral College, Instant Run-Off Voting, publicly financed campaigns, etc. -- not likely.

Reach Upward said...

Good comments all. Thank you. Jesse, I agree that the CP comes across as a party of gripers without real world solutions. This will ensure that their numbers remain small.

As a point of disclosure, I must admit that I am registered as a Republican. However, I voted for candidates from three different parties in this election. Many of the GOP and Democrat candidates I voted for won their respective races. The third party candidates I voted for did not win, nor did I expect them to.

I studied the various issues and candidates and then made a choice in each race as to whom would most closely align with my positions and values. Although I am a registered Republican, I am not strictly a party voter. I understand the arguments in favor of voting along party lines, but I simply cannot bring myself to support some candidates simply because we share party affiliation or are from one of the major parties.

Consequently, in races where I felt uncomfortable with both major party candidates, I did vote for third party candidates. I felt it was a way to make my voice heard while remaining true to values I hod dear.

David said...

I really enjoyed your description of the place of third parties in American politics. It is an issue that I have thought a lot about and I think you hit the nail on the head, they have their place, but those who get involved with third parties should do so with their eyes open.

I also liked your disclaimer about being a registered republican and you description of how you voted in this last election. I have been registered as a republican, and a democrat at various times. I consider myself an independent and like you in this last election I voted for republican, democrat, and third party candidates. More importantly than such a varied voting record, I liked your comment: "I studied the various issues and candidates and then made a choice in each race as to whom would most closely align with my positions and values."

I think that all voters should take the time to cast an informed vote. That is the reason I have argued that we should eliminate the straight party ticket option on the ballot.

Thanks for another insightful post.

Alienated Wannabe said...

Scott, This was a fantastic article. Thank you for taking the time to compose it.

What books (or websites) do you recommend for good histories of our political parties?

This is a subject that fascinates me. I suscribe to the notion that we have a better chance of knowing where we are going if we take the time to learn where we have been.

Have you read NPR Commentator Kevin Phillips' book "The Cousins Wars?" He makes the case that essentially the same sides were fighting against one another in the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the U.S. Civil War.

Essentially, the Puritan movment won each of those conflicts, and their political descendants are the Labor Party (liberal) in England, and the Republican Party (conservative) in the United States--a beautiful irony.

It is a fascinating thesis. I am curious to hear you opinion concerning it.

Keep up the good work.

Sincerely,
Alienated Wannabe

Bradley said...

Thanks for the history lesson. I only knew that story very vaguely, so thanks for firming it up for me. I'm with David in thinking we should get rid of the straight party vote option. I also think that preference choice voting (mentioned by DL) is an election reform that we need. It allows people to vote for a 3rd party candidate without "throwing away their vote" because their vote will go to their second choice candidate if their first choice doesn't have enough votes to win. With computerized voting machines, this option is more viable than ever.