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.