Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Post-Election Thoughts: Third Party Failure

Less than 1 percent of all voters in this presidential election voted for a third party candidate. As I have often noted, third parties attract few actual voters except for extraordinary situations. And in those instances the movements are short lived. And don’t give me the tripe about how the GOP was once a third party. I’ve covered that ground many times previously.

The fact is that for most of the history of this nation, there have only been two major parties at any given time. The question is why this is so. While it is true that the two major parties work hard to disenfranchise any would-be competitors and to keep the public focused on issues of their choosing, this cannot be the most significant reason for paltry third party support.

Politics is unavoidably a game of power and everyone knows it. People tend to vote for the candidates that are most likely to win. Psychologists know that almost all voters will usually go for the most viable candidate that seems to be closer to his/her own value system over a ‘more principled’ stance of voting for an unserious candidate merely to send a message. People play the politics game to win. Being a sideline heckler in the game simply doesn’t appeal to most people.

Thus, third parties face the significant problem of having to fight against human nature. On very rare occasions, a third party has tapped into an unmet desire among the voting populace, and has offered a well organized, well financed candidate. Such candidates often influence the debate, but they rarely win. And when they do win they have no support system. They end up either becoming pariahs or becoming de facto members of one of the major parties.

So, as much as some would like to see more third party vibrancy to address the problems inherent in our two-party system, that’s a major uphill battle. I can’t say that this will never change, but historical precedent suggests that it is unlikely.


Anonymous said...

I think you're right about wanting to vote for a semi-acceptable viable candidate rather than a more acceptable non-viable candidate. When Ralph Nader gave us GWB, the actual risk of "principle" voting was driven home.

Rob Latham said...

The plurality electoral system is a significant barrier to the viability of non-incumbent party candidates.

See Duverger's Law.

The incumbent parties know this, and thwart efforts to democratize elections in the U.S.A. and break up their duopoly with "bipartisan" redistricting commissions, restrictions on campaign financing, and other diversions.

To learn about meaningful electoral reforms, go to the web site of FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy.

FairVote recognizes that the more representative and competitive, multi-party electoral systems that the U.S. government implemented in the new democracies of Afghanistan and Iraq will come about at home more quickly at the local level.

Two electoral reform measures that hold promise for non-incumbent parties passed in the 2008 general election in Memphis, TN (Referendum 5) and Telluride, CO (Question 202).

Speaking from the libertarian perspective, some libertarians are working for political change within the GOP through the Republican Liberty Caucus.

Other libertarians are working for political change within the Democratic Party through the Democratic Freedom Caucus.

And, of course, some libertarians are working for political change through the Libertarian Party, or choosing not to be politically engaged at all but focusing on social change strategies.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Rob, FairVote is interesting, but I'm not how well instant runoff voting would be accepted among the public. There is a possibility that the winner could have been nobody's first choice.

The Utah GOP has used instant runoff voting at its state convention and it has mostly worked OK in that forum. But everyone there is highly motivated and politically involved. To the average American, the results of IRV could seem rather convoluted.

Another idea is to make the House of Representatives more representative, as envisioned by our founders (see my post on this issue). This could mean that we would have as many as 7,500 representatives in the House.

If each electoral vote corresponding to a house district were then tied to the presidential candidate that prevailed in that district, while the electoral votes corresponding to each senate seat remained with the presidential candidate that won the state, we'd see a massive change in the way we elect presidents.

Of course, I'm not expecting any changes this dramatic to occur. But it's nice to dream.

Charles D said...

I think most Americans could understand IRV. They seem to be astute enough in math to play fantasy football and keep track of sports scores so a simple 1,2,3 should not be a challenge.

There are 3 things we need to do if we were serious about breaking up the two-party duopoly on power: Instant Runoff Voting, federally financed campaigns, and federal control of the national election process. None of these things will happen because only beneficiaries of the duopoly are in a position to enact them.

Now if I were in charge (which I'm sure you glad is not the case), I would abolish the Electoral College and the Senate and add a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote and have your vote counted.