I got a heckuva' lot of questions this fall about the magic and the mysticism of third parties in the United States. People are fired up about third parties this year and they want to know some really important things:
Why weren't third parties more prominent this year, especially given how unpopular the candidates are?
What would it take for a viable third party to form?
Why do people never bitch about the need for a third party until the waning days of an election?
Are third parties even viable in the American political system?
All wonderful questions, all inter-related, and thus I'm going to tackle them in one post, step-by-step. Put on your safety belts - it is going to be a bumpy ride.
To understand the American party system one first has to understand the institutional arrangements that constitute the American electoral system. You see, the United States government, in all Federal and most state and local institutions, conducts elections using the first-past-the-post model. This means that the United States uses a simple plurality measure - whoever gets the most votes in a given electoral contest wins - like a horse race, in which it doesn't matter if the horse that crosses the line first does so by a nose, a length, or a lap, the outcome for both the winner (and the losers) is the same.
This has a chilling effect on the number of viable parties - since there are no benefits (in other words, representation in office) for coming in second, third, fourth, etc., there is a strong impulse for parties to form into coalitions of broad interests - what we call umbrella parties, that contain a substantial variety of different ideological and factional groups which, under different electoral rules, might form their own parties. These umbrella parties have a compelling reason to seek as broad a coalition as is possible - anything less than the largest coalition means electoral failure. This is, of course, reinforced by voters who, themselves, are rational folks, and who realize that voting for a party that cannot win is, by definition, a losing proposition - encouraging them to vote for their least-worst option among the two biggest (and generally only) umbrella parties in their government, thereby reinforcing the umbrella tendency from the other side of the ballot box.
The founders, by the by, knew this would happen - they knew that the effect would be to generate parties which were not single faction parties but large enough conglomerations that they would become moderate and clumsy - in other words not ideologically inclined to radical change, nor efficient enough to engage in rapid tyrannical consolidation of power.
The American umbrella, bipartisan system is further reinforced by our Electoral College. Most states (all except Maine and Nebraska) award all their electoral votes to whichever candidate captures the plurality of the vote in their state - this makes it easier to guarantee a national winner is elected with majority of electoral votes and it has the same moderating, inefficiency generating effect of a standard first-past-the-post system, though amplified and reiterated.
This is all further amplified by the gradual passing of laws, both at the Federal and state levels, in which election funding and ballot presence is a foregone conclusion for parties that had a previous large presence in elections (inevitably, then, the umbrella parties) but not in the instance of parties with little or no presence in earlier elections - an effect that is, therefore, reflexive and self-sustaining.
Put simply, our political system is designed, both at the Constitutional level (with the best intentions) and in the electoral laws (with the best intentions for the Democratic and Republican parties) to retain and reinforce the two-party system.
This isn't of course the whole picture, of course. For instance, most third-parties are, by definition ideologically narrow - the don't appeal to a large sector of the American public or a large collection of factions. The Greens appeal to the scientifically minded, the socially libertarian but the economically environmentalist - they are willing to accept costs and risks to our economy that ultimately result in what they believe will be a more sustainable economy. Socialists, on the other hand, seek continuous economic growth but in a manner that specifically favors the improvement of worker quality of life and the more egalitarian disbursement of economic benefits. Christian socialists (and other fill-in-the-blank socialists) seek the same, but within the context of a theological construct. Libertarians are socially libertarian, but also economically libertarian. Progressives agree with the Greens and Socialists and Libertarians on particular elements but disagree on others. Christian traditionalists (and other fill-in-the-blank fundamentalists) seek to use the institutions of the state to reinforce particular social values, insisting that this is conservative even though it is the antithesis of libertarianism.
I could go on and on, listing each of these movements or parties, but it should be clear - they all have their appeal, but their ability to put together a coalition, an umbrella, is stymied by their inability to compromise on their ideological values.
Of course there are members of these factions who are willing to so compromise. You already know who they are - because they are members of the Republican or Democratic parties.
There are a couple other factors at work here as well - one is that, yes, there is a media bias against the minor parties, but this is more a result of the media responding to the ideological (and consumerist demands) of their viewing public than it is some sort of conspiracy. You see, the media covers the major parties because those are the parties the people, their audience, think are relevant and interesting. The media, in a free society, gives the consumer what they want, by and large. This does, however, have a reflexive, reinforcing effect that isn't to be dismissed.
Also, the major parties are not run by perfectly altruistic angels - rather, they're run by, and include in their ranks, competitive men and women who, put simply, want to win elections. That means that they damn well plan to win any given election or, in lieu, to make sure new, more nimble competitors don't enter the fray. Why does the major media not let the minor parties into the debates? Largely for one reason - the major parties threaten not to participate unless minor parties are excluded. Would they withdraw from debates if the media called bull$#%&? I'm not sure, honestly. I'm just not sure. Either way, this is actually point of contention between media and the parties, not a point of cabalistic cooperation, as some folk have inferred this election cycle.
So, why do normal folks not complain and moan and grouse over the absence of viable third-parties in the years when there isn't a national election? Well, because people are notoriously short-cited, and Americans, with our tendency to despise electoral politics, consciously seek to avoid thinking about any issue that would morally oblige us to take political action more often and more intensely than we'd like. That means in the build up to and election we are vocal in our support of third-parties that we will not actually vote for, and we bemoan their failures for a few weeks after the election, but soon we forget the absence of third parties since, to remember them and feel their absence palpably is to oblige ourselves to actually doing something. Which is, as we all know, horrible.
The final question then is this - how, then, do we develop one or more viable third-parties in the United States? Hmm.
Well, the only sure way is through electoral reform - to redesign the American system to encourage voter confidence in the utility of voting for third, fourth, and even fifth place winning candidates. The means of doing this is by adopting a system of proportional representation one in which seats are apportioned according to the percentage of the vote a given party gets. This of course means that one is voting for a party or ideology, rather than a person, meaning that Americans would have to be far more ideologically invested than they are now, when personality matters as much or more than a candidate's ideological purity or platform loyalty. Even this would likely not translate to effect the presidential system too radically unless it was coupled with a reform of the presidential election system, in particular the abolition of the electoral college and the adoption of a majority-required system in which, if no candidate received a majority, a run-off election between the top two vote-getters is held shortly after, meaning the first election allows voters to vote for their first-choice and the second resolves the question by having voters select their least-worst candidate.
On the other hand, America may simply evolve, without institutional reform, a sense that third-parties are relevant. It isn't likely in any given year, but it seems possible - heck, it has happened in Britain, where their first-past-the-post system still yields a parliament with 11 parties represented - two major parties (the Conservative and Labour parties) as well as nine minor parties (the Scottish National, Liberal Democrat, Democratic Unionist, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, Social Democratic and Labour, Ulster Unionist, UK Independence, and Green parties), not to mention five independent parliamentarians. The how is difficult to explain - institutionally speaking, well, it shouldn't have happened. But it did. And thus, the long version made short, we have to concede that the reason third-parties have appeared and been fruitful in the UK lay in one simple truth - British voters believed third-party candidates could win, and voted for their preferred parties in such numbers that they did win, confirming that belief and reflexively reinforcing the emergence of these parties that, everything else being equal, shouldn't be there.
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And now everything is totally cleared up. Cough.