Sunday, July 01, 2007

The third party delusion

Three is an odd number

So this time the great hope of the third-party aficionados is Michael Bloomberg, the formerly Republican mayor of New York City who used to be a Democrat and is now registered as an independent. Like Ross Perot (remember him?), Bloomberg has tons of money and could provide a heap of self-financing for a third-party run for the White House. Lots of people are getting exciting (although apparently not enough to fund a campaign whose candidate doesn't bring along a ton of his own money).

Jon Stewart has already pointed out the unlikelihood that a short Jewish bachelor from New York is really going to sweep into the White House as the darling of independent-minded American voters. This is not really about Bloomberg. It's about the absurd notion that the United States is ripe for a third party. People who love the idea are just plain delusional.

Let's start off with Ralph Nader, the poster child for morbid narcissism. He's thinking of running again, you know. Nader is one of those purists who exemplifies the adage that “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” By no means do I intend to imply that Nader was “perfect” relative to Al Gore's “good,” but in 2000 Nader was insistent that it would be actually better for the country if Bush were to win. As he confided to Jay Heinrichs of Outside magazine in an on-line article before the election:
When asked if someone put a gun to his head and told him to vote for either Gore or Bush, which he would choose, Nader answered without hesitation: “Bush.” Not that he actually thinks the man he calls “Bush Inc.” deserves to be elected: “He'll do whatever industry wants done.” The rumpled crusader clearly prefers to sink his righteous teeth into Al Gore, however: “He's totally betrayed his 1992 book,” Nader says. “It's all rhetoric.” Gore “groveled openly” to automakers, charges Nader, who concludes with the sotto voce realpolitik of a ward heeler: “If you want the parties to diverge from one another, have Bush win.”
Gore wasn't good enough for Nader, so Nader preferred Bush. Does that make sense? In some cracked-brain way, perhaps. One of my friends worked frenziedly for Nader and oozed vitriol over Gore, absolutely convinced all the while that it would lead to a Bush victory. His rationale? “Bush will be such a bad president that the voters will recoil in horror and the Green Party will become a viable alternative.” It never occurred to him that four or eight years of Bush could cause irreparable damage (extinction is forever, you know). He never noticed that Nader was merely using the Green Party nomination as a speaking platform (he never even joined the party that nominated him and spurned it in 2004). Later my friend moved on to writing attack pieces on various members of the Kennedy and Cuomo families. After all, “everybody” knows that Republicans are evil incarnate. No work to do there. So let's attack the liberals and environmentalists who aren't as rigorously pure as we are! (Meanwhile, evil incarnate wins elections.)

What an utterly self-defeating and ridiculous strategy.

The political math ought to be apparent to anyone who can do arithmetic. It normally takes a majority of the Electoral College to gain the White House. With two major candidates, you can be pretty sure (barring the occasional unfaithful elector) that someone is going to win. With three or more, you can be pretty sure no one will. Note: I did say “major.” No third party candidate in the past century has been “major” in the sense of racking up enough electoral votes to be a contender. Former president Theodore Roosevelt did the best, running in 1912 on the Progressive (Bull Moose) ticket and pulling 88 electoral votes; his case was rather atypical. Robert LaFollette won 13 votes in 1924 (all from his home state). Segregationist candidates did a little better with their Deep South constituencies, Strom Thurmond garnering 39 votes in 1948 and George Wallace managed 46. John Anderson got nothing in 1976. Ross Perot won exactly zero electoral votes in both 1992 and 1996.

You don't care if there's a long-shot Electoral College deadlock? Well, what about the next step? If no one wins an Electoral College majority, the choice of a president-elect falls to the U.S. House of Representatives, where each state gets one vote. Once again, a majority is required, albeit a majority distorted by treating all states as equal, regardless of population. Funny things can happen in a House-decided presidential contest, but you still need most of the votes. And is it likely that the incumbent U.S. Representatives in Congress will be casting any of their votes for an upstart third-party candidate? The two-party system is resilient, folks. You might as well face it.

We don't live in a parliamentary democracy and the presidency is very much a winner-take-all arrangement. You want a victory so that you can advance your political program? Hitch up to a major party. Don't like the major parties? Then take one over, the way Barry Goldwater did in 1964 and George McGovern did in 1972. They provide good examples that it is easier to take over a major party than to create a successful third party. Neither Goldwater nor McGovern won their presidential elections, but both parties carried their imprint thereafter. In Goldwater's case, it arguably set the stage for the conservative resurgence of the late 20th century (although that has now metastasized into the corporate totalitarianism of today's GOP under George W. Bush).

Third parties don't win unless they actually supplant one of the two major parties. No third party has pulled this off since the Republican Party replaced the moribund Whig Party as the principal rival to the Democratic Party of Jefferson and Jackson. None of today's so-called “third” parties are in a position to repeat the trick. The Greens? Used, abused, and discarded by Nader; still trying to get its self-respect back. The Reform Party? Ginned up by Ross Perot as his vehicle, up on blocks and rusting in his front yard after his losses; Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial victory was a kind of last-gasp dieseling fluke. The American Independent Party? Merely a shell of George Wallace's coalition of racists and states' righters, many of whom have drifted off to the more dynamic Constitution Party. The Constitution Party? A chowder-head debating society of apocalyptic extremists who know they don't have much time to seize power before Jesus returns.

For all of their flaws, the Democratic and Republican parties have little to fear from the clown car full of third parties. They may occasionally act as spoilers (as TR demonstrated in 1912 and Nader probably did in 2000), but the supernumerary parties are good mostly for letting off steam and providing comic relief.

Oh, but this time it will be different! Bloomberg will show us all!

Yeah, right.


Anonymous said...

You might also point out how Arrow's Theorem shows that once we have a third choice there's no such thing as a fair vote.

King Aardvark said...

You should start a conservative 3rd party to steal votes from the republicans.

Anyway, in Canada, we were primarily 2 parties for a very long time but now have more. Granted, the non-traditional parties have never won a federal election, but that is more a result of unpopular extreme views and/or incompetence than anything else. They have won at the provincial level. Is there something special about the US electoral system that prevents a new political party from getting off the ground at the grass roots/local level?

Anonymous said...

"Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial victory was a kind of last-gasp dieseling fluke."

A nice, and humorous, turn of phrase. Thanks for the laugh.

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Anonymous said...

umm, you forgot about the Libertarians