Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Third parties

Dave's post World Can't Wait is a takeoff on a brief online discussion among the Blue Voice team. So here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

Ham Jordan - wants a "bipartisan" third-party Presidential ticket in 2008 (a bipartisan party?)

The idea of a third party is certainly tempting at times. Some labor leaders in the past have occasionally threatened to promote a Labor Party as an alternative to Democrats and Republicans. There are Green Parties in various parts of the country. The Peace and Freedom Party has been on the California ballot since the late sixties or so. Barry Commoner and LaDonna Harris campaigned for President and Vice President on a left-leaning Citizens Party ticket in 1980. But since 1856, politics in the United States has had two basic parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, despite George Wallace and Ross Perot and various other third-party attempts.

My (non-British) European friends seem convinced to a person that a parliamentary system of government with proportional representation is obviously more sensible than the British and American systems with winner-take-all electoral districts. In the United States, the Constitution establishes a separate Executive and Congress. The majority party in Congress can be the opposite from the party in the Presidency, unlike in parliamentary systems where the chief executive is chosen from a majority in parliament (including in Britain).

Winner-take-all districts create a very strong incentive for two parties. In the Austrian election coming up October 1, any party that gets 4% of the nationwide vote gets seats in parliament. That means that you can have a party that appeals to a relatively narrow ideological, social or regional base that can get 10% or 15% of the vote and still have seats in parliament or event be part of the governing coalition. In an American Congressional election like the one this November, a party that won 15% or even 20% of the vote in every single electoral district in the country would most likely wind up with no Congressional seats at all. If you don't win a plurality in a particular Congressional district, you get zippo, nichts, nada.

Gene Debs, third-party Presidential candidate

So having a structure that gravitates heavily toward a two-party system means that for a third party to become a viable party, it would have to drain the votes from one of the two major parties, and do so fairly rapidly.

Neither voters nor contributors are going to stay around for too many years if their party can't get enough representation in governing bodies to actually deliver benefits for their constituencies.

And in practice, that means that most people will settle for a party that's less than exactly what they would prefer over a party that is exactly what they want but never gets anyone elected.

Ross Perot probably had a real shot at replacing the Republican Party with his Reform Party - a long shot, but actually thinkable. But Perot himself was too quirky and not as focused as he would have had to have been to achieve such a thing. He would have had to get some Republicans and Democrats in safe districts to switch parties to create a bloc of swing votes in Congress, so that the Dems and Reps would have had to make deals with them to get legislation passed.

William Jennings Bryan, third-party Presidential candidate, became a Democrat

But a three-party system in Congress couldn't last very long. Since the Reform Party would be largely competing with the Republican Party for the same voters, they would have had to win enough seats to make them a larger party than the Reps, and would have also had to grab a few governorships and win a presence in state legislatures. If the Reformers started looking like a better vote-getter than the Reps, Republican elected officials would have started deserting in droves and by now we would again have a two-party system with a more-or-less liberal Democratic Party and a conservative Reform Party.

I realize that's counterfactual history, always a tricky undertaking. The real point of it is that from 1992 until 2004 or so, the battle between the Reformers and the Republicans for who would be the conservative party would have given the Democrats pluralities in Congressional, Presidential and many state and local races. In other words, for the Reform Party to become one of the two major parties, it would have had to destroy the Republicans. And during the decade and more it would take to do that, they would be conceding control to the Democrats.

Teddy Roosevelt, third-party Presidential candidate - in 1912, his Bull Moose (Progressive) Party pulled enough votes from the Republicans that TR came in second, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected President

From my perspective, the country would have been tremendously better off than what we experienced, especially these last six years.

But the same is true for a third party that would go after the Democrats' base. We saw the risks in 2000 with Nader and the Greens. The Green vote in Florida would have mostly gone to Gore in Nader's absence. And it would have provided enough of a margin to make the election theft in 2000 far less feasible. It may not be entirely fair to blame Nader and the Greens for putting Bush in the White House. I would put the Scalia Five much higher on the list.

But Nader certainly helped make it possible. Because spin it any way we want, for a third party to establish itself in the US, it has to destroy the party for whose base it's competing.

So, for Democrats, for labor unions, for peace activists, for women's-rights advocates, for opponents of torture, for retirees, for Latinos and African-Americans, for all the groups that currently lean Democratic even though some of us get pretty frustrated with the Democrats' timidity and corporate mentality, the question is: Are we prepared to cede the Republicans a strong plurality or majority for 15-20 years and give them a virtually free hands to start wars, slash Social Security, expand the torture and domestic spying programs, convert every federal program from disaster relief to reading programs for children to legal services for the poor into crony-capitalist goodies for their corrupt buddies, and all the rest of the things we've seen the Cheney-Bush administration do the last six years?

George Wallace, third-party Presidential candidate

Think about Bill Clinton's Presidency, with all its disappointments and frustrations for liberals and working people. Then think about the Bush administration and the Republican Party as described by Michael Lind of the New America Foundation in his 2003 book Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takover of American

Installed in a lawless manner by the dominant Southern and Western conservative faction of the Supreme Court, George W. Bush, the candidate opposed by most American voters in the election of 2000, used the power of the presidency to promote the economic and foreign policy of agenda of the Southern far right: a massive tax cut as the centerpiece of domestic policy, and, in foreign policy, Protestant-fundamentalist-inspired support for the Likud Party of Israel, combined with consideration of schemes for an American takeover of the Iraqi and Saudi oil fields. From its conception of economics in terms of the exploitation of cheap labor and the plundering of non-renewable natural resources and its plan to replace the modern social safety net with "faith-based" religious charity, to its minimal-government political theory, its bellicose militarism, and its Bible Belt Christian Zionism, the second Bush administration illustrates the centuries-old traditions of the Southern oligarchy, of which the traditional Texan elite is a regional variant.

Today's Southern right combines the political economy of plantation owners with the fundamentalist religion of hillbillies. ...

As long as the influence of the Southern oligarchy was confined to the South, it was a menace chiefly to ordinary Southerners. The capture on Inauguration Day, 2001, of the vast power of the federal apparatus by Southern reactionaries and their allies, however, means that in the administration of George W. Bush the Southern oligarchs are a threat to the peace and well-being not only of America but of the world.
(my emphasis)

And knowing what we know in 2006, it's obvious that Lind's description looks way too generous now!

Is a third party worth two more decades of this?

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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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