How Third Parties Can Be Relevant, and Save American Democracy in the Process

I mentioned Duverger’s Law in the last post, which holds that in a “first-past-the-post” system such as what we have where a plurality rules, a two-party system is inevitable. Supporters of third parties constantly try to deny this, claiming some sort of conspiracy of the two major parties to convince people we have a two-party system and so discourage people from voting for third-party candidates. But it’s actually quite simple to demonstrate. Anyone old enough to remember the 2000 election saw it play out firsthand. People dissatisfied with Al Gore’s progressive bona fides decided to cast their vote for Ralph Nader, and in certain states, that gave the vote, and the presidency, to George W. Bush. By voting for a candidate closer to their views they actually elected a candidate further away from them. The obvious conclusion is that if you want to get your way, you stick with the major-party candidate closer to your views no matter what, because veering away from it is counterproductive. (Yes, I am aware that Nader defenders will claim he took equally from both candidates, but it wouldn’t have taken much of a difference in Gore’s favor to swing Florida.)

The Founders may not have been aware of Duverger’s Law, but they still took pains to avoid its consequences in the selection of the President. A majority of the electors are required to choose a President; otherwise the race falls into the House of Representatives, where a majority of states are needed to settle upon a President, recognizing, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, that “it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive”. That a candidate could effectively secure enough electoral votes to win the Presidency when he did not secure a majority of the vote in seven states, accounting for far more electoral votes than his winning margin, indeed when he lost the popular vote by over two million votes, yet his opponent failed to secure a majority either, would greatly offend the Founders. The only place where the Founders did not secure the process from “permit[ting] less than a majority to be conclusive” was in the selection of electors themselves. The electoral college could be greatly reformed, and made far more hospitable to third parties, simply by adding a prohibition against states awarding all their electoral votes to a candidate that didn’t win a majority. But adopting the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, as many on the left want to do, without requiring majority rule, would throw out all the wisdom the Founders tried to put into the electoral college while (as we shall see) actually foreclosing what little hope third parties might have to win the Presidency, further entrenching the two-party system and all its problems.

So if you want there to be more than two parties, so that you have an alternative to the two most hated candidates in history, you need to move away from first-past-the-post. Perhaps you adopt something similar to the ranked-choice voting system Maine enacted on Election Day. Or perhaps you follow the example of countries like Britain and Canada, where a multitude of parties reign and effectively challenge the dominance of the major, powerful parties. Those nations use… a plurality-rules, first-past-the-post system?!?

Yes, in Britain and Canada, third parties typically target electoral districts where one of the major parties is irrelevant, allowing them to serve as an alternative to the remaining major party. The viability of third parties in Britain and Canada is usually attributed to their being parliamentary systems, where the head of state is chosen by the legislature. But it’s hard to see how that makes much of a difference. There’s nothing stopping today’s third parties from focusing on winning in specific states and districts where they can be the only viable alternative to the major parties. Indeed, such a strategy should be more viable in the United States, with its gerrymandered districts designed to be safe for one of the two major parties, than in Britain or Canada. It might even completely nullify the problem of gerrymandering. The whole point of gerrymandering is to create a few districts utterly dominated by one party, and then leave the rest of the districts with a large enough majority for the other party so as to leave a sizable underclass of supporters of the first party that are left completely disenfranchised. A party that can appeal to that underclass’s interests, while being palatable to enough members of the majority, should be able to effectively challenge for the district better than the original major party it’s replacing. Done right, possibly assisted by multiple third parties all carrying out the same strategy, it should not be possible to gerrymander your way to one-party rule; no matter how much you disenfranchise the members of one party, you only create an opening for another party to challenge you. Perhaps then district lines could be redrawn to preserve the current two-party system at the expense of giving any party “safe” seats, or they could even be drawn without regards to party preference at all, just whatever makes sense for each state, if it’s not possible to entrench any one party into power.

Under the Founders’ vision, a party looking to influence the direction of the nation should actually focus on Congress more than the Presidency – there’s a reason Congress comes first in the Constitution and why all the powers we popularly associate with the federal government as a whole are attributed to “Congress” in that first article. Indeed, until the expansion of presidential power under Woodrow Wilson, Congress was more powerful than the President – and, as the past decade of gridlock has shown, still wields tremendous power to, if not shape the direction of the country, at least check the President from unilaterally doing so.

But rather than do the hard work of building a party from the ground up, third parties continue to waste their time on moonshots to win the presidency, hoping against hope that the people will, all of a sudden and all at once, reject both major parties and that enough of them would coalesce on just one candidate (which would, of course, be theirs) to steal the presidency. Even if such a thing were to happen, it’s highly unlikely their party would hold any seats in Congress which could leave their President wholly impotent, but the fact that no third-party candidate even became relevant even in the face of the two most hated major-party candidates in history should cause some serious soul-searching in third-party offices, regardless of how much they may blame the media or the two-party system or their inability to get on the debate stage. Only a candidate with enough pre-existing celebrity as Nader can truly achieve relevance, and even he didn’t achieve any of the milestones that could have established truly lasting or at least impactful relevance beyond just tipping the outcome away from his preferred policies.

I’m fairly convinced the 5% threshold to receive funding from the federal government is actually the most anti-third party rule we have, convincing third parties that their presidential moonshots are actually a good way to create a shortcut to building a real party, and once they collect their federal funding they can actually start working on electing people at other levels. Nader didn’t achieve it, and even Gary Johnson, arguably the most qualified third party candidate since at least Nader or Perot, again going against the two most hated major-party candidates, didn’t achieve it. Without actually being able to elect enough people at lower levels to convince would-be politicians that your party is a legitimate means to achieve office, you have no mechanism to build credibility for any candidate you would field or to give them the sort of experience that would at least allow them to know what Aleppo is or name a world leader they admire. And without being able to convince activists that your party is a legitimate means to advance their causes, you’re left to become a club for people far enough outside the mainstream to complain that the two major parties don’t represent them. Johnson was probably the closest any third party is likely to come to a viable, credible candidate as long as they keep chasing the presidency, and he was despised by a large portion of the Libertarian base, his best approach, according to many analysts, being to distance himself from his own party as much as possible. Ultimately, third parties’ laser-focus on the presidency effectively precludes them from being credible and moderate enough to even achieve enough presidential votes to be worth it.

What makes the whole thing even more absurd is that the Founders may have actually intended for the United States to be something akin to a parliamentary system, but failed because of another intersection between their two big blind spots I mentioned last week. The Founders believed that no one other than George Washington would be able to win a majority of the electoral college, simply because it was too difficult for anyone else to achieve enough name recognition across all the states given 18th-century communications technology, meaning most candidates would be regional at best. Thus, the House of Representatives would pick the president on a regular basis, effectively establishing the President’s fealty to the House, but the existence of the electoral college would mean that if another Washington had enough popular will behind him, he could become President without going through the House. The rise of parties would ultimately undermine this vision, but it didn’t have to. If a third party had enough support in the right states and could effectively split the vote on a regular basis, it could regularly force an electoral college deadlock and throw the race into the House, where, presumably, a third party that strong would have a say in who becomes President – something that wouldn’t be possible under the NPVIC without ditching first-past-the-post. So the presidency, and thus the country, continues to be subject to Duverger’s Law, and the President either gets to work with a majority in Congress or butts heads with a faction he has no need to appeal to, because third parties won’t work to make Congress, and with it the Presidential race, work exactly as the Founders intended, because of their laser focus on the Presidency.

That said, if a third party became large enough to regularly throw the Presidential race into the House of Representatives, we might start running into problems that would still warrant some significant changes to the Constitution. In our “democracy uber alles” society, having the House pick the President regularly after nearly two hundred years of the people doing so more or less directly would not go over well, especially if House districts remained gerrymandered (indeed, one could argue we more or less chose a two-party system over House selection of the President in the 1820s after the way the 1824 election played out and the subsequent slow coalescing of Andrew Jackson’s opponents into the Whig party), and it might end up subverting House races if people voted for representatives as a proxy for their presidential vote, since representatives have the “real” power to pick the president, rather than voting for representatives on their own merits. (This seems to be a common phenomenon in Britain, where people effectively cast their vote for the party they want the prime minister to come from, and even happened in the United States, where direct election of Senators was enacted because people were voting for state legislators based on who they wanted to be Senator.)

All this is exacerbated by a quirk of the Constitution: when picking the President, each state gets one vote. This may have made sense when the US was seen as more of a union of individual sovereign states, where the states were primary and the union derived from them, and in a more agrarian society where the state with the most representatives at the time the Constitution was drafted was Virginia with ten, but in today’s urbanized society of mostly neutered states and a stark urban-rural divide both in the landscape and in our politics, it would be quite undemocratic for California’s 50+ representatives to have the same amount of say in picking the president as Wyoming’s one (even if it is the same way the Senate, which would have to pick the Vice President, works).

As much as Democrats may lament that large numbers of their voters only turn out in Presidential years and don’t care as much about Congress or state legislatures despite their importance, that third parties suffer from the same affliction may be far more damaging to the country as a whole. A relevant third party could have offered a real, credible alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, would have allowed a viable option for factions within the parties rather than forcing each faction to fight to make itself heard over the other factions in the major parties and the preferences of the establishment, would break the “with-us-or-against-us” mentality engendered by the two-party system and set itself apart from the major parties in the areas where they do agree (and so allowed themselves to become a true alternative to the establishment), forced compromises instead of gridlock where appropriate, and by their very existence would have done much to ease the scourge of gerrymandering, with both of the latter two having the effect of encouraging moderation instead of leaving the two parties to slowly leave the center behind in order to appease their bases. Instead they keep laser-focusing on the presidency and wonder why the major parties keep ignoring them – and in so doing, may be complicit in the ongoing decline of our democracy. I can only hope it is not too late for them to realize it.

 

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