Sunday, November 4, 2012

Change We Could Believe In: The Value of Third Parties


America has been stuck in a state of political stasis since the 1960s, in which progress on social issues such as women's rights and gay rights has been slow and halting, our environmental crisis is ignored, and we have gone backwards on issues of economic class and equality.  There are many reasons for this, but one of the most pertinent ones as we go to the polls this November is the two-party duopoly that the Republicans and Democrats have locked on our political system, by which these two parties control most of the politcal resources of electoral competition, government access, and legislative power.  Multi-party democracy is the international standard for democratic practice, and a one-party state is usually a dictatorship, even when it keeps the formalities of democracy in place.  Can a two-party state be that much better?  Because both the major parties are committed to neoliberal ideology and are fundamentally in the service of corporate forces, the two-party system keeps competition trapped within boundaries that are acceptable to the big money elite: the parties compete mainly on cultural issues and a small slice of the distribution of social benefits, while real reform, to say nothing of radical democratic change, is kept out of the arena of public debate, thus defeating it before combat is even begun.  A viable, credible third party committed to labor and the environment, not to neoliberalism and corpratocracy, is needed shake up the system. (I have written before why protest politics alone will not do the job).

The term "third party" is something of a misnomer, because there have been so many of them (there were five parties on my absentee ballot this year) and because the phrase itself perpetuates the dominance of the major party duopoly by making alternatives seem outside the norm.  But it is the most recognized term used for alternative parties in America, so I'll go sometimes go along with it, although I will also use other terms such as "alternative" or "minor" parties.  The kinds of alternative parties that I have in mind are not the boutique individual "parties" of those like Ross Perot or Teddy Roosevelt, who ran mainly on the force of their personalities and had success in getting votes mainly because they could throw money into a campaign machine due to either great personal wealth or the backing of wealthy donors.  The kind of third parties I'm talking about are instead those bottom-up ideological parties held together by shared political concerns and principles held by their members.  Neither Roosevelt's Bull Moose party nor Perot's United We Stand fits this description.  Nor am I talking about single-issue parties like the Prohbition Party, but parties with a broad agenda potentially capable of addressing the full range of political, economic, and social concerns of a wide constituency.

Going back to the Granger, Greenback, and Populist parties of the nineteenth century, the Progressive and Socialist Parties of the twentieth, and the Green and Libertarian parties of the twenty-first, such alternative parties have always been part of America's politics and have historically served very important and legitimate functions.  The first function that minor parties have is to introduce new ideas into the political system: the two main political parties become beholden to entrenched interests and resistant to new ideas, so creative reform can only come from outside them, and other parties have been  a main sorce of political innovation.  The reform parties of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included in their platforms all sorts of new economic and political ideas that were eventually adopted widely during the period of liberal governance that began with the New Deal.  These included things like a minimum wage, ending child labor, an eight hour work day, social security, floating currencies, professionalization of the bureaucracy, and other reforms.


A related function to having new ideas is to give them voice and a legitimate channel into the political process.  Third parties prevent violent political terrorism and even political revolution by letting those with an alternative vision or radical criticism to still participate in some way in the electoral process, rather than resort to more extreme means. They can still vote, rather than resort to violence.  Radicals who think that only revolution can bring an end to our current political stasis will point out that channeling political innovation, passion, and protest through marginalized minor parties only defuses and delays the forces for change, and there is undoubtedly truth to that.  On the other hand, the bloody history and wrong turns of political revolution over the last two hundred years suggests that revolution escapes the good intentions of revolutionaries, so other process of political change are worth figuring out.

A final role that third parties play is to organize and concentrate radical activism, giving movements an institutional structure so that they don't peter out after an initial spasm of activism (as Occupy Wall Street has).  Alternative parties also give movements a link, either potential or actual, to the legislative system so that movement principles can be translated into law and policy, or at least argued for in legislative fora.  And indeed, in the past, third party efforts have at times resulted in the winning of elections, albeit usually at the state and local level.  It is important to remember, however, that one of the most important political changes in American history, the end of slavery, was effected by a third party that had great electoral success and moved into the mainstream, the Republicans.

Despite these positive functions, despite America's political stagnation, and despite the fact that the legitimacy of government continues to be at all-time lows, third parties come up against great opposition in our political culture and institutions.  Third parties face greater barriers to participating in the political process than the two main parties, for example.  Since the nineteenth century the two major parties have put up all sorts of obstacles to having their duopoly challenged -- it's harder in most places for third parties to get on ballots, to register voters, and to participate in political debates.  In our system of private campaign funding, the spreading of political ideas depends on having big advertising money.  Because third parties don't have the big corporate donations, the electorate never even gets to hear their ideas.  And that's just how the two main parties like it.

Furthermore, we've had a two-party duopoly for so long that most people don't even think of third parties as serious, no matter how good their ideas and platforms, or how bad the ideas and platforms of the two main parties.  The mainstream media is particularly egregious on this score, with virtually no coverage of minor political parties such as the Green Party.  And that's also just how the two main parties like it.

Probably the two biggest hurdles to third party success are existing party identities and strategic voting.  Most people already identify with one of the two main parties, and party identity is something that most adopt relatively early in life and which is resistant to change: most people get their party identity from their parents and keep it throughout their adult lives, barring a major crisis like the Great Depression that forces a change. This poses a significant hurdle to alternative parties, as they have a tremendous psychological barrier to overcome in order to gain mass support, and nearly all alternative parties fail to overcome this (the only successful example being the Republicans in the mid-nineteenth century.)  However, not all times and all countries show such rigidity in party identity: Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were more experimametal in their partisan preferences, as are people in some other democacies, particularly those parliamentary systems with mutliple parties.  Another huge hurdle for alternative parties is the American habit of voting strategically: Americans only vote for candidates that they think have a realistic chance of winning, mistakenly thinking that it makes sense to think strategically about how to use a single vote among millions.  But statistically, the chance that an individual vote will be the one that wins an election for one or another of the candidates is almost zero.  It's not that an individual vote doesn't matter -- it does, especially in conjunction with many other individual votes -- but it simply doesn't make sense to treat ones individual vote as a strategic asset that can sway an election.  Rather, votes sway an election only in large aggregate numbers when like-minded people vote in the same way, as when they are influenced by some shared motivating principle. And if more American voted this way (as Europeans tend to be more willing to do) third parties would have an easier time of it.

As Hurricane Sandy showed just last week, the world faces great, profound threats such as climate change, and we are going to have to be more adaptable as a society if we are going to leave a world behind us that is worth living in.  Our current political stasis cannot continue.  But as long as our two-party duopoly remains in place, America will continue with politics and economics as usual, suffering from major social ills, inequality, and dysfunction,  and trending towards oligarchy and destruction of the global environment.  A viable, credible third party with a new ideological vision could initiate a path to change, as third parties in the past have done.  But in order for that to happen, we must overcome the barriers to such a party emerging. The main barriers are merely psychological barriers of thought: the ideas that alternatives and their advocates are not serious, and not worth voting for.  And the best way to do that, I think, is to present a postive and attractive vision of the future that will convince people to vote based on principle rather than on some cost-benefit calculus or based on old, worn out partisanship.

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