Why Third Parties Can’t Solve What You Think They Can


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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46 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    It seems to me (AND WE’LL GET TO THIS!) that if you oppose the death penalty, you should really, really, really oppose police militarization.

    Cops tend to kill about 10 times as many perps as the needle. Shit like this will not make that ratio any better. Seems to me that it’ll make it worse.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    Sadly this is so true. People hate to think that much of what we dislike in government stems from the people themselves. It is so much easier to blame pols and this or that. Staying strictly on the crime issue the tag “Soft on crime” worked and worked so well pols who were tagged, lost. People, at least enough of them, wanted Hard on crime and they got it. Plenty of people lap up tough talk, they can’t get enough of it. Sure there are a lot of us who want to wind down the WOD and less police militarization but not as many who either like it or don’t really care since it doesn’t effect them.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to greginak says:

      Bringing issues like this to light, though, has a purpose. I hope such revelations help people understand that this is the price you pay for “Hard on Crime”, and hopefully enough people who bought that idea will get enough political indigestion over this to be willing to start demanding change.Report

    • Avatar Hoosegow Flask in reply to greginak says:

      People hate to think that much of what we dislike in government stems from the people themselves. It is so much easier to blame pols and this or that.

      Reminds me of Carlin:

      Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don’t fall out of the sky. They don’t pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It’s what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you’re going to get selfish, ignorant leaders. Term limits ain’t going to do any good; you’re just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant Americans. So, maybe, maybe, maybe, it’s not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here… like, the public.


  3. I certainly take your point. I wouldn’t say that having a strong third party will clearly fix everything. But I still think it might be one part of the solution. As to this though:

    Armored tanks (or whatever the hell you want to call them) being given to local law enforcement to keep down the disenfranchised under the guise of a “War on Drugs” … happens because we collectively want it to happen.

    I don’t think this is necessarily the case. Kevin Vallier is apposite on this point. The government is not us. It’s not even terribly good at being our agent.

    In some ways, that’s fine with me. In other ways, it isn’t.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @jason-kuznicki the Vallier piece is interesting. Need to digest it a bit before weighing in on that.

      There’s also this:

      • Avatar Chris in reply to zic says:

        Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

        That article was sent to the wrong journal. It should have been submitted to the Journal of Political Duh.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      I don’t know Jason.. looking back amateurishly at past third party performance all I see is signaling. Perot and his pack got enough electoral force to actually move the needle in Clinton vs. HW Bush, accordingly the GOP coopted Perots’ more palatable policies and the third party vanished back into the woodwork.

      As far as I can see you’re just asking for people to care enough about a policy (libertarian policy) to vote on it.. if they do so then one of the big two party’s will co-opt it, the third party will vanish and the two party system will march on.

      So a third party is the solution only so much as it’s a vector to signal to the main parties that some idea they’ve scorned is popular enough to merit reconsideration. It’s a good way of bypassing intraparty vested interests I guess but that’s it.Report

      • Avatar Jonathan McLeod in reply to North says:

        As a fan of the Liberal Party of Canada, I would have thought you’d have a fondness for third parties.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to North says:

        Well I’m talking about the US. Canada has a Parliamentary system which is entirely different.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to North says:

        So a third party is the solution only so much as it’s a vector to signal to the main parties that some idea they’ve scorned is popular enough to merit reconsideration. It’s a good way of bypassing intraparty vested interests I guess but that’s it.

        Even granting this arguendo, mightn’t this be reason enough? Couldn’t it be a way to move the needle of at least one of the two parties (and therefore, the overall status quo) faster than it might otherwise move?

        Do you also think no software developer with a new idea should do anything other than go straight to work for Microsoft/Apple/Google, and try to change their corporate cultures from the inside?

        After all, if what the developer comes up with is any good, the big boys will just buy them out anyway, so going into business for themselves is just signaling.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to North says:

        Glyph, the vibe I got from Jason was that he thought that these problems were largely a product of the two parties and that a third (Libertarian) party would fix some of these problems. I don’t see it.

        Now since I come from Canada originally I honestly do think the Parliamentary system is superior to our enforced Congressional dual system but I also recognize I’m biased. So in that context I’m all about 3+ parties (except for the separatists, those grifters can roast in hellfire*)

        *The noble people of Quebec are, of course, entitled to organize any political parties they wish, I’d oppose any laws that restricted those rights in any way. I also view it as naked cynical extortion for federal goodies. Thank God(ess?) that strategy has worn out its utility for Quebec.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to North says:

        @north just so there’s no war between the provinces.

        We don’t have the resources to handle the refugee problem, and we really benefit from filling our prescriptions in Canadian pharmacies, despite the NAFTA softwood disputes.

        So here’s a powerful wish for peace and unity for our beloved neighbors to the north (and in my neck of the woods, to the west, too, less than 50 km to the border as the crow flies, though there are no public roads, only private logging roads).Report

      • Avatar North in reply to North says:

        Oh no worries Zic, things are getting better, not worse, in Canada seperatist wise.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    I think that Third Parties do more than merely not get elected to office, though. I think that they’re excellent bellwethers *AND*, more than that, can sometimes pick the topics that end up being discussed. Sure, many times you’ll get Team Be Ruled to stand in lockstep… but, once in a while, they’ll decide to be different from each other. Bringing that topic to the forefront is only a good thing.Report

  5. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    Hm, so everything the government does is my responsibility because I’m a voter. Great! Where’s the ballot to elect the people who work at the FDA? Where’s the ballot to elect the ones who work at the SEC, the CPSC, the Department of Labor, NHTSA, FAA, EPA? They all have more influence over my actual life than anyone in Congress, and I can’t touch ’em.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to Jim Heffman says:


      If the executive branch concerns you, then you want yo direct your attention to the Presidency.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to James K says:

        There are people working in the executive branch, making regulatory decisions and policy, who’ve been there since Carter was in office. Are we really to believe that they’ve completely changed their ideological focus six times in their lives?Report

  6. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    If you could wave a magic wand and have 33% of the country be registered card-carrying Libertarians — or Green Partiers, or Constitution Partiers — when they awoke tomorrow, then by lunch time the majority of the leaders of those parties would be taking meetings with the same lobbying interests that meet with the Rs and Ds, and would be brokering the same kinds of influence-for-pay deals. And those few leaders who didn’t would see their own influence wane as they were pushed to the sidelines. And that 33% of this country’s sovereign who magically woke up as party members would support that corruption just as strenuously as they do now when it occurs with Elephants and Donkeys.

    This principle was illustrated excellently by the 2008 presidential election. During the primaries and the election, you could look at the election-donation sites and see who was getting money from where. All Obama’s supporters pointed out that the big-money donors, the hedge funds and banks and whatnot, were supporting Hillary, and that Obama’s money came from small donors. But as soon as it started to become clear that Obama would win, he started getting a lot of big donations from those organizations. Because they didn’t care who won, just that the person who won was indebted to them. They gave money to every candidate who they thought had a strong chance at the nomination.Report

  7. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    On the other hand – third parties are effective in providing an electoral alternative in places that have different electoral systems than the United States. The New Democratic Party in Canada has been a social democratic third party for decades (and is now no longer a third party, but one of the main parties!), and while electoral success had brought some moderation of positions, they sure as heck haven’t been bought out by the banks and the oil companies. If there’s a electoral system that makes support for third parties non-futile, then third parties will have more support.

    And yes, if the Libertarian Party ended up with 33% of the US population as partisan supporters, ex novo, that would do nothing. But if it built itself up as a party with genuine grassroots support as its foundation, over years or over decades, then it would be less vulnerable to being bought out because selling out would cause its supporters to desert it.

    (And even under the current system, I think a more sensible strategy for the Libertarians, Greens, or any other third party is to focus on running for city-level and state-level electoral office. Pick a place where you’ve got a chance (e.g., maybe Montana or Wyoming for the libertarians). They’d have a better chance of winning, or at least contending, than they do nationally, and if they were actually able to get some people in government and govern competently, they’d earn more support, more votes, and more trust. There had been NDP governments in most Canadian provinces long before they were in contention for governing at the federal level.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to KatherineMW says:

      I disagree Katherine.
      Politicians are politicians first and members of their parties second. Politicians of all ideologies and parties bow before the twin idols of Covering their Asses and Preserving their Jobs. I see no reason to think that a Libertarian party would be more resistant to those inclinations than any other party. Heck, maybe they’r square the circle by being more open about being for sale. Markets in everything right?Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to North says:

        Politicians of all ideologies and parties bow before the twin idols of Covering their Asses and Preserving their Jobs.

        And selling out your base to things that they hate is, in a party with a strong grassroots dedicated to political principles rather than solely party victory, a great way to lose your job.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to North says:

        The GOP has been having some very strong grass roots lately. It’s been a mixed blessing to say the least in terms of electoral success.Report

      • Avatar Snarky McSnarkSnark in reply to North says:

        @north I think that what your saying is true to the extent that a party has to maintain a coalition. If the Tea Party broke off from the Republicans, I think that you’d see very little wishy-washy “on the other hand” rhetoric coming from them. It’s the fact that they have to seek electoral success in party with sane people that the equivocating comes.

        Similarly, the Democrats are even more so a party of coalition. They are largely a centrist party, with a liberal wing to despise them, and a conservative wing to tempt them into moral compromise. When you have that many disparate voices to mollify, it’s only natural that you’d make no strong definitive stands on much of anything, except for largely symbolic issues that differentiate you from the other guys (e.g. abortion, imperial conquest, etc.).

        Since the Libertarians are, by their nature, a party that is bound by ideological commitment to a particular set of principles (even if there are shades within that consensus), I would expect to see much less wishy-washy ass covering behavior.

        A two-party coalition party system has, in theory, both parties competing for the middle. But a third party could open up all kinds of interesting permutations. I don’t feel as confident as you do that it would all end up in more of the same.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to North says:

        Snarky, yes I’d say you’re correct. But if the TP broke off from the GOP it’d either cripple the GOP (and fail to elect any TPers) or more likely just let the TP sink into third party oblivion. It is the falseness of their separation, rather than their separation, that lets the Tea Party remain relevant.

        Unfortunately I simply don’t see how a Third Party could get its legs under it in the US system. Parties consist of ideologies and institutions. New parties have pretty much only ideologies. Any third party rising to electoral success on its ideas would swiftly have those ideas co-opted by one of the big two before they could build enough institutional power to become a party on even level with the existing two big players.

        Libertarians are indeed highly committed to certain ideologies. Part of those ideologies is a great deal of individuality and a considerable degree of bucking against established authority. Setting aside that it makes their functioning as an organized party akin to trying to arrange a bridge match with a bunch of cats I don’t see it lending much special inoculation against corruption. Assuming the Moon and Jupiter align and a big whop of libertarian politicians got into office I’m skeptical that they’d be immune to being strongly influenced on what they deregulate and how they shrink the government. This is an ideology about almost everything being for sale after all.

        That’s probably uncharitable of me but I’m not a libertarian myself. I think libertarianism is better as a razor and critique than as a core operational ideology.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to North says:

        A few semi-random thoughts.

        Duverger’s law holds. Single-member districts tend to produce two-party systems, and multi-member districts tend to produce multi-party systems. American political scientist Gary Cox generalizes this to an M+1 rule, which says that the maximum number of viable candidates tends to be the number of representatives the district gets + 1. That holds at the district level, not above. So in particular districts it’s not impossible a separate Tea Part could eclipse the Republicans. Because a third party would not be viable, something would have to give. In districts so conservative dominated that Democrats often don’t field a candidate, perhaps a GOP and TP could exist side-by-side, but in most the equilibrium outcome would be a recombining of the GOP and TP, under either name.

        But Senate seats are single-member seats in generally more diverse constituencies than house seats, and the Presidency is a national singke-member district of a diverse constituency. So the TP is unlikely to replace the GOP at those levels, placing a severe constraint on their growth. But it’s not impossible–although unlikely–that in one or a few states a state-level TP could eclipse the state-GOP while becoming a constituent member of the Republican National Committe, sort of in the model of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer Labor Party as a member of the national Democratic party.

        Two party systems promote broad umbrella parties, for maximal opportunity of electoral success in a system where you need a plurality of the vote to win. Multi-party systems promote programmatic/ideological parties, which enables electoral success when you only need a threshold to win. There’s no less ideological fragmentation in a two-party system–it’s just that the successful parties are those that manage to hold a range of ideological groups together in elections, however uncomfortable they are with each other. In effect, two party systems also have coalitional governments, but the coalitions are intra-party instead of multi-party.

        It’s not surprising, given this, that American third parties tend to be heavily ideological. The two major parties have, generally, managed to create their coalitions, the third parties have difficulty pulling away enough coalition members to field a viable electoral challenge (c.f., Perot’s Reform Party), and only those more committed to a program than electoral success remain, making the party less attractive to (and less welcoming of) coalitional partners, further cementing their lack of electoral potential, and further alienating electorally-minded fellow-travelers, in a vicious cycle.

        I don’t think libertarians would sell out because their ideology says everything is for sale. In fact their ideology explicitly emphasizes the illegitimacy of selling government. Rather, they would sell out through 1) a combination of their being all-too-human and 2) finding out how difficult it is to get anything done if you don’t buy support from some quarters.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to North says:

        Due to our independent executive – and to a greater extent the electoral college – it makes any sort of sustained third party even more difficult than under a single-member FPtP parliamentary system. Our presidential elections don’t have a satisfactory mechanism to handle three-way presidential races. It doesn’t even go to the plurality winner – as in Canada – but instead to the House (most likely) and on a state-by-state basis. And culturally, we have a fixation on the presidency that would make it extremely hard to have a congressional party that doesn’t compete for the presidency.

        There are ways around this, as you point out. The Republican Party of Utah could be replaced by the People’s Party and TPP could be aligned with the RNC nationally, But it would essentially be the same party under another name.

        There are other mechanisms by which things could be different, but it would likely involve electoral reforms like fusion tickets or IRV. That would be constitutional permissable, but unlikely to gain more headway as the two parties are not particularly going to sign often to changes that would open their current structure open to upheaval.

        I would say that one big advantage to a coalition multi-party system over the current umbrella system is that it can become more clear on where individual candidates stand and people can vote accordingly. It would be harder for politicians to try to skirt differences within the party if they have to run under a particular coalition-member’s banner. There’d be a bit more truth-in-advertising.

        However, multi-party systems tend to operate either in the form of non-reliable coalitions or somewhat reliable coalitions but where the coalitions have a leading party (within which politicians of loose ideological virtue can maneuver to be as many things to as many partisans as possible).Report

    • Avatar Maribou in reply to KatherineMW says:

      I realize federal and provincial governments are different sacks of potatoes, and every provincial government is its own sack, but whenever I heard well, the NDP hasn’t sold out, all I can think is BOB RAE. Let them get power, they’ll sell out quick enough – but they do make a very effective third wheel. (I will grant that given Mike Harris, Bob Rae suddenly doesn’t seem all that bad.)Report

  8. Avatar DRS says:

    I really don’t think a real third party could compete in a political arena where state governments are so involved in determining what names get on the ballots vis-à-vis primaries or whatever. The metasizing of the primary system in the last six decades – and the way they suck money out of the general election process – is really something. You got to tame that beast someday.Report

    • Avatar Alan Scott in reply to DRS says:

      So look to state where parties have relatively little control.

      In California, anyone with enough signatures can get into the primary, and the top two candidates, regardless of party affiliation, face off in the general election. So far, this has led to several democrat vs. democrat contests and a few republican vs. republican. But the best a 3rd party candidate has done was a libertarian in senate district 1 who failed to qualify for the general election but did beat out one of his 3 democratic opponents (no republicans were in the race).

      We might see 3rd party candidates be more successful in future races, but I rather doubt it.Report

  9. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “Do you think it’s easy shooting innocent people? Do you? You third party people sicken me. You’ll never have to know exactly how hard it is to murder hundreds of innocent people.”Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      Fine, fine. “You’ll never have to know exactly how hard it is to compromise on the murder of hundreds of innocent people.”Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

      Both of those questions are why most people hire “immoral” folks to do their dirty work. It’s easy to pretend you are moral when you aren’t staring into the face of someone you’ve just murdered in cold blood.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      Hey, I was willing to compromise there. You’re the thick-headed one.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      But the problem is that you use arguments like that to justify tanks.

      We’re not talking about Humvees being given to FEMA. I’m pretty sure that that wouldn’t have gotten anybody here to blink.

      We’re talking about giving tanks (sometimes with 50 cal still attached!) to LAW ENFORCEMENT.

      Dude, when you pretend that you’re arguing against people who argue against Humvees being given to FEMA, you’re actually arguing against a position that nobody is holding.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

      If all this stuff is surplus, maybe we should ask who is doing the ordering and why they keep rounding up the tank order.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

      DC is quite different than the place Jason was discussing, no?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      When it comes to how little responsibility that third parties have when it comes to compromising about the lives of others? It maps pretty well.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      Dude, you should be delighted with the compromises you’ve acheived on Obamacare. You’ve got a plan that both you *AND* Heritage can be proud of!

      Hell, Kathleen Sebelius just retired because Obamacare *WON*.

      Victory! All without third parties ever once realizing how hard compromise is.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

      The best way to tell that MA is MA, short of him calling everyone liars, is that he asks, “Who is MA?”Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      MA is this guy who happened to find this website just the other day by googling for something else entirely (a simple chili recipe, perhaps?) and was struck by how libertarian this website was and was moved to go on to refuse to compromise with them.

      “No Compromise”, it said on the sleeve he had wrapped around the container he was drinking from. “Never Compromise”.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

      MA, you know what’s funny? If you just came in here and talked to people like they were human beings, not like they were ideological or personal enemies, everyone here would be fine with you, despite your history here. But you come in swinging with a large stick, and then cry foul when people point out that you’re behaving as badly as you always have.Report

  10. Avatar Damon says:

    Yes, people get the gov’t they deserve. While original blame can be assigned there, it’s now a vicious self-perpetuating circle.

    Barring any dramatic movement, the system functions to limit any change:
    1) “people as the country’s sovereign and the elected officials as its regents.” Right, act like an “employer” to a gov’t ‘crat, especially one with police, or similar powers, and you’ll be in a box, tazed and or dead.
    2) “We could set quick wheels in motion to limit campaign contributions, or have actual and serious consequences for public corruption, or almost anything else, really”. Right. Not with that pesky Constitution, the politicians and their staffs supporting it for appearances sake only, while back room dealing how to kill it, or subvert it.

    Let me know when you’ve solved the primary concern: public apathy. Politics and political change is a full time, large scale operation. No one goes to the county zoning hearing but those parties with a vested interest, assuming they know about it. The public don’t have the time, or the interest, to understand the process, and don’t think it impacts them. When it does impact them, any effort to change it quickly gets lost in the churn of the news cycle and it’s quickly forgotten for the next crisis.

    Nah, we’ll lumber on like this until a catastrophic, internal or external, event takes place.

    I’m every the optimist.Report