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Why Third Parties are a Bad Idea

Saturday, May 29, 2004
I have a good friend who voted for Nader in 2000, much to my disgust. He doesn't plan on doing so this year, but he avoids any responsibility for electing Bush. There are a lot of people like this, and they have a lot of different arguments. I'd going to take them on one at a time in an effort to demonstrate that 1) one should never vote for a third-party, 2) that a multiparty system is not something you want, and 3) that 3rd party candidacies are unnecessary

Democrats frequently accuse Naderites of electing Bush. Exit polls indicate that 60% of Nader voters would have voted, and voted for Gore, in 2000. Most of the remainder would have stayed home. This would have provided the crucial margin of victory in Florida and New Hampshire, and we would now be working to re-elect Gore rather than defeat Bush. Nader voters respond first by saying that with peace and prosperity, Gore should have won easily. If the few percent of the vote he lost because of Nader were enough to beat him, then he deserved to lose.

Now I would the be the last person to defend the quality of Gore's campaign in 2000. It was uninspired, undisciplined, and lacked a clear message. But to say that Gore should have easily won is to underestimate the skill of the Republicans at campaigning, the fundamentally even split in American politics today, and the fact that the economy in 2000 was already slowing.

Another argument is that people voted for Nader because he was closer to them on the issues than Gore. This assumes that people should vote based on their most-preferred outcome. This is just not the way we do things. In a winner-take-all plurality winner electoral structure like we have both for the electoral college and almost all other elections in the U.S., there are only going to be 2 parties. This is called Duverger's Law (there are a couple of exceptions). In this situation voters should follow a risk-aversion strategy so that they can avoid their worst likely outcome (in this case Bush). To do otherwise is essentially to vote FOR your worst preferred outcome, which is basically irrational (like preferring lima beans to dirt and then eating dirt because you can't have ice cream).

Naderites have 2 potential responses to this. The first is that Gore and Bush were basically identical. Since there was little substantive differences between the parties, then why not vote your conscience as a protest, and also to pull the party to the left? Now this is just silly- the 2 parties are as ideologically polarized as they have ever been, and I would venture to say that no party since the southern slavocracy Democrats in the 1850's has been so much an enemy of liberalism (and sanity) as the contemporary Republican party. Recent history has borne out the massive differences between the parties. And these differences were apparent at the time to anyone willing to do the research. People who thought Gore and Bush were close were really just hoodwinked by the Bush campaign. Come on- did anyone on the left really think Bush was a "compassionate conservative"?

Secondly, I have yet to hear any specific policy positions were Greens and Dems really disagree. Both are pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-choice, pro-minority rights, have reservations about free trade, and are in favor of a restrained, multilateral foreign policy. They differ on the pace of change, not the direction.

The second Nader argument is that we should scrap the 2-party system and move to a genuine multiparty system like in Europe. This is only going to happen if we changed the electoral structure to a multi-member district proportional representation system. We could do this, of course- all it would take is change in state and federal law. The way we do it now is not in the constitution. So the 2 major parties would disaggregate into their constituent elements. You would christian, corporate and libertarian parties on the right, and civil liberties, environmental, and labor parties on the left.

This is a really, really bad idea. Anyone who has taken PoliSci 101 knows about how the separation of powers and checks and balances make it almost impossible to pass legislation. One of the few things that help you overcome gridlock is unified party control. What would happen if you overlaid a multiparty system on top of our legislative structure? People should know that Europe has basically unicameral systems, so the checks and balances work themselves out when parties form coalitions after the election. So we would be adding ANOTHER layer of checks and balances onto an already unwieldly system. And you know what? This would just benefit the right, not the left, since they right is full of people who are already benefiting from the current social arrangements, and it would be easier for them to play us off against each other. So to really go multi-party, you'd have to abolish the Presidency and the Senate. Good luck with that.

Finally, 3rd parties are just unnecessary. In one sense, we already have a multi-party system. Both parties are coalitions of what would be separate parties in Europe. In Europe, the ally after the elections. And it's almost always coalitions of the right or left, just like here. Here we do it before the elections and on a more permanent basis, giving the alliance a brand name. You would still have give and take between factions over policy, so I'm not sure what you'd gain. Also, the voters would have to vote for a party rather than a person, which they may not like doing.

Finally, if someone does have a distinct position they are pushing, it makes more sense to mobilize within one of the two pre-existing parties. You can contest primaries and maybe get your faction the nomination. Even if you lose, if you do well enough the nominee will have to meet you part of the way. And a faction gains tons of influence when they deliver votes and activists. Just look at the labor movement or the religious conservatives. They could have formed their own parties, but they took the smarter path and now have tremendous influence within the major parties. If Nader had been serious, he would have challenged Gore or Kerry in the primaries and then he would have had credibility for himself and his movement. But I don't think Nader is serious.

Which brings me to the saddest thing about the Greens. You have all these passionate, committed liberal activists whose program has been so much wasted effort. If they'd had better leadership, then they would already be major players. Hopefully they'll learn their lesson.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:43 AM
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