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Choices in American Politics no longer reflect what people actually believe. Or do they? Do those with non-mainstream beliefs have any option but to compromise their views for the lesser of two evils? Two of our contributors weight the costs and benefits of...

The Two-Party System

Commencement 2004

The Point: The Third Party Gamble (click here for counterpoint)
Lindsay Bliss • A place for extreme ideologies within the two-party system

When most Americans think of third parties, an image of Ralph Nader comes to mind. Nader has been the most visible third party candidate in decades and some claim that he is responsible for the election of President George W. Bush. Nader’s Green Party, however, is not the most popular independent party or the third party with the most elected representation. The success of the Green Party is unrepresentative of third parties and has distorted America’s view of the non-mainstream alternatives in elections at all levels of government.

The third party that does boast the most elected officials and the greatest number of members is the Libertarian Party. These elections are not won on the national level, but rather in small races. The most influential roles that third parties can take on are by making symbolic political statements on the national level while affecting quantitative change on the local and state level. An easy way to distinguish among the third parties is by the nature of their party platform. Several parties base their existence on one key issue that is common to all of their members. The Green Party, for example, focuses on the increased need for government regulation of the environment, while the Prohibition Party has for over a century pushed for the criminalization of alcohol and all other illicit substances. In contrast, other parties boast an ideology that can be applied to all areas of political dialogue, as the Libertarian Party has done. This results in a philosophically unified member base and provides increased consistency among candidates from a single party. There is a danger in having a party whose members’ beliefs overlap on only one issue since a candidate of such a party may not gain the support of even all his own party members. An example of this difficulty is within the Prohibition Party, in which some members support prohibition for moral reasons and others support it for practical, violence-prevention reasons. This produces candidates who differ radically on every issue other than substance control and prevents candidates from winning the vast majority of the party’s voters. While this is a problem that can affect the two major parties, their larger voter base allows intra-party dissent to have a smaller negative impact.

The level of government to which third-party candidates have most often been elected is the local level. City- and county-wide politics are the most approachable and realistic arenas for candidates not associated with the major parties. At these more local levels, the constituency group is small enough that a candidate can easily spend time explaining his viewpoints explicitly to many voters, allowing for a more comprehensive portrayal of the third party platform than is possible when millions of voters are involved. Campaigns for local positions also require reaching fewer voters and as a result, they necessitate less fundraising, which makes it possible to run a successful campaign without a wealthy organization providing financial support. Finally, local positions tend to determine policies that can vary greatly from year to year and term to term. These are positions from which it is possible for one third-party candidate to make a direct policy impact, unlike at the Federal level, where a variety of checks and balances make it virtually impossible for any one elected official to make major policy changes.

While winning elections in Federal races is extremely difficult for third-party candidates because of their small voter base, it is still valuable for third parties to run candidates for high profile positions, even for the Presidency. Voting for a third party candidate allows constituents to make a profound statement regarding their dissatisfactions with the platforms of both of the candidates that might be elected. In large numbers, these votes can change the behavior of the two major parties in future elections by encouraging them to incorporate the views of third parties.

The election of third-party candidates for federal offices is problematic even for many members of fringe parties. One of the defining features of third parties is that they are extreme in some fashion that discourages many voters from supporting them. If more extreme candidates are elected, they can actually hinder the legislative process because compromises will have to be greater on both sides of all issues and will require more time, producing a less efficient government. The presence of third-party candidates in major elections can be particularly dangerous when the election is close, as with the role of Nader in the 2000 Presidential election. Votes for a third-party candidate can sometimes serve as votes against a major party candidate with some similar viewpoints, thereby achieving the opposite of the voter’s intentions when the opposing party wins the majority.

When deciding whether to support a non-mainstream candidate, voters must be hesitant if their state is a swing state. If the vote between the two major candidates is really close, it may often be necessary to compromise one’s support for an extreme candidate in favor of getting the mainstream candidate on their side of the political spectrum into office. But like everything else in politics, a vote for a third party candidate is always a gamble for the constituent, as the breakdown of other voters can never be predicted conclusively. This is the major problem with parties like the Green Party running Presidential candidates– it forces people to engage in a risky cost-benefit analysis, and by making the wrong pragmatic calculation, voters may often shoot themselves in the foot. A successful political party makes political changes while allowing voters to make a statement regarding their personal and political philosophies.

With a smaller membership, this task is particularly difficult for third parties. The best combination to achieve these goals is through aggressive campaigning at the local and state levels to win realistic offices, while also running candidates at the federal level to allow for a nationwide political statement. However, greater care must be taken when running national candidates in order to prevent the complete compromise of the party’s political objectives.

Lindsay Bliss is a rising junior in Timothy Dwight College.

Counterpoint: Down with the Republican Party (click for point)
Jason Green-Lowe • Ideological conservatives should support a PR system

“The one political constant throughout these fifty years has been the rise of the Right,” writes Dr. Lee Edwards, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. This is probably good news for most conservative readers, but before American conservatives start beating the victory drums, they should take a minute to decipher what exactly Dr. Edwards means by “the Right.”

Is America dominated by voters who lean toward the right on economic issues? On foreign policy? Is he referring to the Religious Right? Does the Right include opponents of affirmative action, whether colorblind or actively racist? It is somewhat rare to find a God-fearing capitalist Anglophile hawk, because the American political scene is marked by important cross-cutting cleavages. For example, most devout Catholics are more likely than the general population to support conservative initiatives like school prayer and restrictions on abortion. Among them, Hispanic Catholics stand out as less likely to support a crusade against bilingual education. Likewise, libertarian businessmen are usually happy to work with other supporters of small government to reduce the size of Medicare. Libertarian businessmen, however, are less likely to join more hawkish right-wingers in advocating an aggressive foreign policy, because they fear that a prolonged military occupation will result in higher taxes and more government expenditure. However real the triumph of the conservative movement, it is clear that “conservatives” are not a monolithic force of people with identical policy preferences.

This is rather unfortunate because America’s national government is set up to respond almost exclusively to a monolithic force. Congress is not moving anywhere in the short term—gerrymandered districts keep its incumbency rates well above ninety percent, and the members of the Supreme Court, who enjoy life tenure, are not about to respond to political pressure. Having eliminated the legislative and judicial branches, it is clear that the only way to make a dent in today’s political scene is to gather fifty-one percent of the American public and convince them all to vote for the same Presidential candidate. Once he wins office, this President can break the deadlock in Congress with his veto, change the mood of the Supreme Court with new appointments, and get media attention to help with political reforms.

So what happens when no one movement makes up fifty-one percent of the electorate? Political activists do not just sit around and accept the status quo—they bargain with one other in an attempt to put together a Presidential majority. This is why one can open The Washington Post and read about the New Deal coalition of farmers, laborers, and ethnic minorities, or about the uneasy alliance between the neo-cons and the Bible Belt. Under all but the most unusual circumstances, it takes more than one type of voter to build a bridge to the White House. The difference between libertarian Republican voters and fundamentalist Republican voters, for instance, can be especially glaring. Libertarians think it crucial that families and individuals make their own lifestyle choices, while fundamentalist Christians insist on a government that protects traditional morality. But during elections that turn on issues of foreign policy and the economy, when compromises must be forged, these conflicting policy preferences do not even get expressed, much less reconciled.

This explains why it is such a big problem that the maneuvering for a majority happens behind the scenes, in the boardrooms of the two major political parties. Rather than being able to keep a consistent ideology over time, the Republican and Democratic parties have become empty shells that offer hospitality to any suitably large group of voters or donors. Take white supremacists, for example. Everyone knows that the Republican Party has been winning massive victories in the American South, where the contingency of this movement looms large. What most people do not know is that neither the word “race-neutral,” nor the word “color-blind,” nor any reasonable facsimile thereof appears in the Republican Party’s 2000 platform. In other words, the cost of bringing several million extra voters into the Republican coalition has been official indifference to whatever racial discrimination lingers within America’s borders.

Frustratingly, there is nothing a Republican can do with his vote to urge the GOP to adopt a more principled stance on racial justice. He cannot credibly threaten to switch his vote to the Democratic Party, because that would mean endorsing a whole host of other policies with which he disagrees. He cannot vote for a third party, because American elections are winner-take-all, leading to the “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush” syndrome. This is why I support a system of proportional representation.

Under a system of proportional representation, or PR for short, parties get legislative seats in proportion to the votes from a nationwide election. Parties in countries with a PR system do not have to make compromises when they appeal to the voters— they can stand up for the ideology they actually avow. Then, after all the votes are tallied and the nation has a firm idea of where its citizens stand on each individual political issue, the parties start bargaining over power-sharing agreements. The informal process of coalition-building that happens in America anyway—hidden from public view—becomes a formal process made clear to the voters. If a group of voters does not like the way their party chooses its political allies, they can give it explicit indications of what parties it wants in its coalition, namely by threatening to shift its votes elsewhere if the desired groups do not join forces.

Though there are various technical difficulties associated with PR in the political science literature, it seems to work very well at sorting out the different strands of conservatism in countries like Germany and Israel. Germany, for instance, boasts a Free Democratic Party committed to free markets and capitalism alongside a Christian Democratic Party built up from networks of mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches. The Free Democrats have won up to thirteen percent of the German vote and have been indispensable to German coalitions that sought to avoid the high taxes tolerated by the Social Democratic Party. The Christian Democrats have actually named chancellors for several election cycles. All told, both conservative parties have had an opportunity to enact their policy preferences into law based on the support of a distinct ideological group rather than an amorphous “Grand Old Party,” whose party lines are drawn based on pragmatism and not on intellectually coherent systems of belief.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s coalition of 2003 is sometimes described as right-of-center, but this is an oversimplification that helps us forget how clumsy American politics can be. Thanks to the secularist Shinui party’s huge victory, in which it picked up 15 of 120 seats, Sharon’s coalition is further to the left on religious issues than any Israeli government in history. On the economy and on Israeli-Arab relations, however, Israel’s majority coalition is still fiercely rightist. Individual citizens may or may not favor this kind of policy result, but living in Israel, Germany, or any other country with a working system of proportional representation allows the voter to influence the policy area about which he cares the most. In this system, the voter can try to institute the specific policies he wants by voting for a party that agrees with him on all the issues, not just merely enough issues to make the Republican Party seem like a lesser evil.

America’s Founding Fathers made sure that our electoral system would respond to disgruntled voters who had a distinct set of interests tied to the climate and culture of their home state. I am a proud citizen of Florida, but I do not understand why strongly-felt interests have to split neatly along geographical lines to be worthy of representation in Washington. The republican tradition as we understand it today demands that we leave behind the tired corruption of the two-party system.

There is a good reason why the two-party system was never written into the Constitution: because it is more important to acknowledge the views of principled minorities than it is to cram all Americans into two homogeneous, ever-feuding camps. To be a conservative is not to blindly support the Republican Party. Rather, to be a conservative is to champion the cause of proportional representation. It is time we took the power to shape America’s ideals out of the hands of backroom political strategists and put it back into the marketplace of ideas.

Jason Green-Lowe is a rising junior in Trumbull College.


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