Monday, December 12, 2005

The Problems With Third Parties

The illustrious Carpetbagger has a discussion group today regarding the viability of third parties, and whether they can be “serious players on the national scene”.

I think this issue misses the point.  We don't have two parties; not by the normal meaning.  We have two permanent coalition parties, both of which are comprised of many smaller parties, or factions.  That's why a Democrat in a rural area is likely to be more conservative than a Republican in an urban area.  And a Congressman from rural Alabama will be different than a Congressman in rural Vermont, irrespective of party.  And how Texas switched from Democrat to Republican, without changing ideologies.  Sometimes the coalitions will divide themselves, as Clinton saw when he had trouble with his Dem-majority Congress, and sometimes they stay together, as Bush has had during most of his reign; including picking up many rightish Dems onto his side.  But they really are coalitions of smaller groups.  

And that is how other countries do it, except that everything is much more explicit elsewhere.  But in the end, Bush has to struggle to keep his coalition together, just like Blair does.  And because things are going poorly for him, Bush is now having trouble keeping any of his coalitions together.

And sure, politicians generally use the official party labels, but that belies the large amount of leeway within those labels.  There's a Dem v. Repub split, but a separate lib v. con split.  And within those categories, there are many sub-categories.  Sometimes they stick together, when they think that compromise is for the best; and sometimes they go separate, if they think that compromise is too compromising.  And each category survives in their local environment.  It's all supply and demand, or survival of the fittest.  Ted Kennedy might be unbeatable in MA, but would be unlikely to survive the Senate Democrat primary in a southern state like Texas.  There are personal issues involved with that, but overall, his style of Dem would not work here.  A Texas Dem would do poorly in Massachusetts, and a Massachusetts Dem would do poorly in Texas; at least assuming they had to run on the same platform as before.

And that begins to explain why it’s so difficult for a third coalition to form, because there’s already so much maneuvering room within the two main coalitions; and little advantage to break out of them.  If no one’s ever detailed the various coalitions that have formed within our political system, they should.  Because rather than the stiff “two-party” system which is seen as unfavorable compared to coalition-based democracies; ours are much more free-flowing and are only as old as the latest poll results.  And they can vary for individual issues.  It doesn’t necessarily grab large swaths of politicians at once, but rather adjusts according to the demands of each district.  This might be too far under the radar to see, due to its informality, but it is happening.  And if pols don’t do enough adjusting, they will be booted out.

And the only gauge we have to determine coalition strength are the votes of the individual politicians, as well as their statements.  The more an individual politician feels the need to break from party loyalty, the weaker the coalition is.  And in the end, each politician is his own faction; just as each individual is his own.  And that’s just as it should be.  The parties can only attract members to the extent that it can benefit those members.

And even presidential elections depend on the ability to achieve a sizeable coalition within their respective party; as well as forming a coalition in the national election.  And to achieve that coalition, a candidate has to give a message which pulls in as many separate groups as possible, while offending as few as possible.  And the Repubs have really used that to their advantage, by emphasizing a few issues which strongly appeal to many people; as opposed to Dems, who have lots of issues which appeal to many small groups, but which might offend the other groups.  

For example, a Dem’s pro-environment record might help him with environmental-types in California; but would hurt him with union-types in the Midwest.  Whereas, a vague “pro-value” message works well everywhere.  But that's coming to bite them in the butt, as the issues they picked aren't particularly actionable; while the actions they take aren't particularly popular.  And overall, their coalition is based on Bush, and the worse he does, the worse the coalition does; and the more they’ll have to rely upon their own individual messages.  And that will only serve to damage the coalition as a whole, as we’re already starting to see.  The more they have to come out on specific issues, the more they’re likely to offend Repubs elsewhere.

Support Your Local Congressman

People may complain about the lack of political choices, but we're really talking about individuals and not parties.  They may not like the party as a whole, but the individual they’re electing is tailored for their specific region; and not for a national race.  Which is why people can disapprove of Congress or their party as a whole, while continuing to support their specific Congressman.  

And if a particular individual can't cut-it in their regional district, it is unlikely that a different party would help them any.   Overall, the coalitions just want to back a winner, and will take anyone who will win for them.  If a pro-life, pro-war, pro-Bush Democrat can win, they’ll take it.  And the same goes for the Repubs.  As far as the parties are concerned, they want winners.  And so this is really more about individuals picking the coalition that will help them the most, and not the other way around; though a powerful party can certainly strive to pick the right kind of candidates; as Rove has been able to do, until recently.

And while politicians generally gravitate towards the party that is most like them; this is obviously not set in stone.  Different regions have different political demands, and our representatives try to fit those demands; which is exactly how it should be.  If a coalition insisted that all members fit the coalition-type, they would be guaranteed to lose whole regions of the country; and that is worse for the coalition than it is to admit the strays in.  

But of course, that’s exactly the whole point of the coalition.  That there is no one type.  Individual parties could dominate a specific region, but could never be strong on a national scale.  So they have to form with like-minded groups; and sometimes they’re not so like-minded. And so California Dems will support things that Iowa Dems hate, and vice-versa; but that’s just the nature of coalitions.  If nobody compromised, we wouldn’t have anything.  And the biggest compromise is in pooling their votes together under a single party banner; but that is exactly what is necessary to win on a large scale.

Separate and Unequal

And all this goes to explain why a third party could never succeed.  Because they aren’t alternatives to the two big coalitions; but rather separate factions of the two coalitions.  In this context, the various "third" parties are being led by faction leaders who are upset that their faction is being marginalized or overly compromising; and desire to take their supporters with them.  (And sometimes, they’re upset that they’re personally being marginalized.)  But it's not about winning elections, as much as punishing the party which marginalized them.

Because they can't win on a large scale.  Not because of the system, though it is rigged against them; but by the very nature of their split with the larger coalition.  The larger coalitions are necessary because it requires diverse groups of people to win elections in our large nation.  And so groups like the Green Party or the Constitution Party have no chance to win, as they can't possibly form a large enough coalition.  Because that was the whole reason they left their coalition to begin with.  Their only hope is to peel-off other factions, but that would only serve to undermine the purpose of their party; which was to get away from the coalition which was drowning out their voice.  And the more factions they peeled-off, the more their own would be drowned out.  And if the larger coalition had thought they could get enough votes by following the specific faction, then they'd do it.  And if the faction leaders thought they could convince the other factions, they wouldn’t have left the coalition.  

And that explains why no third party can defeat the two large coalitions.  Sure, there are logistical concerns in this; but they only explain short-term difficulties, which could be overcome by a strong movement.  But over the long-term, there are problems inherent in the system which prevents a third coalition from being effective.  And if it were effective, it could only serve to replace a current coalition under a different name.  But the individual factions would remain.  No matter how successful Nader became, he could never convince enough people to truly adopt his ideology in full.  If he could win them over to vote for his coalition, they would remain a separate movement within his coalition.  And that would defeat the purpose of his split.  Unless, of course, his split was purely ego-driven, as some people have suggested.  

But a third-party which stays pure to its specific agenda can never achieve large-scale success, for the same reason that they couldn’t achieve it within their larger coalition.  Again, if Nader could attract enough voters to rival the Republicans, he could have won as a Dem far more easily.  Why reinvent the wheel when you’ve already got a car ready to go?  You’d only do that if the car wasn’t yours to drive; and thus it was with Nader.

Don’t Forget About Poland

Overall, there are multiple-types of Dems and multiple-types of Repubs; and their ideology can be all over the map.  And that's because these are coalitions which act under a single title, and not specific parties with solid ideologies.  And when people complain about their party, they're often just complaining about the compromises that the coalition has made in order to stay together.  But the coalition only stays together when they think that they can achieve more as a group than as individuals.

When Bush looked like he could do no wrong, Repubs were glad to latch onto his coattails and be the Party of Bush.  They supported what he supported, no matter how abhorrent the idea was to them (budget deficits, anyone?).  But now that he's not doing so well, we're seeing many more independent-minded Repubs.  His coalition is falling apart.  But they’re not splitting off as individuals, but rather within the specific factions that they were always in.  The Social Conservatives feel used and ignored; the Fiscal Conservatives feel betrayed; and the Neo-Conservatives just feel stupid.  And within these groups are various sub-factions which have their own ideas of what needs to be done.  But these groups always existed as implicit parties within the Republican coalition.  And the only thing that kept them silent was the lure of success.  And the more they splinter-off, the easier pickings they’ll be for us.

And that's the way it always is.  If it's better for a pol to suck it up, and follow their party's lead; they'll do that.  But otherwise, they'll drop out of the coalition and go it alone.  Just ask Tony Blair about going it alone.  He'll tell you.  Sometimes, coalitions are just a drag.


Anonymous said...

Great post Doc. It really goes to the heart of the matter.

Ed M. said...

I don't see anything splintering.

I remember something from history called the "republican party", which apparently violated this rule, and something called the "whig party" which believed in all this consensus stuff and was quite rightly shoved into the dustbin of history.

I also can observe in the UK, most of the Labour leaders, the Labour papers, and most depressingly the rank and file Blairites who will regale you about the socialist cause for the liberation of Iraq (these folk quite pointedly don't exist in the U.S and I only get to guess but I guess they would if a Democratic administration had taken the next step and invaded instead of merely strangling and bombing Iraq every few months.

You could point to the parliamentary system that exists there and say "Ah-ha! They didn't do any better", and I'd agree. I don't think our system is the problem, I think it's that commisars that are still concerned about Nader (in near 2006, get a fucking life) would gouge out their childrens eyes rather than become apostates and not contort in incredible ways their principles and beliefs in service of the party.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Ed M. - I guess I'm missing something because I didn't understand anything that you just wrote. I think you missed my point and am talking past me; rather than addressing my points. And I suspect that perhaps you didn't even read what I wrote, but just hated the topic.

A few points: First, the Republican thing you mention was from a time-gone. I was referring to the way things are now, how they've been in modern history, and how they will likely remain within the mid-range future. Things can change, but for the time being, there will be no new parties. We're just too adapt at changing to the nation's demands. But overall, the point was that these aren't parties, but rather coalitions of unnamed smaller parties.

Secondly, I don't quite get your Nader point, but I can assure you that if Dem leaders believed that he could win the Whitehouse, they would gladly sign up behind him. They oppose him, not because of his ideology, but because they believe that he will hurt the party's chances at winning. Hell, they'd probably rather see a Nader presidency than I would, and I voted for the guy in 2000. They just want a winner; I think the guy is kind of a nutcase.

My point was simply that there is a lot of room for differences within the parties, and that people who blame the two parties are just missing the point. They are a minor evil which are necessary to compete on a large scale. Those who desire a third-party do so at their own peril, as their extremism can never defeat the larger coalitions they fight against. The more you want to win, the more you need to compromise. It's that simple. For third parties, they loathe compromise more than losing; but that is simply a recipe for more losing. And if they could garner a larger win, they'd do so within one of the two main parties.

And that's how the Repubs have done so well. Because they've essentially dropped all of their issues and became the Party of Bush. And before that, they were the Party of Meaningless Values. Rather than fighting lots of different battles nationwide, they've consolidated behind a few nice, but empty gestures. And they'll eventually pay for that.

Leif Wickland said...

My response.

drsqueeze said...

Ask a political scientist and they'll tell you that the US has a two party systm because it has a first past the post electoral system. If there was proportional representation or runoff elections then there would be a greater chance of a third party. In a fpp system a third party can win a large percentage of the vote and never win a seat.

Leif Wickland said...

From my blog:

Thanks to Tim and Doctor Biobrain for respectfully responding to my poorly reasoned response. I jumped in with a rant that vented my frustration at state of affairs in DC and didn't address the question at hand.

Now that I've actually thought about it, I think the point that the original post made is correct. I don't like that reality and I'd like to see that reality changed, but, yes, the point was correct; I was wrong.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Wow Lief, I'm impressed. This internet thing really does work sometimes. And while I always act like I expect to be able to move everyone to my position, I always find it very humbling and odd when it happens.