Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Case for a Three-, Four-, or Five-Party System

There has been a gratifying influx of mail from Radley Balko readers in response to yesterday’s post, which discussed whether the average citizen is qualified to pass judgment on specific numbers associated with the economy. My point was that without extensive research and reasoning, few of us are qualified to comment intelligently on certain complex issues.

I say “gratifying” not because those readers agree with me (they don’t), but rather because they disagree for specific reasons and bring up a variety of points that would be well worth debating. I find this a refreshing change from the position of many conservative members of the GOP (General Opposition Party), whose entire argument often boils down to circular reasoning: “Obama is wrong because his policies are bad because Obama is wrong.”

While it seems unlikely that I will ever embrace the principles of Libertarianism, for a variety of reasons, I’m beginning to think that this toddler of a political party just might grow up to be the best hope for the country—not because Libertarians are “right” but rather because they may be capable of building a viable third party in America.

During the past six decades or so, politics in America has devolved to such an extent into a destructive, two-party war of words that it’s damn near impossible to get anything done any more. The government in Washington—that incredible, 230-year-old experiment—grinds away, eating up trillions of dollars and the lives of dedicated men and women. Due to obstructionism and partisan politics, it too often accomplishes very little. The waste of time and human resources is incalculable. The government is like a good furnace, working away in a house with all the doors and windows open.

Because of its two-party system, America has been increasingly been caught in the vice of either-or fallacies: government or the market, states’ rights or federalism, capitalism or socialism. Staking out a position for only one of each of these pairs is like deciding which type of person should inhabit the planet—men or women. If either side wins, once and for all, the result will never be fruitful.

Enter the Libertarian Party—which, if I understand correctly, places much greater emphasis than either of the other two parties on individual rights. From that perspective, it concerns itself with matters such as privacy, individual sovereignty, and minimal interference of government in the lives of its citizens. It seems to be generally opposed to legislating morality in matters like abortion and gay marriage. It appears to reject a relationship between government and its citizens that is either nurturing or controlling, paternal or maternal. My impression is that Libertarianism demands an adult-adult, businesslike relationship between what government is necessary and autonomous, responsible citizens.

Libertarians have staked out a territory that is neither big government nor big business. It’s not about who has the right to control the populace but whether anyone does—other than individuals themselves. Inserting this new perspective into the public discourse has the potential to completely change—and enrich—the tired, repetitive old rhetoric of “us-vs.-them.”

There are other territories, as yet uninhabited, on the political landscape. Perhaps it’s time for someone—Al Gore, for example—to found a Green Party in America, which could help focus attention on our nation’s relationship with Planet Earth. Personally, I’d be likely to vote often in favor of a party (perhaps it could be called the “Darwinian Party”) dedicated to promoting reason and scientific literacy.

Breaking out of the old two-party paradigm has the potential to free the entire nation to take a fresh look at our increasingly new world. Democrats and Republicans alike, we really must stop just repeating ourselves. So Libertarians, I may not agree with you about many things, but in all sincerity, I wish you well!


Bill said...

I'm glad you appreciated the responses from Radley's readers, and also glad for your appreciation for minor parties.

It might be helpful to know that there are both Libertarians and libertarians: "capital L" Libertarians indeed are associated with the Libertarian Party, but there are many "small l" libertarians who adhere to the libertarian philosophy, but may or may not be part of the party.

There are several challenges to third parties in the U.S. First is the "spoiler" effect, whereby a substantial turnout for a third party candidate whose positions are similar to that of a major party candidate, resulting in a split vote which allows the candidate who actually represents the less popular position to win. This could be offset by innovations like instant runoff voting, but that's not something that the Democrats and Republicans who control the process right now are likely to institute.

A similar problem is that, since the people who control the process are the incumbent Democrats and Republicans, numerous barriers have been erected to keep minor parties minor, such as discriminatory ballot access laws that require more signatures to get on the ballot if you're not a Democrat or a Republican, and some campaign finance laws that similarly slant the playing field--not to mention outright subsidies to the major parties, such as government money to host their conventions.

However, there are upsides to voting for minor party candidates, as well:

Even though the Socialist Party in the U.S. never won an election, the "spoiler effect" I mention above probably pressured the major parties into accepting some Socialist positions into their platform, such as Social Security.

Higher vote tallies for third parties, even in the 5% range, can help to ease ballot access restrictions in future elections, so your vote for a candidate who stands no chance to win today's election may count a lot for tomorrow's.

And, as long as we keep losing the big elections, it doesn't matter who does win: when things inevitably go south, I can always shrug and say, "Thank goodness I didn't vote for him!"

Citizen Jane said...

Bill, many thanks for clarifying the difference between the two types of "libertarians," as well as your cogent comments about voting for third party candidates. Next time a national election rolls around, I won't automatically consider votes for a third-party candidate as "wasted" votes!

pistoffnick said...

" too often accomplishes very little."

If only it would accomplish less...

If only their were 304 million political parties...

If only personal freedom (and the responsibility that goes along with that) were allowed to blossom...

Tom G said...

Jane, one (of many) obstacles in the way of third parties being more visible is the presidential debate process. This Wikipedia section gives a short history of recent events (since 1976):
Read the section marked "Debate Sponsorship". As you can see, the 2 major parties now control ALL terms of any presidential debate, effectively locking out any other political party for the foreseeable future.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see your response today - to build on your analogy... I see that furnance you speak of with the windows wide open in the house as operating at full steam while it is 110 degrees F outside... meanwhile the politicians are working to even greater expand its capacity and throw more of our tax dollars in to that ever-burning, ever growing furnance that needlessly and destructively wastes our tax dollars and makes our lives even more uncomfortable to the point of nearly unbearable. There will come a point when there is a complete meltdown and we run out of fuel for the furnance when we need it most.

Anonymous said...

One reason for the dearth of 3rd parties in US politics is the plurality voting system (choose ONE candidate from the slate), which has been proven (in both the practical and mathematical senses) to lead to two-party domination. The most viable alternative I've seen, and the one with the most convincing evidence that it would actually improve things, is Range Voting. See

Citizen Jane said...

Tom G. and Barak, thank you both for the insights into the election process and how it works against choice and third-party candidates. Very interesting.

Anonymous said...


You should check out Score Voting.