Thursday, October 25, 2012

What Third Parties Are Doing Wrong

Last night on MSNBC, Lawrence O'Donnell came out in defense of Third Parties in the United States, highlighting a barely-noticed debate between the lower-tier Presidential candidates that NOBODY in mainstream media ever mentioned until he did.

But then he suggested something I feel is the wrong thing to say in a closely-held election we're having this 2012, when every vote counts for Obama facing a "why is Romney even getting this many voters considering how UNPOPULAR Mitt is" situation.  O'Donnell encouraged the voters in the non-battleground states - especially California - to go ahead and vote for a Third Party Presidential nominee.  O'Donnell may be thinking that "oh, enough party-line voters in places like California will STILL vote for Obama," but making any kind of protest vote even in supposedly solid states can bring up the woes and follies of the 2000 Election all over again.  Where enough votes get siphoned away from a major party candidate that DID NOT deserve to lose those votes (Gore) against the other major party candidate who'll turn out to be an unmitigated disaster (Bush the Lesser).

I get a little bit why Lawrence O'Donnell is saying this: he's as frustrated as a lot of us are about how the Two-Party system is strangling our government, our voting choices, our chances of branching off into different yet potentially incredible actions for our nation.  But O'Donnell is looking at this the wrong way.  Mr. O'Donnell sir, this is NOT how you encourage Third Parties to thrive in the United States.

This is the problem with Third Parties: they are more focused on the top office for election - The Presidency - and almost not at all for the more important offices lower on the ticket - such as Senate, House, Governorships, State Legislatures, etc.

The Third Parties all operate under the assumption that winning the Big One - the White House - will spring up enough voters to maintain a solid party base for years if not decades.  They seem to think that all it will take is the right face, the right celebrity, the right charismatic leader and enough people will rally to that person and viola!  They get a regular seat at the political table.  This is why you more often than not see a ton of names in the Presidential ballot - here in Florida, I'm counting TWELVE party candidates for Presidnet/VP, not including the Write-In option - but barely ANY in the other open elections for Congress, Senate, State Representative, etc.

But this is all wrong.  At least in this day and age.

Maybe back in the beginning, when Parties formed during the first years of our Constitutional system, it helped that the parties had natural leaders around which they formed - Federalists to Hamilton, Republican-Democrats to Jefferson - if only because everyone was starting off on the same footing.  And the way the voting system was set up - Winner Take All per district or state - it was simplest to have two parties fighting over parking spaces in DC (well, for the horse-drawn carriages).  It's interesting to note how when one party died off - Federalists, by the 1820s - the system so abhorred a vacuum that a replacement party - Whigs - formed to fill that vacuum.

But the Whigs quickly demonstrated why a party formed around one person - or one issue - doesn't last very long or do very well.  For the Whigs were formed in specific response against one person: Andrew Jackson.  When it came time to actually do anything regarding issues, the Whigs found themselves disorganized and leaderless.  Hating Jackson - which is natural, considering how much of a bastard he was - could only go so far.  It especially hurt because thanks to fate the first President Whig - William Harrison - died in 30 days, leaving his VP John Tyler the keys to the White House... and Tyler was only a Whig specifically because he hated Jackson.  Tyler quickly turned out to be a Democrat at heart and vetoed nearly every Whig legislation that crossed his desk.  This killed party unity before the party had a chance to solidify.

The successor to the Whigs - The Republicans - succeeded a bit better because they worked not only at putting up Presidential candidates - first in 1856 - but also lined up party members for the House and Senate.  They put a full platform, unlike the other potential Whig cast-offs like the Free-Soil Party: and THIS is how you're supposed to get a successful Third Party going.

The party is not as much its leadership as it is the voting base, the people who actually VOTE for those leaders in the first place.  For all we rail against the wingnut factions of the major parties, they serve a purpose of basic party foundation (the trick is to find the saner members of those factions to offer up for elections).  You need to coalesce a large enough group of like-minded citizens, get enough of them to volunteer for the less glamorous but still-vital offices at the state and congressional levels, and work hard at getting enough of those candidates elected to make a difference in office.

Better still, the ones you elect to the lower offices become viable candidates for higher office.  State Senator can campaign for Governor.  State Representative makes a try for Congress.  From the U.S. House to the U.S. Senate.  And from any of those higher offices, a genuine shot at the Presidency.

The thing the Third Parties need to do in this day and age is build from the ground up.  Don't even run a candidate for President until you've got enough party members elected to other offices who can then prove themselves in those duties that one of them can perform the duties of the President.

The other thing about getting a successful Third Party going is to KEEP GOING AS A THIRD PARTY.  We've had other attempts - The Populists in the 1880s-90s, for example - where that third party was gaining ground... only for that party to get absorbed by either the Democrats or the Republicans, whichever was closest in ideology to them.  Other times - the Bull Moose progressives under Teddy Roosevelt, the Reform Party of Ross Perot - the third parties were the vanity project of a particular headstrong candidate who focused only on the Presidency and did little to establish a solid ground game for their vanity parties to survive.  Once Roosevelt and Perot were out of the picture for each one, both parties crashed and burned.  It didn't help for the Reform Party that they got hijacked by Pat Buchanan in 2000 who turned that party into a mirror of himself - twisted and evil - before driving it into bankruptcy and then heading back to his home party of the Republicans with nary a scratch.

The successful Third Party is going to have to defend their way.  There will be attempts by both established parties - Democrats and Republicans - to kill off a third option for voters (because two parties make it predictable).  The Third Party is going to have to insist on retaining its own existence even when/if it has to caucus in Congress with one of the two major parties (especially making sure their party leaders do get key chairmanships to prove party value, and also not switch brands).

Dear Mr. O'Donnell: if you want a Third Party to come along and talk about the issues that NEED talking, that NEED solutions, then by all means promote the concept.  But do us all a favor: push those Third Parties to do the hard work of getting a groundswell of support by spreading out and getting more candidates into more offices down-ballot.  Meanwhile, right now, GET THE DAMN VOTE OUT FOR OBAMA AND MAKE SURE ROMNEY NEVER GETS NEAR THE OVAL OFFICE.  ahem.  Needed to be CAPS LOCKed, sir...


Now, off to lunch.  When I get back here, I wanna hear back from the most moderate party out there (hope that's the Modern Whigs) about getting on the ticket for Governor in 2014.

1 comment:

Bill Harshaw said...

You missed some, most notably the Socialist and Communist Parties (Norman Thomas almost became respectable, Gus Hall never did). New York used to have the Liberal and Conservative parties, though they're no longer as important as they were in the 1960's/70's.

One route for third parties is as the offshoot of a membership organization, which can supply cash and mobilize workers. But based on Putnam's Bowling Alone, we don't have the mass membership organizations these days, at least on the liberal side. The conservatives seem to have the home schoolers and at least used to have the evangelical right, both of which have non-political focuses (school and church).

The Green Party and the Naderites don't seem to have the same basis: maybe the locavore/foodie/crunchie types but that seems to a geezer to be a dubious foundation for a party.