Third Party FailureCommentary by Pete du Pont
October 18, 2000
Turned off by two-party politics? The Commission on Presidential Debates excluded minor party candidates like Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan because they register below 15 percent in the polls. So, some voters complain that we always end up with two boring 6-foot white guys in suits and red ties, labeled "D" and "R," and policies that are hard to tell apart. Supposedly, this narrow menu causes a lack of interest and a high drop-out rate among voters.
Yet there's never a shortage of minor party candidates for voters to rally around -- the Ross Perots, John Andersons, Jesse Venturas, and even socialist Norman Thomas and Communist Gus Hall. This year, for example, to the left of Al Gore we have Ralph Nader of the Green Party taking boiler-plate socialist positions that everything will benefit from more political and bureaucratic control, especially corporate behavior. Nader's goal is a modest 5 percent of the popular vote but he appears unlikely to get it.
To the right of George W. Bush, we have Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party. Buchanan is a conservative nationalist who wants to "retake our country" culturally. Like all nationalists, he believes in an irreconcilable conflict between the economic interests of various nations, and harmony among the properly understood interests of all within a nation. Buchanan's campaign barely registers in the opinion polls.
In terms of winning elections, third parties in America have a pretty bleak record. Yes, Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota but drew less than 40 percent of the vote. Ross Perot got 19 percent of the presidential vote in 1992 on an anti-deficit platform, but both parties quickly adopted that idea. And that's the pattern back throughout U.S. history-quick adjustment by the major parties. The only minor party that became major-the Republican Party of the 1850s-displaced a major party because neither major party adapted to changing voter opinions about slavery and secession.
Not to be too disrespectful, running for President requires giving a good speech for 10 minutes six times a day, a pretty easy job. But success depends on a message that people can grasp and want to hear. That's where minor parties fail-most people aren't interested in their message. Failed candidates and parties insist that they have only a marketing problem, but the electorate overwhelmingly prefers incremental change from Democrats and Republicans to the radical vision of third parties.
R.W. Bradford, editor of Liberty magazine, points out the two problems facing fringe parties: "Voters seldom want to change things except incrementally, and when they do, the major parties are quick to adopt the sort of changes they want." That makes third parties mostly test vehicles for discovering new policies that might appeal to the electorate. For example, a Los Angeles comedian's presidential Web site's cure for our health care system's ailments is, "Dress warm, wear a coat, don't get sick." If that policy resonated, the major parties would quickly steal it.
John B. Anderson, the former 10-term Illinois congressman who drew nearly 7 percent of the votes for president in 1980, says the electoral game is "rigged" in favor of the two major parties. He's right, and it's a good thing, too. We have winner-take-all elections, for example, instead of the proportional representation scheme popular in Europe, which allows minor parties to win seats. More radical voting schemes can be constructed. Why not give each voter a 100-vote budget at each election, and he or she could spend all 100 votes on a single candidate or referendum, thereby allowing voter intensity to matter? But Americans are content with our current voting system and the endless political chaos of coalition governments is not appealing to U.S. voters.
A Wisconsin libertarian says, "Democrats and Republicans just pander." It's more complicated than that, but if you're seeking 50 million votes, there's no sense in trying to sell policies too far out of the mainstream. Journalist Todd Lindberg refers to the "law of the seven mentionings," the idea that the first mentioning is by a blue-sky academic or policy wonk, and then the idea circulates and re-circulates in policy and political circles until mentioned seven times, and then it's respectable to talk about it.
If the campaign seems bland, it's because our fellow Americans are reasonably content. Boredom and political stability will prevail until Americans become dissatisfied with high taxes and the welfare state and really want more freedom. If that happens, the major parties will turn on a dime or they won't be major parties any longer.
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