The Pols & The Polls

Steven Taylor argues that one of the main reasons that we don’t have a third party is that we have the primary process as opposed to the parties selecting its nominees:

Indeed, I would argue that one of the main reasons we do not have serious third parties in the US is that the primary process allows a method by which groups dissatisfied with a mainline party to work from within that party (e.g., the reason that Ron Paul always ran for congress as a Republican, rather than as a Libertarian). Of course, the main manifestation of this phenomenon at the moment is the Tea Party. The Tea Party faction of the Republican Party has no incentive to go the third party route, but every incentive to take the primary route. Players play by the rules of a given game, and they adapt to the options that a given game allows.

It’s certainly the case that political parties in the United States are nimble. I can also believe that they are nimble in a way that prevents third parties from rising up because their issues end up getting absorbed into the main parties.

pollingplaceI’d argue, though, that in the constellation of reasons that we don’t have continuous third parties, it’s a relatively minor one. The bigger issues are well-explored. I will be exploring them further in a future post, but our lack of proportional representation, and our lack of a parliamentary system are the two largest factors. While there are other cases of nations that lack proportional representation that nonetheless have multiple parties, the electoral college throws yet another wrinkle on it because our mechanism for handling non-majority presidents provides significant disincentives.

In the UK, if none of the three parties get a majority, there is a process of handing the government to a coalition of sorts. It’s not perfect, but it’s there. The center-right party gets a plurality over the two center-left parties and what happens? The center-right party gets the executive. Or maybe that doesn’t happen and the two center-left parties form a coalition. What happens in the US when a candidate fails to garner a majority? Well, who knows? You have to get a plurality of a majority of the electoral votes. And if nobody does? Well, we do have a system for that, but it’s an incredibly lousy one without a semblance of predictability. This is above and beyond a first-past-the-post system and its limitations.

In the comments, Taylor mentions comparable countries that have room for alternative parties despite having elements similar to our own. In addition to the parliamentary countries, he mentions India which also has an electoral college. As a matter of custom, though, theirs works differently from our own. Most notably, perhaps, their selection system can cope with the question of what happens when nobody gets a majority. (Their president is actually typically elected unanimously, but I assume this only occurs because the outcome is not in doubt.)

Because of all of this, alternative parties in the US have to contend with the fact that they have no chance at the executive and can, at most, affect legislation. I have difficulty imagining that being successful even with party unity. Typically, when we do have independent legislators at the national level, it is with the implicit understanding that they will be aligned with one of the two major parties and the voters will know which one (Sanders, King, Lieberman, Goode in 2000, Jeffords if he had run again).

My concern with moving to a system where candidates are subject to their party’s preferences (and then voters choose between parties) is that we wouldn’t see the flexibility between parties that Taylor refers to and instead we would be quashing intraparty reforms where they might be necessary and democratic. I certainly have my issues with the Tea Party, and a part of me wishes that the “adults can take charge!” of the GOP, but the adults in the party were content to deny not just Christine O’Donnell and Richard Mourdock their day, but also Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. And perhaps unlike Taylor, I don’t see their day having come in an emergent alternative party. I may not like the trajectory of the GOP under the Tea Party, but I’d prefer it be sorted out democratically rather than by committee. It was a committee that chose Ken Cuccinelli.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

14 thoughts on “The Pols & The Polls

  1. Great post and agree in entirely. The reason why the United States only has two parties has more to do with our political system and electoral system than anything else. Since the executive is independent of the legislature, third parties often have to run Presidential canddiates right away even when focusing on legislative races might be a more viable strategy. There were a few third parties like the Populists and the Socialists during the late 19th century and early 20th century and nearly all of them started running candidates for President as soon as they could because our political system made it necessary. Most of them ended up merging with one of the two main parties or disappearing from the political scene.

    In contrast, the UK’s Parliamentary system allowed Labour to emerge and remain as an independent party. A lot of working class people thought that the Liberal Party did not represent worker’s interests in the early 20th centruy UK and the Independent Labour Party emerged as a socialsit, working class party because of this. All they had to do was focus on winning enough seats in Parliament until the achieved a majority. When the Liberal Party collapsed after WWI, they received a giant boost. Irish Nationalists were also able to use the UK’s parliamentaryt system to form a viable third party during the late 19th and early 20th century. The Liberal Party had to support home rule for Ireland because it was the only way to get enough votes for what they wanted in Parliament.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. I’d agree with these reasons and add a third. It’s not in the Pols interests to have a third party. Look at the two choices put up in ever presidential elections. They are, essentially with few differences, very similiar. The two parties have nicely conspired, through actual action or happenstance, to keep the cannidates generally withing certain parameters. Those outside these limits are weeded out during the primary process, so that the general election is a simple choice between tweedle dee and tweedle dum.

      Quote  Link

    Report

      • Oh really?

        I’m sure hearing a lot about “immigration reform” and have been for several years. Everyone’s talking about it. Did it get much coverage during the last presidential election primaries or the general election? Nope.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • Around 50% of Americans support legalizing marajuana; neither of the major parties do, and both major parties continue conducting the War on Drugs. That’s just one example of where the parties don’t line up with public opinion.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • KatherineMW, I think the matter is more complicated. If 50% of all Americans support legalizing marijuana than the rest either don’t care or opposse it. Our political system gives great weight to political minorities especially if they feel a lot of passion. The drug warriors might be more passionate than the legalization crowd and the politicians respond to to them.

        Its also not fair to say that the parties are opposed to legalization. The Democratic Party has done much more legalization or at least decriminalization on a state level in California, Colorado, and Washington.

          Quote  Link

        Report

      • Lee,
        While I agree with you points I think the better answer is that a system has been put in place (the war on drugs) with so much money, funding, material, employment, that the momentum of the program will continue even if a majority of the public wanted all drugs legalized. Too much money, political influence, and corruption are contained in those three little words for that ship to change it’s course any time soon.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  3. I concur with Lee. It is the structure of our government and elections that prevents a third party rather than anything else.

    Every attempt at third parties has resulted in the election of people at more local levels of government. There have been socialist mayors and congress people but never in huge numbers. Maybe even a third party governor at various points. Or the third party merges with either of the big two like Farmer Labor in Minnesota merged with the Democratic Party in the 1940s to form the DFL.

    At best, third parties act as a spoilers like they did in 1912 with Teddy R running as a Bull Moose candidate and allowing Woodrow Wilson to be elected and maybe Ross Perot in 1992. Though there were also times when third parties could not spoil a Presidential election like 1948.

    Also we were stuck in a two party land when the primaries were weak tea or non-existent.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Many historians actually think that most people who voted for TR in 1912 would have voted for Wilson if TR did not run. Both TR and Wilson were seen as the progressive candidates and Taft as the conservative one. Since TR voters wanted a progressive in the White House, they would have voted for Wilson instead. In other words, if no TR in 1912 than Wilson gets more votes.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  4. Taylor’s post is an excellent critique of primaries. The part quoted by Will, however, is badly underdeveloped–Taylor simply doesn’t make a substantial argument there (perhaps because it’s not the main point of his essay), and what bit of an argument he does make is not persuasive. Collectively, the arguments made by the first three commenters on this post, Leeesq, Damon, and New Dealer are far more substantial and persuasive than Taylor’s truncated argument.

    But do read the post for his critique of primaries. Minus the two-party system mis-step, it’s spot-on.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • For the reasons explored in the last paragraph or two of my response, I am skeptical of party-based selection instead of primary-based selection. As part of a larger overhaul, though, I might consider it more worthy of consideration. Basically, I’d want to see a system that allowed for greater party fluidity before I let the two parties we have select their candidates for us. The primary systems aren’t perfect, but the alternatives do as well – especially without the “check” of a party being deposed if they consistently make the wrong decisions. I think it would be a mistake to look at the problems of the moment (primarily with only one of the two parties, which is paying a price for it) and extrapolate too much from them.

      The other thing I would add, which also adds to my skepticism, is that we already have issues with top-bottom conflicts where the top gets its way regardless of the views of the general electorate. You see this on trade a lot, and immigration somewhat, where the wealthy and the elite have their opinions and the everyman doesn’t. This is a problem I think would get worse, and not better, if voters were cut out of the candidate-selection process.

      Assuming, that is, that there isn’t a check on the two parties by the threat of a viable replacement party. Which is why I go back to a willingness to pursue this if, and only if, it is part of a larger overhaul. (Even though I, too, am tempted by an opportunity to shortcircuit the Tea Party Problem.)

        Quote  Link

      Report

  5. One of the leading factors leading to a United States two party duopoly system is a system of registration and candidacy and party regulation on ballot, in addition to the party primary, as well as a first-past-the-post system of winning strictly geographical districts, and no proportional vote. There are a number of factors, not just one that lead to a two party system.

    U.S. Congress made multi-candidate districts illegal for U.S. house races in 1842, because states previously had all-or nothing multi-member districts which would all go to a single party. So the singl-member districts were actually an improvement over prior electoral regimes, but still a long way from proportional voting. Thus our present single-member House districts.

    Once the secret ballot was put into place (a change from privately printed party-ballots that were on colored paper, so the party-employed poll-watcher could easily observe who voted for what particular party ticket), the government-controlled (which means legislatively controlled, which means party-controlled) ballot determined by law who could be listed next to a party name on a ballot, and even whether they could be listed on a ballot, and whether a candidate would be permitted to have one or more than one party endorsements.

    New York may be the only state remaining that allows a candidate to be a nominee of more than one party. This leads to some interesting policy and party coalition work in city and legislative elections when the potential margin of victory is slim.

    Compare this to Massachusetts, where a candidate must have been registered with a party as long a a year before an election, in order to participate in that party’s primary, and a primary loser cannot in Massachusetts subsequently mount an non-party ballot campaign, which is possible in other states. The losing Massachusetts party-primary-candidate in such a position must mount a write-in campaign, which naturually is a big challenge.

    In general, control over party listing by the government goes a long way toward eliminating minor parties from merging in coalition, as the two or more parties that might do so find themselves treated as a “new” party, without a history of prior support that is typically required to be shown in prior elections, in order to appear on a ballot.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. Following up and historical clarification.
    Although 1842 was the first time the U.S. Congress mandated single member districts, at-large multi-member districts still occurred, some times with disputes in congress about whether the candidates should be seated. With the census and redistricting laws renewed with each census, the single district mandate was not always in the current redistricting law,

    In 1932 the U.S Supreme Court ruled in Wood v. Broom that the provisions of each district apportionment act applied only to the census and apportionment for which the law was drafted, and expired upon enactment of the following apportionment law.

    In 1967 Congress passed a law (PL 90-196) prohibiting multi-member district-elections, which independent of a census and apportionment law. The law was passed after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and intended to prevent Southern states from using winner-take-all multi-member districts to reduce the influcence of the recently enfranchised blacks in the South. The law also enjoined courts from resorting to multi-member elections in states failing to come to agreement on newly apportioned districts, and such multi-member court-ordered districts were not desired by incumbents previously elected in a single member district.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *