Saturday, September 27, 2008

3rd Parties: What They’re For and What They Do

by Rick Gaber

Third parties shouldn’t really need an introduction. In my opinion they should be widely welcomed as an exciting and necessary part of political activity and policy advocacy. The fact that they’re not has inspired me to go ahead and set down some of the purposes and reasons-for-being of third parties and the benefits and services they provide. In the United States the founding fathers had no intention of prescribing political parties at all, let alone limiting the number of them. In fact, they’re not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. And that's why no fewer than 5 different candidates won electoral votes in each of the first four presidential elections. The dominance of two parties today is mostly the result of the states' using questionable winner-take-all electoral systems with built-in conflicts of interest, which even include allowing the winners to rewrite the election laws and redraw the legislative districts(!). This in turn elevates those people who are willing to compromise principles (if they even have any) to major player status, as it entices them to dilute their messages (if any) and join "major" political parties along with many other politicians with whom they would normally disagree. Besides, it (obviously) disadvantages, if not discourages, any principled competitors from the start.

The primary purpose of third-party candidates running for public office is to call attention to otherwise ignored, misrepresented, or even suppressed principles or issues. Eugene Debs did so for the plight of the factory worker and Ross Perot for the national debt crisis.** There are usually MORE than two sides to every issue – WAY more. And yet despite their hype and hysteria, when the smoke clears, the "major" parties often turn out to be on the same unprincipled side anyway.

The secondary purpose is to get the major parties to adopt the most important portions of the 3rd party platform as part of theirs (The Socialist Debs ran 4 times but quit after not only achieving this, his goal, but after seeing the progressive income tax and the Federal Reserve System, his two most history-changing platform planks, actually become law.).

Third parties give the far-sighted voter a way to make a visible statement and have a greater impact on the direction the country moves far into the future. In 1908 a vote for Debs had at least 33 times the long-term impact on the nation as a vote for any major party candidate (including the Republican Taft, who "won"), by my calculations.

They give the principled and knowledgeable voter a chance to cast his vote without feeling dirty afterwards, even feeling good, especially since every vote really counts to help a 3rd party get or keep ballot access (it's enormously important for helping a 3rd party get on the ballot in the future).

They work to enhance the prospects and credibility of lesser-known ideas and lesser-known candidates, especially the 3rd party's state and local candidates, to gain and solidify ballot access, to expand the party’s influence, to develop an ever-larger national presence, and maybe even to replace or supplant one of the so-called "major" parties.

They serve as what Richard Winger calls an " 'emotional bridge' for voters who have given up on supporting one major party but are not yet ready to vote for the other," and in so doing they don't just lure voters to the polls; in the long run they even help prevent "stagnation and tyranny," (see

Third parties give sources of leverage and ideas to major-party loyalists to "keep the pressure on" their party to adopt or emphasize positions or principles it tends to ignore, abandon or advocate much too feebly.

They provide a vehicle for like-minded people to meet, share ideas, brainstorm, strategize, develop new approaches to public policy, and spin off subgroups to raise public awareness of, and campaign about, specific issues even on a local basis.

Their presence and activity give whoever does win office more latitude and public support in choosing new or different public policy approaches or solutions to existing or anticipated problems, challenges, concerns or crises. THIRD PARTIES ARE WILLING TO TACKLE THIRD RAILS. SOMEbody’s got to be available to do it!

They often work to encourage changes in election laws where the 3rd party, its supporters and other voters would like to see fair and equal ballot access for all parties, or runoff elections whenever no one gets a clear majority, or cross-endorsement of candidates, or preferential voting, or proportional representation, or ease of casting write-in votes, or choice of "NOTA" (none of the above). After all, stupid, unfair, even outrageous state and local election and ballot access laws and enforcement methods have gone unchallenged long enough in hundreds of jurisdictions.

They actually IMPROVE the health of the "two-party system." According to Richard Winger in The Importance of Ballot Access, "Using the criteria of high voter turnout, the absence of gridlock, and exchange of power between the two major parties, we can see that our two-party system was healthy in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s ... [when] our political system contained many vigorous and powerful third parties."

(...and that this is NOT necessarily the only or primary purpose of a 3rd Party is a point often lost on many politicians, journalists and academics, let alone on the general public): They strive to win (which IS possible IF real equality in media coverage, as 3rd party candidate Abraham Lincoln enjoyed, is reestablished).

They give the otherwise ignored, used, abused, betrayed, disgusted, disappointed, frustrated, victimized, insulted, and/or outraged voter a chance to cast a vote without feeling dirty afterwards, a reason to go to the polls AT ALL in the first place, and maybe even to come out of the voting booth feeling GREAT!

"The old parties are husks, with no real soul within either, divided on artificial lines, boss-ridden and privilege-controlled, each a jumble of incongruous elements, and neither daring to speak out wisely and fearlessly on what should be said on the vital issues of the day." -- Theodore Roosevelt
"Third parties are very effective vehicles for forcing issues that neither party wants to address because of their controversy. They are very influential as incubators of ideas.'' -- Prof. Jeffrey Sedgwick, University of Massachusetts-Amherst in The Boston Herald, Sept. 17, 2000

** "It was third parties who FIRST introduced ideas like restricting slavery, granting suffrage to women, establishing minimum wages and controlling child labor... The difficulty of getting on the ballot state-by-state is surely a barrier deliberately erected by the major parties to keep third parties out of the field of play." ~ American University Professor Allan Lichtman on The Jim Lehrer Newshour, Oct. 22, 1996

"The irony is that no leading political scientist who studies political party systems believes that it is necessary to squelch minor parties in order to 'defend' the two-party system. The true definition of 'two-party system' is a system in which two particular parties are much bigger than all the others; it doesn't mean a system in which minor parties have atrophied into non-existence. The last leading political scientist who believed that it is socially useful to squelch minor parties was Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, but he changed his mind over five years ago, and now advocates that election laws treat minor parties equitably." -- Richard Winger, Ballot Access News December 12, 1996

"...when the variety and number of political parties increases, the chance for oppression, factionalism, and nonskeptical acceptance of ideas decreases." -- James Madison

"A sect or party is an elegant incognito devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to Heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." -- Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Francis Hopkinson, Paris, Mar. 13, 1789

"If parties in a republic are necessary to secure a degree of vigilance sufficient to keep the public functionaries within the bounds of law and duty, at that point their usefulness ends. Beyond that they become destructive of public virtue, the parent of a spirit antagonist to that of liberty, and eventually its inevitable conqueror." -- William Henry Harrison, Inaugural, March 4, 1841

"Look at the tyranny of party--at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty--a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes--and which turns voters into chattles, slaves, rabbits..." -- The Character of Man, Mark Twain's Autobiography"

"Joining a political party is like joining a gang." -- Chris Rock

"If mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind." -- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

"Not voting is just as bad as voting for evil men because it allows evil to succeed by default. Take a stand with people who support what you really support. Stop cowering and merely complaining about America's pending demise and act in such a way as to truly make a difference." -- Tom Ambrose

"In your entire lifetime, you will probably never vote in an election where your one vote decides the outcome. So why bother to vote at all? The correct answer to that question, the purpose you should have in mind when you enter the voting booth, is: 'my vote can make a difference because it tells incumbent politicians what I believe is right'. My vote simply says, 'this is the direction I want the country, state or community to take.' That's it." -- Richard Boddie

"If your one vote is like one drop of fertilizer in an eye dropper, and you had to choose between giving it to a small but vigorous tree seedling and an ancient, rotting (but huge!) old oak tree, WHICH ONE IS YOUR DROP GOING TO HAVE THE GREATER IMPACT ON? And how much greater would the relative impact be? Especially when you consider all the restrictive, unequal ballot-access laws which CAN make any one vote crucial to future ballot access for a third party. Don't you think those people who can and do THINK LONG-TERM should be the ones most encouraged to (and able to) vote?" -- from

©1997 Rick Gaber. Permission to reprint is hereby granted so long as it is done in its entirety and the source is referenced: .

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