Art Carden  

Time for a Third Party? Let's Bet

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Via Students for Liberty on Facebook, I saw this Politico article reporting polling data showing "Record demand for third party." As one of the comments points out, it's the sort of thing that gets attention periodically but that never really goes anywhere (in my limited experience with alternative politics).

I know this from experience. I was an enthusiastic supporter of Harry Browne's Libertarian presidential campaign in 2000 and for Libertarian candidacies around Alabama, and I remember being mystified at the number of people who held their noses and voted for Al Gore or George W. Bush in the Presidential election even though they were more closely aligned with Browne, Ralph Nader, or Pat Buchanan. I witnessed the same phenomena in 2008 and 2012 in Tennessee and Alabama. I might have had a bit more sympathy if these had been swing states, but there was absolutely no way Obama was going to win either. I've written on the (il)logic of collective action in Presidential elections a few times for Lifehack, the Beacon, and Forbes.com.

I'm therefore skeptical that a third party will make much headway in the next few election cycles. Thus, I propose a bet: my $100 against your $20 says that no third-party challenger will win a seat in the US House of Representatives or the US Senate in 2014. Note that I would still win if someone wins as an independent: someone might win as an independent, but I don't expect anyone running under the Libertarian or Green or Socialist or whatever banner to win. It's a bet I would be very happy to lose, but I certainly don't expect to. Email me if you want in on the action or if you want to propose an alternative.

EDIT, 2:15 PM Central: I have a taker!


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
BZ writes:

No bet here, though, as an official in the Texas LP, and chair of my county LP who works year round to further our goals, I also facepalm whenever I read "We need a third party!".

I don't need to tell the astute that the winner-take-all voting system in the U.S. is designed to produce two parties.

However, third parties can and do have an impact at the margin. For example, I've met several small-l libertarians who said they saw the light from learning about the candidacy of the same wonderful man Dr. Caplan mentions: Harry Browne. For many people, election time is the only time they are thinking about politics, and that's precisely when we want to put libertarianism into their consciousness.

BZ writes:

Doh! -- sorry Dr. Carden, my fingers typed "Caplan" in my previous reply without thinking!

Tom E. Snyder writes:

The problem with a response that you want a third party is the same as the response you think the country is headed in the wrong direction--it's ambiguous. If you ask these people what this third party should stand for you'll get enough different answers for at least two new parties. People who say the country is moving in the wrong direction would not even agree on which way it is currently moving, much less on which way it should go.

The only hope for more than two parties is for both of the current parties to fracture at the same time into four or more. Large numbers of voters of neither party will abandon ship if that means throwing the election to the other.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

It turns out VA Libertarian Party gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis won't be invited to the last debate with his Demopublican counterparts. His polling average was 9%, and the rules (set up by his Demopublican counterparts) was that he needed 10%.

I think the problem is that without power, third parties mainly have ideology to sell to their constituents, so they tend to attract ideologues, I have no problems with ideologues if they have correct ideas, but politics is more than ideas, it is power as well. Some classically liberal ideas are going to be an easier sell to an irrationally biased electorate, so probably better to emphasize those than ideas that are less likely to get public support, even if they are good ideas.

On the other hand, I can easily imagine a Republican Party becoming a long-term opposition party, and perhaps even one with the ability to elect politicians regionally. At that point, it is possible that another party could have a serious entrance for power.

Harold Cockerill writes:

It seems the main difference between the two major political parties is the rate at which the country should be screwed. Until a significant portion of the electorate sees themselves being victimized by both parties, and agrees on the nature of the damage inflicted, a third party will get no traction.

MingoV writes:

Third parties do not get 'traction' because many voters want to ensure that the major party candidate they dislike the most doesn't get elected. Thus, they vote for the other major party candidate even if they greatly prefer a third party candidate.

@BZ: "... third parties can and do have an impact at the margin..."

Yes, but it's often in the wrong direction. For example, most supporters of the Green party identify more with democrats than republicans. In a close election, Green party votes (that otherwise would have been democratic party votes) could result in a republican win.

Hugh writes:

To my way of thinking it makes no sense for a third party to stand in the Presidential elections.

The (limited) energy and funds of a third party would be better focused on local politics - at least until such time as critical mass is achieved.

Personally I would love to see a Libertarian dogcatcher. But that's just me.

Harold Cockerill writes:

MingoV - that's why I added the qualifier about the need for agreement on the nature of the damage being done. I see a huge problem with the growth of government. Many disagree. Maybe I'm wrong and more government is needed. Given the nature of the two major parties that's what we're going to get so I hope my assessment is incorrect.

libertarian jerry writes:

First of all half of the eligible voting age population don't even vote. Next,those that do vote usually vote for the status quo. This is the reason we have fiscal problems in America today. People vote their economic interests. Most voters have been lead to believe that politicians are there to solve the voters problems for them. Most voters like things the way they are as long as someone else is paying for it. A majority of the voters are,in one way or another,riding on the government gravy train. That's why they keep returning the same politicians to office over and over again. With that said,the biggest factor is that most politicians,with few exceptions,have been bought and paid for by the real owners of America. The real owners being the elitist and globalists behind the scenes. The politicians are just their puppets. This is why half the people don't vote. They realize that it is futile to try and change a corrupt,rotten system that has become a criminal enterprise that is eating away at America like a corrosive acid.

Shane L writes:

As BZ said, the electoral system strongly inhibits the development of smaller parties.

Here in Ireland we have the PR-STV (Proportional Representational by Single Transferable Vote), which is an interesting system:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_transferable_vote

The parliament better reflects the will of the electorate and therefore there are multiple parties with a shot at getting into government.

I remember describing this to American friends once, but they were concerned about giving more power to fringe parties like Libertarians or Greens, thinking that this would empower radicals.

In Ireland, I believe this has not been the case. The two largest parties in the 20th century were both moderate centre/centre-right parties. Smaller, more ideological parties would go into coalition with one or other of them. Thus the government would be centrist, but flavoured by the ideological party's influence.

An interesting side-effect seems to be that small, ideological parties tend to lose popularity after entering such coalitions. The Progressive Democrats (right wing) collapsed and actually disappeared after a coalition with the centrist Fianna Fáil. So did the Greens (environmental, left wing). At present the smaller Labour Party (centre-left) is in coalition with the larger centre-right Fine Gael, and Labour is suffering some of its lowest popularity in decades.

(We can see this in UK now too, where the Liberal Democrats battled to win a place in coalition with the Conservatives, and are now being destroyed in the polls.)

My guess is that centrist voters are reasonably content with their moderate choices, but more ideological voters grow disillusioned as their parties appear to abandon their principles while in coalition with a larger partner. Ireland's Labour Party seemed passionately left-wing before the last general election; odd to seem them blandly defending welfare cuts now that they're in coalition.

So what would happen in the US? Hard to know, but perhaps it would lead to more moderate politicians and voters remaining with Democrats and Republicans, maybe causing these parties to drift towards the centre. Smaller parties would thrive with more ideological platforms. The tensions between religious social conservatives and libertarians might lead to Republicans of either persuasion splitting off into smaller parties, and likewise with Democrat environmentalists, protectionists, etc.

There could be interesting coalitions. Perhaps libertarians would find common cause with Democrats or Greens on immigration or war? Coalitions would form and break apart with each electoral cycle.

I understand that Ireland's political system must seem unappetising since the fumbled economic boom and bust of the 2000s, but I do like the electoral system. Glad to live somewhere where my vote is not wasted and I may choose between multiple options.

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