We haven't always been starkly red and blue. Third parties require major grassroots building and a diversified platform—but it might be the cure for what ails our political gridlock.
History buffs and Hamilton fans alike will recognize the sage advice George Washington imparted when he stepped down from the presidency and delivered his 1796 Farewell Address: Don’t blow the taxpayers’ cash on tanks, don’t elect the same guy more than twice, and don’t let the nation’s politics devolve into partisan bickering. Essentially, George Washington was grabbing our fledgling nation by the lapels and screaming, “Don’t create a country that looks exactly like it will in 2017!”
Why is it unsurprising that Americans failed to read instruction manual? To be fair, military spending fluctuates depending on the administration, and the 22nd Amendment saw to the two-term rule we know and love. So why is our addiction to bi-partisanship so difficult to shake?
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension,” Washington said. “Which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”
Despotism, eh? Sounding familiar yet? Such a thought makes one yearn for an alternative to today’s donkeys and elephants. But what about third parties? Have they ever been relevant in the USA? Could they ever be relevant again?
Could third parties be our hope going forward?
Our nation hasn’t always been starkly red and blue. Over the course of the United States’ 200-plus-year history, third parties have been a source of idealism, pathos, and in a few very rare cases a viable political option. A select number of alternatives to Democratic and Republican candidates have risen through the political ranks to become real change-makers in Congress. In the late 1800s, the Greenback Party—whose platform was based on laborers’ rights—had 20 representatives in Congress, and elected officials in a handful of industrial cities. In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt formed the Progressive, or “Bull Moose,” Party, whose platform included limiting private campaign contributions and women’s suffrage. Roosevelt won 27 percent of the vote, second to Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson’s 42 percent. Republican candidate William H. Taft came in third, with 23 percent of the vote, and Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs came in fourth with 6 percent. As recently as 1992, H. Ross Perot scored just under 19 percent of the popular vote (though no electoral college votes) as an Independent, (and ran again in 1996 as the leader of the Reform Party).
The media attention granted to third-party candidates in the 2016 Presidential Election took a more sinister turn: Libertarian Gary Johnson, who received 3.2 percent of the popular vote, and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, who received 1.06 percent of the popular vote, were blamed for Clinton’s loss (among other things), as many felt these third-party votes would have been enough to push her over the top and into the Oval Office. Hetty Rosenstein, Working Families Party National Committee member and New Jersey Director for the Communications Workers of America union, sees how this scenario can cause permanent damage to the perception of third parties. “Third parties either have no impact, or at worst, they spoil the election … That kind of doomed strategy is no way to build a party,” she says.
This history reveals a handful of trends: The increasing power of the presidency has created a parallel increase in the weight voters place on the role (much more so than electing senators and representatives), making voters feel more compelled to go with a secure choice; the bipartisan politics involved in reaching the level of financial and public stability to run a successful campaign would be extremely difficult to navigate for a third-party candidate; globalization, American fear, and a widespread distrust of government, have exponentially decreased the viability of a third-party candidate over the last 100 years. Mention third parties in the United States today and you’ll be met with shrugs, raised eyebrows, and perhaps a few well-placed Gary Johnson-“What is Aleppo?” quips.
Despite the ups and (mostly) downs of third parties in the United States, their very existence should still matter to our democracy. Simply examine nations similar to the United States—France, England, Canada—and you’ll find vibrant multiparty systems. As a result, these countries operate on a political spectrum as opposed to a binary. It’s a conversation with many voices as opposed to a two-sided debate. There is not just “a winner” and “a loser” in creating and passing legislation, but a realistic dedication to the issues and the people that can only stem from more parties, each with a narrower scope. What could such a political spread achieve in our country?
Hypothetically, if a viable third party were to consistently carry as much political weight as the current Democratic and Republican parties (as opposed to the flicker of attention it gets every election season), our country might look entirely different. Congressional gridlock would be a thing of the past, political platforms would be forced to contain more specific and actionable language; the expansion of rights for marginalized groups—such as people of color and LGBTQ people—would be more consistent legislative topics. In the past, third parties have been the first to bring many of these rights to the table: “The abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, the 40-hour work week and the direct election of senators were all ideas that first found a home in minor parties,” says Rosenstein. “Minor parties were able to influence the debate and force the major parties to address their cause.” With a third party in power, one can only imagine the kind of progress that would take center stage.
A rising third-party in the United States would also provide a fresh slate for political newcomers: a chance to create a platform that is unreliant on big money, compromise, and unsustainable ethics—elements that are too deeply entrenched in our current parties to hope for resolution.
So, if a third party were to put forward a viable (sorry, Ralph Nader) candidate for the presidency, what concrete, actionable steps would the party have to take? While this is a hypothetical exercise, it’s a plan that political scholars and researchers seem to agree has the potential to yield results:
Construct a comprehensive, diversified platform: Most of the prominent third parties in United States politics have a narrow set of goals. The Green Party’s platform is focused largely on the environment; the Working Families Party’s platform highlights the needs of working families. While these are both issues worthy of attention, they may be too niche for the average voter to feel passionate about supporting, particularly when something as large as the presidency is at stake. A third-party platform would need to focus on the same issues as Democrats and Republicans—education, health care, taxes, and infrastructure—but with their own unique take.
Get candidates elected to local offices in a spread of areas across the country. This would increase the party’s national visibility and appeal to a variety of socioeconomic demographics. The Working Families Party says this is a key element of their strategy: “Every year, [we elect] school board members and city councilors and state legislators,” says Rosenstein. “We’re recruiting and actually electing the next generation of progressive leaders. Those leaders are helping to win progressive policies that are making a difference in the lives of ordinary people. It’s working—and that’s something people want to be part of.”
Run candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate. This would increase visibility not only to voters and those represented, but to other established politicians, as well. It is important that the third party have several members in elected office, so as to create a sense of community. Third parties too often center around a singular figure during presidential elections, but fail to showcase the depth of their membership. For example, could you name Gary Johnson’s vice-presidential candidate? Probably not.
Once a third party establishes itself in various levels of politics, they can run a viable candidate for president. It is arguable whether or not the presidential candidate should be someone with a pre-existing level of notoriety. For example, when Teddy Roosevelt ran his (somewhat) successful campaign as the helm of the Bull-Moose Party, he had already served as president for eight years. Voters look for strength, protection, and wisdom in a candidate (and yes, it feels deeply ironic to be stating that in the current political climate), so the third party would need to strike a balance between demonstrating those qualities while at the same time showcasing the greater depth of the party.
In all likelihood, the third party won’t win the presidency the first time they present a candidate. However, this should be viewed as yet another key opportunity: one to display consistency and resilience in the face of defeat. Third parties have a tendency to retreat into the abyss after another failed election, only rearing their heads when they sense the next round of primaries are afoot. It’s most likely that this is due to financial constraints. Third parties have less money, and so naturally they will spend it all on the election in order to best support their candidate. Thus, a successful completion of this step would require a good deal of financial backing.
Finally, the party would need to act as if it’s a viable option. There seems to be a sense, even among third parties themselves, that they are simply acting on idealism without any real hopes of running the show. Third parties need to present themselves with fervor, commitment, and a tangible sense of hope that voters are eager to latch onto. Otherwise, they’re doomed to remain at 1 percent of the vote every four years.
To make any of this happen—and the odds are working against it—an incalculable sum of money would be needed: The Avengers of the PR world would need to band together, and a number of established political figures would need to go out on a number of highly precarious limbs. And that’s just for an uncertain shot at making this third-party thing work.
But while the political, technical framework may pose an insurmountable barrier, it would appear that the United States population itself—the voters—could be more open-minded to a third party than election results suggest. A 2015 poll indicates that only 23.7 percent of Americans identify as Republicans, and only 30.4 percent identify as Democrats. The remaining 40.1 percent identify as Independents. These results indicate that both sides of the aisle are exhausted and unwilling to side themselves with what they see as political corruption from every angle. That 40.1 percent could be ready for something fresh, something new—something that doesn’t reek of old tricks. “America is characterized as a fight between right-wing Tea-Party Republicans and moderate Wall Street Democrats. That can often feel frustrating for progressive voters,” says Rosenstein. “For about 30 years, the Democratic party has drifted to the right, especially on issues of economic justice. But in our view, a corporate-friendly neoliberal Democratic Party is not how we’re going to save the nation from Trump.” Even the Green Party’s Jill Stein appears entrenched in these types of political dealings. The millions she raised for an election recount effort have seemingly vanished, leading many to believe what they had feared: Stein is but the latest politician to prioritize financial gain over public transparency, making it evident that she is not the type of grassroots, third-party politician primed for revolution. What’s more, Jill Stein was photographed attending a Putin-sponsored dinner, sitting across the dinner table from Michael Flynn and the Russian Federation president, himself. In sum: Politicians aren’t becoming more extreme—they’re actually becoming more homogenous; less like the people they represent and more like each other.
Though the volatility of today’s D.C. is starting to feel like a never-ending curse (most likely bestowed by George Washington’s ghost), perhaps the flipside is a political tabula rasa. Could the activism surrounding groups the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter break off into an entirely new political subset? It would certainly take a couple bucks and a lot of organization, but if the voters show up, the dollar bills and paper clips will follow.
If this all sounds very idealistic, that’s because it is. But idealism isn’t a bad thing: What many Americans seem to have lost touch with is the fact that this nation was founded on idealism, it has grown because of idealism, and it will only continue to succeed because of idealism. Incorporating third parties into our political system may not be a cure-all for the issues that presently plague the U.S., but a belief in, and commitment to, the values that would allow for a third party to flourish just might give this corner of the world the shake-up it needs.
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