The specter of third parties is haunting the American political landscape this year and its eerie noises are ringing convincingly for once.
Many signs point to the ghost's presence: Ross Perot's money is so far surmounting the considerable obstacles the political establishment places in the way of upstarts. Erstwhile senatorial wise man Bill Bradley publicly muses about an independent run for president. The left mumbles continuously that its interests are not truly represented by the Democratic Party; the Republican Party is heading for a schism over the power of the religious right and Buchananite economic populists. An October Times-Mirror poll shows nearly 60 percent willing to vote for a nonmajor-party candidate. After Perot's success in 1992, the throw-the-bums-out fervor represented by the term limits movement, and 1994's congressional upheaval, never in living memory have conditions seemed more propitious for a real realignment in the ossified two-party system.
The response to this spooking from the traditional political/intellectual establishment, as represented by political scientist Theodore J. Lowi writing in The New York Times, is to assure us that the ghoul is more Scooby-Doo than H.P. Lovecraft: really something quite sensible and understandable. It's merely a desire, Lowi proclaims, for another party that's just like the two we already have: a "centrist" party to capture voters that our current two parties can't.
Those who want a center-left, generous government that isn't too bureaucratic, doesn't tax too much, and isn't controlled by special interests want something that they can never have. That fantasy is, however, the only positive image of government to which the typical newspaper -reading American is ever likely to have been seriously exposed. The range of ideas of what is possible in politics is all too centered on our current major-party electoral options, and those options are quickly losing their ability to satisfy.
The Times-Mirror survey both indicates the growing dissatisfaction with the big two parties and casts doubt on Lowi's thesis: While roughly 20 percent of the electorate gives allegiance to neither major party, these voters are not waiting to be drawn into some new centrist third party. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the dissatisfied "agree on very little other than alienation from Republicans and Democrats and from the government itself."
Those 20 percent are particularly ill-served by the two-party stranglehold on both elections and the respectable selling of political ideas, which rarely get discussed in this pragmatic nation unless associated with electoral politics. Consequently, these voters don't get exposed to the ideas about government that might satisfy them.
We shouldn't assume, however, that the other 80 percent of Americans are totally happy either. Strong ideological schisms are growing within the major parties too–among libertarians, Buchananites, and religious rightists in the GOP and Naderites, Rainbow Coalitioners, and DLCers in the Democratic Party.
Lowi does have an important point: Only a party centrist enough to split ideological differences among tens of millions of disparate voters has a real chance of building the apparatus that could allow it to win under our first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all electoral system. But to think America needs only a third party that can win misunderstands the important role of third parties in America's past–and possibly its future.
Historically, third parties have served three main purposes: First, as repositories of cutting -edge ideologies that eventually succeed in influencing and changing the two big parties; such alternative parties include the Free-Soil Party and the People's Party, or Populists. Second, as temporary homes for single-interest splinter groups who can no longer conspire in peace with their fellow party members, such as the Constitutional Union Party and the State's Rights Party (Dixiecrats). Third, as rallying points for individual political leaders, such as George Wallace's American Independent Party.
New parties serving all three functions exist or can be detected on the horizon. Any or all of them could address the political disaffection of both the 20 percent and the 80 percent. But many barriers stand in their way, both regulatory and ideological.
The most important regulatory barriers have to do with time and money, thus reinforcing each other: ballot access laws that require spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and frustrating man-hours just getting on the ballot, and campaign finance laws that restrict individual donations to political campaigns.
The wide variety of ideological think tanks and magazines proves that there is money available for electorally marginalized stances. But a candidate must raise money in increments of no more than $1,000, a difficult and time-consuming process. An alternative candidate–say, a Ralph Nader or a Harry Browne–could much more easily find 50 wealthy like-minded people willing to give $100,000 than 5,000 people willing to give $1,000. Currently fashionable campaign-finance reform ideas will only solidify the two-party incumbent advantage by further limiting the potential base of support. But it's possible that as throw-the-bums-out fervor mounts, even that barrier may fall. Soon, there may be no way to keep office except by easing the barriers that protect incumbency.
The most important ideological barrier is that third parties tend not to be taken seriously by the serious, accomplished people who could make them work, both as activists and voters. This is a chicken-or-the-egg problem, but the major parties might be about to inadvertently make this dilemma less trying. If, as seems likely, 1996 offers the voting public a "respectable" choice between Clinton/Gore and Dole/some governor from the Midwest, perhaps the Naderites and Rainbow Coalitioners and serious libertarians and serious Christians will realize that they aren't really going to get what they want from the two parties as they are now.
The benefits to the polity of electorally and ideologically healthy third, fourth, and fifth parties would accrue not just to those who get a chance, finally, to vote for something they really want. With better-defined ideas fencing publicly, drawing the attention of the media gatekeepers of information and argument, the level of understanding of the political choices facing us will rise. And new choices are vital to parsing out solutions to many current problems–tax levels, Social Security, Medicaid, declining education, inner-city decay. No, those crises can't go on forever. But how they stop is of primary importance, and the current two parties–as the weak-kneed aftermath of the "revolutionary" new Congress shows–are not ready for the serious change necessary.
The impending crash of overweighted New Deal/New Frontier governance, and the tumultuous dissatisfaction with current political choices, suggest we might be on the cusp of a sea change in American politics. Electoral arithmetic may dictate that the impending realignment will produce another two-party system. But encouraging healthy third, fourth, fifth, and sixth parties now increases the chances that those two new parties will represent interesting and valuable ideas–especially ideas that take seriously, really seriously, how to roll back the megastate left by their predecessors.