The next president of the United States will be either a Democrat or Republican. It's a daring prediction, I know. But by sticking with it, I've called every election in my lifetime.
This might make it seem a waste of intellectual effort even to think about third parties. That attitude, though, reduces electoral politics to a purely instrumental role—which isn't necessarily the most illuminating way to think about it.
These days, we have two "third parties" that more or less take seriously certain attitudes implicit within limited factions of the two major ones: the Libertarians for strictly limited government types who find the GOP too statist, and the Greens for environmentalist/anti-corporate/mega-welfare state types who think the Democrats have sold their souls to monied interests. Of course, neither party has much of a chance of proving "significant" in the 2004 elections, on any level.
Mother Jones recently ran a detailed, thoughtful, and ultimately on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand story about the dilemma the Green Party faces in the wake of Ralph Nader, simultaneously the spoiler who hurt their reputation and the only man who got them official ballot status in many states.
His spoiler status made lots of possibly sympathetic voters mad at the Greens; but an energetic national campaign provides a very effective recruiting hook and, thanks to ballot-access laws, often the only chance to reach the starting line of elections without expensive and annoying signature drives. It might be, as Mother Jones suggests, that concentrating their time and resources on more-winnable local races would increase the Greens' electoral success rate. But election laws as they stand make that an impossible choice for third parties who strive for ballot access.
Ideological third parties are in a pretty inescapable trap in our current electoral system—no coincidence, as the rules are written by, and for the benefit of, the two major parties. Certain huge structural changes—like a return to ballot fusion (in which third parties could declare an acceptable major party candidate their candidate on the ballot as well) or a change to ranked voting (in which you don't just pick one favorite, but list your choices in preference order)—could increase third party clout in our system by eliminating the phony "wasted vote" dilemma. But such changes are obviously wildly unlikely. In our first-past-the-post two-party system, the best a third party can manage on the national or federal congressional level is being a spoiler. (Successes on more local levels seem scarcely more inspirational).
There are even more reasons to consider third party candidacy a waste of time. It's quite possible that on lower levels (though not on the presidential level), candidates who would have made ideal Green true believers might capture a Democratic Party nomination, or a staunch libertarian win the hearts of local or state level Republicans. And if libertarian-minded would-be political activists had pursued a Religious Right strategy of doing the party scutwork at the precinct level, thus achieving disproportionate power in the party apparatus, we might have a much more libertarian Republican Party today.
And as others have noted, "greens" (not Greens) have done far better for their ideology in the public arena pursuing strategies other than third-party politics.
But to leap from all those truths to the conclusion that third parties ought to pack it in ignores something important: Voting isn't purely an instrumental act. (If it were, and if each individual were striving toward rational maximization, there'd be even less voting than there now is, since any individuals' chance to change the actual outcome of an election is so minimal it's barely worth calculating.) Some people, after all, will only want to vote when they can cast their support publicly behind someone who truly believes what they believe, not just someone who is less awful along their relevant metrics than the only other "real" choice.
In thinking about third parties' role, one is musing about what tens of thousands of other people should be doing to further the acceptance of their ideas in a big, complicated, multifaceted world. Once when I was interviewing David Bergland, one of the Libertarian Party's longtime mainstays (and one of its least successful presidential candidates), I floated by him the idea, popular among libertarians who consider themselves well-suited for real-world struggles, that the LP strategy was a waste of time for the liberty-minded—that it was positively detrimental compared to, say, legal, journalistic, or think-tank activism.
Bergland seethed. Who, he asked, should tell him how he should choose to exert his energies in the defense of liberty? The LP perfectly suited his temperament, style, and choices—but for it, perhaps, he'd practice no ideological activism at all.
That rang true for me. I know for certain that the existence of the Ron Paul campaign in 1988 helped cement my interest in politics and liberty when I was 20 years old, and that passion remained even when the object of it shifted from presidential elections to writing and reporting. Ideological/political movements—particularly libertarian ones!—should not be centrally planned, with one tendency dominating because the smartest people have decided it's the most efficient or effective. Everyone will have different desires, and different mechanisms will suit them more than others. Ideological third parties clearly have never been about actually getting candidates into office, unless one is positing (and I know some would have no problem doing so) that everyone involved in them is utterly irrational.
It is perhaps best to think of them not as actual engines by which to propel outré political forces into office, or even as necessarily efficient means to spread ideas and influence to the general public, but as a joyous consumption expense—just one more of the many pleasing options to pass the time that quasi-capitalist modernity provides. Perhaps third parties continue to crawl along, trailing electoral failure after electoral failure, even on occasion poisoning those possibly sympathetic toward the ideas they claim to support (see any number of spoiler complaints against Greens and Libertarians), because to the people who want to work on them, they are just exactly what they want to work on. They are fun and fulfilling and meet a consumer need regardless of "effectiveness" as judged by an outsider.
That's worth celebrating in and of itself. I've come to think this is almost certainly the real reason third parties do survive, though publicly advocating personal satisfaction as the reason they are important runs into a "noble lie" dilemma for those who want to see them thrive. After all, if most third party activists were consciously aware of this aspect of the party, would they still feel the same passionate interest in them? On personal reflection, I think the answer could well be yes.
And for those for whom it isn't, well, they will eventually stop concentrating their public-spirited energies on third parties and either drop out of electoral politics altogether (as I did) or move on to the more "rational" choices. But in the meantime, many people will support third parties because they enjoy them. Serious politicos may think this is a dangerously frivolous reason to support those institutions, given the (rare, but not unprecedented) serious effect on elections their existence can have. But that still puts third-party supporters ahead of those who ridiculously assume that their vote might actually sway an election. People who believe that they are having fun actually are having fun; those who assume their vote is swaying the election are just wrong.
Mao was right about one thing: Let a thousand flowers bloom. And you don't always let those flowers bloom because they are going to accomplish something practical and vital. All those flowers can also be worth supporting because people enjoy looking at them.