Wednesday, August 04, 2004

A moment for third party thoughts
Russ Barnes, writing at the American Street, has a post defending the two-party system. He is addressing that faction on the left that pine for a pure progressive party and barely tolerate the Democratic coalition and it’s spokesbeings. These days, this faction is most easily identifiable by their scorn for Kerry and mantra like repetition that “we must keep his feet to the fire” after he becomes president. You know the feeling. I think most of us have at least flirted with the idea of third party partisanship and some have comfortably settled there.

Russ scolds the third party partisans for being unrealistic purists and suggests the most practical method of achieving a progressive agenda is to be patient, invade the existing party, and warp it to our own goals. He points out the thirty-year campaign by the religious right to take over the Republican Party as a model.

I have given a lot of thought to third parties over the past years. I think Russ is right about the anal purism, impatience, and impracticality of most third parties in this country. I don't think the two-party system that we stumbled into (and institutionalized through extra-constitutional methods) is the miracle of stability that it is often painted as. I think we have just been lucky. The two-party system could easily become the source of paralysis and destructive confrontation as it did before the Civil War and as it is doing now.

Third parties are a way to break that dangerous deadlock. While most people look to third parties to be ideological purists, further out than the primary parties, it is also possible that they might be the source of pragmatic compromise at the center.

Third parties can arise in (at least) three ways. The most visible and least successful way is to start at the top and run a candidate for president, whose showing will legitimate the down-ticket candidates. I don't know why people continue to try this. It never works. The second method is to work up from the bottom. Organize locally. Run candidates for small offices and build up. School boards lead to city councils, which lead to state legislatures, which lead to congressional representatives and governors, which lead to senators and eventually the top. I'm not aware of this model ever making it higher that the state level. The third method, the only method to my knowledge to ever succeed on the national stage, and the one no one is trying now, is to co-opt existing elected officials.

The Republicans in 1856 did not run a bunch of unknowns for office; they co-opted the remnants of the Whig Party, the failed Free Soil Party, and some northern abolitionist Democrats. In 1912 the first Progressive Party gained a caucus through the secession of 14 congressmen and one senator from the Republicans.

Today the most likely, influential or successful third party would be a centrist caucus made up mostly of moderate New England Republicans. If Snowe, Chaffee, and Collins joined Jeffords, they would hold the balance of power in a 48-4-48 Senate. They could force both parties to compromise. If a few others joined them, say McCain, Voinovich, and Leiberman, they would hold a big enough block that neither of the other parties could hope to displace them by holding out for the next election. A dozen or so House members, if mostly Republican, could do the same.

This might not be the best scenario for liberals and Democrats to achieve their goals, but it wouldn't be the worst either. And it certainly would be a good way to disarm the insane right wing cabal that currently is running the Republican Party and the country into the ground. A small secession, such as this would force the GOP to make a strong swing back toward the center in hopes of reabsorbing the secessionists and keeping power. It would at least provide us with the entertaining spectacle of the GOP mugging Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum.

I offer this, not in the hope that it will really happen, but as a thought experiment and suggestion that a big Democratic victory in November isn't the only way to return some semblance of sanity to our political culture.

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