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America Vs. Third Parties

This commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

In springtime, a young wonk's heart turns to, um, third parties. Really.

No young person who has ever followed politics with the ferocity of a sports fan, no citizen who has been an idealist for at least a few hours, hasn't daydreamed about a third party or independent candidate – a third party winner, actually. At some point everyone with a civic soul, no matter what their ideological flavor, has yearned for an independent spirit to break through the homogenized, cuisinarted horse manure that is modern American politics.

Italy this week seems to have elected a new prime minister who isn't a party guy. Romano Prodi ran as the head of a coalition of parties, not one party.

Yet we are stuck with the same two parties, ad nauseam. It's like a world where there are two baseball teams, the Yankees and the Dodgers. Every year since the 1800s they have played 162 games against each other, and then played each other in the playoffs, and then the World Series. The players change, but never the teams.

It's "Groundhog Day" meets Sartre. No wonder people tune out.

I want a third party right now. I can't take the Yankees and the Dodgers anymore. I'm not even that picky who the candidate is: Colin Powell, John McCain, Bill Bradley, Warren Buffett, Rudy Giuliani, Gary Hart, Lee Hamilton/Tom Kean, Oprah Winfrey, Russ Feingold, or Antonin Scalia. I'd support just about any one, provided they had money, buzz and a fighting chance.

The Constitution says nothing about parties. The great and wise founding elders detested political parties, and promptly formed them and divided up. Thanks so much.

The Civil War gave birth to the current two-party setup of Democrats and Republicans. That should have been a warning.

In 1942, an early and eminent political scientist named E.E. Schattschneider declared flatly that the two parties had a "monopoly on power" in America. Nothing has changed since then. Absolutely nothing.

Third parties and rogue presidential candidates have, of course, appeared from time to time and mattered. In the late 1800s the Prohibition and Socialist parties backed women's right to vote; by 1916 the major parties agreed and the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920. The Populist and Socialist parties brought you the income tax in 1913. George Wallace, the scary little bigot who got 13.5 percent of the vote in 1968 thus giving the White House to Richard Nixon, seems to have coined the phrase "get tough on crime."

Like Wallace, other third partiers have tipped elections: H. Ross Perot got 19 percent in 1992 – the highest third party slice ever – which certainly gave us Bill Clinton. Ralph Nader arguably gave us George H.W. Bush in 2000 and John B. Anderson maybe helped Ronald Reagan a bit in 1980 when he got 6.6 percent.

Maine sometimes elects independent governors, which is very cool. Minnesota elected a wrestler named Jesse Ventura governor awhile back, which was less cool.

Third parties do not exist because the two big parties don't want them to. It's bad for business and it's that simple.

There are three kinds of barriers to third parties, two of them created by the monopoly parties. The Constitution, however, is a problem. The American system is winner take all: you win a plurality of votes; you win the whole state or congressional district. Most other democracies have various forms of proportional representation where parties are represented in proportion to the percentage of the vote. So in Italy, for a rough example with fake parties, if in a national election got the Conservatives got 60 percent, the Socialists 30 percent and the Liberals got 10 percent, the seats in the parliament would by divvied up almost in that exact proportion. In America, it's win or lose.

Still, that doesn't mean third parties candidates are prevented from winning elections at any level. So here's where the monopoly parties come in. First, they set up rules where Democrats and Republicans automatically get on ballots, but third parties have to jump through petitioning hoops. There are 51 different sets of laws to get on the ballot in this country, one for every state, plus Washington, D.C. Next they make it hard for third parties to raise money. Then they sleep well at night.

In the cycles of politics, we're probably due for a major third party presidential candidate. The fact they have had so many close elections indicates the opportunity is real. Contrary to popular belief and punditry, close elections do not mean the country is deeply polarized.

This has been amply proven by "Fiorina's Sort," the argument laid out by Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina in his indispensable book, "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America."

Close elections can be caused by having large numbers of liberals on the far left and conservatives on the far right, with few voters in the moderate middle: that's deep division. Close elections can also be caused by having lots of moderates in the middle and few ideologues at the far right and left: that's narrow division. All evidence indicates that America is narrowly divided. It's just that voters – human beings with complicated ideas, interests and kinships – come in three political flavors: Blue Democrats, Red Republicans and the Gray Majority of moderates. The monopoly power system makes the grays sort themselves into red or blue – the Fiorina Sort. This superficially looks like polarization, but it's not.

A primary system and ingrained stupidity pushes monopoly politicians to ignore the center except in their blandness.

So a daydream about a radical centrist is very practical, in a totally unrealistic sort of way. All it takes is celebrity, brains, money, guts and an honest mouth.

Who's in?

Dick Meyer is the Editorial Director of

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Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.
By Dick Meyer

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