Third Parties Are Not the Answer

From the diaries, by Erick

There are some lessons to be learned from NY-23 regarding third party efforts and why limited government conservatives need to play within a two party system. Even in New York, one of only five states to embrace fusion politics (allowing a candidate to run on one ballot as the candidate of multiple parties and combine his total vote between the parties), , Doug Hoffman was unable to win on the Conservative Party ticket. Arguably, the RNC and NRCC botched everything so badly in the race that Hoffman might have won as the Conservative Party candidate if the Republicans had not spent over a million in muddling things up. Even had he won, it’s hardly an argument that the entire approach would work nationally. In fact, I would argue that those who advocating for and working in third parties are empowering everything and everyone that is wrong with the political system as it now stands.

American politics always has been, and for the foreseeable future, will be, a two party system. I’ve heard arguments that the current two party system is a creation of the early 20th century progressives. It’s not. When political parties started in America, really around the 1800 election, there were the Democrat-Republican Party and the Federalist Party, and it has always been that way: two major, dominant political parties have controlled American politics. Some will point out that the Whig party used to exist as a major party and gave way to the Republican Party, as though somehow that’s an argument for third parties being effective. It’s not. It wasn’t like there were then three major political parties in America. The Whig Party vacated the political stage and the Republican Party entered stage left, leaving . . . two major political parties.

Some argue that the Republican Party is so dominated by DC insiders and special interests that the only way to break their strangle-hold on the party is to go the third party route. I strongly disagree and think we could learn some lessons from the left on this issue. In February of 1974, in Ramparts magazine, G. William Domhoff, a socialist, wrote “Blueprints for a New Society.” In that article, Domhoff argues that those running under the Communist Party banner should stop doing so and instead run within the Democratic Party. Why? To enact change much faster. Domhoff rightly argued that most working Americans were not going to abandon a major party for a third party (most Americans are realists and understand that third parties do not win in American politics). But most importantly, Domhoff argued that the Democratic Party:

. . . is what Democrats say it is―and what they say it is is determined by the people Democrats elect to attend party conventions and nominate to stand in general elections. Given the relative openness of this process, an ideological battle fought at all levels from precinct to President could have rather dramatic results in a relatively short time.

Domhoff struck on some very important points with this article, points that limited government conservatives would be wise to use: if limited government conservatives want to see change happen quickly, then they must take over a major party machinery―they must make a major party a creature of their own creation. In many ways, Domhoff was writing what E.E. Schattschneider wrote in Party Government: “He who has the power to make the nomination owns the party.” What if limited government conservatives controlled the power to make the nominations within the GOP? Not just by controlling GOP primaries by fielding the candidates and voting for them, but actually going within the party and winning party positions? Remember, the GOP county chairs created a lot of the problem in NY-23 by choosing Scozzafava, a very liberal candidate, as the GOP nominee. My question is: what if conservative county chairs had been making that decision? Again, it goes back to what Domhoff wrote: those who win primaries and attend party conventions decide what a party is, so why don’t limited government conservatives do just that?

Some will argue that the major parties are corrupt, controlled by wealthy interests and DC insiders, and that every election is really a choice between the evils of two lessers. I can’t say I disagree. But the reason major parties are controlled by such interests is that many limited government conservatives have failed to realize that the parties are only vehicles to achieve political ends. The parties are reflections of those people who shown up. As a friend told me, you have to view the party not as a party organization, but as the organizational ability to control who wins nominations — and the major party labels are there for the taking. Nonetheless, instead of realizing that they can change the complexion and essence of a major party by participating in conventions or running in primaries, some limited government conservatives advocate the third party route thereby merrily setting off into the political wilderness.

People have argued that the third party route is the only way to end the influence of the special interests that exert too much control over the major parties. Nothing could be further from the truth. The third party route will only entrench the interests even more because nothing effective will be done — can be done — against them from outside the party. If limited government conservatives are serious about enacting change, and seeing it happen quickly, then they must go within the two party system. By doing this, they will break the hold of the special interests and give the American people real choices for freedom, limited government, and the free market.

This means showing up at conventions. This means running for precinct chairs. This means fielding limited government conservatives in every race at every level, even if it offends the establishment.

A party is what people say it is, and if limited government conservatives win enough conventions, win enough precinct chairs, and win enough primaries inside the Republican Party system, then the Republican Party will become a party that truly advocates limited government, the free market, and individual freedom.