10 October 2011

Which branch should third parties reach for?

The Washington Post columnist Matt Miller is becoming one of the most prominent advocates in print for challengers to the two-party system. In his latest column, which appeared in a local paper today, Miller considers whether third parties can have more impact next year by seeking the presidency or a foothold in Congress. He weighs the opinion of an informed but anonymous "public policy leader" who tells him that it'd be easier for third parties to make a difference in Congress by denying either major party a majority. As many as 100 congressional districts can be considered "competitive" enough that third-party candidates could have a fighting chance next year, while as few as 25 independents could have changed the course of this year's debt-ceiling debate by forcing both parties to compromise.

The prospects for third-party presidential candidates are less promising. Miller (or his correspondent) claims that the last third-party candidate to win the presidency was Abraham Lincoln -- and that's questionable history. It can be argued either that the Republicans were already the "second party" after the 1856 national elections, or that the GOP never really was a "third party" given the collapse of the Whigs, the former bipolarchy partner of the Democratic party, and the failure of the Know-Nothings to consolidate their position after 1854. It could even be argued that no "third party" candidate has ever won a presidential election. The closest we can come to such a feat is John Quincy Adams's victory in the House of Representatives following the competitive yet nonpartisan 1824 election. Once a bipolarchy is in place (Federalist-Republican from 1792-1816, Democrat-Whig from 1836-52, Democrat-Republican from 1860 to date), no candidate from outside the bipolarchy has won the presidency.

The record doesn't daunt Miller, who seems to be a big booster of the Americans Elect project. While he won't predict a third-party win next year, he thinks that an independent presidential campaign could still have a positive organizing effect.

Though the challenges are daunting, the megaphone (and organizing platform) of a presidential race is unparalleled. The right campaign could be the vehicle for championing and organizing around the broader structural changes the country needs in order to get serious about our problems, even as it exposes the hoaxes both parties are peddling.

Miller touts the release later this week of Americans Elect Briefing Book for Candidates, which will detail the procedure for nominating candidates to occupy the ballot lines the organization has already secured in several states. He's optimistic about the selection of a candidate independently of "the usual pandering to a handful of party activists in Iowa or New Hampshire," but it remains unclear whether Americans Elect can or would guarantee the nomination of a candidate genuinely independent of the Bipolarchy. How a candidate is selected matters, but so does who the candidate is. If the innovations of Americans Elect only result in their ballot lines going to Democrats and Republicans, will our choice have been actually enhanced? The same caveat applies at the congressional level, though the chances of the process producing a genuine independent may improve as the process becomes more localized. It's a clever idea to secure a ballot line before you actually have candidates, but the innately value-free foundation of the venture is a risky substitute to a direct declaration of opposition to the Bipolarchy and its codependent ideologies. The idea of a kind of general unfiltered assembly of citizens choosing a candidate has obvious appeal, but people should gather to choose candidates with some sense of shared purpose -- at the minimum, an understanding that Democrats and Republicans are unacceptable. Without that, the mantle of legitimacy Americans Elect would like to lay on some candidate's shoulders -- whether for Congress or the White House -- could well end up looking like the emperor's new clothes.

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