Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had their second debate this past Tuesday, but they are not the only people running for president this year.
Gary Johnson, former New Mexico governor, is running on the Libertarian Party line. Jill Stein, physician and former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, is this year’s nominee of the Green Party. And Virgil Goode, former Virginia congressman, carries the banner for the Constitution Party.
But those are just the candidates who have managed to stencil their names on a majority of statewide ballots. There’s also the Objectivist Party, founded on the teachings of Ayn Rand. There’s the Justice Party, the Prohibition Party, the Modern Whig Party, at least five different outfits with “Socialism” in the title, and also the Peace and Freedom Party, represented by none other than Roseanne Barr.
We could go on, but things might start to get silly.
In spite of the paragraph I just wrote—and in spite of recent history—so-called third parties have played a real and sometimes significant role in shaping American politics. To voters under 30, this impact begins and ends with Ralph Nader and his alleged “spoiling” of the 2000 election for Al Gore in Florida—a tenuous claim, at best. This is a shame, because it clouds a much more colorful history of various rogue candidates and their disruptions of our otherwise two-party system.
In 1992, for instance, independent candidate H. Ross Perot caused enough of a stir not only to ultimately garner nearly 20 million votes nationwide, but managed actually to involve himself in all three presidential debates—even being declared the “winner” of them by the public and media alike.
Four score prior, Theodore Roosevelt invented a new party, the Progressives (known by history as the Bull Moose Party) to challenge Republican incumbent William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Although Roosevelt lost, he did so by splitting the Republican Party—“spoiling” it for Taft, as it were—ceding Wilson a plurality of the vote that he might otherwise not have received. We can hardly picture world history between 1912 and 1920 without a President Wilson, and it was a third party that made it happen.
Today, for those of us who do not identify with either the Democrats or Republicans, third parties—individually and collectively—represent one tragic, massive tease.
Contemporary third parties exist, after all, on the very assumption that the two Goliaths we have do not encompass the views and concerns of all citizens of these United States. Gary Johnson speaks about ending the drug war, as Obama and Romney do not. Jill Stein advocates cutting the defense budget by 50 percent, as Obama and Romney do not. Ron Paul—perennially pushed, but ultimately resistant, to secede from the GOP—would abolish the Education Department and the CIA, as Obama and Romney most definitely would not.
Conceivably—since the country is divided roughly three ways—an organized, independent third party could pull a TR or better, and perhaps even win a plurality of the vote, rather than simply diluting it amongst the powers that be.
To wit: A 2010 Gallop poll found 31 percent of Americans identify as Democrats, 29 percent as Republicans, and 38 percent as independent. That is an awfully large pool of proverbial men and women without a country.
The short answer to “Why don’t third party candidates win?” is easy enough: We, the 38 percent, are no more in agreement about any particular issue than anyone else—except, I suppose, for the issue of not identifying as Democrats or Republicans.
People have justified figures such as Nader as vehicles for a “protest vote,” and this alludes to the tragedy of the whole business: Independent voters who detest their two real choices are left with no practical alternative—just a symbolic opting out of the whole system.
What is more, there are institutional mechanisms currently in place that are designed to prevent a serious third party from taking hold in our system, and if you don’t work within the system, you exert no influence whatever.
Except when you do.
I do not expect a third party candidate to be elected president in my lifetime. Those who run with that expectation are either delusional or pulling your leg.
But it is equally delusional to say third parties are a waste of our time. At their best, they serve as lobbyists for the people, agitating for causes that never get aired by America’s two partisan wings, but are every bit as important, if not more so, than those that do. These troublesome gadflies deserve all the support we can muster for them. To reassert an old cliché: Do not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.