Third Party Plight

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.

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The Heart, the Head and ‘The Master’

I spent a good deal of high school thinking I would devote my life to writing about movies.  In this pursuit, four years of college taught me exactly one thing:  I don’t know the first thing about them.

Higher education, properly understood, exists for two reasons:  First, to impart knowledge; second, to impart wisdom.  In my own case, the knowledge was that I did not comprehend the world of film.  The wisdom was in realizing I didn’t need to.

The allure of movies, I have slowly come to appreciate, is that they cannot (and possibly should not) be completely, fully understood in the usual sense of the word.  They exist in a dimension beyond simple logic, and are driven as much by emotion as by reason.  Our favorite films are the ones that linger in our minds in ways we can’t quite put into words.  As an old Supreme Court justice famously said, we know it when we see it.

I make these points having just seen The Master, the latest project by Paul Thomas Anderson, at whose feet I will partly lay blame for scaring me out of becoming a movie critic.  His pictures, which include one of the very best from the 1990s (Magnolia) and the 2000s (There Will Be Blood), are as much symphonies as films—pure, visceral experiences, like an opera in a language one doesn’t speak—and can be seen and appreciated as such.

The Master very much follows in this tradition, with its relentless and brooding score, its uber-sharp-focused (yet paradoxically dreamy) photography, and especially its macabre lead performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  The storyline is not difficult to follow, per se, but the real pleasures in The Master are tangential to its narrative thrust.  One needn’t take it literally, comprehending every detail, to be wholly enraptured.

I told you about movies so I can tell you about politics.

People like to think that electoral politics is a simple matter of appraising “the issues” and choosing the candidate whom we deem “better” for them.  That the dilemma of whom to cast one’s ballot for is reducible to some kind of equation—wholly rational, with no emotional or “gut” considerations necessary.

Ah, were it to be so!

By what rationale, might I ask, did most fans of Barack Obama in 2008 lend their ever-so-enthusiastic support?  Was it from the sheer force of his arguments about the need for affordable health care and withdrawing troops from the Middle East?  Or was it rather from the tenor with which he made such arguments, and the words and phrases he employed?  Was the attraction logical or visceral?

Could the average Romney voter, if pressed, name the specific policies of the Republican ticket that draw him or her to support it over the Democrats’?  Does the proposition of voting for “change” or as a means of “taking the country back” withstand the plain light of day, or does it merely reflect the way people feel?  Do I need to stay for an answer?

Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), not every citizen votes his heart over his head, just as many moviegoers can’t stand anything that approaches the ponderous or the abstract.  Just the facts, thank you very much.

What I wonder, though, is whether viewing politics with an emotional, rather than rational, bent is actually the preferable approach.  David Brooks argues frequently that good decision-making requires a healthy combination of both, and that dismissing emotional considerations entirely is impossible.  Might this be a good thing?

We would do well to consider the limits of pure rationality in the complex world of governance, particularly when our present enemies—in Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere—find so little use for it themselves, thanks in no small part to the outsized influence of organized religion in that region of the world.

By no means should we abandon reason altogether—that way madness lies.  I am acutely aware that when comedian Lewis Black joked that the best way to defeat psychotic nemeses is to “be more psychotic than they are,” he was being (mostly) ironic.  The whole point of The Master is that following men who make unverifiable claims tends to lead one astray.

The fact remains, however, that most voters do not comprehend the nuances of public affairs any more than I comprehend the nuances of film.  Our faculties of thought can only get us so far before the wisdom of our gut kicks in to take care of the rest.  Such an impulse need not be batted away.  Humans are rational creatures, but that is not all we have to offer.

Outside the Big Tent

The circus had certainly come to town.

Last week at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart ran a typically ingenious segment about the Democratic Party’s level of “inclusiveness” within its ranks relative to the GOP’s.  One attendee, undoubtedly speaking for many, cooed that the party was so hospitable that “we even invite the redneck freaks.”

“The world would be beautiful if we could just accept everyone’s differences,” said another, before unleashing a broadside of insults against all members of the Tea Party.

At issue here is the concept of the “big tent.”  Every election cycle around convention time, both parties fashion themselves as more accepting of people with different backgrounds and views than the other.  In the context of vote-garnering, this appeal to the widest possible cross-section of Americans is not difficult to understand.

It is when electioneering ends and governing begins that the big tent tends to shrivel and collapse.  Good riddance, I say:  Let it lie.

Possibly I have mentioned once or twice, in passing, that I hold a less-than-enthusiastic disposition toward our two-party system.  I have maintained for years that neither party particularly speaks for me—that my own views do not naturally align with either.  If opinion polls are to be believed, a record number of citizens are with me on this—hence the conventions’ earnest efforts at outreach.

I wish they would not waste their time.

For better or worse, political parties are meant to stand for something.  They have platforms—drafted, amended and ratified every four years—serving as declarations of principles that, by their very nature, will offend, repel and exclude a great many citizens of our fifty states united.  They should, and with not an ounce of shame.  A party that embraces everyone would not be worth joining, because it would necessarily stand for nothing at all.

That we disagree about so much is why the parties exist in the first instance.  George Washington and company famously cautioned against the “baneful effects of the spirit of party,” but surely (as the Office gang learned in “A Benihana Christmas”) two parties are better than one.

Unlike our Constitution, party platforms are not legally binding.  By no means has either party ever enacted or proposed legislation that was in perfect ideological alignment with its own official principles—in many cases, it would be politically impossible to do so.  Indeed, oftentimes the party’s own nominee does not agree with every last clause and subsection—Mitt Romney on abortion being but one such example.

Further, not every issue is a “you’re with us or against us” situation.  Things like what the top marginal tax rate should be or how to make ourselves less reliant on Middle East petroleum are open to all the nuances and debate that makes democracy so much fun; they don’t require that everyone on the team be in perfect agreement in advance.

However, a great number of issues—the ones we hoot and holler about the loudest—are every bit a matter of principle over practicality, and cannot be easily reconciled by those not already on board.  Either you believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman, or you don’t.

Of course, because very few people will agree with the entirety of a party’s platform, most choose their team based on the issues that are most important to them and ignore the rest—“cafeteria Catholicism” applied to politics.  There is nothing wrong with this approach on its face, since politics is ever the art of compromise, we’re stuck with the two parties we have and the lesser evil is still better than the greater.

What I question, really, is this urge to join a team in the first place.  To put oneself under contract when there is every reason to remain a free agent.  If a political party means to stand for an intellectually consistent set of values, it should have the courage and self-respect to do so, and its natural constituency will levitate toward it.

In return, those who do not share those values should feel no obligation whatever to act as if they do, to supplant their genuine views simply to satisfy some misplaced sense of belonging.

Resist the big tent.  Do not embrace a party that, left to its own devices and following its own heart, would not embrace you back.  Play hard to get.  Heed the advice by Christopher Hitchens, “People may fight harder for your vote if you don’t give it away in advance.”

Leave the partying to the clowns.

Team Players

“Take one for the team.”

Anyone who ever played Little League baseball understands the phrase, along with pretty much everyone who didn’t.

We have heard it quite frequently during the 2012 campaign.

Paul Ryan and his defenders, faced with Ryan’s uncomfortable history of voting for various debt-inducing spending sprees during the George W. Bush administration, have explained that although Ryan is personally against runaway government spending, he cast such votes in the spirit of Republican solidarity.  He was taking one for the team.

Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman who recently suggested women can’t become pregnant upon being raped, has faced near-universal pleading from fellow Republicans to cede his Senate contest to a slightly less radioactive candidate, to ensure the seat is won by a Republican.  He should take one for the team.

This adage—succinctly defined by Urban Dictionary as “willingly making a sacrifice for the benefit of others”—carries undeniable appeal when viewed from a certain angle.  The image of self-sacrificial nobility, of Rick Blaine on the runway insisting, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” serves as a healthy rebuke to our culture of ruthless ambition and loose morality.  We as a society would probably be poorer without it.

It also, unfortunately, demonstrates much that is wrong with government today and why those of us who abstain from partisan affiliation find the state of our two-party system so repulsive.

Primarily, we must explain what we mean by “team.”  In baseball, “taking one” usually refers to being hit by a pitch or tagged out in such a way as to advance the base runners and win the game, at the expense of one’s own stats or even physical safety.  We can argue about the morality of this (particularly when it involves 9-year-olds), but the logic is sound, as everyone on the team has the same goal, namely winning.

A team of lawmakers does not operate in quite the same way, despite media tendency to cover politics as if it’s a sporting event.

Who are the politicians we say we most esteem?  Nearly every voter, if asked, claims to hold special admiration and respect for those known for being “independent,” who will “stand up for what they believe” and “put country ahead of party.”  That is to say, for men and women who are not “team players.”

Members of Congress are individuals, each with his or her own views and each representing a specific piece of our absurdly diverse country.  They, like the president, swear an oath of loyalty to exactly one entity:  The U.S. Constitution.  Beyond that, it is left entirely to the individual to decide whether to err on the side of one’s party, one’s constituents or one’s own conscience, should any of these conflict.  Very rarely do they not.

Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) reacted to the Todd Akin brouhaha by issuing a letter to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus that read, “Even while I am pro-choice, I respect those who have a different opinion on this very difficult and sensitive issue […] Our party platform should make the same concession to those of us who believe in a woman’s right to choose.”

As a Massachusetts Republican up for re-election, Senator Brown has the unenviable task of appealing to an exceptionally liberal constituency without invoking the ire of his own exceptionally conservative party.  The abortion issue crystallizes his dilemma:  Whatever his personal views, he would very unlikely be elected in the first place should he toe the party line; meanwhile, his failure to adopt this most elementary of Republican doctrines effectively tars him as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) in the minds of party elders, ensuring he will never be fully trusted as a national figure within the party.

By contrast, the Next Vice President of the United States is very much a head honcho in the GOP, first by virtue of his across-the-board party views on social issues, and second for his stated opposition to all things big government.

Interestingly, in one such instance of Paul Ryan betraying his apparent anti-spending principles—voting “aye” for an auto bailout in December 2008, against a heavy majority of fellow Republicans—he explicitly explained that his concerns were local:  “At the forefront of my mind are jobs in Southern Wisconsin,” he said, understanding that “taking one for the team” would have come at the expense of a whole lot of regular Joes who don’t necessarily sympathize with Ryan’s usual doctrinaire approach to government spending.

Was this not the correct answer?  Should not a U.S. representative vote in the interests of those he or she represents, regardless of party affiliation and whatever damage it might do to the “team”?  And if that’s the case, what use is the team in the first place?