The Sovereign Mind

Free thought on politics and real life

The Case For Three

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A three-party system will never be sustainable, but the struggle of the third party is essential to our democracy.

Firstly, we need to understand why we have a two-party system. I believe the two-party system is the equilibrium point. To explain, I’ll start from the beginning–which I’ve been told is always a good place to start.

Imagine that there are no political parties–just candidates.  Those who believe they have good ideas for governing run for offices, and those who are able to convince others that they have the best ideas win the elections.  Let’s say that, for the typical political office, there are five major candidates. You are one of those five, battling for those precious votes.  How do you win more votes?  Obviously, you have to try to win voters away from other candidates.  Perhaps they are supporting another candidate because they agree more with his positions.  So, you slightly modify your positions to more in agreement with theirs.  You are not compromising your core beliefs, of course, but you are just borrowing those ideas that you think are compatible with yours.  That makes you a little more appealing to those voters that would have supported some other candidate. Left with less voters, that other candidate drops out, leaving you and three others.  Of course the other candidates are trying to do the same thing–trying to absorb your voters into their fold by modifying their positions.  Eventually, five camps becomes four becomes three becomes two.  As each candidate drops out, their voters combine behind one of the two candidates, because both the candidates and voters recognize that they must compromise on some issues to support someone who can win, and who they agree with most.  The candidates morph their positions so as to be attractive to the most number of voters.  Those candidates whose views are too narrow to be widely accepted are quickly discarded.

Thus we have the birth of two parties.  Notice there was no need for any government intervention to create the two parties.  They just happened as the result of natural political forces.  Government election policies can help this process along, but fundamentally it is a natural process.

Imagine now that these two parties become more a more rooted in their ideologies.  Eventually, instead of picking parties based on their political views, people begin to pick their political views based on their party.  The result is that the two parties drift away from some voters, in pursuit of their own ambition and ideology.

The voters that are left behind are frustrated.  They want a change, and neither party is representing their core views.  So what do they do?  They start another party, and offer their own candidate.  Of course, their candidate has no chance of winning, so what’s the point?  The point is that the third party is breaking the equilibrium state.  It throws a rock in the calm pond.  Yes, eventually the water will settle, but it will be changed. How much it is changed depends on the size of rock.

Initially, the two major parties will lose votes to the third party candidate, making each major candidate more susceptible to losing to the other.  As the third party gains acceptance, even from a small minority of the population, the two major parties will seek to modify their positions in order to appease the third party’s voters.  The same process that created the two parties in the first place will be set in motion to restore the two-party equilibrium.

As the third party voters feel they are finally being heard by one party or the other, they will again be absorbed into the two party system, leaving the third party high and dry.  But the third party had already served its purpose–to give voice to those which the two major parties had left behind.  The policies of third party have been at least partially incorporated into the two major parties.

If my hypothetical situation is not enough to convince you, it turn out that it is not hypothetical at all:

When third parties have emerged in American political history, their successes have been short-lived. In most cases, the issues or ideas championed by third parties have been “stolen” by the candidates of one of the two major parties. Sometimes the issue position taken by the third party is even incorporated into the platform of one of the existing parties. By doing so, the existing party generally wins the support of the voters that had been the support base of the third party. With no unique issues to stand on and depleted voter support, third parties generally fade away.

Some might consider that a failure of the third party.  I think it is the realizable of their purpose. A vote for a third party is not a wasted vote. It is the ultimate vote for change.

So that is why a three party system will never be sustained, and why it doesn’t have to be.

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Written by Mike

October 10, 2008 at 10:31 pm

Posted in politics

Tagged with ,

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