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article imageOp-Ed: Does America need a strong third party? Special

By Bill Lewis     Oct 5, 2012 in Politics
A recent Gallup poll indicated that Americans are split on the need for a strong third party. Bill Lewis analyzes the benefits and viability of a strong third party in the United States.
With elections just around the corner Democrats and Republicans continuously act as if they are the only two parties; and with good reason, according to Gallup third party candidates are only expected to get one to seven percent of the vote in the Presidential race even with strong candidates from third parties like Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party. State races may be a bit closer in some cases, however, most of the time either a Republican or a Democrat is in fact the winner.
A separate recent poll by Gallup, however, may give the two mainstream parties reason to pause. According to the poll Americans are split over the need for a strong third party with 46% believing one is needed and 45% disagreeing. With nearly half of country feeling the need for a third party one must wonder what the benefits of a third party are and if a strong third party is even viable in the United States.
The Libertarian Party and the Green Party are typically viewed as being on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but one thing they both agree on is the need for and the benefits of a strong third party.
I spoke with representatives from both parties and they gave amazingly similar reasons for why they feel it is necessary to leave the two party system behind – in fact they both used food metaphors.
Scott McLarty, media coordinator for the Green Party, held that, “voters deserve the right to vote for whichever candidate best represent their ideals and deserve not to have that choice limited to two candidates who can be like choosing between a Big Mac and a Whopper.”
Carla Howell, Executive Director of the Libertarian Party told me that asking if there should be more parties is, “like asking if there should be more beverages than Pepsi and Coke. Obviously there are more choices for drinks than Pepsi and Coke and it is hard to tell the difference between the two.”
While witty these comments are meant to represent what third party supporters see as a real problem in the United States; the lack of a real choice for voters when they go to the polls. Both McLarty and Howell pointed out to me that Democrats and Republicans tend to push a message that varies little from each other. Howell even recommended reviewing the debate held last Wednesday stating that one only needed to see the, “number of times the candidates agreed with each other” to know that no real choice is being given.
McLarty went further saying that, “There is no such thing as a two party democracy. A two party democracy is not far off from a one party system as in China”. He was clear to say that our system is not nearly as oppressive as that of China; however, he did want to make it clear that a two party system hurt democracy a sentiment that seemed to be shared by McLarty.
Professor J. Bradley Reese of The George Washington University, an expert in comparative politics and electoral systems, agrees that multi-party systems do offer a greater choice to the electorate, however, he points out that it is unlikely to ever occur.
The issue, Reese stated, is that the “electoral system mitigates the possibility” of a strong third party. He went on to explain that the fact that we have “single representative districts” in which only the person who gets the most votes wins tends to heavily favor the two major parties and prevent a third party from ever getting in a position of power. It is for this reason Reese explained that most countries with strong third parties are those with Parliamentary systems of government and proportional representation – a system in which the number of seats won by a party in a district is proportional to the number of votes they receive; thus meaning that if a third party were to receive ten percent of the vote in a district with 10 seats they would receive a seat.
Reese also pointed out that one of the possible downfalls of this kind of system is that there is less connection between voters and their elected officials. He points out that in a one representative district if something goes wrong you call that representative, however, “if you have multiple representatives who do you call?”
Howell was quick to object to this, however, stating that she saw “no rational for limiting choices and many downsides” and pointing to European countries that have strong multiple party systems. When I mentioned that they are also parliamentary systems she discarded it as unimportant and went on to attempt to state that Reese may have been stating this because “professors are one of the biggest protectors of government status quo and largest benefactors of the status quo.” I would like to point out here that based on my conversation with Professor Reese I find this very hard to believe, especially with no factual backing being provided by Howell.
One of the other major arguments given by critics of third parties, especially the Republican and Democratic candidates, is that they only ever work as “spoilers” in elections by taking votes away from candidates who otherwise might win. Howell and McLarty both passed this off as a nonsensical argument made by the established parties in an attempt to prevent them from becoming a major challenge to their power.
McLarty stated that, “If the only choice is two people who are running on money and influence of corporations the elections are already broken.” He added, “Everybody decides on their own criteria who to vote for” the only difference he says is that, “with third parties you have a real choice”.
Howell echoed this sentiment, however, aimed her answer more directly at the current “spoiler” accusations being leveled at Gary Johnson who is running for President of the United States as the Libertarian candidate. She stated, “Republicans are spoiling their own elections by nominating candidates like Mitt Romney over and over who raises taxes.” She went on to say that elections are spoiled “by taking away choices” and that a “vote for Romney is a vote for Obama because they are virtually the same.”
With all time low approval ratings for Congress and state and local governments struggling to meet the needs of their constituents due to the economic crisis it understandable that the American people would look to a voice outside of the major parties for solutions. It should come as no surprise then that Americans are split on the need for strong third party, however, given the low number of people likely to vote for a third party candidate it is unlikely that this will occur any time soon. As, Reese put it they are good to “add an additional voice, but are ignored for the most part”. For his part McLarty says this isn’t a reason to not vote for a third party candidate:
“The fact that a candidate is not going to win is not a good reason to not vote for that candidate. You should vote for your own interest; if you go for a candidate that doesn’t represent you then you are censoring yourself. “
This is a strong statement, but at the end of the day how viable is it? If you support the Green Party for example it does at least seem to make some sense that a vote for Jill Stein is unlikely to actually result in her winning the election. A vote for President Obama, however, may result in a win for him and based on history he is likely to be at least more friendly toward the Green Party initiative than Governor Romney. On the other hand, if you support the Libertarian party a vote for Gary Johnson seems unlikely to actually have an affect whereas a vote for Romney may result in a candidate who shares a larger part of your vision being elected. If that is the case then - with the current electoral system at least - it does seem more effectual to vote for one of the two major party candidates; which is why regardless what this poll may say I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a strong third party to emerge.
Attempts to reach the DNC and RNC for this article were unsuccessful.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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