Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Third Parties in American Politics: Rich History, Many Roles

Washington File Aug. 30, 2004 Page(s) : n.p. State Department (DOS)

Interview with Professor J. David Gillespie, Presbyterian College

Ralph Nader Ralph Nader

The Republican and Democratic parties have long dominated the American political landscape. Since 1856, every president elected by U.S. voters has belonged to one of those tworight arrow parties. Almost every state's governor, members of Congress, and state legislators are also members of these left arrowtworight arrow political groups. But they are not the only political parties active in the left arrowUnitedright arrow left arrowStatesright arrow. There are more than 30 others, which are referred to as third parties.

J. David Gillespie, professor of political science at Presbyterian College and author of "Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in left arrowTworight arrow-left arrowPartyright arrow America," notes that third parties have always been a part of America's political process and although a third-left arrowpartyright arrow candidate has never won the presidency, the organizations play several important roles--from educating voters on specific issues to affecting real change in government policy.

Third parties actually strengthen the government, Gillespie says, by providing a legitimate outlet for those unhappy with the status quo. They give "dissidents a chance to air their grievances within the confines of the electoral process," he explains. "And that, then, probably reduces the prospect of more violent or more aggressive kinds of approaches to political action in this country."

According to Gillespie, however, third-left arrowpartyright arrow candidates find the chances of actually getting elected very slim. Factors like ballot-access rules, campaign-finance laws, debate-participation policies, and media focus on the Republican and Democratic candidates all combine to keep other parties out of the White House.

In a recent interview with the Washington File, Gillespie talked about dualism in American politics and provided his views on the important roles of third parties.

Following is the transcript of that interview:

left arrowUnitedright arrow left arrowStatesright arrow Department of State Interview of J. David Gillespie Professor of Political Science Presbyterian College, South Carolina "Third Parties in American Politics"

QUESTION: The general perception around the world is that the U.S. is a left arrowtworight arrow-left arrowpartyright arrow left arrowsystemright arrow. But, recently, I saw a website listing of 37 independent American political parties. So, clearly, third parties play a role in American politics. Could you explain a little about their role?

MR. GILLESPIE: I would say that the American left arrowtworight arrow-left arrowpartyright arrow left arrowsystemright arrow is probably the most stable left arrowtworight arrow-left arrowpartyright arrow left arrowsystemright arrow on Earth, and there are a number of reasons for that. But third parties have been around since the Anti-Masonic left arrowPartyright arrow [which campaigned against secretive, privileged societies] back in the 1820s at the national level, and local third parties existed even before the 1820s. They have been part and parcel of our electoral process throughout most of American history.

The roles that they play in some ways overlap with the roles of the major U.S. parties, the left arrowRepublicansright arrow and left arrowDemocratsright arrow. They help to organize the electoral left arrowsystemright arrow by educating voters, and, thereby, organizing voter choices. They play some, usually, rather transitory or peripheral roles, in helping organize the government.

QUESTION: How do they accomplish that?

MR. GILLESPIE: They do some very specific things--one of which, and it's an ironic role that they probably don't aspire to play, is that they can be sources of release of steam, so to speak. In this way, they can actually strengthen not just the left arrowtworight arrow-left arrowpartyright arrow left arrowsystemright arrow, but also the government itself by giving dissidents a chance to air their grievances within the confines of the electoral process. And that, then, probably reduces the prospect of more violent or more aggressive kinds of approaches to political action in this country.

Third parties also do a number of other things. I think they serve certain psychological needs: the big fish in the little pond syndrome. When you create a third left arrowpartyright arrow, it may be a very limited-interest left arrowpartyright arrow that doesn't have much access to many people. But if you're the candidate, the big celebrity in that left arrowpartyright arrow, there can be considerable psychological gratification.

There is also an individual's need to feel a part of a select community, to belong to a certain group of like-minded people, and that is also served by participation in a third left arrowpartyright arrow.

QUESTION: Aside from looking at third parties as fulfillment of individual needs, whether of candidates or left arrowpartyright arrow members, is there another way to classify them?

MR. GILLESPIE: I think there are three kinds of third parties in the left arrowUnitedright arrow left arrowStatesright arrow.

One of those is the "continuing doctrinal left arrowpartyright arrow," and I would say that these are the true minor parties of the left arrowUnitedright arrow left arrowStatesright arrow. They last for several decades at least. They don't have any rational reason for thinking that they're going to ever challenge the duopoly of the left arrowDemocratsright arrow and the left arrowRepublicansright arrow. But whether that happens or not, these people tend to find their gratification in principle and vision and that sort of thing.

These might, for example, include what's left of the Prohibition left arrowPartyright arrow, the oldest living third left arrowpartyright arrow in the country [founded in 1869 to oppose the manufacturing and sale of alcohol as a beverage]. The various Marxist parties and some right-wing parties would also qualify for that designation.

These are parties where faithfulness to principle, whatever those are for that particular left arrowpartyright arrow, and loyalty to their vision take priority over electoral success.

There is another kind of third left arrowpartyright arrow that is associated with what I believe are the most important political functions of third parties, and that would be the contribution to policy making and the potential for actually transforming the left arrowtworight arrow-left arrowpartyright arrow left arrowsystemright arrow.

These are what I would call the "short-lived left arrowpartyright arrow eruption." The Reform left arrowPartyright arrow, which was founded by Ross Perot, an independent presidential candidate in the 1990s, was an example of that, as was the American Independent left arrowPartyright arrow founded by the George Wallace for President movement in the 1960s and the early 1970s.

There was, also, the Progressive left arrowPartyright arrow in the second decade of the 20th century and the Populist left arrowPartyright arrow in the last decade of the 19th century, and one can go back to the Anti-Masons and the Know-Nothings and all of that back even earlier in the 19th century.

These are parties that made the greatest contribution to what we usually think of as the most important role of third parties: the contribution to policy making.

Such change in policy usually happens because of fear that a third left arrowpartyright arrow is going to become either a viable alternative to a major left arrowpartyright arrow candidate, or will contribute negatively to the outcome of an election in a way that will most probably hurt a major left arrowpartyright arrow candidate by siphoning off votes from the candidate who is closer to the beliefs of that third left arrowpartyright arrow. Right now, for example, the left arrowDemocratsright arrow fear that the third left arrowpartyright arrow candidacy of Ralph Nader will take away votes from their candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

What happens then is that the major left arrowpartyright arrow that feels threatened will appropriate certain policy positions of the third left arrowpartyright arrow.

As to the ability of third parties to affect the transformation of the left arrowpartyright arrow left arrowsystemright arrow, I think the most important third left arrowpartyright arrow of the second half of the 20th century, whatever you think about it ideologically, was George Wallace's American Independent left arrowPartyright arrow movement because it forced the Republican left arrowPartyright arrow to develop a Southern strategy to reorient itself from being a Northern left arrowpartyright arrow to being a national left arrowpartyright arrow with a strong base in the South, and by taking on the Wallace issue positions like state's rights regarding law and order, and a strong national defense.

I would say the left arrowRepublicansright arrow' Southern strategy in 1968 was a direct result of Richard Nixon responding to those people the George Wallace movement appealed to.

The third kind of third left arrowpartyright arrow is what I would call the "nonnational significant other." These are third parties organized either locally or statewide but not nationally. The prime example now, I think, is the Progressive left arrowPartyright arrow of Vermont, which has 15 elected officeholders--including four members of the state legislature, is a true major left arrowpartyright arrow in the largest city of Burlington, Vermont, and can claim long affiliation with Bernie Sanders, the only real Socialist in Congress. There have been many of these effective, non-national parties the Farmer-Labor left arrowPartyright arrow of Minnesota and the Progressive left arrowPartyright arrow of Wisconsin, for example.

QUESTION: Does the American political left arrowsystemright arrow make it difficult for third parties to compete? Are there disincentives in the left arrowsystemright arrow?

MR. GILLESPIE: Absolutely.

I would say that there are, basically, three kinds of constraints on third parties.

One of those is what I would call cultural constraints. There has been a lot written in the political science literature about the sort of natural dualism in American politics: that we divide on many issues, that on any one particular issue, we tend to divide into left arrowtworight arrow camps--unlike the French, who divide on any given issue into many different gradations. You know, we are prolife or prochoice; we're prolabor or promanagement; we're globalist or antiglobalist, we're feminist or antifeminist, et cetera.

Our cultural divide tends to support a left arrowtworight arrow left arrowpartyright arrow left arrowsystemright arrow--according to that theory, at least. My own feeling about that is that it oversimplifies the complex society of the left arrowUnitedright arrow left arrowStatesright arrow, a heterogeneous society in which things are a lot more complicated than that model would seem. But there are some things that could be said by way of cultural dualism that are disincentives to third parties. If we, in the left arrowUnitedright arrow left arrowStatesright arrow, are naturally dualistic, then it is not undemocratic for that cultural dualism, and the left arrowtworight arrow-left arrowpartyright arrow left arrowsystemright arrow that represents it, to prevail.

Beyond that, however, there are structural barriers to third parties.

QUESTION: Such as?

MR. GILLESPIE: The number one structural barrier is state ballot access requirements. It is still very difficult to get on the ballot in all 50 left arrowstatesright arrow and the District of Columbia. It's improved in recent years, because of third-left arrowpartyright arrow candidates like George Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, John Anderson, and Ross Perot who brought court cases against the ballot access left arrowsystemright arrow. They got a lot of the most restrictive access laws overturned in federal courts. But it still takes somewhere between left arrowtworight arrow thirds of a million and a million signatures collected nationwide to get a candidate's name on the ballot in all 50 left arrowstatesright arrow and the District of Columbia.

There are all kinds of rules and they vary in each state--if you're a third left arrowpartyright arrow or independent candidate, you have to have a lawyer who's an expert on ballot access, and you've got to have a lot of money. Third left arrowpartyright arrow campaigns, which tend not to be well financed anyway, spent a good portion of their money just getting on the ballot in each state.

The major left arrowpartyright arrow candidates, on the other hand, are able to use their money for advertising and for getting the percentage of popular support that entitles them to federal matching funds.

QUESTION: What about the ability of third left arrowpartyright arrow candidates to present their principles, their ideas, to the general public?

MR. GILLESPIE: Well, debate access is another constraint. You know, we've very rarely had a third left arrowpartyright arrow candidate on the debate stage with major left arrowpartyright arrow candidates. Ross Perot and John Anderson are the only ones that have ever been on a presidential debate stage because, generally, it takes 15 percent of popular support as registered in the various polls to qualify for being part of the presidential debates. Since a candidate cannot gain popular support if he cannot get his views heard, this is a classic example of "them that have is them that gets."

So the fact that third parties are excluded from the debate stage is a real disincentive to third-left arrowpartyright arrow participants.

Still another constraint, probably not intended, is the primary left arrowsystemright arrow, an ingenious part of our left arrowtworight arrow-left arrowpartyright arrow structure. The left arrowUnitedright arrow left arrowStatesright arrow has the most open nominating left arrowsystemright arrow in the world, and it encourages dissidents who might otherwise go to third parties to try their hand at winning the major left arrowpartyright arrow nomination. But, in many left arrowstatesright arrow, by the time a candidate does not finish successfully as a major left arrowpartyright arrow candidate in the primary election, it's usually too late to go the third-left arrowpartyright arrow route.

QUESTION: So the left arrowtworight arrow major parties absorb a lot of dissention that might otherwise turn into third left arrowpartyright arrow challenges?

MR. GILLESPIE: That's right. Anyone unhappy with how the government is being run can, if he has enough supporters to sign the necessary petitions, put himself on the ballot to change specific things within the left arrowsystemright arrow. Even if he doesn't get elected, if he gets a large enough percentage of votes demonstrating popular public support for his left arrowpartyright arrow's appeals, at least one the major parties will adopt some of that third left arrowpartyright arrow's agenda to stave off defections and gain those votes.

QUESTION: How does a third left arrowpartyright arrow get its message out to the general public?

MR. GILLESPIE: There is a lack of media coverage of third left arrowpartyright arrow candidates. But, you know, the broadcast media, except for CSPAN, no longer provide gavel to gavel coverage of even the Democratic and Republican National Conventions--they, certainly, don't give any coverage at all to the left arrowpartyright arrow conventions of the Greens or the Libertarians.

Generally speaking, however, there's not much third left arrowpartyright arrow activity this year, but you can remember four years ago how much attention was given to Ralph Nader's Green left arrowPartyright arrow candidacy and to Pat Buchanan's Reform left arrowPartyright arrow campaign. There's just not much going on this year with regard to third parties, other than the Nader independent presidential campaign.

So I don't have a lot of reason to indict the media this year. I think the media tend to look at the horse race, and they tend--even when they're covering presidential primaries--they tend to want to get it down to left arrowtworight arrow horses in the race. They think that Americans can follow left arrowtworight arrow candidates better than they can follow a larger number of entries in the race.

So I would give them that and, in addition, say that the media do better now than they used to do in regard to covering third left arrowpartyright arrow candidates.

QUESTION: Can a third left arrowpartyright arrow candidate ever be successful in the American electoral process?

MR. GILLESPIE: I have thought, throughout the 1990s and into this century, that the most likely successful candidate for a major third left arrowpartyright arrow campaign--and the American people have consistently said in surveys that they would like a third major left arrowpartyright arrow--would be a candidate at the militant center. That is, a third left arrowpartyright arrow candidate who was not really ideologically left or right, but could pick up on a single, emotional issue and would, then, pose a real third left arrowpartyright arrow challenge.

I think, right now, the issue that the left arrowtworight arrow major parties most leave out is an antiglobalist perspective, and I think you see Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan representing the left and rightwing of the antiglobalism issue.

But if anti-globalists came together from both sides of the political spectrum, it would result in a left arrowpartyright arrow, basically, that is not separate from the major parties on ideological grounds so much as on antiinsider grounds. If successful, it would be the sort of Jeffersonian-shakeup of the people in power that the left arrowUnitedright arrow left arrowStatesright arrow has every 20 years or so.

I think that's what the Reform left arrowParty under Ross Perot offered, but it got off track and is now, to a large extent, dead. That's where to watch, though--not so much on the left or the right--but at the militant center.

• The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

• (The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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