Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Friday, June 14, 2013

No, Third Parties Will Not Save American Democracy

If you follow national politics even the slightest bit, you are probably a little bit fed up with partisan politics. "Polarization" is what it's called: an affliction that is stymying legislative progress and keeping our federal government in a seemingly eternal state of gridlock. Examples of this include Congress's inability to pass universal background checks on firearms purchases despite overwhelming public support, the inability to compromise on the federal budget that led to the sequester, and Congress's continuing battle over health care legislation passed years ago.

Some people suggest that the problem with American democracy is systemic. Their argument is that the two-party system is intrinsically flawed since it only provides two options for voters. If we only had more options, we would have more of a chance of having a government that actually represents the people of our country, a people who are arguably more moderate than our current party options.

There are three assumptions of this argument that expose the issue with the deus ex machina third-party solution.

First, the argument that third parties will allow for people to choose parties that more closely align with their personal beliefs follows a consumer model of government. The idea is that each individual has an claim to get the product that they want and that producers will provide them with it if demand is high enough.

While this may be a good approach for fast-food, it doesn't work so well in government. This is because government by the people is what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor terms an "irreducibly social good." Irreducibly social goods are goods that cannot be reduced to the good accrued to individuals. An intrinsic aspect of political life is interaction, and with interaction comes negotiation of the self with others. If we atomize politics, we diminish the most important aspect of politics: its social aspect. Fostering the growth of third parties will not create parties that perfectly align with individuals, but will only create new avenues for compromise. 

Second, advocating for third parties often hinges on a belief that the two parties are too polarized and that a political middle needs to be found. The problem with this is that contemporary polarization in practice is not the fault of both parties, but is actually the fault of the Republican party.

People compare the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, but only one of these fringe movements has been able to successfully infiltrate the party, create a party caucus, and make moderates in its party pay for not holding ideologically pure positions. There was no high-profile primary upending in the Democratic party on the level of Senator Richard Lugar's embarrassing 2012 defeat. Spending cuts have been agreed to by both parties, but it took a near-implosion of the economy to get Republicans to agree to tax rates lower than the Clinton years. On top of that, President Obama's heritage-foundation based health care reform law has been widely called "socialist" by those on the right, stretching the term to the point of meaninglessness. Obama's economic policy platform would have put him in the mainstream of the Republican party 30 years ago and his social policy platform sides with the majority of Americans today. For those who feel like there is no place for a centrist in America today, look no further than the Democratic party.

Lastly, there is an assumption that polarization is an outgrowth of Washington and that "regular people" are more centrist than their representatives in Washington. The reality is that the American people are just as divided as their representatives in Washington. In the last mayoral election here in Omaha, an open primary was held with all parties going head-to-head and the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election. Out of the five candidates, two were radical right-wing candidates, two were moderates, and one was a strong left-wing candidates. One of the radical right-wing candidates and the left-wing candidate floated to the top.

While third parties are fun for someone who is fascinated with politics, they are not the solution to America's political polarization problem. What we need to look to is voter access. Voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and partisan politicians in state director of election positions pose a much more present threat to American democracy than the two-party system. Let's see what we can do to fix issues that can really bring America closer to its promise of a country of the people, by the people, and for the people.

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