by Akim Reinhardt
In the recent Virginia gubernatorial election, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis received over 6% the vote. If he had not run, much of his support would likely have gone to Republican Ken Cuccinelli rather than Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who won by a narrow 2.5% margin. Last year's U.S. Senate race in Montana also saw a Libertarian candidate siphon off 6.5% of the vote, which was well above Democrat Jon Tester's margin of victory. And of course many Democrats are still apoplectic about Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader raking in nearly 5% of the national vote in 2000, most of which would probably have otherwise gone to Democrat Al Gore. As is, Nader's candidacy created an opening for Republican George W. Bush to win . . . the controversial Supreme Court case that in turn awarded him Florida, and with it the White House.
For many Democrats and Republicans, Green and Libertarian candidates respectively are far more than a thorn in the side. They are both a source and target of intense rage.
How dare these minor party candidates, who have no actual chance of winning the election, muck things up by “stealing” votes that would have otherwise gone to us!
Indeed, there is no hatred quite so fierce like that which is reserved for apostates or kissin’ cousins.
But for committed Greens and Libertarians, the response is simple. Our votes are our own. You don’t own them. If you want them, you have to earn them instead of taking them for granted. And if you want to get self-righteously angry at someone because the other major party won the election, then go talk to the people who actually voted for the other major party. After all, they’re the ones who put that person in office, not us. Instead of looking for an easy scapegoat, go tell the people who voted for the candidate you hate why they’re so wrong. That is, if you’ve got the courage to actually engage someone from “the other” party. It’s really not that hard. As Greens and Libertarians, we have civil conversations with people from other parties pretty much everyday of our lives. You should try it some time.
But aside from the presumptuousness, arrogance, and cowardice framing the attacks typically launched at us by supporters of the major parties, what really galls Libertarians and Greens about the above statement is not the false claim we “stole” your election. It's that we “have no actual chance of winning the election.”
And just why is that?
Why is it that in this supposedly healthy democracy, no third party candidate has ever won the presidency, or even come close? Why have only a handful of third party candidates ever been elected the U.S. Senate? Why, in an era when Congressional approval ratings are in single digits and disapproval ratings are a staggering 85%, do the two major parties continue to hold a monopoly on membership? And why do the two major parties thoroughly dominate every state and local government in the nation to the point that many the former and most of the latter are one-party parodies of a real democracy?
It's no mystery why the United States has been in the iron grip of a political duopoly for the last 175 years, or even longer, depending on when you pinpoint the emergence of modern political parties. Political scientists refer to this phenomenon as Duverger's Law.
During the 1950s and 1960s, French Sociologist Maurice Duverger noted that a two-party system is the likely outcome in electoral systems where plurality voting (a form a single winner elections) determines the sole representative of a district. That is, when voters get one vote each, and are allowed to vote for just one candidate to determine a single legislative seat, the likely long term trend is a political system dominated by two-parties.
It is the only law in political science.
The United States largely fits the Duverger model. A single politician wins each election, and most elections use a form of simple plurality voting commonly called First Past the Post: the candidate who gets the most votes wins the election; a majority is not needed.
Duverger's Law is not absolute; more of a principle than a law in the scientific sense, there are exceptions and qualifications depending upon the electoral system. But it generally holds true, and it certainly helps explain the U.S. political duopoly. Democrats and Republicans have had a stranglehold on American politics since the 1850s.
Indeed, the United States has been beset by political duopoly from the very beginning, even since before there were political parties as we understand them today. What historians refer to as the First Party System came about during the 1790s, when two proto-parties that were more like political factions first appeared on the scene: the Democratic-Republican Party that initially rallied around Thomas Jefferson, and which eventually became the modern Democratic Party; and the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Marshall, which collapsed into a minor regional concern after the War of 1812.
A period of single party rule is not uncommon in new nations striving for unity. And after the Federalists crumbled, the U.S. was under the sway of a single, factionalized party during the so-called Era of Good Feelings (1816-25). But a true duopoly was soon in the offing.
Historians generally point to the evolution of the Democrats under the leadership of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren 1820s and 1830s as signaling the emergence of the first modern American political party in terms of organization and function. The formation and success of the Jacksonian Democrats was soon followed by the rise of the Whigs in 1833, who assumed much of the old Federalist mantle. The modern, duopolistic tone in American politics was set. In the 1850s, the Whigs melted in the crucible of slavery, but the Republicans emerged from their ashes in 1854.
Since the establishment of the modern American political duopoly during the 1830s, there have been several attempts at creating a viable third party. The most successful effort came in the 1890s with the People's Party, better known as the Populist Party. Formed around farmers in the South and Midwest who, in a variety of ways, were deeply troubled by the rise of capitalism, Populists focused on issues of debt, currency reform, and the strict regulation of big business, up to and including the proposed government seizure of corporate land for redistribution to the public, government-owned alternatives to private banking, and even government-run monopolies on vital industries such as communications.
That's right. Several generations ago, many of the people in what are today the reddest, most Republican, free-market, Tea Partying parts of the United States, actually advocated socialistic reforms to combat the consolidating effects, crushing debt, and boom-bust cycle of capitalism. They even advocated the introduction of a national income tax despite the U.S. Constitution then banning one.
The Populists ran James B. Weaver for President in 1892. He garnered over a million popular votes (8.5%) and 22/444 electoral votes. With the upstart party poised for a potential breakthrough in 1896, the Democrats stole the Populists' thunder by nominating William Jennings Bryan, who co-opted many of their issues. After substantial debate, the Populists also nominated Bryan, though he failed to acknowledge them. After Bryan lost to William McKinley, the People's Party faded as a national concern. However, over the course of the 1890s they managed to win nearly a dozen state governorships, several dozen Congressional elections, including half a dozen U.S. Senate seats, and scores of seats in various state legislatures.
Next came the the short lived Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, which resulted from a schism among Republicans during the 1912 presidential election. Theodore Roosevelt had stepped down from the presidency in 1909 after nearly two-full terms in office, and been replaced by his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. However, it wasn't long before Roosevelt was itching to return to the White House. He became publicly critical of Taft, and eventually challenged him for the Republican nomination in 1912. When that failed, he formed his own political party. Though closely associated with TR, in truth the Progressive Party represented something much bigger than one man's political ambition.
By 1912, the United States was at the height of its great period of reform, the Progressive Era, which the Populists had anticipated in many ways. Bubbling up during the 1890s, progressivism grew into a wide ranging set of social movement during the first two decades of the 20th century. America was awash with countless reform movements advocating everything from business regulations and labor rights to women's suffrage to political reform to the prohibition of alcohol.
While Roosevelt's Progressive Party received only spotty support from Republican stalwarts, independent and loosely affiliated reformers flocked to it. The party's platform called for a host of prescient, progressive reforms, including some which had been advocated by the Populists. Among them were: the registration of political lobbyists; the disclosure and regulation of political campaign contributions; social security; an eight hour workday; a minimum wage; a securities exchange commission; worker's compensation for job-related injuries; a constitutional amendment allowing for a federal income tax; an inheritance tax; a constitutional amendment allowing for the direct election of U.S. Senators; and binding primary elections. The Progressives were also the only party in 1912 to support constitutional amendment guaranteeing women's suffrage. And during the heyday of Jim Crow racial apartheid, Roosevelt inflamed racists by inviting black delegates from outside the South to his convention, and by publicly dining with African Americans.
But like the Populist James Weaver 20 years earlier, even Teddy Roosevelt was unable to pull off a third party presidential bid. However, he did capture the second biggest portion of popular votes at 27%, ahead of Taft. Yet another third party candidate, Socialist Eugene Debs, took another 6%. On the electoral map, TR accrued 88 electoral votes, while Taft managed to win only 8. But Democrat Woodrow Wilson took the lion's share of electoral votes to win the presidency in landslide, despite getting less than 42% of the popular vote. The Progressive Party did manage to elect more than a dozen congressmen and several hundred state legislators during the 1910s, but by the end of the decade it was essentially defunct.
Duverger's Law has persisted in America, uninterupted, even with huge cultural groundswells like those seen at the turn of the 20th century. The many advantages available to established major parties have helped preserve the political duopoly, and the two parties have been very active in taking steps to maintain their joint control. For example, 42 of the 50 states have legally banned a vital tactic once available to third parties: electoral fusion.
Electoral fusion is the practice of smaller parties uniting with each other on an electoral ticket, or perhaps even uniting with a major party that needs help winning an election. Fusion parties will nominate the same candidate, so a vote for either party is a vote for both. This allows smaller parties subvert Duverger's Law by combining forces, or by riding a larger party's coattails. But this approach has long been illegal is most states, and in 1996 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of such bans, thereby further crippling smaller parties.
Lacking a parliamentary system, and painted into a corner by the major parties, it is very difficult for smaller parties in America to gain representation in legislative bodies. Thus, neither house of Congress currently has a third party member; the 435 members of the House are entirely Republicans and Democrats, while the Senate boasts two “independents” among its 100 members, one of whom is a former major party member. The other, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is actually a socialist who runs as an independent, because the combination of third party repression and the legacy of the Cold War makes it political suicide to call oneself a Socialist in America.
Of late, it seems that the only viable way to overcome the American political duopoly to any substantial degree is to be a billionaire.
In 1992, Ross Perot ran for president against Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. Financing his own campaign to the tune of over $12 million, Perot raked in nearly a fifth of the popular vote. But he earned no electoral votes, and his Reform Party was a party in name only; in reality it was little more than a vehicle for his personal ambition.
More recently, billionaire Michael Bloomberg used his vast wealth to finance three successful elections as mayor of New York City. A political newcomer, Bloomberg was a Democrat with insufficient sway in the city's Democratic machine. So he used his wealth to bend the duopoly to his ends, becoming a Republican out of sheer political expedience, and emerging as arguably that party's most liberal elected official this century. Ironically perhaps, New York is one of the few states where electoral fusion is still allowed, and Bloomberg also used that tactic to his advantage. He funneled some of his money through the Independence Party, which helped him immensely during his first mayoral run in 2001.
At the moment there are quite a few small parties floating about, like stellar debris circling the twin solar orbit of the Republican/Democratic duopoly. Among them, the two small parties with the most followers and the most national name recognition are the Green Party and the Libertarian Party.
I am a registered Green. I typically vote Green when that is an option, though it usually is not; the same political party that plays an important role in democracies across the globe has trouble getting off the ground in America while it strains under the oppressive weight of the American duopoly. But I am a registered Green because among the available choices, the Green Party best represents my ideals and interests. I have little in common with today's Republican Party, which is lurching ever rightward. And while I'm more apt to agree with the Democratic Party's center-right platforms than the far-right GOP, even those often do not jibe with my own center-left leanings.
Philosophically, neither major party is a comfortable home for me, which is enough for me to forgo membership in either. But perhaps more importantly, I believe that the very existence of the duopoly itself has a deleterious effect on American politics. And I believe breaking down that duopoly could potentially benefit the United States.
All of this has led me to wonder about the possibility of an unorthodox political strategy:
Is it time for a Green-Libertarian alliance?
At first glance, this seems ludicrous. After all, Greens and Libertarians are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. But then again, elementary political theory teaches us that the metaphorical spectrum of politics is like the spectrum of visible light: a circle. Go far enough in one direction and you just might come out on the other side.
Like most thoughtful Greens, I can't help but notice that there are some elements of libertarian philosophy that appeal to me. Likewise, I've met many Libertarians who are simpatico with certain Green ideas. While offering disparate economic policies, the two groups do have clear overlaps in both domestic and foreign policy.
With that in mind, I can't help but think that a political alliance might serve them well and help mitigate the duopoly's marginalizing effects. Could an alliance between these two outsider parties benefit them both? And if so, what would it actually look like?
The first step would be finding a way to make this odd couple pairing somehow palatable to both parties. The starting point is of course their mutual opposition to the duopoly. In addition to seeking a political advantage through some form of alliance, both parties can rally around the belief that the duopoly itself is a major contributing factor in the denigration of American politics and society.
Beyond political expedience and mutual antipathies, the two parties would need to find enough philosophical middle ground to make the pairing viable. And that could begin with the shared space at the intersections of Green social progressivism and social libertarianism. Both parties, though not always for the same reasons, do have several shared ideals in this area.
Shared general outlooks include: maintaining a wall of separation between church and state; supporting gender equality; supporting equal rights for GBLT people; and liberal interpretations of free speech. Both parties also both promote several specific policies, including: abortion rights; the right to die; ending capital punishment; scaling back (or eliminating altogether) U.S. surveillance of Americans; and ending the war on drugs. And in foreign affairs, Greens and Libertarians both favor tempering U.S. intervention abroad.
An amalgamation of these and other domestic and foreign policies may be enough to broach a temporary political alliance. But what would that alliance look like and what can it accomplish? In other words, to what extent can it help America skirt Duverger's Law?
Potential real politick advantages, which both parties could reap from a temporary, earnest, and skillfully implemented alliance, are manifold. Such an action could draw more attention to both parties and their platforms. It could increase both of their vote totals, perhaps culminating with electoral victories. And it could decrease their political isolation, advancing their fuller integration into American society, culture, and political life.
How would it actually work? That is probably the most complicated part.
In the 8 states where electoral fusion is legal, this is an important tactic to consider. From time to time, run mutually acceptable candidates on a joint ticket. Vote counts should at least double, and that in turn could lead to a snowball effect.
In the rest of America, both parties should begin a campaign to overturn oligarchic bans on fusion. In the meantime, however, the two parties could form an unofficial fusion. Essentially, they could trade votes. Each party could urge its members to vote for the other party's candidate when not running their own candidate. In other words, encouraging Greens to vote for Libertarians when there is no Green candidate and visa versa. Such consolidations could have the effect of boosting vote counts for both parties.
In presidential elections, the two parties might trade quadrennial cycles, so that both parties would unite behind each other's candidate in alternating elections. If either should reach the magical 5% threshold of popular votes, as Green candidate Ralph Nader almost did in 2000, that party would be eligible for public campaign financing the next time around.
Finally, aside from concrete political gains, real outreach may perhaps be the most productive thing that could emerge from Greens-Libertarian alliance. While the two sides will clearly never agree on many, or perhaps even most issues, coming together for planning and strategy sessions could undoubtedly help both groups as they design ways to subvert Duverger's Law, to pull America from the clutches of its slouching, snorting duopoly, and to breath real life into an increasingly broken political system.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com