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Nonpartisan Nonsense: why third party candidates aren’t the answer to our political problems

Opinion | February 5, 2012

Every four years, when a presidential election is around the corner, dissatisfaction with party politics resurfaces. After watching party members clobber one another for months, only to coalesce during the death-match with the opposite party, pundits and voters begin to wax lyrical about a magical third-party candidate who might rise above the bipartisan woes of our government.

This time around is no different, and the “magical outsider” idea has now taken the form of a nonprofit organization called Americans Elect. Its goal is to have a nationwide online primary that would choose a presidential candidate based on the nation’s current issues and put him or her on the ballot in all 50 states. The organization has succeeded in securing ballot status in 15 states so far, and is continuing its efforts to introduce a third choice to the 2012 presidential election. Americans Elect succinctly reinforces the idea of the third-party candidacy in their promise to let you “pick a President, not a Party.”

Americans are quick to blame the mistakes of Washington on the evils of partisanship. Partisan gridlock underlies every political news story of the day, and this past year saw bipartisanship compromise our government’s ability to act. The partisan problem is real, but a third-party candidate is not the solution.

Political parties are an effective tool in democracies. They allow voters, activists, and politicians to build mandates and coalitions. No politician can govern alone. Parties allow politicians to group according to their political views, and they allow voters to support their interests broadly even if they may not completely agree with a party on every issue.

Having two parties instead of several is a matter of expediency that is born out of the size of this country and the nature of its political system. In a country as massive as the United States, political interests are prioritized differently across regions and groups. Political parties allow these interests to coalesce into overarching groups that can then win the support needed to govern.

Partisanship is a sound idea in theory, but considering the reality of American politics, it seems to fail in its purpose. Still, to blame partisanship for the failure of the modern American political system would be a gross misdiagnosis that distracts from the real and dangerous problems embedded in that system.

One problem is the massive moneymaking machines that are at the heart of American parties. Corporations and industries with large pockets have a sickening amount of control over our politicians. This is a crippling feature of American politics, but an independent or third-party candidate could not solve the problem; he or she would still need financial resources to compete.

Even if an independent candidate were to win an election, how would he or she be able to fix the broken political system? With no allies in Congress or regional politics, the hypothetical maverick would have no coalition and no political constituency with which to change the system. Without any allies in congress, a nonpartisan president would in fact exacerbate partisan gridlock between branches of government.

In practical terms, third-party candidacies can also upset an election enough to cause an outcome that voters actually oppose. If a third-party candidate runs to the left of the mainstream, they could hand the election to the right-wing candidate. Think of Ralph Nader, the left-wing independent who got 2.74 of the national vote in the Bush-Gore election. This example reflects a structural issue of American electoral politics, and a solution must be directed at its structural root, rather than come from an outside third-party candidate. Politics is a vast enterprise composed of an endless series of difficult and slow processes. We must treat it as such, and we should let go of the concept that an individual politician can fix everything.

These problems are structural, and they run deep. Congressional inefficacy is perhaps the most complained about issue within Washington’s broken system. In recent years, filibustering has exacerbated this problem to the point that the Republican Party has been effectively in control of the Senate, rather than the rightfully elected majority party. This is a serious underlying problem that drives partisan gridlock to unacceptable extremes.

It is issues like these that we as responsible voters should strive to focus on. By buying into the flawed idea that candidates with the right campaigns can fix everything, we allow a third-party candidacy to undercut the activism truly needed to attack structural problems in congress.

In short, the problems we find in American politics are structural and endemic. Rather than blaming partisanship for the failures of Washington, we must engage in the political process outside of elections alone. Voters should discuss structural problems and look for innovative solutions to the broken system. We should voice dissent with the status quo. But in doing so, responsible voters should also consider whether supporting a third-party candidate truly could improve American democracy.