The False Promise of Third Party Candidates: How do Parties Really Change?

Editorials, like this one from the Chicago Tribune, keep popping up. Trump and Clinton are the least popular candidates ever! No one likes them! We are all only voting for one or the other out of our greater hatred for His Orangeness or The Clinton Dynasty!

Maybe this is true. People do seem to like saying how much they hate these two. But they both garnered a metric shit-ton of votes in their respective primaries. Donald Trump beat out 17 candidates. Some of them, like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, were very serious candidates with strong ties to the base or establishment. Hillary Clinton was so strong that no establishment candidates ran against her and she crushed Bernie Sanders (his surprising performance saw him handily defeated in both the popular vote and by delegate count). Voter turn-out for these primaries was strong. And expected turnout in November looks high. So much for apathy.

More than anything, I think these two candidates are victims of being in the public eye for so long. Donald Trump has been part of our national consciousness since the 80s. For people in my generation, there is not a moment in our lives where Donald Trump’s absurd, self-aggrandizing behavior was not a running story in media outlets and public discourse. This is basically true of Hillary Clinton too, perhaps to a greater degree. Hillary has been a constant presence in our political theater since the early 90s. She carries with her the baggage of her own triumphs and failures, but also those of her husband, President Bush and the neo-con war on terror, and the Obama administration’s domestic and foreign policy. No one in America is neutral on these two. How could you be– they’ve been part of our lives for decades.

Others point to general weariness with the two major parties. This is the most popular explanation for Trump’s rise and the Sanders movement. It is true that people express this feeling frequently– particularly the working class who feel sold out by both. This narrative is bunk. The working class need to take a good hard look in the mirror if they want to see who sunk their economic chances. They voted, overwhelmingly in many cases, in favor of measures that stripped unions of power (and membership). Weakening the only lobby that fought for your interests in a democracy is a really stupid idea. Gee, why have Republicans and Democrats not fought to keep jobs in America or keep wages high? It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that people basically said “fuck it” to organizing labor, expressed a clear preference in voting and with their checkbooks for cheap foreign goods over expensive American made products, and sneered at government attempts to force businesses to act ethically with regards to work conditions, pay, and local environmental impact.

The same can be said for nearly every other claim that the two parties just don’t hear or respond to what the average American wants. Bullshit. The current GOP disaster is DIRECTLY a response to what their base asked for. For over a decade the grassroots conservative movement has pushed a no taxes, no government, let businesses do as they please, guns for everyone, abortions for no one, religious freedom for evangelical Christians only, anti-LGBTQ rights, there is no such thing as racism platform. This is what they say they want in the media, in public discussion, and all over social media. How is the Trump campaign not that? Liberals are divided over how much more to the left they want to move from the Obama administration, but they generally are happy with the direction Obama has the nation pointed in. What about Hillary’s platform doesn’t represent that? In other words, other than your longstanding personal feelings about the candidates and the absurdly cynical nature of talking politics in the 21st century, these platforms are exactly what the various coalitions of voters who make up the two parties (which cover the vast majority of Americans contemporary interests) have said they wanted. If anything, the parties have been too responsive to the people. Despite this, intelligent, well-meaning people all over the nation keep saying how disappointed they are in their choices and cry out for an alternative.

Enter the mythical third party option. Partisans loyal to either party will immediately tell you that you are wasting your vote. I agree with them, though for reasons that go beyond what they are saying. A vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stien is effectively a vote for the candidate you least prefer. You are taking a vote out of the Trump or Hillary basket and putting it in one that cannot win, which simply makes the option you would absolutely never choose more likely to happen. It is completely illogical unless you think both options are essentially the same. If you think that you are lying to yourself. They have established records of behavior and clear party platforms. We know what their plans to govern are. And while presidencies always meander off those goals as new crisis and opportunities arise, they very often spend their first several years (literally half of their term) pursuing their “mandate.” We know what both think their mandate will be. And we know that members of Congress will likely work in lockstep with them.

Trump will want to get rid of Muslims and Mexicans, drop our commitments to NATO allies and realign ourselves with Russia, instigate a trade war, and push to create greater tax-breaks for the rich. That is what he campaigned on. That is what the GOP platform says. That is what we can reasonably expect him to do.

Clinton will push to lower the costs and barriers to higher education, expand Social Security, raise the minimum wage, create a public option for Obamacare, end mass incarceration (reversing Bill Clinton and the Gingrich Republicans disastrous tough on crime policies), close private prisons, enact laws to protect the rights of unions to exist, regulate Wall Street speculators, and propose a tax plan that raises corporate taxes, raise taxes on the super-wealthy (the so-called “multimillionaire surtax”), eliminate tax breaks for big oil and hedge-fund profits (eliminating the “carried interest” tax dodge), and lower the tax burden on families in the middle class (40-60k a year as a household). They remain committed to free-trade and continuing the Bush-Obama war on terror. There is no doubt that this is the agenda Clinton will pursue.

There is no way to read those two paragraphs and come to the conclusion that these candidates and the policies they will seek to enact are the same. We will get one or the other.

Gary Johnson and Jill Stien would like you to believe that there are other options. Putting aside the math (they cannot win), let’s look at what their platforms offer. Johnson’s Libertarian party offers you social freedom, a tax code based on consumption and not income, a deregulated economy, and a limited government! Of course, Republicans in Congress will continue to push for social control and Democrats will fight tooth and nail to keep every major government institution and program afloat, so it is hard to see how Johnson could pursue any part of his agenda outside of the economic policy (which will invariably hurt the poor through his regressive tax plan and encourage more reckless gambling on Wall Street). Stein wants to push for every change the Sanders campaign didn’t fully get into the Democratic platform, with a few environmental ones tacked on. No Republican will support this, nor will any Democrat from a light blue or purple state. It is a non-starter. So your choices are the GOP and Democratic agendas or two platforms that could never be enacted.

Of course, most people will admit that they know neither third-party can win. They are voting this way out of conscious or protest. The Tribune editorial basically concedes this:

Can either win? Not this time. But that’s no reason Americans disgusted with the major party choices have to settle on either. It’s not “wasting your vote,” as the old bromide says, to cast a ballot for a long-shot candidate because he or she offers something valuable that mainstream candidates don’t. Attracting voters is how small parties get bigger.

A strong showing by Stein, Johnson or both might not transform America’s political landscape. But it could push a reassessment of old policies that have acquired immunity from reform. It could put provocative new ideas on the national agenda.

It also could force the major parties, which have disappointed voters so badly this year, to do better in 2020 and beyond. If so, Democrats and Republicans might thank Stein and Johnson for running.

This is not accurate. Attracting voters is not actually the way small parties get bigger in the history of American politics. Viable new parties arise out of the collapse of an old one.

The First Party System

As we all know, the Constitution did not include mention of political parties. These institutions arose more organically and informally. The first schism that created a party system in the United States started in the cabinet of George Washington. The Federalists, represented in thought and deed by Alexander Hamilton, believed in a strong, centralized government, maintaining and building on close ties with the British Empire (for purposes of trade and national security), centralized banking that could help spur development (particularly of infrastructure), and was generally more geared towards social and economic elites. The Anti-Federalists, or Democratic-Republicans, were the party of Thomas Jefferson. They opposed the Federalists in nearly every way, preferring a decentralized, agrarian society to a centralized, urban/industrial society, close ties to France (for their support in the American Revolution and their ongoing democratic revolution against monarchy in France and Europe in general), opposed the central bank, and identified as the party of the common man (though their leaders were all landed elites and most of their policies benefited plantation owners and land speculators rather than small farmers).

This system began to collapse after John Adams failed administration, with Federalist support basically disappearing during the so-called “Era of Good Feelings” in the Monroe administration (1816-1824). Without an effective second party, partisanship declined and the Democratic-Republicans absorbed many of the Federalists and Federalist ideas. In particular, this meant a commitment to the development of internal improvements– especially roads and canals– that helped accelerate industrial development in the nation. The one-party system, viewed at the time as a return to what the Founders intended, was short lived. The contested election of John Quincy Adams and a supposed “corrupt bargain” ushered in the second era of rancorous partisan divide.

The Second Party System

The Democratic-Republican party split in the late 1820s into the Democratic party of Andrew Jackson and the Whig party of Henry Clay. Jacksonian Democrats believed in a strong executive– no surprise, given Jackson’s tyrannical behavior and attitudes– and opposed both the central bank and government investment in modernization (the aforementioned internal improvements). They argued that these investments favored rich industrialists over common Americans. The Whig party favored Congressional power over the executive, massive investments in internal improvements, the national bank, and protectionist tariffs that shielded American industry from more well-developed competitors in Europe (namely the British). Jackson’s appeal to the common man carried the day, establishing a spoils system more openly petty and corrupt than even Donald Trump could imagine.

The Whigs didn’t last very long. Clay never did manage to get elevated to the executive level and little in the way of adequate leadership existed after his passing. The party also began to fracture over the issue of slavery in the 1850s, splitting the party on largely geographic terms. Clay’s compromises barely outlived him and the party perished with them.

The Third Party System

By the mid-1850s, the Whig party more or less dissolved and re-emerged as the anti-slavery Republican party. Absorbing many disaffected Whigs and slavery minded Democrats, the new party adopted the Whigs economic platform of centralized banks, investment in transportation and industry, protectionist tariffs, and the expansion of land-grant colleges in addition to advocating the end of slavery. Democrats sought to uphold slavery and continued to oppose modernization efforts. The parties operated on stark divides through the Civil War and Reconstruction, with the GOP dominating the national agenda. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877 (a corrupt bargain if there ever was one), the parties realigned as broad voting coalitions that more closely resemble the political parties of today. The Republicans became the party of blacks, small businessmen, trade workers, professional staff, and emerging industries. These groups wanted voting rights for blacks in the south, investment in internal improvements, and economic policies aimed at growing America’s blossoming industrial capacity. The Democratic party became a coalition of disaffected white southerners who wished to suppress black rights along with conservative businessmen who ran traditional industries and felt threatened by modernization. They were joined by unskilled laborers, small farmers (particularly in the increasingly urban northeast), and immigrants (particularly Catholics from Ireland and Germany).

Fourth Party System

The parties and their coalitions remained fairly constant through the late 19th and early 20th century, but beginning in the 1890s the focus of policy debates began to shift and expand from slavery/race and internal investment towards debates over the size and scope of “trusts,” child labor laws, public education, women’s suffrage, immigration, segregation, corruption in government, imperialism, and the role of America in the wider world. You better know this as the Progressive Era.

Progressive politics took over both parties, bringing with it a wave of social changes. While the solutions were infrequently universally popular, there was broad consensus that the problems of society could and should be addressed by government action. Progressives instituted labor laws that still shape how people work and are compensated today, developed the publically funded school system and higher education institutions that made the United States a highly educated and less socially stratified nation. They created parks in cities across the country and enlarged the Federal park system. They made food and water safe to consume, invested in public sanitation (which is responsible for the massive spike in life-expectancy we enjoy today), instituted the direct election of Senators, and established the right for women to vote. They were also responsible for prohibition, the extension of segregation, and imperialism, so let’s not put the progressives up for sainthood quite yet.

Like the third system, the Progressive Era was dominated by the Republican party. The biggest proponents of many of these policies were the faithful from the Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. In fact, at the grassroots level, the movement probably owed more to Protestant women from these churches than any other group. They were the activists on the street agitating for change and providing the pious rationale for why America must act.

When Theodore Roosevelt broke with his successor William Howard Taft in the election of 1912 he created a major shift in the party’s composition. His ill-fated run at the top of what he hoped would be a bipartisan “Progressive” ticket left the conservative businessmen of the GOP in charge of the party’s machinery. The Democrats became the party of labor unions

The Fifth Party System

The crash of the stock market in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it ushered in the fifth party system. The emergence of the New Deal coalition in the early 30s was tied both the perceived failings of Republican economic policies and the rise of ethnic identity politics. FDR’s coalition was defined not by race or class, but along these religious and ethnic lines. Catholics, Jews, white southerners, unions, urban political machines, intellectuals, and small farmers banded together to promote the New Deal agenda. The fourth party system style Republicans, branded the Taft Republicans by historians, clung to their conservative economic policies. Rockefeller Republicans moderated these positions, supporting some limited social welfare programs. The Rockefeller Republicans enjoyed some measure of success in the fifties and early sixties, but are practically gone today. A “conservative coalition” also emerged, where white southerners in the Democratic party would vote along with the Republicans on many issues– particularly labor issues. This coalition drove the most recent change to our political system.

The Sixth Party System

Our current political party system was created by Richard Nixon and his Southern Strategy. Abandoning black voters, the Republican party made a clear choice to pursue policies of white supremacy in the late 60s in order to “flip” the solid south from the Democratic party and into the GOP. The gambit worked, uniting the Taft/Goldwater conservative Republicans with the racist southern Democrats landed Nixon in the White House and swept Republicans into power across the south (a region they had not won in over 100 years).  The new GOP teamed the conservative Republicans and racist southerners along with whites who had fled urban areas for the “safety” of the suburbs in the north and west. The rise of evangelical Christianity, itself a child of suburbanization and outward migration of southern whites, also came to play a prominent role in the new party. Liberal and moderate Republicans of the northeast–labeled RINO’s by the fanatical new base– largely abandoned the party. The Democrats coalition reoriented around blacks, Hispanics, white progressives, and the old Rockefeller Republicans (the Clintons are a fine example of the way white progressive politics mixed with Rockefeller Republican values). This coalition appears fairly stable today. That cannot be said for the once mighty GOP.

The election of Ronald Reagan may have brought the GOP to her greatest heights, but it also sowed the seeds of her destruction. Reaganomics still dominates economic policy in the GOP establishment (desiring sharp and constant reductions to the federal budget, cuts to tax rates on the wealthy and large businesses, and massive government spending on the military), though the Trump revolution indicates that its intoxicating effects may no longer work on the party’s base. But the culture war Nixon declared (based on race) and Reagan inflamed (based on notions of ideology) has become the cornerstone of late sixth party system Republican thought. The notion that liberal ideas regarding race, women’s rights, secularism, and a whole host of topics were undermining “traditional America” has become the strongest identifier of conservative politics today. It is a poisonous attitude, focused not on policy or governance, but on paranoid delusions. As this issue became more and more important to the GOP base (thanks to the endless prattling of windbags like Rush Limbaugh) the establishment, always more Taft in nature than Goldwater, began to lose control. Hijacked first by the Tea Party and later by Donald Trump, the GOP became less about policy goals or working to further a defined agenda for American development and more about emotional calls to return to some mythical past when America was “great” (for whites only).

The dawn of a seventh system may be upon us. But it won’t include the Libertarian party or the Green party. Just as previous realignments in the modern era didn’t see a fringe group without any political infrastructure rise up to replace an existing power, it will be a reordered Republican party. Hell, it might take the Libertarian name (I doubt it), but it won’t be this pathetic organization that Gary Johnson pretends to represent. The machinery and coalition members of the GOP will likely split into who knows how many pieces. Perhaps they kick out the racist southerners– it has long since come time for that group to stop playing such a disproportional role in American electoral politics. Maybe they send the evangelicals packing too. Invite back in the increasingly “out of touch” Democratic establishment figures who look more like Rockefeller than Bernie Sanders. Appeal to Hispanics and progressive Protestants through a “compassionate Christianity.” Maybe they learn to move beyond the “blacks do not need the government to improve their lives” mantra and actively join and fund black led movements that are seeking to sink money and resources into their communities.

Or the party could go down a much darker road. Trump’s road. I won’t bore you with the details, but it looks a little something like this:


Hey, vote for who you want. But be honest about it. The candidates are not the same. Neither are the two major parties. Your third party of the moment is not a viable option– it cannot win, has no capacity to govern, and lacks the infrastructure to actually replace one of the two big dogs. It will not push either major party– indeed, both parties were pushed from the inside this election cycle and pushed pretty far. Vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stien because he/she best represents your positions. Know that doing so makes it easier for your least favorite candidate to become President. Vote only down ticket– the result is the same. Write in Mickey Mouse. Stay home and get high. But be prepared to explain to others why you would risk the worst case scenario for that. Living in a democracy means thinking and voting in ways that impact more than just yourself. We have to answer to one another for these choices.

The differences are clear. The options are set. The future is not.

Choose wisely.

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