Get Used To It

A well intentioned friend sent a link around about some Libertarian-type third party, talking about how the GOP could not be trusted, etc. I launched my usual response, which may be of interest to our readers:

It is always a bad idea to support a third party you like. The dynamics of the American election system force the creation of two centrist political parties, which are really coalitions of interest groups, since it is winner takes all at 51%. Any time you have a third party, it simply breaks up one of the coalitions and hands the victory to the opposing large party. This is hardwired into the system. It cannot work any other way. We have had the same two large-party labels in place for 149 years for a reason. It is better for any kind of conservative to work within the GOP, as frustrating as that often is, trying to find ways to articulate our views to other people who don’t already agree with us in a way that will gain their assent. In other words, we are stuck having to use persuasion as a way to reach and convince others and to accumulate larger groups of voters who agree with us. There is no gimmick we can use to somehow beat the system. Otherwise, we get a scenario like Perot causing two Clinton victories. I prefer to see Nader causing a GOP victory, or John Anderson taking votes away from Jimmy Carter (1980 was not that long ago …). My dream would be a strong Green party sucking the life out of the Democrats. People with strong views have often gone off after the mirage of a more ideologically pure third party. It cannot work under our electoral system and always makes things worse for the people who put their hopes in a third party. Wishful thinking of this type is imprudent and unwise and counter-productive.

The historical record, and our constitutional arrangements for elections (51% winner-take-all) allow no other conclusion.

That’s how I see it, anyway.

I got a fairly typical response, asserting that the Donks and Elephants are the same, etc. My riposte:

I disagree that the GOP “perpetuate the same social programs and controlling agenda the Democrats do” or that the “election system is so corrupt”. Both parties reflect where the public is at the moment. The parties are followers, not leaders, of the public mood. The GOP is slightly better on these issues, but not much better, because they’d lose elections if they were much better. I “trust” the GOP to act like a political party and try to win elections. I don’t think it is reasonable to want to “trust” it to do anything else.

Voting for a libertarian 3d party would send a message all right. It would turn over the power of the state to the liberal democrats whom I disagree with on almost everything. An election is a bad place to “send a message”.

“I don’t see how working within it for change could do any good”. What I see are conservatives who are in denial that their views are shared only by a small minority. Moreover, they are unwilling to find a way to articulate their views in an appealing way to make converts to their views and get more votes. Others are working to advance their views. If you don’t do so, and in a practical and effective way, they’ll win and you’ll lose. Count on it.

With an election around the corner, we can count on hearing a certain amount of whining about how the two parties present no real choice, etc. The answer – no kidding. The longer answer – find a way to make your ideas appealing, find a way to convince large numbers of people of their utility – there is no shortcut.

24 thoughts on “Get Used To It”

  1. Many of us conservatives – here in Illinois, as well as nationwide – have been very frustrated in recent years with the leftward drifting of the GOP. This dangerous dealignment has to be corrected, but this does not show signs of happening. If the Republican Party continues to move left, and does not get ‘back to basics,’ then there will be less and less of a reason for true-blue, social and fiscal conservatives to support the party, and its candidates.

    Here in Illinois, conservatives have been extremely angry at the way the state party has gone. And for the past few years, conservatives have been very frustrated at what the national GOP, and the GOP Establishment, has been doing.

    If this situation is not rectified, and if the party does not attempt to move back towards its base, then things will continue to get worse for our nation and our government.

    We must hope for the best.

  2. “…there will be less and less of a reason for true-blue, social and fiscal conservatives to support the party, and its candidates.”

    You have it backwards, Aakash. If such people cannot show that they are not a net liability at election time, they will get nowhere. The Party is a big dumb beast that wants to win elections and nothing else. And the True Blues start a 3d party, it just means Donk victory. It is up to the True Blues to stop talking to each other and figure out why so many voters don’t like their positions on things. Threatenting to take your toys and go home may be part of the problem.

  3. Conservatives here in Illinois might be helped along a bit by not putting all their emphasis on the abortion issue. It’s just a non-starter here.

    Instead, why not build campaigns around conservative ideas that would appeal to people: vouchers (blacks and Catholics in Chicago would get behind that), reduction of taxes and spending, and making things easier for small business (again, a Chicago issue).

    At least it could be tried. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a conservative candidate try that approach. Usually, a conservative candidate comes out blasting with both barrels on abortion. Since there is not a lot any candidate is going to be able to do about it, I think it strikes most people as irrelevant.

    Also, it would help to find ways to side-step the media. This has been done on a national level; I’m sure it could be done on a state-wide level.

  4. Steve, you are absolutely on the right track.

    Conservatives in Illinois have allowed themselves to be typecast. You can hold firm on abortion, while presenting lots of other alternatives on other policy questions. Vouchers could be frontal assault on Democrat hegemony in the Black community, and a way of appealing to hardpressed Catholic parents (ahem) with kids in parochial school. It is worth a try.

    A conservative who ran on this, and started to get some traction, and who was also a pro-Lifer could force the IL GOP to pay attention to him (or her). That’s the way to do it.

  5. Sure, but since when are there any conservatives in Illinois who are like that? Al Salvi started off along those lines, and the less said about him the better.

    I hope I’m wrong and you’re right, Lex, but my sense is that a lot of erstwhile IL conservatives have voted with their feet. I wish those who remain good fortune. Anyone who runs as a conservative in IL, no matter what his views (and I agree with both of you that someone who ran in favor of school choice and low taxes would have the strongest position), is likely to be ganged up on by both the Dems and the Republican establishment. It may be a winnable fight but it will be a very tough one.

  6. “… since when are there any conservatives in Illinois who are like that?”

    The same place conservative Republicans were in 1955. In high school, in college, in law school. What was a laughable minority in a party dominated by center-left pols like Rockefeller took over, bit by bit, over the course of 30+ years. That was a marathon not a sprint, and a similar prospect faces us in Illinois.

    But if you believe in the ideas, and in what is good for the state and the country, then it is worth the effort.

    Don’t ask me what I’m doing. Beside this blog, nothing. But it can be done.

  7. For any third party to have a realistic shot at making a difference, it would need to be based on a set of beliefs that drew from both existing parties. The Greens are a distraction on the Left because they attract almost exclusively from the Democrat base. One could argue that their existence creates a sort of hostage situation that might get some of their platform ideas a fair hearing. However, with so much at stake in an electorate evenly split (at the national level) between Democrat and Republican, one can understand many Democrats’ desire to squash the movement rather than accommodate it.

    Lex is right. There are ways to work within the larger apparatus to advance or to advocate your views. Support candidates that most clearly reflect your views at the state and local level, where the buffet may be a little more varied. There is nothing like a little electoral success to draw attention to a cause.

  8. This realization is why libertarian radio host Larry Elder became a Republican, to try to move the party from within.

  9. I agree with your analysis whole heartedly, even though I wish things were different. For example, I wish I were king of the world. But in the spirit of “if you can’t beat them” there are organizations you can work through that seek to exert influence on the broader party’s agenda. Personally I have commited to the “Club for Growth” as an expression of my political agenda.

  10. I disagree that a vote for a 3rd party is wasted. In the end, political victory is about the triumph of ideas, not parties. Although historically, 3rd parties have failed as distinct entities the ideas that they espoused have often moved into the mainstream and succeeded. Significant 3rd party challenges usually fail not because their ideas are rejected but because the mainstream parties co-opt those ideas effectively destroying the need for a separate party to carry them.

    Political parties pursue votes the way businesses pursue dollars and like a business they will alter their ‘product’ to get those votes. A vote for a no-hope 3rd party is still a vote and it gets noticed. In any given election, a vote for the no-hope party might be a tactical mistake leading to the election of your worst case candidate but in the long run that vote will pull the political parties in the direction you wish to go.


    If the libertarian-type 3rd parties raise issue more likely to be appealing to democrats than republicans (e.g. medical marijuana) then one can vote for the best alternative (libertarians) AND watch the 2nd best alternative win (republicans), while the 2nd worst alternative loses (democrats) and the worst alternative (greens) continue to poach from the 2nd worst alternative only.

  12. Rahul, that is technically possible. But I don’t think it will arise very often. Moreover, we should try to get the best issue in the otherwise best party and get it to win.

  13. My dream would be a strong Green party sucking the life out of the Democrats.
    It’s a beautiful dream. It’s even flirted with reality, as when Ralph Nader took some votes away from Al Gore in the super-tight 2000 presidential election. There is a drawback to it, however, at least in those very same presidential elections. A Green candidate for prez could draw spacey New Agers to the polls who otherwise might not vote at all. When they get there, they may cast a vote for the Green presidential candidate and then vote for Democrats at all the other levels. What we need is Greenies running for the House and especially the Senate. That’s my dream.

    And if you’re a conservative working with the GOP? Two words, as the late-night comedians would say. Primary challenges. There aren’t enough of them. What’s happening to Specter should be happening to five other Senators and a dozen Congressmen.

  14. While there is little to be argued with, much of this reasoning is very short sighted. Capitalism also works in elections. Advocating socialist elections, where the state only allows one or two choices, gets us what we have always got. Doubled budgets under Republican administrations in just 5 years. 30 of 59 state senate seats were unopposed. 41 of 118 state rep seats and 2 of 19 US House seats.

    The Republican Party in Illinois is the prime example of the lack of competition. Corruption, theft, indictments, convictions, and the list goes on. The Democrats are only a shade behind. Republicans and Democrats in Illinois are not about ideas, centrist or otherwise. They are simply about power. Power to grant $680 million for sports stadium, $40 million to horse racing, $20 million to dance theaters, patronage jobs, rich pensions for legislators, and that list is literally endless. These are not two centrist political parties, they are two corrupt political machines throwing out the fruits of our hard work to their campaign contributors, cronies, families, and friends.

    The parties do not reflect where the public is at the moment. The fact that only 37% of registered voters went to the Illinois polls in 2002 reflects where the public is at the moment. They’ve given up on the two old parties. A third party will not win the Presidency any time soon, or a US Senate seat, and doubtfully a US House seat. But as much as the Republican Party of Illinois needs a major overhaul from within, they also need competition from without. It is NEVER a bad idea to support a third party you like, unless you don’t believe in capitalism and competition. Primary challenges are also a good thing, unless you have people like Lee Daniels in charge of them.

    Illinois Republicans have no positions for the voters to not like, other than abortion and war. We have liberals running around everywhere calling for income tax increases and not a single peep out of the Illinois Republicans. There is nothing coming out of the ILGOP right now other than noise. Voters don’t like Republicans in Illinois because they are corrupt and have done nothing to make changes to their political machine that condoned and supported that corruption. It is always a bad idea to be apologists for corruption and to be against competition. The ILGOP is the perfect proof.

  15. “the state only allows one or two choices”

    No, the process only generates two choices. The parties are grab bags which have changed shape and changed issues and changed constituencies over the years. Read my post. Read my post above about how it has been this way for getting on two centuries.

    “The parties do not reflect where the public is at the moment.”

    I absolutely disagree. That is all they do. They appeal to voters to win elections. If fewer people vote, the parties just focus on getting the votes of those who do. If the public were somewhere else, the party would go there. The sad fact is that the public in Illinois doesn’t agree with me or you and isn’t likely to any time soon.

    Why voter turnout is down in recent years is an interesting question. My theory is that people are realistically assessing the declining power of the elected branches, where the contentious and hard questions are now punted to courts and administrative agencies. I have no evidence for this. I think people know at some level, vaguely, that what the legislature can do is not what it once was. We are at the point now where major legislation is immediately challenged in court and our black-robed masters have to approve it. This extremely anti-democratic box we’ve gotten ourselves into is something that Joe and Jane would-be-voter seem to have grasped at some level.

    “It is NEVER a bad idea to support a third party you like, unless you don’t believe in capitalism and competition.” Read my post. If you are willing to accept the consequences OK. But it has nothing to do with capitalism and competition. You are talking apples and oranges. Totally different processess. If you don’t like “liberals running around” running everything now, see how it looks with the other party (GOP) fragmented. Illinois is bad enough now. It will look like East Germany if that happens. The one thing you say I agree with is “primary challenges”. But even more important, it is necessary to figure out how to make conservative positions appealing to Illinois voters. No one is doing that. That is the long-term investment of effort that needs to be made here.

  16. No, the state only allows one or two choices through ballot access retrictions to independents and third parties. It harder to get on the ballot in Illinois than in most democracies in the world outside of the US, including the former Soviet Union. Only Georgia has higher ballot access requirements to run for US House than Illinois. It had not been that way for two centuries. If A Lincoln and the Republican Party had faced the same ballot access requirements we face in Illinois, they never would have made it. Winner take all has been around for two hundred years, but not two exclusive parties. Independents and third parties regularly won on the federal level until the 1930s – 1950s when many states started discriminating against them. Third parties also had plenty of representation at the state level until the 1950s. There is no Democrat Party in Minnesota. It is the Democrat Farmer Labor Party. The Farmer Party and Labor Party were regular winners. Winner take all does help enable two strong parties, and ballot access laws ensure it. Debs crew were winning elections here and there, and that was just as much, if not more, influential than assimilation.

    “If fewer people vote, the parties just focus on getting the votes of those who do.” And do those fewer voters reflect the general public more, or the die-hard party loyalists? There are still enough active swing voters, but we are seeing the core constituencies have more influence. From my experience, there are more centrist, swing voter, general public type people skipping the polls than party loyalists. I think that will increase in time also. With more than 70% of the Illinois population not voting for Gov., I think its safe to say they don’t appeal to the average potential voter, because the average voter knows they are just going to do whatever they want anyway regardless of what BS lines are fed during campaigning. I think the public is somewhere else as evidenced by the vote turnout. They want to be left alone and know even if they have a choice on the ballot, there isn’t much of a difference. I think it has more to do with being hopeless than activist judges. They don’t pay attention that close. The general public is mostly saying “I don’t care”, and I wish the two old parties were following that advice.

    It’ll look like East Germany with or without Republicans based on the evidence I’ve seen. Republican Governors in Illinois for, what, 26 years, and our current Democrat Governor is probably the most fiscally conservative of the bunch. Luckily, he’s not calling for an income/sales tax increase YET, and it’s the truckers and local governments that are fighting his tax increases instead of the ILGOP for the most part.

    I agree with you. Winner take all leads to two strong parties. But that is no reason to give in to those two old parties when we are getting the results we see now. They can be influenced from within, but I suggest they need competition from the outside also. As you suggest, all they pretty much want is votes. Losing votes or potentially losing votes also can force change, because market competition and political competition are much the same. You can’t convince me Ross Perot had no effect.

    As for primaries, competition is rare for those. State officers, US Senate, and President are the only ones that have regular primary competition. US House and below it’s rare. Why? It’s rigged for the most part. If you agree more competition in primaries is good, there’s no reason to think more competition in general isn’t also good.

    If you want to discuss Libertarians “handing elections to Democrats” or Greens “handing elections to Republicans” that’s a different topic. Republicans and Democrats do not “deserve” votes they do not get. Individuals own their votes. Just because most elections are winner take all doesn’t mean it’s the best system. The Rs and Ds could get rid of “spoilers” very easily with instant run-off voting, so I’m not going to feel a bit sorry for Gore in 2000, or the numerous other examples out there. That is the better solution than outlawing opposition parties through dicriminatory ballot access laws.

  17. “You can’t convince me Ross Perot had no effect.” I never sais any such thing. He caused Clinton to win twice. His one issue was trade. He had no effect on that issue. Nader? Did he make the Ds more liberal? Maybe, and to the extent he did, he is probably going to cost them the election without even running.

    You cite the high barriers to third parties even getting on a ballot. Right. So, work within one of the major parties. It’s the only way.

    Bottom line, you cling to the idea that third a third party can “push” one of the major parties in its direction. I insist that all the evidence is to the contrary. Anyway, we’ve about beat this horse to death. If you want to go last, go ahead, but I’m done with this topic for now.

  18. No you didn’t comment on Perot. But in the general, the only competition we need is between the two old parties context, I put those words in your mouth. On trade, Perot did little, but on balanced budgets and paying down the debt, I think he did influence Clinton policies. Perot didn’t cause Clinton to win. Bush’ “read my lips” pledge and subsequent bad economic policies caused Clinton the win because it motivated Perot to run. If Perot liked Bush, he wouldn’t have run, so the blame goes on Bush. The second time, Perot basically had no effect on the electoral college.

    Working within the two old parties is not the only way. Maybe America should have just worked within the English monarchy system too. And the blacks and women should just have accepted discrimination. Maybe the Republicans should have just stayed with the Whigs. Nope. We need as much political competition as we can get.

    Even working within the two old parties is not a cakewalk. We had Lee Daniels using state employees on the clock to work for “centrist” Republicans to beat conservative Republicans in primaries. Thus Cal Skinner left the GOP to run as a Libertarian. They essentially booted him out because he didn’t vote for the doubling of the state budget in five years and didn’t go along with their crooked ways.

    They spent Republican money defeating GOP conservatives that voted against budget increases and tax hikes, instead of using that money to defeat Democrats. The same things happen in the Democrat camp. Primaries are not about ideas and policies, they are about greasing political palms, promising favors, and towing the “party line”. They need pressure from more competition to change to that. I don’t think there is any doubt that opposition candidates can influence policies. Why else would the two old parties make it so difficult for opposition to get on the ballot if third parties don’t have an impact? What are they afraid of? There are countless examples of independents and third parties influencing the two old parties and implemented policies. All the evidence shows the two old parties are just driving voters to stay home on election day because they don’t see any real choices on the ballot anyways. We also see this in the number of registered Rs and Ds declining the past two decades and the # of independent and 3rd party registrations increasing. All the evidence also suggests on fiscal issues and tax levels, there is no difference in the two old parties.

    One point we haven’t considered is the role of gerrymandering on the direction of the parties. Creating 90% safe districts allows those reps to be more “extreme” and is a big reason for the lack of competition even from the two old parties. Another piece of evidence that suggests the parties are not just reflecting the general public.

    I’m never done with this topic as it’s my life, but thanks for the discussion. Thanks for visitng my blog, and I’ve really enjoyed your blog for a while now.

  19. Thanks for your comments, trigger. Remember the 1990 IL gubernatorial election? IIRC the Libertarian candidate received a substantial proportion of the popular vote, and Jim Edgar (for non-IL people: he was the liberal Republican who won) governed noticeably more conservatively than I would have expected based on his past record, and compared to his record in his second term.

    BTW, I’m going to put together a list of Chicago and Illinois blogs for the blogroll as soon as I can get my act together. We’ll include yours.

  20. No clue about 1990 actually. I was 19, in college, and a liberal Democrat at that time. Hadn’t even heard about the LP yet. I do know our candidate for Guv last year had our highest vote total for Guv ever at just over 2%, so 1990 couldn’t have been very influential. We weren’t very influential last time either, but I think we had an impact on a couple issues. We broke all of our previous records in 2002 with our Comptroller candidate getting 4.5%, averaging 9% in state rep races, and getting 500,000 total votes in the 2002 election.

    Wasn’t it after that 1990 election that Edgar raised the income tax “temporarily”? The Illinois job market suxked bad in 1992 when I graduated, so I’d guess the conservatism was based more on a bad economy than his otherwise tax and spend tendencies. I’d have to look at the budget increases in that term. Kind of like right now with Blago.

    By the way, look for the ILGOP to claim Blago actually increased spending by a $1 billion in his last budget (despite the “budget crisis”) in the next week or so. It’s seldom apparent the influence 3rd parties have. It’s not like they come out and say, yeah they had a good idea or are right and give us credit for it. When Blago’s budget passed someone was saying he actually increased spending and it wasn’t the ILGOP at the time.

  21. I’ll have to look into the 1990 race again. Maybe my memory is faulty. If so, perhaps Lex’s argument is stronger than I previously admitted.

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