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Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker

Some Thoughts on Third-Party Movements

(NOTE: this was first published as a Facebook post two years ago, on September 2, 2016. Because it remains relevant - especially so with the 2018 mid-term elections just over two months away - I am republishing it here on my blog, where it will be easier to find and refer to.)

Those advocating for third-party presidential candidates are taking on a harder task than they know. The structure of the American government virtually guarantees the dominance of two major parties. I'm not talking about the political superstructure that's been built up over the last 240 years; I'm talking about the basic structure of the government, as spelled out in the Constitution. The Constitution does not mention political parties, and there is reason to believe that the Founders were trying to avoid them altogether. But that's not what they succeeded in doing.

We have what political scientists call a presidential system. It differs significantly from the parliamentary system used by most of the world's democracies. The difference revolves around a separation of duties that most Americans don't even realize exists. There are two entirely distinct functions performed at the top of any government. One is ceremonial - welcoming foreign leaders, signing treaties and laws, dedicating bridges - that sort of thing. The other is executive - actually running the government. In America we roll both those duties into a single office, the Presidency. In parliamentary democracies, they are separate positions. There is a head of state - the ceremonial role - and a head of government, the executive role. In a constitutional monarchy, such as Great Britain, the monarch is the head of state; in other countries, it may be an elected position, often called President. In either case, the executive head of government is usually called the Prime Minister. And - here's the nub - the Prime Minister is not elected by the people. The Prime Minister is chosen by the parliament.

Technically, that is not strictly true. The Prime Minister is usually officially chosen by the head of state. But that choice must be approved by the parliament, and so the head of state almost always defers the actual choice to that body. And usually - though not necessarily - the person who becomes Prime Minister is the leader of the party that holds the most seats in the parliament.

There is one more thing. In America, we elect presidents and members of Congress to fixed-length terms. Politicians in a parliamentary democracy have no such job security. Technically, elections are normally held at fixed intervals (in Great Britain, it's every 5 years). But a vote of confidence can be held at any time. And if the vote fails - becoming a "vote of no confidence" - the current parliament is dissolved and a new one is elected. The new parliament then chooses a new Prime Minister. Again, to be absolutely clear: this can happen, not just at set intervals, but at any time the parliament itself chooses.

Perhaps you can begin to see how all of this affects the power of political parties. Under the parliamentary system, a small party can wield great power. In a closely-divided parliament, a party that holds a single seat may determine the choice of Prime Minister by which coalition it chooses to join. If a small party succeeds in forming a large enough coalition with other small parties, the leader of one of those small parties may become Prime Minister. The system thus favors the formation of multiple parties, each or all of which may become brokers of power. Each may even hold the highest executive position. And the possibility of a vote of no confidence means that the situation is always fluid and always subject to change.

No such thing is possible in America. Here, the President and the Congress are elected separately, but are forced by the Constitutional definition of their powers to work together, in two-year blocks of time. Regardless of how many parties are actually represented in Congress, it will tend to divide into two factions: those who support the President's policies, and those who oppose those policies. In order to elect Presidents they agree with, these factions will tend to coalesce into parties. The reason that we don't have coalition governments in the United States is that the parties themselves are the coalitions. The Republican Party is a coalition of conservatives and right-leaning moderates; the Democratic Party is a coalition of liberals and left-leaning moderates. Third parties can exist, and can even elect Members of Congress, but the only power they wield is their votes on legislation, and unless they hold enough votes to regularly influence the outcome of legislative campaigns, that power means absolutely nothing. For an excellent example of how this works, you need look no further than Bernie Sanders. He was elected to Congress for many, many years as an Independent. But in order to influence legislation, he had to caucus with the Democrats, and when he chose to run for President, he joined the Democratic Party - without which his run would have held no more meaning than Jill Stein's.

None of this is meant to imply that today's major parties can't be replaced. They can. It has happened before in America - the Republicans replaced the Whigs in the early 1850s - and it can happen again. By choosing ideological purity over pragmatic conservatism, the Republican Party may have made itself ripe for replacement. By moving their center too far to the right, the Democrats may be encouraging the same thing. The point is not that this cannot happen, but that it must happen before - not after - the election of a president from the new party. Without a base of support among those who will vote on legislation, presidents cannot be elected; if by some odd chance they are elected, they will have no base from which to govern. A new party must replace an old one from the ground up, not the top down. It can only succeed by becoming a more effective coalition than the party whose place it is trying to take. And after that happens - though their names and compositions may have changed - there will still be only two major political parties in America.
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