Friday, May 8, 2020

The Perennial Third-Party Problem

I don't think I had ever even heard of Michigan Congressman Justin Amash (photo) until a year or so ago, when the first Palestinian-American Congressman (and one of just five Eastern Orthodox members of Congress) emerged as that rare Republican who publicly opposed President Trump - to the point that he left the Republican party and even voted for Trump's impeachment. Now he is threatening to run for President as the candidate of a third-party (the Libertarian party). 

This possible misadventure has suddenly been attracting attention. It was the topic for this week's NY Times podcast The Argument, and Richard Ostling wrote about Amash on Get Religion at

Now I regard Libertarianism as one of the more morally repulsive of political ideologies. So I wouldn't be tempted to vote for him or his party in any conceivable case. Nor do I fear too many others will.. (In 2016 Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson received a record 3.29% of the popular vote.) On the other hand, third-party fetishism is found on both extremes of the political spectrum. And, in our electoral college system, it can clearly make a disastrous difference in some pivotal swing states - as Ralph Nader is alleged to have done in 2000 helping to make George W. Bush president, and Jill Stein and the Green party are alleged to have done in 2016 helping to make Donald Trump president.

The only instance in American history when a third-party actually won the presidency was the unusual four-way race in 1860, from which the Republicans emerged as one of the two major parties. Other than that, the only time a third-party amassed more electoral votes than a major party (but still not enough to win) was ex-President Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" Party in 1912. That was obviously a consequence of TR's personal popularity; and, when he returned to the Republican fold in 1916, his third-party returned to the more typical, marginalized status of most third-parties.

As an academic political scientist actually teaching the subject in 1980, I knew perfectly well the absurdity of voting for a third-party or "Independent" candidate. Yet even I did so that year, when - out of anger at the Democrats for renominating Jimmy Carter instead of nominating Ted Kennedy - I voted for John Anderson. So I can clearly appreciate the appeal of such politically harmful behavior. But it remains harmful - a narcissistic self-indulgence in feeling too morally superior to make the binary choice our political process requires serious citizens to make. One can, of course, quarrel with that system and suggest better alternatives, but it remains the system we now have and within which we must live and operate as citizens.

It is true, of course, that in that same system most of our votes for president don't matter. In Tennessee where I vote now and in New York where I used to vote, there is no real doubt which party will win the state's electoral votes. So a symbolic third-party vote in such states makes no practical difference and so does no immediate damage. Only in the relatively few closely contested states can a third-party candidate's votes determine the result - as Nader's and Stein's supporters are alleged to have done in certain states in 2000 and 2016.

Fair enough! But what makes those dangerous situations so much more possible is the greater legitimacy third-party voting, when actually and widely practiced, acquires nationwide, which is why such votes even in totally safe states do moral damage to the process, regardless of their lack of practical political electoral effect.

At this point, no one can predict what impact an Amash candidacy may have or not have in distorting this year's outcome. All one can say is that our society as a whole and our fragile political culture would be better off without that distortion.

No comments:

Post a Comment