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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Losertarian Follies – Why Third Parties Fail

As we debate issues with political foes, or strategies with political friends, remember the following:
  • Politics is the means by which people of diverse views get along.
  • Politics is NOT a religion.
  • Political agendas are advanced by those who win elections.
When a variety of people gather to establish rules of any kind, the first step is to find common ground. The second step is to persuade others by winning their hearts and minds. The third step, is to consider compromise for those issues where it is feasible and necessary. And the fourth step is to exercise the will of the majority when division of thought is clear and immobile.

It is generally easy to find common ground among a small group, particularly when its members are drawn together by a single issue. It is when this group grows that common ground begins to shrink. Herein lies the inherent failure of third-parties.

More often than not, a third-party is launched by frustrated members of one of the two major parties. For example, in 2002 conservatives rallied around then gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty to resolve a budget mess without destroying Minnesota's economy – and the family budget. In 2003, Governor Pawlenty delivered. He stood his ground and introduced fiscal responsibility to the budget process. A deficit was eliminated without raising taxes. The economy grew and now, for two years running, there is a surplus in Minnesota tax revenues.

However, after Republicans lost a dozen House seats in 2004, Governor Pawlenty has been accused of moderating his agenda. Never mind the fact that he successfully blocked an effort by Democrats to increase the budget by $4 billion, Pawlenty stood accused of shunning his conservative supporters. Consequently, a few disgruntled Republicans packed up their toys and ran to the Losertarian Party (Libertarian Party for those in Rio Linda).

It is easier to find common ground in a little party. It is also easier to become a big fish in a little pond.

However, it is when that little party seeks to compete in the big world that its cohesiveness falls apart. To become competitive, it needs to attract a wider, more diverse collection of voters.

The folly of the third-party is to believe that a small group who failed to be persuasive among like-minded activists in one of the Big Two Parties could persuade the general public to vote their way.

Remember, politics is not a religion. To be true to one's religion, it is important not to waver on its foundational beliefs. This is not an area where one should compromise.

In politics, such purity is not required. It may even be counter productive. It makes sense to support an electable candidate with whom you do not fully agree over an unelectable candidate with whom you agree 100%. The former will at least have a chance at advancing the agenda in your direction. The latter can only stroke your ego with a false sense of accomplishment.

The biggest failure of a third-party is that they threaten to defeat their own ambitions.

In American politics, there are exactly two distinct views of each issue – the “only government can do it” view, and the “private sector can do it better” view. This is the classic Big Government vs. Limited Government debate.

Third party efforts most often find themselves closely aligned with one of these views and with the Big Party with which the view is most often associated. Consequently, the third party will most likely split the vote between itself and its closely related Big Party – thus guaranteeing that its agenda is defeated at the polls.

In 1992, conservatives were frustrated that President Bush 41 and Republicans failed to hold the line on taxes. Many split off to support Ross Perot and his Reform Party. Together, the limited government view represented collectively by the Republican Party and the Reform Party resulted in 57% of the vote. Unfortunately, since this vote was split between the two parties, the minority view favoring Big Government won the White House with only 43% of the vote.

In a small party, it is easy to maintain purity of thought and views. But when you seek to become a winning party, you seek to find more supporters and thus a wider range of thought. Loss of "purity" is inevitable. To succeed, the third party must become what it pretends to despise – the Big Party that it left.

The real contention between third-party activists and their Big Party counterparts is more on tactics than on issues. Their dispute has more to do with the size of the step that elected leaders should take when moving the agenda. Third party activists demand nothing short of a full stride while Big Party leaders may often be forced to accept smaller steps.

To be clear – both often share the same common goal. The question is how to get there.

During the 2003 session, Governor Pawlenty enjoyed a Republican majority of a dozen seats in the House. The DFL majority in the Senate was limited to a single seat. This gave the governor some clout to stand his ground. Two years later, the governor's tower of support was dwindled to a slime 2 seats in the House. and the DFL slightly widened their majority in the Senate.

Governor Pawlenty's apparent moderation is an expected consequence of limited political clout.

If you truly want the conservative agenda to succeed in Minnesota, the best route is to work for the election of more Republican House and Senate candidates and for the re-election of Governor Pawlenty. Further, by advancing your ideas in public forums – such as letters to the paper or next week's caucus – you give your candidates more ammunition and more backbone to stand their ground.

While it may seem rewarding to pack up your toys and run to the Losertarian Party, it is a fool's folly. No one relishes the thought of a strong Losertarian movement in Minnesota more than the DFL. They need the Losertarian Party to do what they cannot – to defeat Republicans at the polls.

Be forewarned of candidates who seek office by joining third party efforts. For many, it may be nothing more than an ego trip either for self endorsement or for the advancement of a specific issue. It is easy to ride the high horse in a race you don't expect to win.

It has always been my suspicion that Jesse Venture ran to promote himself and the third-party movement of which he was a strong supporter. I believe he had a "V-8" moment on election night in 1998 when he suddenly realized that he might actually have to do the job.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You got it right about a 3rd party candidate needs to be up to doing the job. It seems to me that they are a disgruntled lot who simply don’t demonstrate the characteristics of bringing others to the common ground but fling mud wildly at all those endorsed by other parties. Their point of view is singular, as you so suggest both egocentrically and in issue. It acutely remiss of, ‘by the people for the people.’

3/03/2006 1:18 PM  

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