Many parties are good for the nation's political health.
The specter of third parties is haunting the American political landscape this year and its eerie noises are ringing convincingly for once.
Many signs point to the ghost's presence: Ross Perot's money is so far surmounting the considerable obstacles the political establishment places in the way of upstarts. Erstwhile senatorial wise man Bill Bradley publicly muses about an independent run for president. The left mumbles continuously that its interests are not truly represented by the Democratic Party; the Republican Party is heading for a schism over the power of the religious right and Buchananite economic populists. An October Times-Mirror poll shows nearly 60 percent willing to vote for a non-major-party candidate. After Perot's success in 1992, the throw-the-bums-out fervor represented by the term limits movement, and 1994's congressional upheaval, never in living memory have conditions seemed more propitious for a real realignment in the ossified two-party system.
The response to this spooking from the traditional political/intellectual establishment, as represented by political scientist Theodore J. Lowi writing in The New York Times, is to assure us that the ghoul is more Scooby-Doo than H.P. Lovecraft: really something quite sensible and understandable. It's merely a desire, Lowi proclaims, for another party that's just like the two we already have: a "centrist" party to capture voters that our current two parties can't.
Those who want a center-left, generous government that isn't too bureaucratic, doesn't tax too much, and isn't controlled by special interests want something that they can never have. That fantasy is, however, the only positive image of government to which the typical newspaper-reading American is ever likely to have been seriously exposed. The range of ideas of what is possible in politics is all too centered on our current major-party electoral options, and those options are quickly losing their ability to satisfy.
The Times-Mirror survey both indicates the growing dissatisfaction with the big two parties and casts doubt on Lowi's thesis: While roughly 20 percent of the electorate gives allegiance to neither major party, these voters are not waiting to be drawn into some new centrist third party. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the dissatisfied "agree on very little other than alienation from Republicans and Democrats and from the government itself."
Those 20 percent are particularly ill-served by the two-party stranglehold on both elections and the respectable selling of political ideas, which rarely get discussed in this pragmatic nation unless associated with electoral politics. Consequently, these voters don't get exposed to the ideas about government that might satisfy them.
We shouldn't assume, however, that the other 80 percent of Americans are totally happy either. Strong ideological schisms are growing within the major parties too - among libertarians, Buchananites, and religious rightists in the GOP and Naderites, Rainbow Coalitioners, and DLCers in the Democratic Party.
Lowi does have an important point: Only a party centrist enough to split ideological differences among tens of millions of disparate voters has a real chance of building the apparatus that could allow it to win under our first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all electoral system. But to think America needs only a third party that can win misunderstands the important role of third parties in America's past - and possibly its future.
Historically, third parties have served three main purposes: First, as repositories of cutting-edge ideologies that eventually succeed in influencing and changing the two big parties; such alternative parties include the Free-Soil Party and the People's Party, or Populists. …