Is a Viable Third Party Still Possible?

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​After the lowest midterm election turnout since World War II, it is obvious that many Americans are fed up with politics as usual and that we are facing a “crisis in democracy“. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are now “wholly owned subsidiaries” of Big Money. Many Americans seem to be aware, at least on some level, that the current dysfunction in Washington benefits the elite Big Money interests which now make our political system an oligarchy rather than a democracy.

For progressives, it won’t do to simply elect another Big Money -sponsored candidate with possibly good intentions. When Obama took Big Money to get elected in 2008, he effectively rejected the center-left consensus of the time and revived the Wall Street Wing of the Democratic Party initiated by Bill Clinton in the 1990s. That left both the Democrats and the Republicans dependent on Big Money. As long as these two corporate political parties are our only choices at the ballot box our political system is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. This fact is demonstrated by the lack of legislative movement on issues that most Americans support, such as getting Big Money out of politics in order to end our current system of legalized corruption.

A majority (58%) of Americans think we need a third major party because the Republicans and Democrats “‘do such a poor job’ representing the American people.” By 2014 political Independents outnumbered either major party, with 42% calling themselves Independents while only 31% identified as Democrats and 25% as Republicans according to a Gallup poll.

Given the current disgust with politics as usual, the time may be ripe to try to build a viable third party. However, it is extremely difficult to launch a third party in this country. A “major impediment that was there even before big money was as important as it is now…is really key to the viability issue at the national level and it has been for a very long time.” That is the single-member district (SMD) system, which discourages plural parties. “Most countries that have viable multi-party systems have either only proportional representation (PR) or some combination of SMD and PR” according to Belden Fields. Another main reason, of course, is lack of financing for third party campaigns. In addition, because of winner-take-all rules and the Electoral College, no presidential candidate for a third party is likely to be elected. Ballot access laws that require petitioning and/or registration fees may stymie Congressional third party candidates. Debate rules also may exclude third party candidates.

In 2012, Americans Elect, using borrowed money from wealthy sympathizers in addition to small contributions, overcame some of these barriers. They mounted a $35 million operation in which they gained ballot access in 29 states. Their online primary was a disaster, however, with no candidates being advanced and Americans Elect basically closing down before the elections. This was due to a needlessly complex system that resulted in no real platform and no clear winners. And, of course, from their beginning they excluded everyone who didn’t have or choose online access.

A viable third party would need to avoid such needless complexity and appeal to large numbers of voters, whether independent, conservative, or progressive. One aim for such an independent citizens party could be to pass legislation in accordance with the people’s wishes, which are currently being ignored by Congress. That could be accomplished by having a platform based on polls that already show at least 60% agreement on the issues among the American public.

A Third Party Platform

Here are some of the things a third party platform could address which are supported by at least 60% of Americans according to national polls:

Get Big Money out of politics (74%), either through a Constitutional amendment (which would be extremely difficult to pass) or statutory laws on the federal, state, and local levels, such as much stronger disclosure laws; laws that corporations that do business with a particular level of government cannot spend money to influence election outcomes on that level of government; and laws against corporate spending on elections without the consent of shareholders. Lawrence Lessig says we need to convince voters there is something they can do to change the system, such as a bill for small dollar funding of public elections that would eliminate the need for a constitutional amendment and be perfectly constitutional.​
● Enact higher taxes for the rich.
● End corporate welfare for oil companies and other big business interests.
● Cut military spending and put the saved money into infrastructure and education.
● Protect the social safety net, strengthen Social Security, and provide improved Medicare to everyone in the United States.
● Transition to a clean energy economy and reverse environmental degradation.
● Protect worker rights, create jobs, and raise wages.
● Raise the Minimum Wage (78%).
● Create a meaningful jobs program that includes massive infrastructure investment.
● Legislate common sense gun reform.
● Stop trying to act as the world’s police force.
● Pass immigration reform.

What Would Need to Be Done

Money. The key to having a third party that is independent of Big Money would be to have it depend solely on small contributions (say, no more than $1,000 per donor). This would obviously put the party at a financial disadvantage which would have to be made up for in other ways. Quite a lot of money could be raised from small donors, as Howard Dean did in 2004. In the age of crowd-sourcing even more money could be raised, perhaps enough to jump-start petition campaigns, pay registration fees, hire a few staffers, and run enough TV ads toward the end of the election campaign to make sure that voters know there is an alternative to the do-nothing Congress and Washington dysfunction.

Volunteer Efforts. Such a third party would need a tremendous volunteer effort in order to show up at community events to publicize the party, arrange for local assemblies, recruit good candidates, get onto state ballots, get candidates into congressional debates, contact registered voters, and run a good ground game. Generating word-of-mouth about the party would be an important part of the effort.

Social Media and the Internet. Much of the work of a third party would need to be done on social media and various Internet sites that attract politically-oriented people.

Viable third parties are not unprecedented. In Spain, the Podemos Party, started in January 2014 by a group of political science professors, is now leading the polls a year before national elections. One of their organizing tools was setting up hundreds of local assemblies where citizens meet weekly to discuss issues and vote on what they want to do.

Putting in the necessary energy, time, and money that a viable third party would necessitate might be quixotic and could deflect efforts from other worthy movements. On the other hand, if we don’t take democratic control soon, there is the possibility that we will lose more of our technically guaranteed rights, just as we have lost the right to privacy to the National Security Agency. In this time of mass protests, since besieged governments typically respond to threats with repression, violence, and “perception management“, we may be running out of time to exercise the rights we still have, especially since the recent terrorist attacks in France are serving as an excuse for more government surveillance and undermining of our rights.

A third party movement might also help build a larger community dedicated to furthering social justice in this country.

An old saying goes, “organized people are the best antidote to organized money.”

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