The Limits of Politics

by Henry on July 12, 2004

Megan McArdle responds to my previous post about third parties, suggesting that Barbara Ehrenreich (and I) have “about as tenuous a connection to reality as the folks who brought us Pepsi Clear.” Her counter-argument:

  • That ‘first-past-the-post’ voting tends to produce two party systems.
  • That presidential systems are much more prone to two-partyism than parliamentary ones.
  • That the reason why Ehrenreich’s (or indeed McArdle’s ideas) don’t become policy isn’t because they’re blocked by the system, but because most Americans disagree with them.
  • Therefore: third-partyism is an exercise in futility.

These arguments are exactly the sort of thing that we political scientists like to claim that we know something about (I note in passing that Megan’s confident assertion of these empirical relationships sits somewhat awkwardly with her belief that political science doesn’t have much to do with falsifiable predictions). On the first of these claims, there’s evidence from the literature to suggest that McArdle is sort of right (but not in a way that really helps her overall argument). On the second, there’s evidence to suggest that she’s fundamentally wrong. On the third, she seems to be on thin ice (if she’s making a limited claim) or falling through into the river beneath (if she’s making a strong general argument).

McArdle’s first claim is that ‘first past the post’ voting leads to two-party systems. This is a version of what political scientists call Duverger’s Law, which states in its original formulation that “the simple-majority single-ballot system favors the two-party system.” And indeed, there’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that this law has real explanatory value, although there are many counter-examples.

This brings us on to McArdle’s next point. If there are important counter-examples to this general tendency, then McArdle’s big claim about American politics could be in trouble – the US could very easily be one such counter-example. Thus, McArdle makes a second claim – that the pesky counter-examples of countries with first past the post voting and more than two parties, are parliamentary democracies, not presidential ones like the US.

in those systems [parliamentary democracies], there is always the possibility that the winning party will not win quite enough votes to form a government, and thus your little party will get to be the coalition partner reaping political rewards out of its weight class—as the Greens in New Zealand, and the NDP in Canada. So in some ways, the parliamentary system actively rewards third party formation.
In the United States, on the other hand, being the guy in the little third party won’t get you the presidency, and will be a positive handicap in the legislature, because our legislature, for various reasons, doesn’t have anything like the party discipline of British-style parliamentary systems. Thus, our opposition often gets to help shape policy. This means that there is a large benefit to voting for the dominant opposition party.

This claim, while not implausible on its face, is unfortunately disconfirmed by the available evidence. Let’s take the general claim – that presidential systems are more likely to have competition between two (and just two) parties than parliamentary ones. In a forthcoming article in Comparative Political Studies, Terry Clark and Jill Witrock find strong evidence that precisely the opposite is true. On the basis of a regression analysis of electoral results in post-Communist Europe, they conclude that Duverger’s law is considerably weaker in countries with strong presidencies: these countries are more likely than countries with parliamentary systems to have several parties. As they note, there is a secondary literature strongly suggesting that this effect has more general application than Eastern Europe. Thus, it is in countries with strong presidential systems where we may expect Duverger’s law to apply weakly, if at all.

Indeed, when we look at the specific case of the US, this expectation is partly confirmed. Duverger’s law does not lead to a dearth of third parties. As the eminent political scientist, William Riker remarked in a classic article on Duverger’s Law, the US political system provides strong incentives for third parties to throw their hats in the ring, explaining what Riker describes as the “almost constant supply of third parties” (p.765). Hiroshi Okayama has a very interesting recent paper that speaks further to this, drawing on evidence from post-Civil War politics. While these parties may not last, they may have very substantial political effects.

McArdle’s final assertion is that the reason that Barbara Ehrenreich’s ideas (or indeed McArdle’s own) don’t have popular traction isn’t because of the system – it’s because a majority of the population disagrees with them. This claim is somewhat naive if it’s supposed to be a generalizable argument. If McArdle is arguing that political structures can’t restrain popular sentiment, there’s ample evidence to contradict her (cf, for example the lack of a death penalty in many countries where it would receive overwhelming popular support). If she’s arguing instead that the specific issues that Ehrenreich favours are incompatible with US public opinion, she needs to provide much stronger evidence than her (currently unsupported) assertions to make that claim stick. She may be right about some of Ehrenreich’s policy goals – but she’s probably wrong about others – and she needs to say what basis she’s arguing on. Contra McArdle , a majority of US citizens could probably be persuaded of the benefits of universal health care. The reasons that this isn’t on the agenda have more to do with the weight of special interests in US politics than public opinion. More generally, Cass Sunstein’s idea of constitutive commitments is a good way to get a handle on the question of what policies are feasible, and what aren’t in US politics. The general point still stands – some proposals that Ehrenreich (or indeed McArdle) would like to see on the public agenda are probably quite compatible with these commitments and would be on that agenda under different political structures.

Finally, it’s hard to see how any of this has bearing on the question of whether leftists can “use a third party to pull the Democrats back to where we want them.” Harry makes the counter-argument in comments, and does so, I think, convincingly.

Defensive dismissal of the likes of Ehrenriech is calculated to suppress debate within the DP both about whether it should be the place for the left, and what direction it should take. Given the rules of the game the most likely outcome of any serious and moderately successful left organising effort outside the DP is that it will get absorbed into the DP, and change the DP’s internal politics (a bit) as a result. Taking as your staring point the idea that the DP is your home (if you are on the left) is a sure-fire way of diminishing your influence on it.
BE knows all this. So, I suspect, does Brad De Long. BE is a left-of-center social democrat in European terms. Brad is a moderate conservative/Christian Democrat in European terms. The DP is very much in the hands of people with Brad’s basic outlook, which is one reason that the Nader issue still hasn’t gone away, despite the all the whining of the DPers who wish they could take the left as much for granted as they do, eg, African Americans. If the left isn’t willing to consider alternative to the DP they can forget about influencing it.

Update: See Daniel Geffen for further argument.



dsquared 07.13.04 at 1:51 am

I remain convinced that the only way forward is for the UK to become the 51st state of the USA. Since we would have to be given slightly less than twice as many electoral votes as California, this would have the twin effects that a) the Republicans (and any other party that appeared to threaten our NHS) would be screwed forever and b) that at least one party to the left of the Democrats would always have a chance to build a decent base simply by pandering to us.


Jake McGuire 07.13.04 at 2:19 am

Nonsense. The Republican party would merely shift somewhat leftward until it gobbled up enough of what used to be the center to restore the balance. At least they would if they were interested in and competent at obtaining and retaining power. Which I believe recent history shows to be the case.

On the other hand, amidst all of the thinking about how IRV and proportional representation will help the left, has any consideration been given to how it will affect the way the Republican party deals with its fringe elements?


Tom T. 07.13.04 at 2:28 am

Is McArdle perhaps using the term “presidential system” differently from Clark and Witrock? The Clark/Witrock paper seems to discuss systems of (and please excuse my own uninformed terminology) presidential supremacy, where a president has the power to dissolve the legislature. McArdle seems to be referring more specifically to the US system, where the President is independent of the legislature (i.e., not drawn from its ranks) but lacks the power to dissolve Congress.

Clark and Witlock make the point that, if the president can dissolve the legislature, the legislature thus has less relative power, and there is less value in coalescing into a majority party in order to dominate that institution. Under the US system, while it is presidential in the sense that it is not parliamentary, Congress retains relatively greater power with respect to the President, so there should correspondingly be greater value to coalescing into a majority party in order to seize legislative control.

I don’t think this point speaks at all to McArdle’s third assertion, but perhaps it helps her second assertion a bit.


David 07.13.04 at 2:31 am

Is there evidence to suggest the truth of Harry’s counterargument? Do third parties influence the policies of the two major parties? More so than working from the inside?


Kieran Healy 07.13.04 at 2:33 am

“We discovered last year”: that Megan’s belief that Chicago School Economics + Popperianism = the only true model of social science is not disconfirmable by any facts about the social sciences, the logic of scientific explanation, the actual practice of economics or indeed her own use of evidence in argument.


Henry 07.13.04 at 3:16 am

Tom T. – good point – but as I read Clark and Witlock, they’re making a much more general claim than the one you suggest – using presidential-parliamentary systems as a means of getting at the more general effects of strong presidencies. They state that presidential-parliamentary systems reduce the incentives to vie for control of a legislature that can (a) neither set policy or (b) make or break governments. To the extent that Congress certainly does the former, but doesn’t really do the latter, one would expect that their argument would still apply (albeit not as strongly). And indeed, the US appears to be only a partial confirmation – but one that still points away from McArdle’s arguments.

What I didn’t discuss in the post, which is perhaps a more important point, is the extent to which third parties stick around as serious political entities. As Riker says, they tend to have their day, and then disappear. There hasn’t been a third party takeover since the (rather arguable) takeover by the Republicans in the last century. But this leads on to the third point – even when third parties haven’t lasted, they _have_ very often had lasting effects on the political landscape, and the policies that are considered possible and impossible.


taak 07.13.04 at 3:34 am

It was Crystal Pepsi. Coca-cola made Clear Coke.

Another shoddy bit of fact-checking from Ms. McArdle. And the usual run-on sentences.


nick 07.13.04 at 4:42 am

Megan McAnecdotal? One has to laugh.


Dan Goodman 07.13.04 at 6:00 am

Note that third parties can have an impact below the national level. In
Minneapolis, the City Council has gone from being made up completely of Democrats except for one independent to having two Greens. (Minneapolis is not prime Republican territory.) Officially, the City Council is nonpartisan; just as, officially, Chicago has a “weak mayor” system of government.

The Democratic Party in Minnesota is actually Democratic-Farmer-Labor
— I’m not sure how long after the merger there were still traces of the Farmer-Labor Party.


Sebastian Holsclaw 07.13.04 at 7:23 am

“Contra McArdle , a majority of US citizens could probably be persuaded of the benefits of universal health care.”

Seems to me that your evidence for this assertion is just about as strong as you claim Megan’s is.

Sure third parties can effect U.S. elections. But do they effect elections in ways that their constituents later like? Take the Reform Party and the Greens. It seems likely that the Reform Party effected the election in a way that was positive for Clinton, but probably not what the party wanted. Same thing with the Greens and Bush. Megan is questioning the ability of 3rd parties in the US system to influence things in the direction that they want. She uses terms like ‘lack of influence’ to describe the inability to change things in your direction. You respond by saying that 3rd parties in the US can change things. Sure–but not in their intended direction.


DJW 07.13.04 at 8:35 am

Here’s the thing: I strongly suspect that many 3P movements (certainly, the kind of thing Nader’s up to now) will shift the DP toward the right, not the left. They have two possible directions to go to get the extra votes they need. Institutionally, they’ve got a long history of working that center–for better or for worse, that’s what they try to do on a national scale. Did the mobilization of the far right, which has made impressive inroads in the GOP in the last 25 years, involve a 3P challenge? Not that I can see.

Also, while I’m in general agreement with the thrust of your discussion of the empirical claims, they don’t tell us much about what the left should do–whether or not 3P efforts should be expected is a different question that whether or not they are likely to be effective.

I’m paraphrasing from my coblogger the other day (click through, scroll down if interested), but the 3P push must be understood in context. There are very high political and institutional start-up costs, it fractures alliances and coalitions, it’s divisive, and it has a huge failure rate. It has to be judged by opportunity costs. You say that the majority of Americans could be persuaded to support universal health care. I’m inclined to suspect you may be correct (acknowledging that Holsclaw is right, we have no evidence at this time), but there are all sorts of social movement strategies to work on that project. It seems odd to assume sans evidence that 3P pressure is the best way to go about it.


djw 07.13.04 at 8:59 am

Let me clarify. It is conceivable that a left 3P–say, the Greens–could have an impact in the direction they want to see, by shifting the DP a little to the left. In fact, in 2000, this was my dream/fantasy. But here is how they would have to do it–they’d have to leverage their spoiler threat for actual political gains. They could only leverage certain things (some would alienate centrist voters, creating a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario for the dems) and they’d have to be awfully savvy and pragmatic about the whole thing. This is exactly the kind of temperament that doesn’t show up in 3P types, and Nader/the Greens have demonstrated that quite well in the last five years. The pragmatic savvy compromisers stay in the system.


liberal japonicus 07.13.04 at 11:09 am

There are very high political and institutional start-up costs, it fractures alliances and coalitions, it’s divisive, and it has a huge failure rate.

While people who support Ehrenriech’s op-ed might recoil in horror from this parallel, the most ‘effective’ third party movement was the group that brought you secession and the Civil War/War for Southern Independence. IIRC, the Senate and the House had passed a 13th amendment (the so-called “Corwin Amendment’) preventing the Federal Government from interfering with those institutions that existed within States and Buchanan had signed it. However, with Lincoln’s election, South Carolina and then the rest of the southern states formed their own third party, as it were. While current 3P folks are not the ideological heirs, they certainly manifest the same sort of psychology.


Jane Galt 07.13.04 at 2:05 pm

Henry, I didn’t say that you, or Ehrenreich for that matter, had as tenuous a connection to reality as the Pepsi Clear folks — it was a humorous bit of exaggeration about some of the rancor I’ve seen directed at Ehrenreich.

I don’t quite understand your attack. If you’d read the preceding post, you’d have seen that the reason I was in Montreal was that I was attending a seminar on public choice theory; I’m thus hardly unaware that the public vote does not represent some meta “will of the people”.

Nor was I claiming to do solid political science; it was an opinion based on my thoughts on teh weekend, certainly no claim to have discovered an iron law of politics. I write about, among other places, latin america; I am thus very much aware that a presidential system can have more than one party. I was speaking specifically about Canada and Britain versus us, not trying to formulate some new political science. I am happy to be educated by someone who knows more on the topic than I do, but I don’t see that there’s any reason I shouldn’t post my musings just because I don’t have a PhD — I don’t see that that has ever stopped anyone at Crooked Timber. And you haven’t really addressed my main point, which is that I think the premium in the US system on fronting a unified opposition is likely to prevent the emergence of a third party alternative. Longitudinally, this finding seems pretty solid.

I just disagree with you on the third point. I think that I could get a majority of Americans to agree with me about privatising Medicare, if they’d give me months of their time to explain it carefully. This is, of course, not a useful belief. To the extent that Ehrenreich’s beliefs are sufficiently far from those represented by teh Democratic party to warrant third party representation, I stand by my assertion that the reason they do not get enacted is that they have broad, highly visible, large costs, and unpopular targets. I share Richard Epstein’s belief that national health care will be DOA in America for the foreseeable future because while the large majority that has health care they like are willing to subsidize some level of care for those less fortunate, they are not willing to sacrifice their level of care in order to maintain it, which is what a national health care programme would entail. Nor are they willing to pay significantly more for their hamburgers so that those flipping them can make $12 an hour; pay higher taxes to build a national system of day care to replace the day care most of them are satisfied with; drive a European-style econobox to the grocery store; and so on. The groups in favour of such things are highly diffuse, have none of the emotional pull that say, senior citizens and farmers have, and have powerful, highly organised interests such as the UAW against them. As long as Americans believe, unlike the social democracies you favour, that it is possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, there is not going to be significant popular support for massive social welfare programmes directed at the poor. Our laws reflect our beliefs about the world. Highly imperfectly — I talk all the time about the ways that voting fails to reflect the public interest. But in the case of libertarians and leftists, it seems to me that every single time they claim that “The System” is thwarting them, it turns out that they’re being thwarted on some issue, like privatising Medicare, that’s simply wildly unpopular. Perhaps the exception that proves the rule is corporate welfare, but even then I’m not sure you wouldn’t find large majorities in favour of helping Dole export that good ol’ American pineapple to the world.


Richard Bellamy 07.13.04 at 2:09 pm

One wonders if there is not a difference between “Extreme” third parties (Socialists, Constitution Party, etc.) and “Moderate” third parties that try to place themselves between the two main parties (John Anderson, Ross Perot, a hypothetical John McCain candidacy, etc.)

The “Moderates” generally run as third parties because, even though they are very popular, they can’t get a plurality of either half of the electorate in order to get a a nomination. (Ross Perot was leading Clinton and Bush until he went psycho and dropped out temporarily).

The “Extremes” can only make a difference if there really is a large percentage of people who feel disenfranchised by the two major parties because they both seemed to favor the war (Nader) or oppose lynching (Strom).


Jane Galt 07.13.04 at 2:26 pm

Not, btw, that this means that I think we’ll never have national health care, etc. — if I could predict the future, I’d be too busy making money to blog. But I think that if we do get them, it will be because they’re popular, not because of third party pressure.


Nick Simmonds 07.13.04 at 3:39 pm

A) While I agree that a third-party is a good idea for leftists who want to bring the discourse in their direction, Nader has recently made it clear that he’s not the right choice. Not only is he not in a party, he’s not really a leftist, just an anti-corporatist and anti-semite.

B) Pepsi Clear was delicious.


Henry 07.13.04 at 4:00 pm

Megan – I’ve no problems with someone posting who doesn’t have a Ph.D. – but you have to admit that there is a bit of a disjuncture between making political-science type confident assertions about what is or is not possible in politics, and saying that political science isn’t at the stage where one can make falsifiable predictions. You may well have changed your mind in the meantime – I would be interested to hear if you have – but you did advocate quite a strong position on this last year, which, I think, was simply wrong on the face of it. Isn’t Duverger’s Law precisely the kind of lawlike generalization that you were asking for? That’s the point I was making – not that you’re unqualified to comment on these issues – but that your current ‘epistemological stance’ to use some jargon, is rather at odds with one that you have previously taken.

I’m glad to hear that you’re not making the strong version of the ‘system never crowds out public opinion’ argument, and the detailed justification for why universal healthcare is not on the agenda is exactly what I would have liked to have seen in the original post. I still disagree with the empirics of your argument – and again, I refer you to Cass Sunstein’s work, which makes, I think, a pretty good case that universalization of many of these rights _is_ within the realm of political possibility. Note, however, that I’m not making a value-judgement here that these changes are possible _because_ they are what I would like to see. I’m equally convinced that other reforms that I would hate to see (including perhaps, the privatization of Medicare) are within the boundaries of political possibility.

It seems to me that there’s a consistent tendency among most of us to take the institutions that we live among for granted. To some extent that’s justified – both economists and political scientists have done good work on how path dependence makes institutions ‘sticky’ and difficult to change. But a proper acquaintance with history suggests both that many of these institutional choices which now seem set in stone were the result of temporary, almost arbitrary compromises that took on a life of their own, and that these broad institutional matrices can and do change, albeit with great difficulty and slow grinding of gears. It’s not utopian to hope for real, substantial change in the basis of politics, and to try to achieve it – it’s difficult, certainly, unlikely of success, yet very arguably worth the effort. And third parties have historically played an important role in reforms that were both historically justified (emancipation) and unjustified (prohibition). They’re not the only path to change – but they are one, and sometimes an appropriate one.


Daniel Geffen 07.13.04 at 5:18 pm

As someone who should have a PhD some time in the very near future, I thought I should probably wade in to this debate. I’ve posted my thoughts (including an argument that systems with succesful third parties are MORE subject to special interest nastiness) here.


Seth Gordon 07.13.04 at 5:33 pm

A few years back, Israel switched from a pure parlimentary system, where the Prime Minister was elected by the Knesset, to having direct elections for the PM. The people who drafted this change hoped that by moving Israel closer to a presidential system, the power of small parties would be diluted. Instead, the reverse happened: since voters were free to split their ticket, small parties picked up even more seats in the legislature, and the PM had to work even harder to pander to them in order to get anything done. Israel is now back to a pure parlimentary system.


JRoth 07.13.04 at 5:53 pm

I have to disagree with the argument that 3Ps consistently fail to influence things in the direction they would prefer. And I don’t feel that I need to go back any further than one of Sebastian’s 2 examples – the Reform Party. What was the #1 issue of the Reformers? The deficit. What was Clinton’s primary policy accomplishment? Deficit reduction. A reduction that Bush almost certainly would not have pursued as far, and one that would likely not have occurred to the extent it did without the push from Perot. Although conventional wisdom has long held that the majority of Reformers preferred Bush to Clinton, the evidence is weak and inconsistent – it’s more useful, perhaps, to say that Reformers who would have voted in a 2 man race would have broken, somewhat, for Bush. But of course if Bush was actually the man they wanted, they would have voted for him anyway. More than Perot, more than Bush, more than Clinton, Reformers wanted deficit reduction, and they got it (somehow, the Republicans read this movement as evidence of a groundswell in favor of pointless investigations and personal attacks on the presidency. Odd, that)

On a separate note, same election, I think it’s pretty clear that in 1992 a strong plurality, if not majority, of Americans was in favor of massive health care reform, approaching if not achieving universal coverage. The fact that corporate interests succeeded in sabotaging a policy that had been one of Clinton’s central planks doesn’t provide any evidence for Megan’s argument that the issue is a political non-starter.


Sebastian Holsclaw 07.13.04 at 7:15 pm

“What was Clinton’s primary policy accomplishment? Deficit reduction.”

What policy, different from Bush I, did Clinton persue that ‘accomplished’ deficit reduction?


Jane Galt 07.13.04 at 8:51 pm

Henry, the fact that I don’t think that political science has either the precision or the predictive validity of, say, chemistry, doesn’t mean that I think we should just roll it up and never try to figure anything out about the way politics works. My father and my aunt both taught polisci before going into government, and if nothing else, they gave me a healthy respect for the discipline. That post was widely interpreted as saying “social sciences are crap”, rather than “social sciences are imprecise”, which was what I intended by it. I was a lit major in undergrad; the fact that I can’t make an elegant equation to describe Dante’s Inferno doesn’t make it any less valuable, although I’ve known certain hard sciences and engineering types who might argue that way.

I assume that there are iron laws out there about how politics works; I just assume that we’ll never really know exactly what they are, given the complexity of the system, and the illegality of, say, sticking a million people in a controlled experiment to see how they vote.

My prediction is falsifiable — if we get a national third party, it will have been — but it’s not testable, since the fact that we haven’t got a third party may, or may not, indicate that we can’t have one. So I would argue that my prediction in some way violates a basic tenet of science the way I understand it: it will hold until it doesn’t, at which point, it’s too damn bad for the people who relied on it, isn’t it? This is not the sort of scientific precision I would want if I were, for example, trying to calculate whether the new material I had just invented was strong enough to build a bridge out of. Indeed, if that were the standard for talking about such things, I wouldn’t want to build a bridge. Human institutions, on the other hand, will happen whether we study them or not, so a lower level of precision is acceptable.

I hope I didn’t imply that I believed my post was definitive — that’s why I opened with “I think”. That’s all it was: my thoughts on why we won’t have a three, four, or more party system. I could be wrong. I am open to having it demonstrated to me why I am wrong — either because there is some system out there sufficiently similar to ours to be comparable that features many parties (though I shudder to think of how many criteria one would have to specify to decide this) or because there’s something even more critical I’m leaving out–one commenter suggests we’ve got two parties because the Republocrats have colluded to make it very, very difficult for new parties to register, an argument I find interesting but ultimately uncompelling. It’s more than possible that someone has already convincingly refuted my thesis–when I wrote the post, I wanted to put in a caveat that I believed I was probably treading over well-trodden political science territory, but I forgot, and am now paying a just price for my laziness. I write posts like that in the hope of attracting learned commentary from people such as yourself.

Finally, I agree with you that we can’t assume that just because our institutions are one way they have to be that way, or that they can’t change. But I do think that I’ve identified something important in the high premium our system places on a coherent opposition, particularly in terms of the pork barrel; I’d be interested in hearing why you think this is wrong, or if you agree, how you think it is to be overcome.


Hogan 07.13.04 at 10:56 pm

What policy, different from Bush I, did Clinton persue that ‘accomplished’ deficit reduction?

Reducing the size of the federal government–specifically, reducing the federal workforce. For one thing.

Walter Schneider (I think it was) said that in the US, third parties are like bees–they sting and they die. Success for them is managing to get their issues taken up and implemented by one of the major parties. The Populist, Progressive, and Socialist parties accomplished this, and then they withered away. There’s a good argument that the Reform Party did the same with deficit reduction, at least until GWB was elected.

The Greens haven’t delivered their sting yet. If they hope to, one of the things they’ll need to do is decide which issues they care most about.


Sebastian Holsclaw 07.13.04 at 11:30 pm

“Reducing the size of the federal government—specifically, reducing the federal workforce.”

Didn’t that happen mostly through a reduction in the military?

(Not a snarky question. I really thought that was how he did it)


Randolph Fritz 07.14.04 at 3:17 am

About half a year ago I wrote a short note which touched on this; perhaps some of the thoughts here are relevant.

“The US two-party system, with consensus built by closed processes within the parties, is near-to unnavigable for most citizens. Am I an environmentalist? Which party might I join that will address my concerns? The Democrats, these days, are more environmentalist, but they are not consistently so. Power in the parties depends on the geography of their membership and the geography of their membership depends on their politics. When the South was Democratic, the Democrats were the party of racism; when the Democrats started to shift, the South became Republican. Most citizens have long since decided, correctly, that they cannot count on either party to represent their views.”


Chris Lawrence 07.14.04 at 5:20 am

FWIW, I think the institutional weakness of American political parties (no control of the party label due to primary elections, byzantine financial restrictions) coupled with their grandfathered institutional advantages (ballot access, name recognition) virtually ensures that a nationally-competitive third party will not emerge; it is far easier to hijack an existing major party than build a new one from scratch.

Ca. 1970, Christian conservatives and political libertarians both started movements to gain meaningful political power through the party system. Which group was successful? The group that went off and established its own impotent political party, or the one that pushed out the “Rockefellerites” from the GOP?

So, if the Greens want to take over America, my advice would be to hijack the Dems. It wouldn’t be hard; all you need is to find a candidate, funnel him some cash, dupe several thousand Green-leaning Iowans into going to a caucus in February 2008, and ride the momentum to November.


Hogan 07.14.04 at 3:11 pm

Didn’t that happen mostly through a reduction in the military?

And through outsourcing, yes. But the policy of “reinventing” and “streamlining” government did get a good deal of fanfare, which was an important part of Clinton’s ability to neutralize the deficit reduction issue against a party that many people still identify with fiscal conservatism and smaller government.


Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey 07.15.04 at 11:00 pm

I think the most recent Canadian election empirically demonstrates Duverger’s Law. A number of acquaintances of mine were getting urgent appeals to vote for the Liberals rather than the NDP, out of fear that Harper’s fundamentalists could get in. The Canadian reportage seems to concur that a lot of NDP voters switched to the Grits for fear of a Tory victory. In an IRV system, this would have been a non-issue; likewise for a PR system.

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