Checking in with the third parties

This article appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

This election cycle, because of the record high unfavorable ratings of the two major candidates, speculation about the potential for a third party bid to shake up the race has been greater than usual. Anderson Cooper even held a "town hall" with the third party candidates. But, this isn't going to be the year for a breakthrough, and it shouldn't be. Nonetheless, it is worth looking at both the near -- and long-term implications of third party candidacies.

There is a Catch-22 quality to third party prospects that this year exemplifies. The fact that so many millions of Americans are not thrilled with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would seem to provide the perfect opening for a third party candidate to gain a hearing from the American people. But because so many millions are not only not thrilled, but also positively fear the election of one of the two main contenders, the election is more than ever seen as a binary choice. A vote for anyone but Hillary is a vote for Trump, and vice-versa.

It doesn't help the third party prospect that they have not once in my lifetime nominated a plausible candidate to lead them. Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, has admitted to smoking pot years ago and favors its legalization now. But the short-term memory loss marijuana causes is supposed to go away after a week. Sadly, even though the state he led shares a border with Mexico, he had trouble naming a former president of that country he admired. This was part of a larger failure to be able to name a single foreign leader he admired, from any country. We have all lost our train of thought when the thread of an argument vanishes, but this was not an argument being demanded, only a name. It was weird.

As Catholics, libertarianism stands for everything we oppose about the moral significance of public life. They favor the laissez-faire capitalism that the church has always opposed, and they favor a similar free market in public morals on issues like abortion, too. Even though Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld portray themselves as environmentally friendly, as libertarians they are allergic to the kind of systemic response to the environmental crisis the Holy Father has called for. Organizations like the Acton Institute and the Napa Institute that seek to baptize libertarian ideas were always engaged in a wrong-headed project, but now, in the pontificate of Francis, it is ridiculous.

The Green Party, you would think, might be able to make some inroads given the increasing urgency of the environmental crisis. Alas, you would be wrong. The party is mired in the kind of goofy conspiracy theories and uber-PC antics that are more comic than dangerous but which are not the stuff of turning a third party into a serious one.

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So, if not now, when? In the last 100 years, third party candidates came in two varieties: segregationists and people named Ross Perot. In 1948, when the Democrats adopted a strong civil rights plank in their party platform (and in 1948, party platforms still mattered), several southern delegations exited the room and formed the Dixiecrat Party, led by South Carolina's Strom Thurmond. The party only secured 2.41 percent of the popular vote, but Thurmond won four states and their electoral college votes. In 1968, Alabama Gov. George Wallace garnered 13.53 percent of the popular vote and five states. Lesson? A third party candidate with a regional base has something to build on, but when the candidacy is focused on a regional particularism the rest of the country finds abhorrent, it can't take flight. (That said, it is alarming to see how well Wallace did in northern states like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.) In 1992, Ross Perot took 18.91 percent of the popular vote, but failed to win a single state. Lesson? It helps to be a zillionaire if you want to run for president on a third party ticket.

An interesting question: With all his money, would it have been smarter for Trump to have run as a third party candidate?

The origins of political parties stretch back to the Exclusion crisis: Would the Catholic Duke of York be excluded from the throne upon the demise of his brother, King Charles II? The Tories who supported the Catholic duke won the day at first, and he was duly crowned James II when the time came. But, the Whigs enlisted William of Orange in their coup a few years on and deposed James and the Tories. The party system has changed in the U.K. as the Whigs dissolved and the Liberals and then Labour rose to be the principal opposition to the Tories. And of course, the Tories themselves have changed: It was once said that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer, but no more.

In the U.S., the founders were deeply hostile to the idea of political parties or, as they called it, faction. Which is ironic for two reasons, one of which was apparent in their lifetime: For all their efforts to construct a constitutional system that would resist faction, the country fell into a two-party system almost immediately, divided over the issue of the Constitution itself. The Federalists supported ratification of the Constitution and the anti-Federalists, later the Democrat-Republicans, opposed it. Thomas Jefferson, who led the opposition, thought that the parties should be named differently and since the issue was ratifications, he thought the Federalists should be called "the Rats" and his party "the anti-Rats."

The other reason for irony is that the real leader of the libertarians in the U.S. is Sen. Rand Paul, but to distinguish himself from the Libertarian Party, he calls himself a Constitutional conservative. This is the political equivalent of the originalists and textualists on the court, the school of Antonin Scalia. But while people are still swooning over the late justice's supposed genius, and commentators routinely comment on Paul's intellectual prowess, how can one cling to a text as if it were divine when its own authors so misjudged the political climate in which the text would be worked out that one of their principal ambitions, the avoidance of faction, was defeated almost immediately and has been ever since? I like the Constitution too, but the idolization of that or any human document gives me the creeps and should, I assert, warrant withholding acclamations of genius from those who do so idolize it.

I do not think it likely that we will see a third party rise to serious competitiveness in my life time. I do suspect we will see significant transformations within the two parties. A libertarian streak runs through both of them, only on different issues, so there is no ideological coherence in the current divide between them. That will slowly give way as one party will gravitate toward a more communitarian party and the other to a more libertarian one. How that will happen, what issues will force changes in the parties, which personalities are all such speculations we can leave in the lap of the gods. In the meantime, I remain a Democrat only because I believe it is more likely that they will become the communitarian party. A Catholic can be a Republican or a Democrat, but a libertarian, never.

N.B. Just after finishing this post, I read and recommend Catherine Rampell's column in this morning's Washington Post.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]


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