Big Tents

London, United Kingdom. In a previous essay, I argued for Liberaltarianism, an alliance between Libertarians and American Liberals, the Democrats. Yesterday I read an article by a colleague (Kevin), which explains in detail why he believes a third party will never capture the presidency in the American political system. While I'm sure the scholars thinking about Liberaltarianism agree with him at least in part (which is likely why they're suggesting a new alliance), Olsen from the American Enterprise blog believes Americans can learn something from Clegg and the Liberal Democrats' surge in popularity in this year's UK general elections. For the sake of clarity, and to explain why I don't think third parties will ever be successful in the US, I'm summarizing and citing some of Kevin's research and analysis on the subject along with my own commentary.

Kevin claims Olsen's argument is "about as close to impossible as a political prediction can get" and I agree. All we have to do is look at the facts. In the United States we have a first past the post system which requires 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. That's 270 of 395, and these are largely determined by voters in the middle of the political spectrum, not radicals. If you want a lively rendition of how the process plays out, watch The West Wing episodes on the Bartlett & Santos election, or CNN on election night where campaign aides color in big maps with red and blue markers. Kevin explains the process as follows:

Suppose that Texas, California, New York, Georgia, and South Carolina are out (you could probably add a few more states, but I just wanted to take those five). It’s very unlikely that Texas, Georgia, or South Carolina would go for an Independent candidate not significantly to the right of the Republican candidate, and very unlikely that California or New York would go to a candidate who was not significantly to the left of a Democrat. Right there, 143 electoral votes are gone. The Independent candidate would have to win 270 of 395. If the Independent does not win at least 270 votes, there is no way he wins the election—the House would get to decide, and whichever party controlled the House at that point would see their candidate win.  
Honestly, I don’t see any single candidate who would be able to split the middle yet still pull off enough states to win... even if an Independent does poll well and pulls in a large share of the vote, that still doesn’t guarantee any electoral votes, much less 270 of them.  Ross Perot took 19% of the vote, but 0 electoral votes. The last time a third party candidate took a single electoral vote was 1972, when the Libertarian party got 1 (their best showing ever). George Wallace had a decent showing in 1968 (46 votes), but you’d have to go back to 1912 for an Independent candidate to be in the #2 spot, and that was when Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican party and Woodrow Wilson coasted to victory.

In the United States, a third party distracts marginally from the two main party platforms. Sometimes this bodes well for the party whose votes are not being "stolen," other times it barely makes a difference. And though party members and voters have been disenchanted by politics and their own parties for decades (starting in earnest sometime in the 1960's), the voters that do show up are, for the most part, happy centrists. Olsen states, "Americans are so used to our two-party system that (it) is nearly inconceivable it might change. But political parties exist to serve public sentiment, and if both parties get far out of step with that sentiment their continued dominance ought not to be presumed."

Maybe in theory, but in practice this is not the case. I would consider the Republican party seriously out of step with Republican "values" and yet its base holds firm. This is due, in large part, to the role that single, divisive issues (i.e. abortion, health care) play in elections. As long as each party can tally up enough electoral votes based on key issues, the parties stand. Since most of each party's base is comprised of people who are willing to cave on some issues to see their party in office, it doesn't much matter that the Republican or Democratic platforms don't align perfectly with every member's beliefs and desires. In addition, many people are religiously devoted to their respective parties, and are often willing to overlook what's really happening for what their leaders say should or will happen if they are elected. An imperfect system, yes. Some might be tempted to move away from the big tent and toward the small tents of Europe. Kevin explains why he favors the former:

"In the US, we have two big tents. In Germany, they basically have two large tents (SPD and CDU/CSU) and three smallish tents (FDP, Greens, and PDS). In Israel, everybody has his own tent, it seems. Each one has potential advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you are more likely to get somebody whose values really align toward you if you live in a many-party country. In Israel, if you can think it, they probably have a party for it, and each one of those parties is more viable than any US third party. But there are two major disadvantages to this. First, this leads to a lot of nutballs who can get serious percentages of the vote. In Germany, the Communists are a force in some states and even Fascists have broken the 5% mark in Saxony. And second, pork is the glue that holds coalitions together."

Here's an example:

"The recent Democrat bill to withdraw from Iraq was laden with pork in order to entice enough Democrats to go along with the plan, and when the Republicans were in charge of Congress, they did the same thing. But that’s nothing compared to what it takes to hold together a fractititous coalition. Imagine if there were 30 parties in a coalition. Each party needs pork to keep the voters happy, and there are only so many coalition perks (such as getting to be a minister of something) to dole out, so you have to shovel more spending to keep everything together. One of the results of Persson and Tabellini’s analysis of constitutions (flawed though it is) is that parliamentary democracies have higher government spending than presidential democracies, and part of this is due to the fact that there’s a lot more pork flying around. A Republican whip can keep other Republicans in line (occasionally…) without giving them favors; but if a member is from a different party, this limits a whip’s ability to guarantee votes and forces the pork option."

So, what do you think?  A two party or a multiple party system?  And if you prefer the latter, how do you think we'll get from here to there? Also, if you're interested in the current situation in the UK, Reuters gives some scenarios considering the recent LibDem surge.