Tuesday, July 13, 2004

A Third Party for the US? 

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber and Megan McArdle of Asymmetrical Information are having an argument about the prospects for third parties in the US.

[Short Farrell I]: Ralph Nader is a jerk, and GWB is a disaster. So this year, voting for John Kerry makes sense. But the two-party system in the US stinks, producing nasty policies. So in the future, when less is on the line, it makes no sense to support candidates who won't try to reform the system. Also, Barbara Ehrenreich made the point that a credible threat by lefties to withhold support from centrist candidates is an effective tool for dragging Democrats leftward, which I note but don't comment on.

[Short McArdle]: The US has a "first-past-the-post" system. And we have a presidential system (instead of a parliamentary one). Ergo we will have a two-party system for the foreseeable future. Thus supporting a third party to the left of the Democrats (right of the GOP) is just helping ensure that the GOP (Democrats) win. The big parties have already correctly identified the median voter: pretending that there's some hidden lefty (or righty) majority out there is just fantasy.

[Short Farrell II]: Sure, Duverger's Law suggests that a first-past-the-post system tends to favor two-party structures. But McArdle is plain wrong to suggest that presidential systems also favor party duopolies. And third parties in a system like the one the US has can have a big short-term effect on politics. Furthermore, while there may or may not be a hidden lefty majority in the US, there are probably lots of individual policy questions where the median voter's preferences aren't being supported by either major party, including universal health care. Finally, if you're a lefty, the potential gains from working reliably within the Democratic Party are less than those you'd get if lefties weren't a constituency that the Democrats could take for granted, so lefties should be looking for a way to make credible the threat of their defection to a third party.

Let me wade into the argument. First, I'd like to agree strongly with both bloggers on Ralph Nader's failings as a politician and a champion for third parties.

Second, let me point out that both bloggers use New Zealand as an example while failing to note that that country switched from a first-past-the-post to a proportional representation system in 1996.

Third, while I don't have Gary Cox's Making Votes Count in front of me, as I recall, he makes a strong case that Duverger's Law should generally hold, especially as a long term equilibrium. Third parties that come and go aren't really very strong disconfirmatory evidence. And while Henry is right that transitory third parties can have a strong effect on short-term politics, I'm less convinced that they have a strong effect on policy. During its first-past-the-post era, New Zealand saw the Social Credit Party repeatedly make strong bids for parliamentary representation. I'm pretty certain, however, that one would have a tough time arguing that the Social Crediters had any discernible effect on national policy. By the same token, it's hard at first blush to see the policy footprint of the Greens or the Prohibition Party in the US. Part of the problem is that to the extent these parties are transitory, politicians in one (or both) of the big parties can simply promise to support their platforms during the campaign, then freely renege on these promises expecting no significant organization for the minor parties in the next election.

If you truly believe that third parties are a good thing, I think that confronting Duverger's Law and working for electoral reform is clearly your best use of resources. But as I've discussed in prior posts, it's incredibly unlikely that the US will adopt a more third-party-friendly proportional representation system (this post also addresses a lot of the other arguments often seen in discussions like the current one).

Fourth, I agree with Henry that it's highly likely that special interest politics rather than the will of the people is to blame for our lack of good things like universal health care. But it's hard to see how merely adding a third party to the mix will change the influence of special interests, unless that third party successfully achieves a massive change in policies on campaign finance. Kathleen Bawn & Michael Thies and Ron Rogowski & Mark Kayser have recently published papers explaining why proportional representation actually leads to greater incentives for politicians to listen to special interests. I'll admit that neither of these papers has much bearing on the case of a successful third party in the US system, but then again I'm not aware of any particular reason to think that a three-party US would have cleaner politics than a two-party US.

Finally, there are the questions of whether the existence of a strong Green Party would tend to drag Democrats leftward and whether the US's checks and balances would render a three party system particularly prone to gridlock. My self-imposed blogging time limit is about to expire, so I'll have to address this question in my next post. Stay tuned...

UPDATE: More from Scott Lemieux

UPDATE: As Henry Farrell has pointed out to me, he doesn't actually refer to New Zealand in his post (except in quoting McArdle). Sorry, Henry.

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