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Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Third Parties and Centralization 

In a Washington Post opinion piece published today, Pradeep Chhibber and Ken Kollman argue that the two-party structure found in the US today is a relative historical novelty, with its roots in the relative power of the federal government, not in the winner-take-all electoral system:
Starting in the 1930s ... minor parties stopped winning significant shares of votes for elections to Congress, and viable third parties in the states have since died away. No longer do Prohibition, Socialist, Populist, Greenback, Farmer-Labor and various Labor parties compete for even one seat...

What happened to eliminate serious third parties? To answer this question, we need to understand why minor parties once drew so many votes. It was because most of these parties had strength in particular regions or even particular states. They were not fully national in scope. Even the major parties had more of a regional flavor than they do today.
I'd like to interject here: some of these parties still exist in some reasonably-powerful form. The Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, for example, merged with the Democratic Party in 1944, but the state party is still called the DFL.
Politicians and voters follow power... As the national government has become more powerful relative to state and local governments, national policies have come to matter more to voters...

Our neighbor to the north provides further evidence of the influence of centralization on the ability of third parties to win votes. Quite a few parties received significant vote shares in the 2004 elections for the House of Commons in Canada. The smaller parties that managed to win substantial votes have their roots in provincial politics, and they drew enough votes from those provincial roots to have a say in national politics. Their success is largely due to the fact that Canada is one of the most decentralized nations in the world.

So if you want to complain about the weakness of minor parties in the United States, don't blame the Constitution or the weakness of unions. Because most policies that determine our economic well-being are made at the national level, we have two dominant, national political parties. Third parties were alive and well in a more decentralized United States, in the days when the states had control over most of the policies voters cared about.
It's an argument worth thinking about, but one that I suspect most proponents of third parties would be quite uninterested in. Precisely because so much of the power in our government is located at the federal level, as far as I can tell, most third parties keep their eyes firmly on the national prize. This is why so many third parties run only in the Presidential election (as this site ably documents). Furthermore, for many minor parties, the issues motivating most of their supporters are constitutionally and sensibly reserved for the federal government. When the whole basis for your party's existance is national security policy, immigration reform or transjurisdictional pollution control, state and local politics must seem rather beside the point.

UPDATE: An article at Crooked Timber also discusses the op-ed. In my view, the comments are more interesting than the main posting.

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