Scrolling through Twitter recently, I found a very interesting graphic by The Economist. Based on the results of both the Democrat and Republican primaries, the magazine tried to paint a picture of what the makeup of a US parliament would look like. They chose to split the seats up between not two parties- not just the Democrats and Republicans- but instead between five fictional parties: the ‘Social Democratic Party’ representing the progressive wing of the Democrats led by Bernie Sanders, the more centre-left ‘Liberal Party’ mainstream with Hillary Clinton, the centre-right ‘Conservative Party’ with John Kasich as its figurehead, a ‘Christian Coalition’ of religious right-wingers led by Ted Cruz and of course a more extremist, populist ‘People’s Party’ for Donald Trump.
What did I find so interesting about this little graphic? I like the fact that it illustrates very clearly the various “flavours”, so to speak, of the left/right ideologies that are in the American political system but that are not fully represented because of the two party system that is so completely dominating. Certainly the Democrats are one party and can be loosely grouped as ‘left-wing’, but Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton certainly has very different views of what policies should be adopted. The Republicans are more clearly divided into the more mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party, but these are informal labels; no one is running under the ‘Tea Party’ on the ballot paper.
This two-party system contrasts with most other countries. The UK has two large parties- the Conservatives and Labour- but other parties are also quite well represented in parliament; as recently as last year the Liberal Democrats still shared power with the Conservatives in a coalition government. From Taiwan to France to Canada: I find it difficult to think of another country that has fewer than three well-represented political parties.
The problem this causes for the US voters is often they have to vote for candidates that do not necessarily represent their views very well. If you’re socially liberal, but fiscally conservative, then neither the Democrats nor Republicans will field a candidate that you’re going to particularly agree with. On the other hand, if you’re an ultra-liberal, you’re lucky if you have a local Bernie Sanders running; more often than not, you’ll have to vote for a Democrat who may very well be too much to the centre for your tastes. Aside from ideological issues, the popularity of the candidates also matter when most of the time you only have two to choose from: this is a particularly acute issue with the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the presumptive nominees for the Democrats and the Republicans, respectively, and both have historic, horrific favourability ratings. They are, to put it mildly, fairly disliked by the general electorate.
The truth is that most people know that there are more options than just Clinton and Trump. Everyone knows that third parties exist. Sometimes, independents run with stunning success; just think of Ross Perot or Ralph Nader, for instance. Not quite successful enough to actually take the White House, perhaps, but enough to make a mark. This year, however, third party candidates are making a different pitch. Ideologically, Clinton is to the right of too many progressives, while Trump has no real position we can discern on the left-right spectrum as his platform consists only of vague reiterations of ‘America First’. They are also too unpopular and loathed by too many voters, to the point where they cannot consider voting for any candidate. This year, the third party candidates argue, is the year that they can make their mark.
While I’m deeply skeptical of this pitch, not least because you can’t get votes if people don’t know you, I still think that it’s also worthwhile to take at least a moment’s glance at the third parties running this year. They’re very unlikely to win the presidency, but at least one may very well be headed to qualify for the general election debates- something third party candidates haven’t done in a very long time- and they still put up a strong showing, earning more publicity for the future.
So let us spend some time discussing these candidates. One candidate is Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party. Previously the Green Party nominee in 2012, she seems the most likely to be the nominee again in 2016. She received the most votes of any female presidential candidate in American history (a record likely to be broken this year by Clinton, of course). She advocates for what she calls a ‘Green New Deal’ by creating renewable energy jobs to not only employ Americans, thus solving economic issues, but also to solve the climate change crisis and other environmental concerns. Stein also wants to build more infrastructure related to clean energy power generation and increasing inter-city railroads.; this would be financed by cutting the military budget. Stein also believes in a national minimum wage, financial reform, and even abolishing the electoral vote.
Overall, the closest comparison we can make is that Jill Stein is the Green Party’s version of Bernie Sanders: unabashedly progressive and left-wing. The Green Party realises this as well, and is making very public efforts to court frustrated Sanders supporters who may be unwilling to switch allegiances to Clinton in the general election. She even called on Sanders himself to run on the Green Party ticket. However, whether Stein will have any success in wooing over Sanders’ fans is unknown. The Green Party does not have formidable campaign infrastructure and they probably will not even make it on the ballot in all fifty states. An almost complete lack of publicity, needless to say, does not make it any easier to compete.
The other notable third party candidate is former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson who is running as the Libertarian Party nominee. Like Stein, he also ran in 2012 and by winning 1% of the popular vote was able to secure the Libertarian Party’s best national performance in its history. This time around, Johnson is running with former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld. With two former two-term governors on the same ticket, the two are able to boast that they have the most executive experience among all the parties competing in this election. For someone unimpressed with Clinton tenure as Secretary of State, and terrified with Trump’s complete lack of governing experience (and complete lack of interest in learning about governing), it is not difficult to be swayed by the allure of such experienced former officeholders.
As the name of the ideology suggests, libertarianism advocates the most minimal of government interventions in the lives of the people; it takes the Reaganesque view of “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” to the extreme. Combining a liberal social outlook with a conservative fiscal stance, Johnson wants to cut taxes, cut government spending, holds pro-choice views and wants to legalise marijuana. And this poses a conundrum for disaffected conservatives who do not want to vote for Trump. Johnson, despite possessing the right credentials for the job and the right economic outlook, certainly does not share the same stances on social issues as the Republican base. Whether or not this will be a large problem as he attempts to steal Republicans away from voting for the billionaire on their ticket remains to be seen. Adherence to the libertarian ideology certainly does raise some questions about the party’s readiness for governance; a particularly memorable moment during the Libertarian convention came when Johnson was booed for announcing that he believes blind people shouldn’t be allowed to drive (clearly an infringement upon liberty).
What is clear, however, is that both Stein and Johnson have an audience to be talking to; in the case of Stein, it’s the progressives who wanted Sanders but despise Clinton, while for Johnson, it’s the conservatives who can’t stomach the idea of voting for Trump. With both major party nominees so historically unpopular, it is no wonder that the Greens and Libertarians are seeing this as their major chance to enter the limelight. And certainly, the effect of the two unpopular nominees are already showing. Johnson is polling relatively well, gaining over 10% in a couple of national polls. His goal will be to get to 15%, which will earn him a place on the debate stage with Trump and Clinton come the fall. It would also be interesting to see what the aftermath would be if the Libertarians or the Greens managed to seize a sizeable portion of the electorate, and especially if the Libertarians do manage to win some electoral votes. Would this give more prominence to down-ballot candidates in the future, leading to a breakdown of the two-party stranglehold of Congress? But would this also lead to the “spoiler effect”, potentially changing the result of the election, as Nader perhaps did in 2000 or Perot perhaps did in the 1990s?
Of course, the next president will still almost certainly be named Clinton or Trump, not Johnson or Stein. But I think that the emergence of more parties on the national scene can only be a good thing for the American political process. I think back to the graphic that I began with in this post, with the “United States parliament”. There are far more political positions than there are candidates, and simply by being options, the Greens and Libertarians are giving the people a choice to not simply vote for “the lesser of two evils”, but for a candidate that actually represents their political views. And finally, if there are more than Democrats and Republicans to choose from, it may also help break the destructive march towards ever-greater polarisation in American politics.