[N.b. The argument in this post presumes voting for a third party in an effort to work against the current two party hegemony, not as an act of political dissent. That is a different kind of case, requiring a different kind of argument.]
I just watched the first presidential debate. It was terrifying for many reasons. If I could vote, I’d vote for Hilary—but with that said, I know enough people of principle who have good reasons to vote for a third party candidate, both on the left and the right. This post is an attempt to try and argue that this is a bad idea.
To put the argument in context, I was a member of a third-party: I actually co-chaired my university branch of the Liberal Democrats, at precisely the time we went into coalition with the Tories and turned out to have been lying about student fees. Hardly the greatest of credentials, perhaps, but even so, I do believe that two party systems have a corrosive impact on our societies. I believe that their perpetuation is caused by both a failure of imagination and limited voting systems, both of which could and should change.
Here’s the thing, though—there is no worse time to vote for a third party candidate than in an American Presidential election. And there are reasons why.
1) In order for a candidate to be viable in a national election, they must rely upon solid local organisations, even in the digital age. This means having a presence in local politics, both in terms of elected officials and on the ground organisation. (Governors can of course buck the trend here—though its worth remembering that Gary Johnson was elected as a Republican in New Mexico, and Jesse Ventura is Jesse Ventura. Its also remembering that gubernatorial races tend to be significantly less predictable along party lines anyway, relative to other elections.)
Now, guess how many representatives the Libertarian Party and the Green Party have between them in state houses nationwide: two, both Libertarians. To put that in perspective, that’s two out of a possible seven thousand, three hundred and eighty three. Nationwide. The two party hegemony isn’t grounded in the fact that we only have two viable choices for president—the fact that we only have two viable choices for president is grounded in the fact that the two party hegemony is entrenched in local politics nationwide.
Which brings us to 2) The better a third party candidate does in a presidential election, the less likely that party is to garner votes second time round. Now, admittedly, there are only two examples of this, but they are compelling. In 1992 Ross Perot won 19,743,821 votes as an independent. In 1996, he won 8,085,402 votes standing for the Reform party. In 2000, meanwhile, Ralph Nader and the Green Party won 2,882,000 votes. In 2004, he won 119,859. Relative success in presidential elections doesn’t build momentum for third parties—it kills it.
This is a problem if you care about third party representation. It’s a problem because it makes it significantly harder, perhaps impossible, to then build up local party infrastructure. Of the almost three million people who voted for Nader in 2000, barely a fraction voted Green in the presidential afterwards, and they certainly didn’t vote for Green in state elections. And again, without people in local government, leading local organisations, building local party infrastructure, there is almost no way of getting into national government, whether it be the House of Representatives or the White House.
In short: you cannot win a national election without local infrastructure; and the more successful a third party candidate is in a presidential election, the harder it becomes to build local infrastructure for that party.
The question I have for those who quite rightly want to break the two party hegemony, then, is this—have we already done the work to break down the two party system at its roots, namely, in its total dominance of local politics? Have we already been involved in local organising to try and elect Green or Libertarian candidates to local offices, whether in school districts or courts? Have we built a core of activists who will then help elect individuals first to state houses, then to Congress and the Senate, so establishing a firm presence in the national consciousness? (And, indeed, have we been working to try and change the voting system which allows for the entrenchment of two party politics?) If so, fantastic. If not—then do you genuinely think that voting for a third party candidate in this election will make this work easier or harder over the next four years (because I certainly hope, and expect, that this work will be done by people that care in that time)?
Whichever way, if breaking the two-party hegemony really is important to you, then it must be done from the ground up. The work of breaking the stranglehold doesn’t begin when the Republican and Democratic candidates have been chosen: it begins long, long before the first primary vote is case. It can be done—I can easily imagine people running as Black Lives Matter candidates and winning in several state house races. But it also must be done. Before the two party system can be broken in the Presidential election, it must be broken at the local level. Otherwise we’ll just find ourselves caught in the Nader cycle again and again, and the hegemony will continue.