I’ve been involved in politics, one way or another, for three decades. Over that period, nothing of consequence has changed. The country has continued to slide toward totalitarianism, albeit of a uniquely American sort. The spokesmen of the major parties continue to posture and orate, and now and then a “law” gets passed or a Supreme Court decision is announced, but in the main power is exercised largely by unelected bureaucrats.
Effort exerted without positive consequences is effort wasted. (Don’t quibble. Muscle building is a positive consequence.) That recognition, conscious or not, has moved many persons to absent themselves from the whole mess. They don’t listen to the news; they don’t read the papers; they don’t contribute to any political organization; and they don’t vote.
It’s that last bit that’s on my mind this morning.
The non-voter is often castigated as “lazy” or “uncaring.” That might be true of some. For many, it’s the product of a rational calculation: nothing changes, so why vote? Yet now and again, a non-voter is stirred off his sofa by the appearance of a candidate, or a party platform, that alters that calculation and gives him hope. More often than not, the stimulus is the non-voter’s discovery of a minor party that differs substantially from the major ones.
There have been many minor parties. For a sample, we have the Populists, the Socialists, the Communists, the Conservatives, the Right-To-Lifers, the Constitutionalists – I borrowed them for a novel -- the Consumers, and of course the Libertarians. None of these get a lot of votes per election, but they do get some – and oftentimes their tally is larger than the margin of victory.
That can make a major party candidate very angry...especially if the Republican lost the election, and the Libertarian candidate pulled enough votes to make the difference.
Republican Party candidates have often complained bitterly about such results. They seem to think the GOP candidate has a right to those votes; they act as if the votes that went to the Libertarian were “stolen” from them. They seldom ponder the possibility that he might have to earn them. They seldom pause to wonder whether the only reason those votes were cast at all is that the voters deemed the LP candidate worth the trip to the polling place -- that those voters might have stayed home were he not on the ballot.
In truth, the LP candidate has done exactly what a minor party exists to do: he’s animated voters most of whom would have stayed home if he weren’t on the ballot, and most of the rest of whom are disgusted with the performances of Republicans raised to office. In effect, his candidacy tells the GOP, “These are the votes you could have had if you were a trustworthy defender of freedom.” He is a linchpin of the political dynamic – a reason for the major parties to sit up, take notice, and contemplate their inadequacies.
But no one likes to dwell on his failings. Political strategists and aspirants to office like it less than most.
The political dynamic arises from the nature of a political party: a mechanism for amassing political power. While it is natural that there are only two major parties, the minor ones are important nevertheless. The dynamic functions properly only under conditions of competition – and the more competitive, the better. The minor party candidates function to represent the sentiments of Americans the major parties displease. They offer the major parties a reason to reconsider their platforms, their selection of candidates, and their behavior in office.
But they who seek power are unhappy with such entreaties. they’d rather not hear them at all. Indeed, they’d rather that no one hear them. So they do what they can, through law and extralegal alliances, to silence them.
When the major parties succeed in locking the minor ones out of the battle, as they have often tried to do (and have occasionally succeeded), the dynamic becomes perverse: the major parties tend toward convergence. The differences between their de facto postures diminishes. Far more attention goes toward securing earmarks, feeding, servicing, or otherwise mollifying constituents at home, wooing important contributors and supra-political power brokers in the media and industry, and of course, staying in power. It takes a rare event, such as the Democrats’ nomination of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, to cause a major shift in arrangements or allegiances.
If they could see to it, the major parties would render the minor ones illegal. It would guarantee their grip on power in perpetuity. The major parties would preserve the fiction of independent identities, but in fact they would become a single, silently coordinated “Incumbent Party,” whose inner workings would be visible only to a well-guarded elite. Elections would become even more of a sham than they already are. It is due partly to enormous efforts and partly to good fortune that despite considerable major-party effort to that effect, the minor ones continue to appeal to those Americans who see no difference worth mentioning between the Democrats and the Republicans.
The only thing that can defeat an entrenched dynamic is a counter-dynamic of equal or greater magnitude. Accordingly, Americans who want something other than the political status quo should seriously consider a minor party -- any minor party – rather than resigning themselves to supporting “the lesser of two evils” at a time when the difference between those evils is shrinking toward invisibility.
Were the minor parties, in aggregate, to rise to a status at which they command 10% of the vote, the major parties would undergo a convulsive upheaval. A 10% margin in any election is “landslide” territory. It commands respect. It represents “a mandate to lead.” What power-seeker wouldn’t lick his chops at the possibility of winning over that disaffected 10%?
Note that I don’t advocate supporting a particular minor party. There are differences among them, of course. Some are more focused on one issue than all others. Some are stylistically more to Smith’s taste than to Jones’s. And some such as the wonderfully irreverent Rhino Party, are just for fun.
What’s important about the minor parties is that all of them are “outside the fences.” If you want the major parties to stop behaving as if they own this country in fee simple and needn’t bother their heads about what you think, selecting and supporting one might be the most constructive means toward that end.