Of all the rites of American politics that attend the presidential election, none is more irritating than the inevitable third-party bubble. Around this time four years ago, a coalition of irrelevant old politicos -- former Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford officials and a former governor of Maine -- formed a group called Unity '08 to create a bipartisan presidential ticket. They had big dreams of holding online primaries and recruiting candidates like New York City's independent mayor, Michael Bloomberg. The effort sputtered, then pooped out.
But the repeated failure of the centrist third-party movement has not discouraged its promoters. The just-launched "Americans Elect" effort promises to be "the first ever open presidential nominating process" through an online convention. "We will attract millions of registered voters," the group claims on its website. "We will attract serious, qualified presidential candidates." Both are unlikely to happen -- so far the group has signed up about 17,500 delegates -- and if they do, it would be a disaster.
The usual pundit suspects, though, are foolishly promoting Americans Elect. In The New York Times, Thomas Friedman predicted: "A viable, centrist, third presidential ticket, elected by an Internet convention, is going to emerge in 2012. ... Americans Elect plans to ... remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in."
Other third-party proponents have also weighed in. CNN commentator John Avlon mused at the Daily Beast about "the nomination of a centrist dream team, like a Mike Bloomberg-Colin Powell competence ticket or a fiscal-responsibility double bill of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson." At Tech President, Micah Sifry asserts that "the third-party moment is back," and "Americans Elect is going to strike a nerve."
All these arguments rest on a false premise: that we could have a third presidential party and that we need one.
Supporters of third-party candidates ignore or gloss over the inherent reasons the American political system has had two major parties for the last 150 years. In a system of winner-take-all elections, it behooves factions to join forces to create a plurality. Unless we switch to proportional representation, which would require a constitutional amendment, we simply won't have more than two major parties: Anytime a third party emerges, it will ally with one party to form a winning team. Eventually, it will fold into the other party to bolster both their chances of winning. Anyone with a basic understanding of math, game theory, or political science should be able to see this. If you want an example of a winner-take-all system in which three parties have actually managed to stick around for a long time, just look at the United Kingdom, where the Liberal Democrats never win national elections but several times they or their predecessor parties have siphoned enough votes from Labour to give the Conservatives a plurality, empowering the country's conservative minority. Is that what Friedman wants to see happen here?
The major complaint -- and the reason often cited for supporting third-party candidates -- is that the Democratic and Republican parties are calcified machines where cigar-chomping pols cut backroom deals; they're insider affairs that don't leave room for the "center." But at the presidential level, there's a lot more democracy than in, say, many urban political machines. The party nominees are chosen through caucuses and primaries. An outsider, even one loathed by the D.C. establishment like Howard Dean, can swoop in and win the nomination or take over the party itself by campaigning for party chair. The place where the parties are actually corrupt, insider-only affairs is at the state and local level. If pundits and rich donors cared so much about democracy, they could invest in democratic reforms in cesspools like Albany, Trenton, Springfield, and Columbia.
The fact that Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, and Michele Bachmann might win the Republican nod this time, should put to rest the notion that presidential nominees are being chosen by committees of party insiders.
More to the point, the center that American Elections claims to seek is hardly unoccupied ground: It is exactly where President Obama sits. The current president has appointed moderates and several Republicans to his cabinet. He has pursued a foreign policy that mixes George W. Bush's aggression on counterterrorism measures like targeted assassinations with a dose of realism on invasion and occupation. He saved American businesses through the Troubled Asset Relief Program and bailouts. He passed market-based health-care reform that included an individual mandate -- an idea originally hatched by the Heritage Foundation. He is offering Republicans huge spending cuts right now. Avlon's "fiscal responsibility ticket" consists of the chairs of Obama's deficit-reduction commission, both of whom endorsed Obama's budget plan. Why then does Avlon think Obama, the person who killed Osama bin Laden, should be replaced by Colin Powell, the person who made the phony case for the Iraq War based on fake documents, on "competence" grounds?
It's no coincidence that the third-party trumpet is always sounded by white men. The invariable refrain, made explicit in Unity 08's mission statement, is that social issues don't matter and both parties simply use them to divide the electorate and pander to special-interest groups. As a straight white guy, it might seem that way, but if you're gay, a racial minority, disabled, or a woman, your civil rights are under attack from Republican administrations, judges, and legislators -- these are not pet causes. You might tell a pollster you care more about the economy because you need to make a living, but the idea that we can create a bipartisan or nonpartisan presidential ticket, and it won't matter whether we choose an anti-choice, anti-gay-rights Republican like Chuck Hagel or a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights liberal like Michael Bloomberg is absurd. It's insulting to victims of discrimination.
In fact, the views of people like Friedman and Bloomberg, who claim their perspectives are underrepresented by the two parties, are actually the only views that are consistently well represented in Washington no matter which party is in charge. Some might call it the elite consensus: pro-free trade, pro-business, hawkish, internationalist, and tough on crime. Want to see bipartisan agreement? Look at all the Democrats who, as Friedman and Bloomberg did, supported the Iraq War and are now making our foreign policy. Or look at the policies of Bill Clinton's, George W. Bush's, and Barack Obama's Treasury secretaries and Federal Reserve chairs.
Finally, proponents fail to grasp the practical implications of having a centrist third-party candidate. Opinion polls show that a large proportion of Americans hold biased, ignorant beliefs. These are the 40 percent who believe in biblical creationism, the 41 percent to 48 percent who believe that "the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated," the half of Americans who believed that Barack Obama would raise their taxes when his plan was clearly to cut taxes. These people are Republicans. Republicans who, polls also show, are less supportive than Democrats of political compromise. Third-party advocates wring their hands over both parties being beholden to interest groups. But Republicans are beholden to something much worse, because you cannot appease it: irrational, anti-factual ideologues. A centrist, technocratic third-party candidate will draw approximately zero of their votes, which means his votes will come out of the 53 percent who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. If Americans Elect is even remotely successful, it will throw the election to an extremist, uncompromising Republican instead of the conciliatory, centrist president.