Monday, November 02, 2009

"Third Parties Can Fix Everything!"

In keeping with his penchant to prove how little he knows about... pretty much everything, Ross Douthat argues today in favor of third parties:
Regional parties often start out as ideological enforcers. New York’s Conservative Party, for instance, exists to punish Republicans for drifting too far left — a part it played to perfection by supporting Hoffmann’s candidacy.

But there’s more that such parties could accomplish. They could provide a counterweight to the corruption associated with one-party rule, whether in solidly red states or deep-blue cities. They could get unorthodox candidates elected, and win hearings for unorthodox ideas. And they could help fulfill the promise of federalism, by organizing themselves around local particularities, rather than the national political divide.
Were Douthat to think before he typed, it might have occurred to him that a region "associated with one-party rule" doesn't actually need a third party - it needs an effective second party. I also have to wonder, does Douthat picture the leader of a third party in the role of Two-Face from Batman, flipping a coin to decide whether to be an ideological enforcer or to be a more responsible version of the party in control of government? Really, Douthat wants it both ways.

Let's step back for a minute, and consider what a true third party might do to a state like California, in which supermajority requirements already enable a minority party can already wreak havoc with the budgeting process. Douthat's responsible party could insist upon taxes or spending cuts that neither major party wants to pass, rendering it impossible to pass a budget. (And yes, we're assuming that this third party would in fact be responsible, and not out to enrich special interests by using its minority presence to extort huge concessions just to keep the government running.) Douthat's "ideologically pure" party would refuse to let one side or the other compromise to pass a budget, insisting upon whatever form of purity they're presumed to advocate. Sounds like... heaven.

Really, look at nations that have strong third parties. Occasionally there will be a realignment, with parties merging or with the long-standing third party switching places with one of the others; but you almost never see a strong fourth party, and elections are almost always functionally between the two major parties. A minority government or coalition government is in constant jeopardy of failing, with minority parties often able to extort disproportionate reward for remaining inside the coalition. In countries that offer strong protections to third parties and their role in government, the net result result seems to be gridlock and often what seems like an increase in corruption. At least in parliamentary systems, a government can call an election at its convenience and try to capture more seats. In our system, structured around the two party system with elections at fixed intervals, a proliferation of successful third parties would likely leave us stuck with gridlock until the next scheduled election.

Douthat personifies the problem he pretends to identify. Speaking of Doug Hoffman's role in the race (formerly) between Dede Scozzafava and Bill Owens, Douthat scoffs that Scozzafava "is arguably more liberal than her Democratic opponent" (although he doesn't even try to make the argument), and
Hoffmann has irritated liberals. Scozzafava was their kind of Republican, and by derailing her candidacy — which she suspended over the weekend after polls showed her slipping to third place — he’s turned a sleepy contest between two left-of-center politicians into an ideologically-charged election.
So for all of his lip service to the various contributions a third party can make, Douthat's biggest concern is ideological purity. He sees it as better for Republicans to backstab a member of their own party for not being ideologically pure than for their to worry about such things during the nomination process or to draw lessons of moderation from inside the tent as opposed to from a third party candidate. He also overlooks the fact that the Conservative Party (and other parties) run candidates in a lot of elections around the nation - the difference this time is not that Hoffman is somehow more compelling, but that Republican leaders are so willing to "eat their own" in the name of ideological purity.

Were Douthat honest, he would admit also that in calling Scozzafava a liberal he's really speaking of her views on social issues - she doesn't share his anti-choice views or his contempt for gay rights. When he argues that Hoffman "injected real substance into their races, and they’ve given voters a much more interesting choice than they would have otherwise enjoyed", he's admitting that he actually knows nothing about Hoffman... or elections. As is the case in many Congressional districts around the nation, having a Conservative Party candidate (or other third party candidate) on the ballot is anything but unusual. In 2008, five parties were on the ballot for NY23. It's not the presence of a third party candidate that is making this race more "interesting" - it's the fact that so many Republican ideologues have aligned their endorsements and their money machines behind the third party candidate.

Moreover, Hoffman offers nothing of substance:
I'm running for Congress because I sense the America I love is being taken away from us. I want to tell Washington: No more bailouts. No more taxes. No more trillion dollar deficits. That's what I'm fighting for.
I've searched for a link that leads to a deeper take on the issues, but no... that's all Hoffman has to offer. But he'll bring back the... love?1

Particularly at the local level, it often seems that the better approach is to go nonpartisan. That may satisfy Douthat's "counterweight to corruption" or "bringing in unorthodox views" argument, but as he makes plain he doesn't actually care about that side of things. Is he concerned that Scozzafava is corrupt and is not being honest about her views? That she didn't intend to serve her district to the best of her ability? That she was too orthodox? No, to the contrary, those are the things that bothered him about her. His preference for Hoffman is predicated upon a two-pronged ideological litmus test that has nothing to do with what's best for his party, the district, or the nation.

It's also telling that Douthat doesn't want third parties to run for President - "part priest-king, part ritual scapegoat — that chief executives need to represent the broadest possible coalition to have any chance of success". Sure, a third party candidate might highlight problems with the status quo, shed light on corruption, and... oh, yeah. He might force the Republican candidate away from Douthat's ideological litmus test. Besides, who needs a philosopher king, when we can have a scapegoat-priest-king.
1. Hoffman also states,
In 1980, I helped Lake Placid with our Olympics when the US beat the Russians in hockey...
Um... did he cheer loudly, or something?

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