According to a story by NPR, the odds of a third party candidate emerging for the 2012 Presidential Election are high. According to analysts Stan Greenberg and Tom Davis, voters are dissatisfied with the current political system and therefore more open to alternative politics. As we slowly approach the upcoming election year, I would like ask a few questions and make a few predictions.
First, so what? Would electing a third party candidate really mean real change for Washington? Would she or he be able to get anything done? Realistically, probably not.
Think about it this way: Obama has enough trouble getting anything done, and he has an entire party to support him. A third party President would be blocked at every turn by both Democrats and Republicans. Neither party could trust him. If the third party President came from the far left, he might receive some support, but even Democrats would worry about betraying their moderate base. Same goes for a candidate from the far right.
Even if the third party President were “moderate”, by which I mean socially liberal but fiscally conservative, there might be some agreement, but part of the problem with Washington politics is that neither party seems willing to make any sort of compromise any of their ideals. He would only be able to pass half of his agenda, depending on which party ruled Congress. If Democrats ruled Congress, they would pass all the proposed socially liberal legislation but none of the fiscally conservative legislation. If the President threatened not to sign any of it into law unless it also included fiscally conservative measures (like removing the Department of Education), the Democrats would say, fine, don’t sign it. It would be better to get no socially liberal legislation passed than to do so at the expense of compromising their fiscally conservative ideals. The same principle would apply for Republicans. Unless the President wanted to get absolutely nothing done in his term, he would have to back down from his threats and settle for only passing half of his agenda.
I think that deep down a lot of Americans realize how little of an impact a third party candidate would make on the political system, which is why even though they are appealing in theory, they never seem to be able to gain the backing of the nation.
Third party candidates are important, however, not because we actually believe they will win the election, but because they can affect the outcome of the election. They draw votes away from mainstream candidates. Without knowing who will emerge as a third party candidate it is impossible to say which party will be worse off. If a third party candidate emerges, there is no doubt that he or she would affect the 2012 election, but it is too early yet to say in what way.
What will have more of an effect on the 2012 election is voter turnout. Who turns out? People who care. Having the time and energy to care is more of a luxury than many people would like to admit. And feelings of civic duty and civic responsibility are not feelings which can be cultivated over night. Most people seem to have a vague understanding of the political system, they know they are supposed to vote, but probably don’t, but they do have an opinion about everything and reserve the right to complain about anything that doesn’t go their way, whether they voted of not. Affecting real, sustainable political change, however, requires more than just turning up at a polling booth. Long term change requires long term commitments.
Which brings me to what I find to be a big puzzle. If people are frustrated with the political system, then why would they think that a change in candidates would be a change that really makes a difference? If people really want to make a difference, they need to start thinking about ways to shake up the structure of the system itself.
To begin with, the current system was founded on a culture of civic duty. According to Alexis DeToqueville, that’s what made American democracy so great! Change would require re-sparking that sense of civic involvement, where working at the local level is more important than acting at the national level. It also requires real discussion. Not just, I posted my (uninformed) opinion on Facebook, or my blog, or a 185 character Tweet, and some people commented on it. (And I know it is a bit ironic for me to be condemning social media in a blog, but I really only mean to condemn its improper and inconsiderate use.) Changes requires honest to goodness, sit down down at a nice, big, round table, maybe share a meal together, get to know and respect each other as human beings with experiences and expertise, share our opinions in convincing yet non-aggressive ways, discussions.
Call me an idealist, or a Millsian, but that’s what its going to take for things to change in the US.
In summary, sure, a third party candidate and voter turnout will affect the election, but only civic engagement will effect political change.