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Posted by on Feb 13, 2012 in Politics | 20 comments

The Siren Song of Third Party Candidates

Hmm. It appears that a group called Americans Elect is making a serious aim to put a third national candidate on the ballot in November. They look fairly well-funded:

I get a strong feeling of deja-vu every time this sort of thing comes up. Are these people really so naive? Independent candidates sound sooooooo attractive, until you have to take a close look at one. Then the luster tends to fade pretty fast.

First let’s get this out of the way: I am by most definitions a centrist. I have issues where I agree with the Democrats, issues where I agree with the Republicans, and issues where I disagree with both. Since my first election in 1984, I have voted for Democrats and Republicans in almost equal numbers, and third party candidates on occasion. In 2008 I voted for John McCain (R) but will in all likelihood vote for Barack Obama (D) in 2012. I am the very definition of a “swing voter.” So you would think with all that, I would love this “Americans Elect” idea.

But I don’t. Not only do I think it’s unlikely to elect a President, but I think it’s unlikely to produce a good one even if they do succeed.

It is all well and good for someone to say “the two parties don’t represent me.” The “Americans Elect” folks point out that 80% of Americans would vote for a third-party candidate if it was the right candidate. But there’s the rub: finding that “right” candidate. There’s where it breaks down, because while most people consider themselves independent to some extent, agreement starts to break down once you start looking at things issue-by-issue.

For example, I know plenty of people who don’t like the Republicans because they feel that Republicans are much too conservative–and people who don’t like Republicans because they feel Republicans are nowhere near conservative enough. I know people who don’t like Democrats because they find them too liberal, but others who don’t like them because they consider Democrats nowhere near liberal enough. I know Republicans who think their party is too conservative on social issues, and Democrats who think their party is too liberal on social issues. Get any of these people in the same room together, and none of these people will likely agree much with each other.

This is because “left” and “right” and “liberal” and “conservative” are much too broad to describe anything concrete. When you start answering specific questions you get in trouble:

What if you are in favor of gay marriage, think schools should make birth control available to students, think abortion is immoral and should be more restricted than it is now, support the war in Afghanistan, think the US should make it more difficult for foreign goods and services to be imported here, think the US should take a more active military role in opposing dictatorships abroad, think taxes should be raised on the wealthy and on large corporations, think the environment is important but we have the wrong priorities on environmental protection, think global warming and CO2 should be the least of our environmental concerns, favor decriminalizing drugs, think gun ownership is admirable and should be encouraged, think everyone should be required to carry health insurance, think government should pay for everyone’s education all the way through college, and think prayer and the teaching of Creationism in the public schools should be left up to local school districts and not a national issue? Let me tell you, it is possible to hold all those ideas in your head at once, and be a person of principle. And I guess that would make you a “centrist” or “independent.”

But guess what? If another person feels exactly the opposite of you on all those issues, they are “centrists” or “independents” too–but they will not agree with you on much of anything. Neither one of you will necessarily be unprincipled or unintelligent or uninformed, although there will be ideologues who accuse you both of it. But one thing is highly unlikely: that there can be any candidate who can make both of you happy. And if either of you gets a candidate you’re completely happy with, odds are good that a majority of people won’t be happy.

This is because there is no “center” in politics except a certain sweet spot–or let’s call it the “sour spot”–where the majority of people are not particularly happy but are, most of the time, not terribly unhappy.

The system as we have it works because it pretty much forces everybody to compromise. And in truth, entirely aside from ideology, both political parties are very good at finding ways to be popular enough on some issues, and not-unpopular on enough other issues, to get elected. When voting, most people almost invariably vote for whatever or whoever makes them least-unhappy at the moment. So as nice as it sounds to say “I’m not tied to any political party and I want a candidate who feels the same way!” you’ll likely stop feeling that way the minute you get that candidate who, exactly like you, doesn’t think of herself as tied to any party either, but who turns out not be anything like what you thought you wanted.

There is no definable “center.” It doesn’t exist. To paraphrase a great aphorism: you can make all of the people happy some of the time, some of the people happy all of the time, but you cannot make all of the people happy all of the time. But I don’t think even that fits: it’s more like, “You can make about half the people happy about half the time, if you’re lucky. If you do you get elected, and if you don’t, you don’t.” That’s the way politics really works.

(This item cross-posted to Dean’s World.)

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