Bernie Sanders at the June People’s Summit suggested a new political party be formed: a “People’s Party.” Sanders ignored the fact that there has not been a winning third party since the 1860 presidential election of the Republican Abraham Lincoln.
In spite of the strong desire among certain political factions to split from the two major parties, minor parties and their candidates rarely have been successful. In 1912, past President Teddy Roosevelt snagged a large popular vote, about 27 percent. Roosevelt managed to pull enough votes away from the Republican candidate to allow the Democrat nominee, Woodrow Wilson, to win. Ross Perot in 1992 attracted almost 19 percent of the popular vote, siphoning off enough support from the incumbent president, George Bush senior, to help Bill Clinton win the election.
The probable result of a third party, or what might also be known as a minor party, is to take votes away from the major party with whom the minor party most closely identifies. Thus causing the opposition major party a clear path to victory.
With such a dismal success, what could be the advantage, and disadvantage, of third parties?
A two party system provides more stable governing than a multi-party system. With more political parties, it could easily happen that several would have to come together and reach compromises to run jointly government. Such compromises may result in tenuous actions or the coalition to come unglued, thereby leaving a society with chaos and virtually no government.
Recently, the British election left the Conservative Party about 8 votes short of a majority. Because Britain has several minor parties that attracted sufficient electoral support, the election failed to provide a majority. Had there been only two parties, one or the other would have produced a majority to run the government. As it is, Britain’s government has a precarious leadership, and it is weaker. In other words, nations with multi-party systems have potential problems governing.
Yet, there are arguments for multi-party systems. One of the most likely is that third parties and forth parties could offer a choice at the polls more popular with segments of the population. In short, multi-party systems are more democratic. Voters can find a party and candidate they like better. In the case of Bernie Sanders, his supporters may unwittingly view a new party as an improvement and an advance of civilization. Isn’t democracy wonderful some would say! But upon reflection, if more parties lead to political instability and chaos, and for sure, another four years of Republican control, many may think twice about Bernie’s idea to start a new party.
Multi-party systems are encouraged by particular elections laws. The main election structures that will promote more parties are laws mandating multi-member districts with proportional representation (the British system is not structured to encourage third parties). Thus, rather than a voting district electing one person to send to a legislature, the district, or a larger district, would send more than one, often many, and the selection would be based on the percentage of voter support. For example, if a party received 15 percent of the electoral support, this could be sufficient, depending on the election laws, to qualify to send a representative to the legislature. The election is no longer winner-take-all as it is currently designed in America. The losers, those with a small percentage of voter support, have a possibility of some of their candidates elected. To emphasize again, those people only thinking short term would say: “Isn’t this wonderfully democratic!”
Such a representation system was what Germany had in the 1920s and 1930s. The system allows extremist parties to gain a foothold in a legislative body and disrupt processes, cause trouble, and in some cases, without every winning a majority, moderate groups may turn to the minor parties for leadership. Without winning a majority, the Nazi Party came to power in Germany.
It does not require much imagination to conclude that a multi-member proportional election system in the United States would quickly result in the formation of new political parties. This would be accomplished in the name of democracy, to give the people representation, and the result would lead to an even greater mess and difficulty governing than America now has.
In Georgia, some years ago, one of the U.S Representatives, Cynthia McKinney, who was in the process of not getting back to Congress (even a few Democrats acknowledged she was a problem), in her desperation, advocated changing the Georgia election system to a multi-member district. Most likely McKinney had no thought or even understanding of the implications and merits of different election systems.
Often in moments of expediency, the politicians and punditry will ignore the damage that could be done by some short term benefit for themselves. Rarely do political pundits or politicians think much beyond the next election or the next article. The benefits of a two party system of politics require more expansive thinking.
Bernie Sanders and his nascent People’s Party is likely merely to cause trouble, conflict, and failure; however, considering how unfairly biased the Democratic Party was to Sanders in the 2016 nomination process, it is difficult to muster sympathy for any of them.
John Havick has a Ph.D. in political science. He was a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology for many years, authored several books and a number of articles, including the widely cited "The Impact of the Internet on a Television-Based Society." His work has appeared in The New York Times, and his recent book, "The Ghosts of NASCAR: The Harlan Boys and the First Daytona 500," is available at ghostsofnascar.com. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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