Third Party Rising?
October 15, 2010 - 5:44pm ET
Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent New York Times article, "Third Party Rising", that he is "astounded" by the level of disgust with Washington D.C. and the two party system he has found among industry leaders in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. He says he knows of "at least two serious groups" on the East and West coasts "'developing third parties' to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation's steady incremental decline."
He predicts that "barring a transformation of the Democratic and Republican Parties, there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her one definitely big enough to impact the election's outcome".
Friedman cites the harsh indictment of the two major parties by Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond: "We basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country". Diamond published similar views back in 2008 in a Huffington Post article, Can American Democracy Recover? He cited "a broad and deepening sense among Americans not only that the country is moving in the wrong direction, but that there is something seriously wrong and corrupt with our democracy". He provides the following specifics:
"Next to bankruptcy of our social safety net, nuclear terrorism, or a melting of the polar icecaps, reforming American democracy may seem a quaint and secondary issue. So 97 percent of congressional incumbents waltz back to office every two years with the protection of obscenely gerrymandered districts. So public officials have to spend inordinate amounts of time raising money from big donors and powerful interests to get reelected. So we can't run an election as efficiently as India, and we are one of the few democracies without a national electoral commission that can at least set common standards. So what passes for a national electoral commission isn't even functioning because it has almost no members left, due to partisan gridlock. So the Congress and Executive branch have become a revolving door of lobbyists and special interests. So what?"
The unusually critical stances taken by Friedman and Diamond presage a long overdue shift in establishment political opinion from tolerance of the two party duopoly to alarm at the consequences of its quasi-paralysis of government in the nation's capital.
Friedman's revelations about initiatives to run a "serious third party candidate in 2012" raise questions about whether a third party alone can break the two party duopoly.
As Friedman knows, there are already "serious" third parties in existence whose candidates, at least at the Congressional level, have been prevented from defeating Democratic and Republican candidates by U.S. election laws, electoral district gerrymandering and campaign finance laws. Even a major new third party with substantial financial support will be fighting an uphill battle to circumvent these obstacles and mobilize enough popular political support to beat major party candidates.
Unless mainstream voters can be persuaded that a new third party running a presidential candidate could actually win, they will continue to choose the "least worst" of the Democratic and Republican candidates, lest they "waste" their vote on a losing third party candidate.
Yet what makes the effort to mobilize voters behind a major third party initiative irresistible, despite the odds, is the contempt in which a majority of Americans hold both the Democratic and Republican parties and their elected representatives. According to New York Times columnist Frank Rich, voters actually "despise" the two parties. Voter wrath has even led to the emergence of a radical right wing populist movement, the Tea Party, which is running 138 candidates for House and Senate races in the mid-term 2010 elections.
Unsurprisingly, a recent Gallup poll reveals that "fifty-eight percent of Americans believe a third major political party is needed because the Republican and Democratic Parties do a poor job of representing the American people".
The convergence of popular and establishment support for a new third party suggests that significant possibilities for major change may be opening up, provided the new party is not built along the lines of the failed ones. What we do not need is another major party run by party officials and special interests that create "take it or leave it" slates of candidates and platforms over which voters have no control. Nor do we need a new major party that fragments the electorate and helps re-elect duopoly candidates backed by special interests.
These very real dangers can be avoided, I believe, if initiatives to provide voters a major third party presidential candidate in 2012 are simultaneously combined with efforts to empower voters to wrest control of Congress from Democratic and Republican lawmakers they oppose. Replacing Congressional lawmakers beholden to special interests is no less important than electing a president who is not beholden to special interests, especially since these lawmakers, if they remain in office, would be likely to quash the legislative proposals of a newly elected third party president.
A dual pronged strategy targeting Congress as well as the White House would capitalize on the fact that more than 80% of the electorate wants to oust most Congressional representatives because they favor special interests over their constituents' interests. With such overwhelming numbers, typical election districts are likely to have more than enough dissatisfied voters to oust representatives they oppose in the 2012 Congressional elections provided they have a mechanism for agreeing on opposing candidates to place on primary ballots.
Such a mechanism is provided by the web-based Interactive Voter Choice System and the politically-oriented social networking platform I designed to enable voters to leverage the large scale collective action power of the Internet to get control of U.S. electoral and legislative processes.
The number of voters needed to put candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives on the ballot in party primaries, for example, is small and often requires less than 10,000 signatures on nominating petitions. In addition, only a plurality of votes, not a majority, is needed to win an election. (U.S. election laws allow candidates to be elected if they receive more votes than any other candidate, referred to as a plurality, even if these votes are less than a majority of all votes cast.) Voters determined to oust their representatives can take advantage of these low numbers by using IVCS tools and services to build winning voting blocs that elect bloc candidates in primary and general elections in 2012.
Moreover, looking at the big picture, the success of third party presidential initiatives is likely to be contingent on broader voter empowerment in electoral and legislative processes as a whole. IVCS is a unique facilitator of that empowerment because it enables voters not only to get control of existing parties and create new parties, but replace special interests as the driving force of the entire political process.
Voters can use IVCS to create new parties, get on the bandwagon of a major third party if one emerges, or get control of the Democratic and Republican parties so as to prevent them from doing any further damage to the country. More broadly, IVCS enables the electorate not only to set the nation's political agenda and elect a president in 2012, but simultaneously wrest control of Congress from special interests, assuming the prototype IVCS website, reinventingdemocracy.us, is fully developed before the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.
Here's what the IVCS social networking website will enable the U.S. electorate to do when it is fully developed:
- Set transpartisan policy agendas across the board, in writing, and use them as legislative mandates;
- Create transpartisan voting blocs around common policy agendas that nominate, elect and hold accountable candidates and incumbents, who do not have to raise money from special interests to defeat opposing candidates;
- Form transpartisan electoral coalitions with other voting blocs, labor unions, membership-based advocacy groups, and political parties;
- Work within existing parties, take over existing parties, or start new parties
Of course, there will be doubting Thomases who question whether the combination of the large scale collective action power of the Internet and the IVCS social networking website are capable of toppling the duopoly. Frank Rich in a recent New York Times column echoes the views of web critics who claim that the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook do nothing for democracy. He quotes Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker article:
"'With Facebook and Twitter and the like,' Gladwell wrote, 'the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will' was supposed to be upended, so it would be 'easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.' Instead, he concluded, we ended up with the reverse: social media increase the efficiency of the existing order rather than empowering dissidents."
But the 125 million Americans who used the Internet as a pivotal political tool in 2008 are poised to prove that these doubting Thomases are wrong. These web savvy voters are not only motivated to form more responsive, web-based political organizations, but they now have a politically-oriented social networking platform designed specifically to empower them to get control not only of political parties but U.S. electoral and legislative processes as a whole.
This platform enables the entire U.S. electorate of 206 million eligible voters to use the Internet to oust any lawmakers they oppose. Just as Facebook empowers 500 million users to create personal social networks, reinventingdemocracy.us will empower voters to create politically-oriented networks of political "friends" and allies that can decide the fate of any politician.
In addition to posting pictures and updates to their chosen friends, they can use the website to air and implement their political views about what they want government to do, or not do. If they are dissatisfied with what their elected representatives are doing, they can use the website's free tools and services to form a new genre of voter-controlled political organization, transpartisan voting blocs, which can do all the things that political parties do including running and electing candidates for office. In addition, the unique structure of these blocs, and the nationwide, decentralized network of voting blocs of which they will be a part, enable them to do things that political parties do not do, such as set transpartisan political agendas and build transpartisan electoral coalitions.
Below is a description of how voters can use the IVCS social networking platform not only to break the two party duopoly, either by getting control of the two major parties or creating new parties, but to get control of the entire U.S. political system.
Voters across the political spectrum can use IVCS to:
- Set transpartisan policy agendas across the board, in writing, and use them as legislative mandates.
The two major political parties have never seriously entertained the idea of letting their supporters define their policy priorities across the board, including priorities that the parties have traditionally refused to espouse.
Presumably, they fear their supporters might go off in such different directions, if given the opportunity, that the party would not be able to find a tent big enough to cover them all, or produce a coherent set of policy priorities for the party's platform. Another reason is probably the fear their supporters will espouse objectives that conflict with those of their special interest backers.
This party-centered near-sightedness has hamstrung voters because even the most loyal supporters espouse priorities that fall outside traditional party lines. More seriously, it has also prevented major party officials from keeping in step with their supporters' felt needs and changing priorities, and fielding candidates who reflect them.
This disconnect between voters' priorities and the priorities of the parties, their candidates and their special interest funders, has left voters with no choice but to choose among candidates whose agendas are often vague and deliberately ambiguous. Candidates usually go to great lengths to avoid specificity on the campaign trail, usually by talking out of both sides of their mouths, and by making statements that can be interpreted in contradictory ways by different groups of supporters. Once in office, elected representatives vote for whatever legislation they wish by claiming that their votes represent the views of constituents. They can get away with these misrepresentations because their constituents have no way to systematically articulate and publicize their actual priorities across the board themselves.
In contrast, the Interactive Voter Choice System (IVCS) enables voters to definitively close this gap between their policy priorities and their elected representatives' priorities, and the laws voters want to see enacted and those that are actually enacted. It does so by empowering voters for the first time in history to set their policy agendas across the board, in writing, and use them to provide written legislative mandates to candidates and incumbents setting forth their policy priorities across the board.
The core IVCS agenda-setting tool is a comprehensive, web-based Policy Options Database of 104 options from which voters can select the policies they wish to see enacted into law. (To view a prototype of the database, click here.) The options cross party lines and advocate divergent and even diametrically opposed policy choices. Voters can annotate the options they choose, add additional options to the database, and update their agendas at any time.
The database itself and its comprehensive set of policy options are unique. To encourage voters across the political spectrum to find common ground across political party lines, most options in the database do not refer to a specific political party. Moreover, voters are not asked to identify their political party or ideological stance (e.g. conservative, liberal, etc.) because research shows that when voters can freely choose their preferred policy options, without being restricted to a limited list of options that correspond to a particular political ideology, they choose a set of options that cuts across party lines and ideologies.
The IVCS agenda-setting tool helps voters compare and contrast policy alternatives by providing links on all options to online sources of information describing the pros and cons of each option from a diverse array of vantage points. Voters can propose additional links, which are updated continuously.
Voters can select any number of options from the database. If they wish, they can rank order them from most to least preferred. They can define different agendas for different purposes, update their agendas whenever their priorities change, and save all their agendas in their own personal archive on the website for future reference. They can display all their priorities or selected priorities on their personal home pages on the website. They can decide whether to make their home page public and who they will allow to view the options they have selected.
Voters can use their agendas as legislative mandates to pressure candidates and elected representatives to enact them into law. They can request candidates and representatives to access the website and use the Policy Options Database to define their policy agendas and legislative priorities. Then voters can compare their respective stances and evaluate their track records to see how much convergence there actually is. If there is too large a discrepancy, they can decide not to vote for them in the next election.
Once voters have set their agendas, they can compare them to the agendas set by other voters and identify and contact voters with similar agendas. Here's how:
- After selecting their priorities from the Policy Options Database, voters can enter their priorities into the Policy Priorities Database. Then they can query the database to see how their priorities compare with the priorities selected by all the other voters who have submitted priorities. They can find out how many voters have set agendas that are statistically similar to their own, including how many voters have selected similar clusters of certain priorities, or even a single priority.
- They can also request the ZIP codes of voters with similar priorities, including those who live inside as well as outside their Congressional electoral district. They can request the usernames and internal email addresses of these voters (provided these individuals have authorized the sharing of their usernames and internal email addresses with other voters who have selected similar priorities). In response to their query, inquirers will receive a list of the usernames of voters who share their policy priorities, their ZIP codes and their internal email addresses so they can contact them directly via internal email.
- Create transpartisan voting blocs around common policy agendas that nominate, elect and hold accountable candidates and incumbents, who do not have to raise money from special interests to defeat opposing candidates.
Voters who find and contact other voters with similar policy priorities after querying the Policy Priorities Database can add these voters to their personal networks on the website, just as Facebook members add "Friends" to their networks. Once they do so, they can use the website's social networking tools for one-to-one and one-to-many messaging. They can begin building politically-oriented social networks of "friends" who share similar policy preferences and interests in getting their preferences enacted into law.
For instance, they can create networks comprised of "friends" who reside in their Congressional election district. They can take advantage of the communication tools and information resources provided on the website to jointly examine their representatives' legislative track records to see how much convergence there is between lawmakers' records and their own legislative priorities, as reflected in the policy agendas they have set using the Policy Options Database.
If they decide the records are unsatisfactory and fail to show that the incumbents are exerting their best efforts to enact the voters' priorities into law, voters can join forces to transform their personal networks into voting blocs hosted on the website dedicated to running and electing Congressional representatives who can do a better job.
It is in this context of direct interaction with elected representatives that the policy agendas which voters create using IVCS can revolutionize U.S. electoral and legislative politics. Voters can use their voting blocs' agendas as written legislative mandates to negotiate with candidates seeking election for the first time, and incumbents seeking re-election, specific policy-based terms and conditions for their support, including putting them on the ballot for upcoming Congressional primaries and getting out the vote to elect them.
To institute such close, quasi-contractual voter-representative relationships, voting blocs can request candidates and incumbents to set their policy agendas using the Policy Options Database. They can instruct them to email their agendas to the voting blocs, accompanied by tangible evidence of prior commitments and efforts to attain the priorities they have specified. Then the members of the voting blocs can compare their own agendas with the agendas of candidates and incumbents, and their track records, to decide whether they wish to get behind their campaigns.
If they decide to support them, their candidates will not have to solicit campaign contributions from special interests in order to get their message out because they, the voters, will already know what their candidates' messages are, thanks to the policy agendas and legislative mandates used to select the candidates.
Once candidates are elected, voting blocs can use their written legislative mandates to:
- Oversee the work of their representatives;
- Dialogue with them about the stances of other lawmakers and what can be done to build consensus in support of their representatives' legislative proposals;
- Join with them in deciding what are the best strategies, tactics and compromises to make in order to move legislative proposals through Congressional decision-making channels.
If incumbents seeking re-election cannot provide tangible proof that they have exerted their best efforts to implement specific policy priorities contained in the voting blocs' agendas, the bloc can opt not to support their re-election and to run candidates against them.
Voting blocs can attain the electoral strength they need to win Congressional elections even when their candidates face strong opponents with persuasive messaging machines that are well-financed by special interests. They can do so by using IVCS consensus-building tools like the Voting Utility to conduct systematic campaigns to increase the membership of their blocs and form electoral coalitions.
These tools enable voters to continue negotiating and even voting on which priorities they wish to include in common agendas until they can identify the combinations of priorities that attract the number of votes required to beat their candidates' opponents. This process enables them to set flexible, evolving agendas and build dynamic electoral bases that can outflank and outmaneuver those of stand-alone, special interest-controlled parties and voting blocs whose candidates run on fixed agendas over which voters have little or no control.
Significantly, as voters join together to scrutinize their policy options, and weigh alternative options and combinations of options, in order to build common agendas, they will simultaneously solve the contrived conflicts over legislative initiatives that the two major parties have created to inflame voters' passions and prejudices, and divide the electorate into hostile camps. This collaborative process will foster authentic debate and compromise and neutralize the effects of the media-centered diatribes that exacerbate rather than resolve political conflicts.
To increase their numerical voting strength, voting blocs can invite the individuals listed below to join their bloc by inviting them to set their policy agendas and then enter their preferences into the Policy Priorities Database so they can compare them to those of bloc members. If there are sufficient similarities, they can decide to join the bloc. These individuals include the following:
- Newly registered members of the website
- Members of other voting blocs hosted on the website
- Like-minded friends, family, neighbors and co-workers
- Political activists and politically-oriented bloggers
- Membership-based affinity groups, e.g. environmental groups
- Website members with statistically dissimilar agendas who share enough policy priorities with voting bloc members to join the voting bloc, in exchange for the addition or deletion of particular options from the bloc's agenda.
In addition, voting blocs located within Congressional districts can hold open houses in the district to introduce attendees to the Interactive Voter Choice System and reinventingdemocracy.us. They can invite them to set their policy agendas in the hope that they will select policy options similar to those of the bloc. They can show them how to enter their choices into the Policy Priorities Database, and query the database to identify like-minded voters who have selected similar options.
- Form transpartisan electoral coalitions with other voting blocs, labor unions, membership-based advocacy groups, and political parties.
In addition to increasing voting bloc membership, voting blocs can expand their electoral bases by creating electoral coalitions. Voting blocs seeking to win Congressional races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, for instance, can expand their electoral bases by approaching existing IVCS-enabled voting blocs, labor unions, membership-based political advocacy groups, and even political parties based in their Congressional districts, to open negotiations to see if they can create common agendas.
They can invite the members of these organizations to access the Policy Options Database, set their individual policy agendas, and submit their priorities to the Policy Priorities Database for tallying under their organization's name. The bloc and the organization can then compare their respective agendas to see whether there are a sufficient number of shared priorities to form the basis of a coalition. If it turns out that bloc or organization members feel strongly that certain options must be included or excluded, they can use the IVCS Voting Utility to vote on whether to include or exclude these options.
If a consensus emerges around a common agenda, they can proceed to see if they can agree on common slates of candidates to implement their agendas. If so, the members of the coalition can then join forces to pool their resources to get out the vote to elect their candidates in primary and general elections.
- Work within existing parties, take over existing parties, or start new parties.
An important strategic and tactical decision that voting blocs will have to make is whether they will be more effective in getting their candidates elected by working within the two major political parties, and possibly getting organizational control of them, than by joining other non-major third parties or investing their resources in starting new parties.
The splintering of the majority of U.S. voters who want to oust the nation's Congressional lawmakers into a multiplicity of "third" parties is not a formula for success in running winning candidates against the candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties, particularly at the presidential level.
This route will leave the Democratic and Republican parties intact, and permit them to continue to use their unfair advantages in gerrymandered districts and special interest fund-raising to run and elect party-backed candidates to office. Their Congressional representatives will remain free to favor special interests at the expense of the public interest, even if a major third party runs a winning presidential candidate in 2012.
However, if IVCS-enabled voting blocs pursue a short-term strategy of working within the two parties at the Congressional level, such a strategy can not only prevent the proliferation of losing splinter groups, but lead to the election of bloc candidates who can wrest control of Congress from special interests. That's because this "inside" strategy can be pursued simultaneously with an "outside" strategy, in which voting blocs form broad-based electoral coalitions with other non-major parties, labor unions and membership-based political advocacy groups to run and elect common slates of candidates.
It is important to bear in mind that regardless of whether voting blocs work inside or outside one of the two major parties, or other established parties, IVCS consensus-building tools facilitate the formation of winning voting blocs and electoral coalitions comprised of broad cross-sections of the electorate that can outflank major party electoral bases. Blocs that work inside one or the other of the two major parties can bring the parties into their coalitions in support of their candidates, and thereby prevent the parties from running candidates against bloc and coalition candidates.
Looking at the broader, long-term picture, however, agile, malleable and expandable transpartisan voting blocs and electoral coalitions are likely to become more powerful political forces than old or new political parties.
They will become more dynamic driving forces in U.S. electoral and legislative processes than political parties because they will have unique transpartisan consensus-forming mechanisms that parties do not have.
They will belong to a nationwide, decentralized network of inter-connected grassroots voting blocs that can spontaneously form transpartisan electoral coalitions at will, free of centralized, top-down control. By using IVCS tools such as the Voting Utility, they can build ever larger electoral bases around common agendas at any point in time that cross party lines and give them preponderant voting strength.
The pivotal role of IVCS-enabled voting blocs derives from the fact that they can perform all the functions of a political party without actually having to form a party, especially since they can run their candidates on existing party lines on the ballot by collecting the number of signatures required by the state to get them on the party's lines. By running their candidates on existing party lines and building winning electoral coalitions that have the voting strength needed to beat party candidates in primaries, they can avoid the time consuming efforts involved in collecting the signatures needed to create new political parties from scratch.
Moreover, if these voting blocs elect candidates to Congress carrying the banner of the two major parties, their representatives will be entitled to assume the pivotal leadership and committee positions that are traditionally divided up between the two major parties positions that have the authority to decide which policies will and will not move through the legislative process and be enacted into law.
Representatives who owe their election to voter-controlled voting blocs and electoral coalitions can be induced to revoke anti-majoritarian rules and practices like the Senate's filibuster and secret holds, which have permitted a minority of elected lawmakers representing a minority of the American people to decide which bills will and will not be enacted into law in the name of the American people as a whole.
Furthermore, unlike the present situation where candidates of both major parties espouse policy options that fall well outside the confines of the preferences of party members as a whole, IVCS-enabled voting blocs and coalitions can refuse to run candidates who espouse policies that are clearly inimical to their own agendas, and run opposing candidates who can defeat them.
The important point to keep in mind is that the overarching goal of IVCS is to enable the U.S. electorate to get control of the entire U.S. political system, not simply to get control of existing parties or start new parties. The objective is to fundamentally alter the nation's electoral and legislative processes, not merely to elect new representatives. Whether voting blocs opt to get control of the Democratic and Republican parties, join with existing non-major parties, or create new parties, is merely a means to this end.
Due to voting blocs' size, ubiquity and capacity to continuously build consensus among voters across the political spectrum, they will dwarf the influence of parties, politicians, pundits and the news media in deciding which candidates run in primary and general elections and win. Voting blocs will possess a nimbleness, flexibility and fluidity that enables them to continuously reshape and resize themselves in response to voters' changing policy priorities, and create whatever electoral coalitions they need to run and elect bloc candidates to office at any level of government and in whatever states they choose.
Voting blocs of any size can join forces and recombine into larger blocs within states and, eventually, across any and all 50 states. All they have to do to form these expanding blocs is to take advantage of the IVCS Policy Options Database, the Policy Priorities Database and the Voting Utility to determine what policy priorities are preferred by how many voters. At every turn, they will be able to build consensus among ever larger numbers of voters and gauge whether they have an appropriate mix of policy priorities to obtain the voting strength they need to elect their candidates in upcoming elections.
Whether these blocs team up with old or new political parties, it is the blocs rather than the parties that will give U.S. voters at the grassroots the exclusive power to control elections, and decide who will represent them and what policies will be enacted in their name.
Help us spread the word about these important stories...
Email to a friend
Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Campaign for America's Future or Institute for America's Future