Resist Those Calls for the Formation of a Third Party

By 01/09/2012

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A lot of people, unhappy with both the Obama Administration and the Republican alternative, are searching for a middle way. My friend and Education Next colleague, Chester E. Finn, Jr., gave voice to their frustrations a week or so ago when he asked others to join him in a third-party movement.

That I think would be a serious mistake.  As I explain in an op-ed appearing on Sunday in the Chicago Tribune, the two party system is one of the bulwarks of American democracy.  When parties are limited to two (apart from tiny splinter groups), the public, in presidential elections,  generally gets a choice between two consensus-building political leaders who have the skills needed to lead broad, heterogeneous parties with significant internal cleavages.  They may seem to be unprincipled flip-floppers, but they have the ability to sense the public’s thinking, the ability to listen to a wide range of perspectives, and the pragmatism necessary to adapt to new circumstances.

We all would like to vote for leaders whose thinking reflects our own thoughts exactly, and in a world of three, four or five parties, it becomes easier to find such “principled” leaders.  But the countries of the world that have a multi-party system (Greece, Israel, Italy, France, Spain, to mention only the most obvious cases in point) hardly offer models of effective government.

It is the job of policy analysts and interest group leaders, in education as in other policy areas,  to clarify the issues and propose striking alternatives.  It is the job of party leaders to translate those ideas into laws that the public as a whole can accept.

I, for one, will resist the song of the third-party siren.

-Paul Peterson

Comment on this article
  • Clay Forsberg says:

    Paul I appreciate your thoughts on this topic. I disagree though. You make no argument to support your opinion.

    Relying on tradition …” just because it’s always been that way, it should always be that way,” completely ignores the changes this country has undergone over the last two plus centuries. Our founding fathers created a constitution that was ambiguous enough to permit future interpretation applicable to evolving circumstances. The two party system should be no different.

    And second, to compare us to Greece and other European countries is misplaced. These are not countries that were formed as ours and have no precedent to return to.

    Unless you’ve been living under rock (not you Paul), you’d have to admit that our federal government is dysfunctional … at best, and outright corrupt at worst. To accept this condition as inevitable, just because we’re afraid of change (and what might happen) is a far departure from what this country was built on.

    “If you risk nothing … you risk everything.” ~ Erica Jong

  • Paul E. Peterson says:

    My rationale is spelled out in greater detail in the Chicago Tribune op ed that appeared on Sunday.

    I would only make this further point. Three-party systems are inherently unstable, as my friend Kenneth Janda has pointed out to me.
    To wish for a stable third party is to wish for something that is not politically feasible; they collapse to two in first-past-the post systems, which the U. S. has.

  • Harold Kassel says:

    I completely disagree. Neither party represents me. The Republican party now has candidates most of whom are ignorant, stupid, backwoods Bible belters, and they favor the wealthy. I voted for Obama, but now I think he is hopelessly incompetent. His blundering put the Republicans in majority in the House and encouraged the Tea Party. The only objection I would have to as third party is that there never has been a third party that had a chance to win. Still, perhaps a third party would represent middle and lower income people.Neither party does now.

  • Amy says:

    IMHO Harold Kassel has it mostly right. Furthermore, I feel that with the dawning of social media in politics, a multi-party system would be more feasible or a bipartisan system more cooperative if it were a tool utilized by the “unprincipled flip-floppers” to more accurately “sense the public’s thinking,.. listen to a wide range of perspectives, and … adapt to new circumstances.”

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