Glenn’s post about the debates identifies a very real problem: that crucial issues like the War (On Some Classes Of People Who Use Some) Drugs and the prison-industrial complex are almost entirely ignored in mainstream political discourse, and voters are not presented with a real alternative. But the solution, I think, gets at the problem Erik recently identified:
One way to solve this problem would be to allow credible third-party candidates into the presidential debates and to give them more media coverage. Doing so would highlight just how similar Democrats and Republicans have become, and what little choice American voters actually have on many of the most consequential policies. That is exactly why the two major parties work so feverishly to ensure the exclusion of those candidates: it is precisely the deceitful perception of real choice that they are most eager to maintain.
The minor point here is that there’s an obvious selection bias here; if you start with the issues on which the two parties are largely similar, you’re going to miss the countless important ways in which they diverge. But we’ve hashed that out enough and Glenn isn’t advocating a third party vote, so let’s leave that aside.
The real problem here is the belief that having third parties play a bigger role will to anything to address the problem. The assumption is fatally flawed for two reasons:
1)Glenn seems to assume that a significant third party would have the same priorities that he does and advocate the same positions. But I’m not sure what the basis for the belief that an American third party would represent the tiny constituency of left-libertarians could possibly be. The two most successful third party campaigns of the last 50 years — Perot and Wallace — were largely right-wing populist campaigns, essentially the opposite kind of politics. The closest thing to a “successful” third party campaign of the left — Nader 2000 — had an impact because of the unique strategic context of the 2000 campaign rather than because it attracted large numbers of adherents, and to the extent that Nader’s largely empty, self-congratulatory rhetoric had any content at all it was focused almost exclusively on economic issues, not civil liberties (let alone the civil liberties and civil rights issues he’s sneeringly dismissed as “gonadal politics.”) Letting third parties into the debates hardly means that the third party candidate is likely to focus on the mass incaceration scandal, and indeed may mean more visibility for someone who wants to make the problem even worse.
2)Even if we can assume the can opener of a left-libertarian (or even a libertarian on balance less grossly pernicious than Ron Paul) third party candidate, we have to ask whether having this third party included in the debates would actually change public opinion on these issues. Given that presidents with their unusual visibility and extensive communication apparatus have no demonstrated ability to shift public opinion in their favor, the idea that a third party candidate speaking for a few minutes about the appalling nature of the drig war will transform public opinion is (to put it mildly) unlikely.
The inevitable ineffectually of a third party would be OK if we had a voting system that prevented irrational outcomes in which the only real impact a left-libertarian third party candidate could have would be to deliver the election to the far worse candidate, but we don’t.
As Erik says, the problem with daydream believing about third parties is that it evades the real problem: there’s no substantial constituency for good policies on many crucial civil liberties issues. If one can develop, then at least one major party will co-opt it. If there’s isn’t one, no third party candidate is going to represent it in a way that makes any difference. Either way, third party politics is beside the point. The problem is real, but to see the solution as being a third party is just evading the much more difficult things that have to be accomplished.