Startin on Third Parties

“Small l” libertarian, former Green Party candidate and Idaho gubernatorial hopeful W. Lane Startin wrote an interesting article on the history and future of third parties. It started with a discussion of issues well known to people engaged in third party politics, such as the importance of ballot access reform and inclusion in candidate debates.

He brought up the need for fusion campaigns, and area where I generally agree:

On a fusion ticket, a third party can endorse a major party candidate who they feel is in tune with their views instead of running their own. In the late 19th Century this was common practice in the United States, and directly led to the prominence of such organizations as the Populist Party and the Farmer-Labor Party. These parties usually aligned with Democrats, and as a result Republican legislatures ended the practice in many states. While still legal in a handful of states, only New York practices this today with any regularity. Several New York parties, such as the Liberal Party of New York, the New York State Right to Life Party, the Conservative Party of New York and the Working Families Party have successfully endorsed candidates also running as Republicans or Democrats. From a candidate’s standpoint, being able to add one of these groups behind his or her R or D helps to build organizations, while at the same time giving the third parties a higher profile than they would otherwise have going it alone.

He also mentioned dropping “gimmicks such as Instant Runoff Voting and proportional representation. “Enacting proportional representation would represent a fundamental change in our elections, and would therefore require a constitutional amendment,” he wrote. I’d like to clarify that it wouldn’t require a federal constitutional amendment. Maine and Nebraska currently have proportional representation for presidential electors; we are currently working on such a bill in Alabama.

He noted that campaigns shouldn’t educate, but recruit:

It’s all fine and good to talk about key points or political quizzes or things of that nature, but the plain truth is the majority of voters couldn’t care less. Never have. Never will. Instead, third parties should reach out to people in the community who generally agree with their views and already have a positive standing. The problem is many of these people would be quite hesitant to accept a third party candidacy, and for good reason. Third parties must resist the temptation to say “Now that you’re with us, we’ll make you a true believer.” Nothing will turn off a good potential candidate quicker than that. If a third party demonstrates it’s serious not about indoctrination, but winning, a few good mavericks will eventually answer the call.

Finally, he took a non-partisan approach to take most of the minor parties to task:

Embrace a “Big Tent” Philosophy. In my experience, the single most significant thing that holds back third parties in the United States is not ballot or debate access, or candidate experience, or even fund raising. It’s a pervasive notion common in all third parties of uncompromising ideological purity. In other words, an almost fanatical belief that they’re right and the commons are either uneducated or wrong. Consider these statements:

“What we Greens need to do is use our skills to serve average voters, and make sure they are aware of our efforts.” -Gregg Jocoy, Green Party blogger, May 2006

“’Radical’ is not a word we will apologise for. Neither is purist’.” -Libertarian Party Radical Caucus basic principles

“Your vote should be based on principle, not expedience. For generations, Americans have held their noses and voted for the lesser of two evils, hoping that those they elect will vote in a principled manner, even though the electorate does not.” -Constitution Party FAQ

“The liberal left in the ‘first’ world, paralyzed in a reformist mode, cannot provide a vision that gives the poor, of this and other countries, the tools for thier (sic) own liberation. These are the times when those that fight for true social and economic equality not only have to choose sides, but step up as THE option to the status quo.” Raul Cano, CoChair Socialist Party USA, Reflections on The State of the Union Address

While these parties are radically different in ideology, their statements share a common theme: We’re right and everybody else is wrong. If you don’t agree with us, you either need to be educated or you’re the enemy.

While I don’t agree with everything he wrote, I thought his perspective was interesting.

17 Responses to “Startin on Third Parties”

  1. GP in Minnesota Says:

    Lots of wisdom here.

    I operate from the view that political parties are religions. No, I am not saying they are LIKE religions, but that they ARE in fact religions. They have heroes, principles, and histories just as conventional religion does. There are important names, events, and “sacred” texts.

    At the most fundamental level, religions are about finding common ground with other people. They are about a “way to live”; an ideological shortcut to being able to declare of a relative stranger that he or she is “one of us.” That’s why we adhere to religion, be it “traditional” (Christianity, for example) or “secular” (Libertarian, Star Trek, NY Yankees, etc).

    The trajectory of involvement in the religion we call politics follows relatively the same path as with traditional religion:

    Movements founded upon a simple, true, and welcoming principle will gather more participants than those based upon rigid (“fundamentalist”), long-winded dogma.

    Likewise, fundamental/complex political religions will adhere the most dedicated and fervent supporters. But they do so at the expense of acquiring large numbers of followers. Most people, when it comes to political religion, are casual participants. (The same might be said of traditional religions.) Thus, religion that welcomes new supporters and is gentle with advocacy are more viable than religions where the newcomer must repent and be baptized by fire so to speak.

    Now that I have spoke such heresy, the purists may burn me at the stake; I hath donned my asbestos suit and stand ready ;)

  2. Peter M. Says:

    GP in Minnesota:

    I’d disagree in saying that political parties are religions, though you make a lot of sense in your analysis. My disagreement is that I think this idea could be applied to almost any sort of social, political, or religious movement or organisation, and as such to limit the comparison to political parties and religious organisations is fairly disingenuous. The Boy Scouts (though admittedly somewhat religious in nature) could easily fit this framework, I think, as well as some fraternities. Comparing everything like this to a “religion”, while fairly easy, is just the case because religions tended to be one the first major forms of human social organisation.

  3. Peter M. Says:

    One of the main things that I found particularly relevant in this article was his paragraph on “Run the Big Races, but Stay Local.” Since third parties are probably unlikely to make a major national breakthrough in the near future (though some interesting things may happen re the 2008 elections,) one of the main reasons to run a third party candidate is to generate attention and visibility for races down the ballot. I think it’s a bigger impact if a party has candidates for Congress, state representative, and local offices as well rather than just a presidential candidate. The base of people it attracts may still be small, but it will be a fairly real base.

    I’m curious as to why Startin argues for ditching planks about IRV and proportional representation. I know he argues that they mean fundamental changes in how our government is structured, but in the end isn’t that what most third parties are aiming for? That may fall under his “anti-purist” ideas, but I’d argue that if third parties don’t have any ideas or plans except for immediate actions, then, to borrow a phrase, what’s the point? (On a bit of a tangent, however, I think it’s interesting how many folks talk about how IRV in Florida would have meant a Democratic victory in 2000. While they very well be right, they generally talk about it in such a way as to imply that there were only three or four parties running in Florida for president, as opposed to the nine or ten as was actually the case. From my perspective as a member of a minor third party, it sounds like an implicit comment that only one or two third parties are actually worthwhile to support, which sounds almost as sectarian as anti-third party arguments from the Democrats and Republicans.)

    Anyway, something which doesn’t seem to be mentioned by many third party folks that I think is incredibly useful for convincing people “why should I vote for a third party?” is that the third party movement is not a only a left-wing or right-wing thing. There are many third parties from all across the political landscape, indicating that there’s a broad swath of people who think something is fundamentally wrong with the way our electoral system is. While I don’t think we’ll see the Socialist Party and the Constitution Party running joint slates any time soon because of this argument (and for good reason!), it’s fairly potent nonetheless.

  4. GP in Minnesota Says:


    “Comparing everything like this to a “religion”, while fairly easy, is just the case because religions tended to be one the first major forms of human social organisation.”

    That’s why I draw the comparison. To understand the “problems” of third parties not gaining traction (and how, in turn to gain that traction), I am suggesting that we should first understand more about why people adhere/lose religion. We should understand religious participation in the most abstract sense - precisely what you deem as social organisation.

    I don’t find that it’s about presenting the perfect argument/creed or having the perfect platform. It’s about the most fervent “apostles” of a political party engineering a social gateway into the party WITHOUT being fervent. I merely suggest the best way to make a blueprint for this might be to pretend one is founding a “secular” religion and ask, “now how do I get people to join?”

    I would also, for the fun of argument, assert that there are people that take Star Trek, Boy Scouts, Christianity, Socialist with equal fervor. Yes, the likely level of fervency between these “religions” will vary in a predictable manner. But with politics, I’m suggesting that we’re at the most fervent end. People killed/died for secular religions like National Socialism or Communism just as readily as for Christianity or Islam.

  5. Deran Says:

    Hmm, seems like he is essentially talking abt creating a new Democratic or Republican party. And we can look around and see how well that sort of mishmash coalition has worked out for the country! I’m against sectarian purity, but for the most part I think this fellow might be happier being a Democrat or Republican?

  6. Lex Says:

    Any predictions on the Libertarian presidential primary in California next Tuesday? Are any other states holding LP primaries?

  7. Fred C. Says:

    I’m thinking Kubby takes it, he’s got street cred here. I can’t speculate on the other candidates.

  8. Lex Says:

    Here’s the list of LP presidential statements at the California Secretary of State’s website (did they miss anyone?):

    On the ballot:

    Barry Hess
    Dave Hollist
    Alden Link
    Daniel Imperato
    Christine Smith
    George Phillies
    Robert Milnes
    Michael P. Jingozian
    Bob Jackson
    Wayne A.Root
    Steve Kubby
    John Finan

  9. Fred C. Says:

    I’m disappointed Robert Milnes didn’t submit a statement.

  10. Robert Milnes Says:

    Fred C., Robert Milnes is too depressed to submit a statement. Enough said on websites anyway.

  11. Jay Matthews Says:

    Robert, I was serious about the question I asked you under a different topic. Have you considered running for state or local office?

  12. jre Says:

    Sartin states…..
    Embrace a “Big Tent” Philosophy

    Look at the republican party today. A perfect example of the “big tent” philosophy. It is a fractured mess, the leaders of the pack Romney, McCain, and Huckabee are not fiscal conservatives that want smaller government. Ron Paul, the only one who qualifies, is being totally ignored by the establishment of the GOP. That is what happens whe you try to
    be “too” big tent…..some faction or factions come in and totally change what the basic beliefs of the party are. This, in essence, is exactly what has happened to the republican party over the years. If the Libertarian Party reformers are successful in passing the directional principles platform in Denver it will lead to more and more unlibertarian factions within our midst. One day we will look up and actually have candidates supporting preventative/preemptive war or a carbon tax or a host of other issues that may not be to our liking. Raise your hand if you actually think that the republican party still stands for “smaller government and less taxes” Keeping our ideology sound will allow us to work with the other parties without actually becoming them.

  13. W. Lane Startin Says:

    My comments regarding the need for a Constitutional amendment to facilitate proportional representation were directed more towards legislative offices rather than the Electoral College (I have no problem with what’s being done with the EC in Maine and Nebraska, actually). Specifically, there’s considerable legal precedent backing the current Congressional district system based on Article I, Section II and the 14th Amendment; I really don’t see how that can be changed without a Constitutional amendment.

    I don’t think IRV would require such a bold step, but I do think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. There are better issues to concentrate on.

    To answer Deran, today I’m a Democrat. The main reason I switched to the Green Party in 2001 was because of the inroads the 2000 Nader campaign made, as well as my palpable dissatisfaction with the Democrats after the Gore/Lieberman loss. I’m not exactly a fan of Nader (then or now), but I did respect the work that was done.

    I knew going in my libertarian interpretation of the sacrosanct Ten Key Points was a bit different than the rank-and-file Green. I thought that would be tolerated, but I’m sorry to say I was very sorely mistaken. This was particularly true after September 11, when I took a position reluctantly supporting military action in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda, but opposing similar action in Iraq. That was a radical position to take in November 2001 (not so much today; funny how that works). But it wasn’t radical enough for the GP litmus test, evidently. Most of the local Greens didn’t have a problem with me, but the GP leadership did, and weren’t shy about letting everyone know about it. The fundamentalism and zealotry pervasive in that organization easily rivals anything in the radical Religious Right. So much for “diversity.”

    At any rate, the experience left me permanently soured on the Greens, and I went back to the Democrats immediately after fulfilling my obligation on the 2002 ballot. I don’t necessarily regret leaving the Democrats (most of my grievances remain today), but I absolutely don’t regret coming back.

    The “big tent” organization isn’t inherently bad. In any serious political organization you’re going to have winners and losers. That’s just the way it goes. Unfortunately, the marginalized factions in both the Democratic and Republican Parties have nowhere to go, and indeed often find it easier to stick with the devil they know in the hopes their marginalization is a temporary condition. That’s not the fault of the major party organizations as much as it is because of the stubborn refusal of the third parties to organize in a manner that’s proven to work. Competition is a good thing; I wish we had some.

    I guarantee Ron Paul wouldn’t be so reluctant to jump back into the LP fray if he thought the organization and tolerance level there was sufficient enough to allow him to run a campaign as he sees fit, which he obviously doesn’t. I’m not a Ron Paul supporter, but I can certainly empathize with him on this point.

  14. Carl Says:

    Good stuff. Some disagreements:

    The bits about inclusion in debates and ballot access restrictions. Very few states have ballot access restrictions that are significant compared to what it takes to win elections. With first past the post, ballot access restrictions are beneficial to those third parties that get over the hurdle; they provide credibility. Debates are largely unwatched save for the big presidential debates.

    Regarding IRV. Definitely a waste. So are fusion campaigns. Pushing for Range Voting is worthwhile. With RV ballot access and getting included in debates becomes easier, since third parties are credible options.

    The big tent bits and getting rid of the “we know better” mentality are hugely important. Search around the blogosphere. Talk to normal people. Guess what: many moderates care about issues as much as third party partisans!

    A party that pushes in the Green direction or the Libertarian direction could be big tent and still purposeful.

    Yes, I know that the Austrian Scholastics can claim that we cannot know whether imposing Sharia Law is worse than fining jaywalkers. Yet, and other anarcho-scholastic sites do make comparisons between levels of government badness.

  15. Carl Says:

    Oh, I forgot to point out where I agree! Insert “Some strong agreements:” before the big tent paragraph.

  16. Kris Overstreet Says:

    For those of you who decry the “big tent” politics of the Democrats and Republicans, I reply: how much change have the Libertarians, Greens, and Constitutions made with their “tiny teepee” politics?

  17. Steven R Linnabary Says:


    Medical marijuana: entirely Libertarian & Green led movements

    Know Your Customer federal banking rule, retracted: Libertarian led

    When Klinton was sending Madeline Albright and Bill Cohen around the country with fraudulent “town hall” meetings to get the public inspired about renewed bombing of Iraq (or to deflect attention from impeachment proceedings), was shown to be staged events by Bob Fitrakis, the Green gubernatorial candidate in Ohio. National news for a couple of days.

    I could list literally dozens of issues that are, or have been led by opposition parties. It is irrelevant that these accomplishments aren’t remembered in a way that leaves Greens or Libertarians in lasting power. Most opposition party activists aren’t in it for the “power”.