Is our two-party system dying? Not yet.

In 1997 I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, attending an event by the campus Young Democrats, in which Bill Lockyer was the speaker.  Lockyer, the current State Treasurer of California, was back then a stalwart in the California Legislature, serving as Senate President pro Tempore.  1997 was of course during the messy end of the Clinton Presidency, when his triangulation conflated with the burgeoning sex scandals to dim even the most optimistic young liberal.  Naively, I asked Lockyer, why don’t we enact Proportional Representation?

Like many before, I thought that a Third Party could somehow get beyond the ideological gridlock to get work done.  Of course, Lockyer laughed at my question.  At least that is how I remember it.  After the 2000 election, when a few Nader votes in Florida swung the election to George W. Bush, my view of third party candidates shifted.  They were certainly effective in swinging elections, and elevating issues, but had little hope of governance.

Yesterday in Providence Joe Scarborough, the Conservative MSNBC commentator and former Representative, said before a convention crowd that the two party system was dying, and that a third party candidate would inevitably win election as President.  I don’t discount the possibility that one day a Third Party might eventually win the Presidency, but I find it hard to believe that our two party system is facing imminent demise.   A look at the current phenomenon of the Tea Party is instructive.

On one hand, Tea Party supporters are creating a “Contract From America” which aims to improve on the 1990s Republican document by avoiding divisive social issues like abortion and gay marriage.  The Tea Party wants to limit its focus to the role of the Federal government and tax policy, where it believes it can gain more supporters.

On the other hand, it was reported today in Politico that Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie, and wealthy Republican donors are working to create a “vast network” modeled on successful Democratic groups like MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress, to take back the White House and Congress.  Republicans are working to try to harness the energy of the Tea Party, and focus it behind Republican candidates.

Republicans, however, face a messaging dilemma: their most ardent supporters “want Congress to repeal the healthcare overhaul, aren’t convinced that climate change is happening, and don’t think illegal immigrants should have a way to become citizens or that President Barack Obama has improved the United States’ global standing – all stances that put them at odds with the majority of voters,” based on a recent survey by Resurgent Republic, one of the groups created by Gillespie.

Those core voters are working to create purity tests, and call Republicans like Lindsay Graham RhINOs (Republicans In Name Only).  Rush Limbaugh raised the possibility this week that the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is actually an environmental conspiracy.  He said on his radio program that:

“lest we forget, ladies and gentlemen, the carbon tax bill, cap and trade that was scheduled to be announced on Earth Day. I remember that. And then it was postponed for a couple of days later after Earth Day, and then of course immigration has now moved in front of it. But this bill, the cap-and-trade bill, was strongly criticized by hardcore environmentalist wackos because it supposedly allowed more offshore drilling and nuclear plants, nuclear plant investment. So, since they’re sending SWAT teams down there, folks, since they’re sending SWAT teams to inspect the other rigs, what better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I’m just noting the timing here.”

Of course, Rush is just “noting the timing.”  That being said, when the resurgent Tea Party avidly supports Rush and Glen Beck, it is difficult to imagine that they would be able to even come close to the watershed Third Party moment of 1992, the candidacy of Ross Perot.  Ron Rappaport, who co-authored a book on the Perot movement, compared a recent survey of Tea Party supporters with Perot supporters and observed:

“The major difference is that Perot movement was a total rejection of both parties, while the tea party movement is a total rejection of only one party–the Democrats.  Whereas only 5% of tea party supporters said that they usually or always voted Democratic, fully one-third of Perot supporters had voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 and slightly more had voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988.”

Nate Silver, who interviewed Rappaport, concludes that “if [the Tea Party] is a danger or threat to the Republican Party it is thus a danger from within, not without. And if it is a threat to the Democratic Party it is because it readily mobilizes voters who ultimately are going to vote for Republicans (or more accurately, against Democrats), not third-party candidates.”

So, based on what I see, it is difficult to imagine the Tea Party becoming a successful third party.  The only chance that a third party would have to prosper would be if election rules were amended to include Proportional Representation.  In that system, legislative assemblies are apportioned based on the percentage of votes for a particular political party.  There are various types of PR, and the system is used in countries like Germany, Israel, Brazil, and Ireland.  In many of those governments, third parties create coalitions with more dominant parties to form governing blocks.  Like Bill Lockyer told me years ago, neither of our two parties is likely to make a change like this, because it would be against their self-interest.

What about voter reform, in the state where voters have a vehicle for radical reform? Proposition 14, a June ballot measure in California, would reform Primary Elections in the State by enabling only voters to nominate candidates for the primary, and pitting the top-two voter getters of that combined primary in the November election.  This measure, similar to Proposition 62, which was defeated 54-46% by California voters in 2004, would aim to elect more moderate politicians to the State Legislature.  Opponents of the Proposition argue that the measure will actually reduce the influence of third parties by raising thresholds to qualify for the ballot, and creating a November election in which only the two dominant parties will have a voice.  While gerrymandered districts and party extremes frustrate Californians, Proposition 14 will not create conditions for change.

The other potential for a third party would of course come if one of our existing parties were to disband or die off.  The Republicans are not going out of their way to embrace the growing Hispanic vote. They will eventually need to moderate the views that their core voters hold on Global Warming and immigration if the party is to grow its base.  However, there is plenty of money invested in our current system, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

In the end, the Republican Party will do enough to survive; along with it, so will our two-party system.  The only real hope of a third party is if an issue becomes an intractable problem that paralyzes the two parties and threatens the future of our country, in the eyes of voters of all stripes.  As voters showed recently in Arizona, an intractable problem can produce unprediictable results if left unaddressed.

UPDATE: The Maine Tea Party just rewrote the GOP platform.  Looks like they really want to co-opt the GOP.  In the words of the FrumForum, the inmates are now running the asylum:

“delegates attending the Maine Republican party convention voted “overwhelmingly” to rewrite much of the party platform to reflect their less than mainstream views. The new Maine GOP platform now calls for, among other things, getting rid of the Department of Education, and the Federal Reserve. It also rails against “the UN Treaty of Child Rights” and “Law of Sea Treaty” on the grounds that we must push back against “efforts to create a one world government.” The tea partiers also took the opportunity to call for an investigation of (this is an actual quote) the “collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth.” Also, we’ve adopted Austrian economics… whatever that means.  It’s hard to even know where to begin. On one hand, it is not exactly new news that Tea Party people have some unconventional views. What is news is that Tea Party values are imposing themselves on mainstream Republican party values. Up until now, the primary question for mainstream Republicans is whether the Tea Party would break off from the Republican Party and form their own movement. The events in Maine raise the possibility that the Tea Party is looking to ideologically transform the GOP to reflect their (gulp) “unconventional” ideas.”

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