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Do people really want a third party?

  • Published at 06:13 pm July 24th, 2018
Do we want new options to vote for? BIGSTOCK

A political revolution is much more difficult than electing new officials

In the age of anti-establishment and populist politics, the hope of a third party has seen a resurgence across the globe. 

The palpable sentiment that the existing political parties are too elitist or corruption-ridden to represent the interests of the common people has prompted the birth of new parties that have swept the polls. 

In other cases, political outsiders have capsized the old guard to become the new people-facing faces of their respective parties. 

In America, Trump won the presidency, and Bernie Sanders almost won the Democratic nomination. The Libertarian Party won more votes than it ever did since its inception, and the Green Party tripled its vote share from previous years. 

In India, the Aam Aadmi Party defeated the two national establishment parties in the Delhi Legislative Election, and is currently planning to run in all seats of the national legislature. The South Korean legislative elections in 2016 resulted in a hung parliament for the first time since 2000, and a three-party system for the first time since 1996. 

In Bangladesh, leftist parties have already banded together to form a Leftist Democratic Alliance, and the liberal and conservative parties are surveying a possible alliance ahead of the elections scheduled for later this year. 

The trend that emerges from this is clear: People are fed-up with two-party systems and they want new options, or at least new faces, to vote for. 

Another interesting similarity between the countries listed above is that they all follow the first-past-the-post voting system that usually results in a two-party dominant system, according Duverger’s Law (one of the few “laws” in political science). 

But is this dream for a third party win based in reality? Will a third party really solve the woes that have lead to the calls for its emergence?

It depends on whether or not the third party win comes with a shift in the social discourse. Even if a third party manages to win its first term on a strong populist current, it would have to eventually move to the centre of the Overton window -- the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse -- if its electoral resurgence is not coupled with a consequent shift in public opinion. Otherwise, third parties either subsume the position of the first or the second party, or blend in with the previous establishment altogether.

Take Trump, the American Tea Party movement, and the Occupy Wall Street movement for example. By the time the Tea-Partiers got to a position to influence policy, they seemed to blend into the Republican mainstream. 

Most of them voted for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act even though it raises the total US debt: A central issue of the Tea Party Movement. In the cases of Trump and the Occupy movements, they subsumed the platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties so much that they themselves became the new faces of their parties, and the parties themselves moved further to the left and right, respectively. 

But such moves by the parties were probably not caused solely by the electoral success of these candidates. The legwork by right-wing and left-wing activists and media personnel that went into the shift of the Overton window over the decades behind the scenes was what created a tolerance among the people for ideas that would previously be deemed as banal (socialized medicine for the left and ultra-nationalism for the right). 

One could argue that the parties would move towards these postures even if the candidates did not champion them. Indeed, many have noted that the Democrats moved further to the left and the Republicans moved further to the right, even before Trump and Sanders came to the scene.

Which means that the answer to the question we began with is difficult. When asking this question, one must ask why they really want a third party. Do they want it because they want to see the established party orthodoxies to fall and start a political revolution? 

Recent evidence suggests that that is less likely to happen because the established parties are now fast to subsume the populist waves created by the third parties. Do they want third parties because they want to see new faces? This might work, but the new faces may soon start saying old stuff. 

Do they want third parties because they want to move the policy positions of the existing parties? This one may also work, if the parties are able to shift the Overton window through their electoral success, but there are non-electoral methods of doing this as well.

But, insofar as people demand an overall revolution in the political and economic establishment through broad based reforms that hold true to some ideal form of governance -- not just a left or a right tilt of the existing parties -- a third party win may not be a silver bullet. 

Civil society structures, such as community organizations, voluntary trade unions, think-tanks, and the media must constantly work to move the Overton window towards their policy preferences, so that the win is more long lasting than an ephemera populist wave. 

Maybe this is needless to say, but let me say it nonetheless: A political revolution is much more difficult than electing new guys into office. The struggle may begin there, but it must never end there. 

The revolution must remain a tenacious perennial that neither begins nor ends at the polls.

Anupam Debashis Roy is the Editor of Muktiforum.

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