It's Democracy, Stupid: Vote the New Party!

For years, the words "third party" have been gumming up synapses on left-wing talk shows. "Third party" had the plausible, do-something sound of a magical drug: Take one of these and lie down. They sounded like the political version of the late Dr. Leary's immortal slogan, "Turn on, tune in, drop out." One could share emotions ranging from disgruntlement to disgust with the reigning Democrats, but never see a way around a fundamental objection -- not one of principle but of practicality. In parliamentary systems that come with proportional representation, a vote for a third, fourth or nth party can pay off in two ways. For one thing, a few percentage points in the vote convert into a few seats in parliament, and hence into visibility, some spoils, and a modicum of influence -- or more than a modicum when those few votes provide the margin to make up a majority, witness Israel. The small party gets public funds, hence an institutional base for later campaigns. Both ways, the public dialogue broadens, and potential small party voters don't necessarily decide at the last minute to go straight in order to keep from wasting their votes.But the name of the game in the world's oldest democracy is Winner Take All. The American electoral system sends small party votes directly to the trashcan, or lower. Here, third, fourth, or nth party voters mostly have nothing to show for losing. When you withhold your vote from a president who calibrates his differences from Republicans in millimeters, you don't get to build a party organization, you don't get to be a force in the government, and you don't give your party a chance to strut its stuff in the public spotlight. Rather, you pay for your purism by tipping the playing field ever so slightly in behalf of the greater evil. In this setting, a vote for, say, Ralph Nader, is a vote for Bob Dole by another name.Up periscope! A way has been seen around this structural impediment. I do not refer to the populist billionaire from Texas, whose campaign for a balanced budget as the be-all and end-all of politics succeeded in nudging Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992 but deprived him of a popular majority. No, Ross Perot is not the alternative to a two-party system in which the citizens in their sovereignty get to choose whether the country will be run by Archer-Daniels-Midland or Silicon Valley. The New Party is.The New Party is both old-fashioned and elegant. The old-fashioned part is to promote economic improvement for the majority. It likes local campaigns for a living wage, for increased school funding, for campaign finance reform. On the model of the Christian Coalition, which doesn't just heat the air with fulminations, it elects people to city councils, school boards, and the like, chiefly in the Midwest (in Milwaukee, it got the school board to raise the minimum wage for school employees to $7.70 an hour). It likes winning -- 68 percent of its races -- though it's been slow to get going in New York. The elegant part is strategy. The New Party refuses to be a spoiler. Recognizing that politics is too important to be impractical, it goes by a strategy known as "multiple party nomination" or, more briefly if obscurely, "fusion." Where it doesn't have a strong candidate of its own, it is willing to cross-endorse the best major-party candidate on the ballot. The point is to multiply leverage. If Senator Demi Cratt knows that she owes her election to the ten percent of the ballots she received on the New Party line, the argument goes, she has to take them more seriously than she otherwise would. In the meantime, the New Party gets attention and chance to grow.Precisely because "fusion" is a way to give minor parties more power, most states banned the tactic a century ago -- after the (populist) People's Party came to the fore, in fact. Until six months ago, fusion was legal in only ten states, New York among them. It's in New York, in fact, that third parties have showed their clout in recent decades -- American Labor in the Forties, Liberals and Conservatives to this day. In 1980, Jimmy Carter received more votes as a Democrat in New York than Ronald Reagan did as a Republican, but Reagan picked up the Conservative nomination as well and it was Conservative votes that supplied his margin.In fusion, independence meets practicality. Banned from fusion candidacies in most states, the New Party started taking the legal route. Losing in the Federal District Court in Minnesota, it appealed, and this past January the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals (Twin Cities Area New Party v. Lou McKenna, et al.) found for the New Party on the ground that the state restriction infringed upon its First Amendment rights to political association. So it is now illegal in a total of 17 states to prohibit minor parties from nominating candidates (with their permission) who have already been nominated by other parties. Several years ago, a Wisconsin appeals panel came to a contrary decision, but in a case with -- perhaps crucially -- different details.The new development is that, late last month, the Supreme Court agreed that this fall it will hear Minnesota's appeal. Cross nine fingers. As early as 1997, it may become unconstitutional to ban fusion anywhere in the republic. And the New Party will have a growing potential to build up a national force. Some labor activists who like New Party positions cringe at the word "party." They think the third party alternative might will hurt their clout, such as it is, as Democrats. This is short-sighted, I think. Outside some labor ranks, activists of the left do not exactly flood into the Democratic Party. Few do, in fact. Neither Democrats nor Republicans encourage a flood, which would only wash away the cute deals their funders and pols cut for themselves. The Democratic Party is a decrepit Cheshire party that cracks a smile every two years to bring in the bucks and then melts away. Those, especially the young, who are reasonably enough estranged from conventional politics are not going to beat down their doors to lick envelopes for a beast that is so dead to their ideals. At a time when it's easy for liberals to slump back and mutter about Bill Clinton, the New Party has energy and ideas, and an idea for mobilizing leftward without prolonging Newt Gingrich's speakership. It's democracy, stupid.The New Party can be reached at 212-302-5305; e-mailed at newparty@igc.apc.org; webbed at http://www.newparty.org -30-

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