Third parties have not had much success in the United States lately. Perot threw enough money at the Presidency to make things interesting in 1992. And Nader proved that a cranky gadfly could attract enough votes to be troublesome in 2000, maybe even influencing the result. But in a year when the nominees of both major American political parties were as popular as Aedes mosquitoes, the performance of the Bobbsey Twins (Green Stein and Libertarian Johnson) may have set third party politics back for years to come. They were terrible spokespeople for their causes.
Europeans, on the other hand, are quite familiar with multi-party elections leading to multi-party governments. In Iceland, the party that came in third in the national elections has been asked to form a government because the two parties that received more votes couldn’t get it done. And I can’t wait to see how Iceland’s Pirate Party governs. (You can’t make this stuff up.) But when I talk about a lesson that the American Left can learn from the Europeans, shouting Aaaaarh and raising the Skull & Crossbones is not what I had in mind. I had in mind the manner in which the French kept Marine Le Pen’s far right National Front out of major regional offices recently.
CAVEAT: Be aware that I’m relatively new to the study of French politics, I’m therefore by no means an ultimate authority, and that I get most of my information from English language sites.
How was the party of the Far Right in France thwarted? The opposition Left quite openly decided to make sacrifices for the sake of the country. Novel concept.
France periodically holds elections that determine the legislative and executive bodies in its thirteen regions. Initial balloting determines which parties reach a threshold that makes them eligible to participate in a runoff. There were three main parties jockeying for power after the first round of voting in the most recent regionals - the Left (Socialist), the Center-Right (Republican), and the Far Right (National Front). In that first round, Marine Le Pen’s National Front was a big winner. To be clear, they only received 28% of the total vote, but that was a record for the party and in two regions in particular they were almost certain to win in a three-party race for control.
What did the Socialists do? They decided not to run candidates in the two regions that threatened a National Front victory.
What was the outcome? The Republicans won both regions, the only two regions in which the National Front polled more than 40% of the vote in the runoff, enough to have won if the Socialists had participated.
In other words, the Socialists blocked the Far Right from taking regional power by ceding those regions without a fight to the Republicans, regions in which they would have lost anyway. So instead of five Socialist regions, six Republican regions, and two National Front regions, France now has five Socialist and eight Republican regions. Hardly a big win for the Socialists but an important denial of a power base to the National Front if your politics are left of center.
How does such a strategy convert to the American two party system? Oddly enough, we have a model - the Tea Party and the Republicans. For all of the huffing and puffing and primary challenges pitting the Tea Party against Establishment Republicans, in the vast number of cases once the primaries are over, the Republicans unite. They decide that their internecine squabbles pale beside a possible victory by the Left. On the other hand, it is clear that when Democrats suffer divisive primaries, the losers tend to vote for third parties or stay home. How do we know this? Look at the numbers.
In recent contested Presidential elections - I don’t consider Bush v Kerry contested in any real sense - Democrats won by a popular vote margin of from 500,000 to 9,000,000 votes. The lower winning margins, Gore and Hillary, came in elections during which the Democrats experienced considerable pushback from the Progressive wing of their party - Nader and Sanders. And Gore and Hillary lost in the Electoral College. The circumstances were different but the result was the same. On election day, the bitter battles over policy purity had taken their toll. The Democratic Party did not unite. George W. became President and Trump will become President. And any Democrat who thinks that those results were reasonable and proper for America is a nihilist, not a Democrat.
But winning the popular vote means nothing if you don’t win the electoral vote, you say? OK. Take five of the major Rust Belt states, where this year’s Presidential election might indeed have been lost by the Democrats. It is true that Republicans gained a few hundred thousand votes over 2012. But it is also true that Democrats lost nearly 1,500,000 votes in those states. Something over 1,000,000 voters who had voted Democratic in 2012 either stayed home or voted third party in just those five states.
Were either Gore or Hillary perfect candidates. Of course not. But might Gore have listened to his intelligence briefings and prevented 9/11? Had 9/11 happened, would Gore have broken the Middle East by taking his eye off Bin Laden and going after Saddam’s nonexistent WMDs? Is Trump the President we need to replace Scalia and 100 federal judges, putting any number of our freedoms at risk, the freedoms that those folks who stayed home on election day probably cherish even more than those who voted?
Although both the Socialists and the Republicans will continue to struggle for the hearts and minds of the French electorate, both parties also had the ultimate welfare of their people at heart at election time. Why don’t we Democrats?
Can’t we all just get along?
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