Splinter Parties: Losing the entire loaf
When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the Unites States in the 1830s, he noted how Americans, unlike Europeans of that time, were so quick to form interest groups or associations around particular issues. That tradition carries on to this day and finds its most evident political expression in the Reform, Libertarian and Green Parties.
While the combined vote of these third, fourth and fifth parties only amounted to 3.53 percent of the votes cast in the 2000 presidential election, even that relatively small percentage proved, once again, that the Law of Unintended Consequences is always in effect.
Had Ralph Nader not thrown his hat in the ring, it can be assumed that virtually all of his votes (2.74 percent) would have gone to Al Gore. The majority of Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party votes (0.43 percent) and most of Harry Browne’s Libertarian votes (0.36 percent) were cast at the expense of the Republican Bush-Cheney ticket. Clearly, the Nader candidacy hurt Gore more than the candidacies of Buchanan and Browne hurt Bush. In that closest of all presidential elections, it can fairly be said that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the presidency. The liberals must be as upset about that as the conservatives are about Ross Perot making possible the election of a Bill Clinton.
The Libertarian Party, the self-proclaimed “Party of Principle,” is composed, in the main, of voters from the far right of the GOP with a few folks from the Democrat’s far left who like the Libertarian idea of legalizing all drugs.
While one might admire people who take principled stands on issues, political reality tells us that one rarely wins the entire loaf in politics and it is often better to settle for half a loaf rather than starve. Political science rests on a simple mathematical statement which is: Fifty Plus One. The candidate who can garner 51 percent of the votes wins all. They don’t win just 51 percent of the political loaf, they win 100 percent of the political loaf.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” The key word here is: foolish. Quite often the members of these splinter parties will stand so consistently on what they perceive as immutable principle that they end up putting their arch political enemies into office.
The South Dakota U.S. Senate race is good example. The people of South Dakota vote Republican on most issues; however, because they love those government subsidies for agriculture, they will send Democrats to Congress. That explains Democrat U.S. Senators Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson.
Assuming the pending recount remains in favor of the apparent winner, Democrat Tim Johnson, it can be said that the Libertarians cast the votes that defeated conservative Congressman John Thune. Current unofficial vote totals show Johnson winning by a mere 527 votes. South Dakota Libertarians cast 3,071 votes. About 85 percent of Libertarians are former Republicans. That being the case and had there been no Libertarian candidate, Congressman John Thune would have beaten Senator Johnson.
The Oklahoma gubernatorial race is another example. That vote split almost evenly at 43 percent to 43 percent with the Democrat apparently winning by a few votes. But the Independent candidate received 14 percent of the vote. Independents tend to be people more concerned with principle rather than voting for the party that promises more “bread and circuses.” As a result, Independents tend to be more conservative than liberal and, given a choice between Democrats and Republicans, they tend to vote more often for Republicans.
The margin of victory for the Democrat in the Wyoming gubernatorial race was slightly less than the number of votes cast for the Libertarian candidate. Once again, the Libertarians ended up electing the Demorcrat rather than the Republican whose political views are closer to Libertarian than Democrat.
Wyoming provides this year’s best example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The difference between the Democrat and Republican candidates in that open-seat gubernatorial race was two percent. Libertarians cast two percent of the votes. The Democrat candidate won by two percent.
One has to wonder how the members of these splinter parties sleep at night when, on some level, they must know their “foolish consistency” put their political foes into position make the laws and issue the rules that govern their lives?
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, is a former professor of political science and history at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
©2002. William Hamilton