Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

America Needs More Than a Third Party

James Skillen


August 5, 1996

With the end of the Olympics we now await the next big sports events of the season: the national party conventions. Of course, TV coverage and viewer attention will not come close to the levels attained with the Atlanta games. Nor is the political quality on display at the conven-tions likely to compare favorably with the athletic brilliance demonstrated at the Olympics.

Ross Perot and Richard Lamm appear set for a jousting contest in a side arena to see who will act as the spoiler in November's presidential election. Bill Clinton faced no competition for his party's nomination, so he will use the Democratic convention to further refine the art of multi-speak which he hopes will win him the most votes in the finals. Bob Dole hopes the Republican convention—and his vice presidential choice—will finally kick start his campaign.

Simply referring to campaign politics in sports language suggests the disappointing nature of the electoral process today. Clearly, the presidential candidates are not athletes. Electoral contests should be galvanizing citizens not for TV viewing but for public discussion and debate. The future of our country is at stake; its health and stability hang in the balance. Why can't politics be better than it is?

Widespread disappointment with Clinton and Dole fuels hope that Perot's Reform Party might offer a meaningful alternative. Others look to Colin Powell as their first choice, despite his non-candidacy. But is it simply the lack of a third party or of an outstanding candidate that leaves us mired in apathy and disgust?

My hunch is that most Americans are barking up the wrong tree on this one. The reason the 1996 campaign features Clinton and Dole rather than Powell and a strong third party is because our electoral system demands of its presidential candidates broad, multivocal blandness and even contradictory generalities. Each candidate is supposed to appeal to everyone and to offend as few as possible. Each must try to win a majority (or at least a plurality) in order not to lose everything in November.

If a third party comes on strong this year and again in 2000, it is likely to displace the Republicans or Democrats rather than remain a third party. Our winner-take-all system almost guarantees a two-party system, in which both parties look very much alike. However, two parties can no longer represent the actual diversity of American citizens. Not until we develop a multi-party system with proportional representation will we get candidates of distinction and a reinvigorated electorate.

Some think that proportional representation works only in parliamentary systems that have no president. But newly minted democracies such as South Africa's, where I traveled last month, combine a presidential system with proportional representation in the national legislature. France features a two-stage process in its election of the president. This allows voters to choose among candidates of many parties the first time around, and then between the top two in the final vote. Almost every democracy on earth makes room for the proportional representation of more than two parties without denying the right of genuine majorities to govern.

The United States needs more than a third party competing under the rules of the present system. We need a new system of representation that will encourage all voters to participate. We need a new politics that will draw the best candidates into national leadership by means of disciplined parties that distinguish themselves in pursuit of the high art—not sport—of statecraft.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”