A Philosopher's Blog

Third Parties & Presidential Debates

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 31, 2016

English: Head-and-shoulders portrait of Ralph ...

When I was an undergraduate, one of my political science professors liked to say that one major difference between the Soviet Union and the United States was that we had one more political party than they did. He did, of course, illustrate how this was a real difference in some ways, but far less of a difference in many other ways. In the former Soviet Union, the top of the political pyramid was occupied by Communist party members. In the United States, the top is occupied by Republican and Democrats.

While it is worth noting that the United States actually has many third parties, the only impact these tend to have on Presidential elections is stripping away enough votes from one of the major parties to allow the other party to take the White House. Ralph Nader is, of course, the classic example of this. Third parties might have some impact in the 2016 election, especially given that it is mostly a contest about who is loathed less.

It is unfortunate that third parties generally do not get to have their candidates participate in the Presidential debates; so the only ideas that are heard are those of the two dominate parties. It is true that there is a threshold for inclusion: if a candidate can break 15% in the approved national polls, then that candidate gets a spot on the stage. One problem with this is that a third party cannot get that 15% without getting enough attention and it probably cannot get enough attention for the next election without being on the stage for the debates. Third parties also face the obvious challenge that the Republicans and Democrats have an iron lock on the political process; operating together to keep the third parties out of the game.

Since it is absurd to think that two parties can adequately reflect the diverse political views of Americans, I hold that third parties need to be given more opportunities in the political system. One way this can be done is taking actions that would allow third party candidates to participate in the Presidential debates. Since polls are used as the basis for admission, I have the following suggestions.

The first, which might seem a bit dishonest, is for people who support having a third party candidate in the debate say that they will vote for them, even if they intend to vote for another candidate. If enough people do this, that candidate would be able to participate.

It might be objected that if enough people do this, a major party candidate could be left out of the debate. While I see this as feature and not a bug, it is certain that this would not happen. It can also be objected that this would distort the polls, causing trouble for the pundits, politicians and statisticians. This is a point of some concern—but it is the real election that really matters. I would feel a bit bad for Nate Silver in this scenario; but I think he would probably create a model to handle this. And a podcast, of course.

A second, more honest, proposal is to have polls that allows the person to rank candidates rather than simply picking one or questions about who they want to see in the debates. This would allow a person, as an example, who intended to vote for a Republican but wanted to see what the Libertarian would say to express this preference. Naturally, the details would need to be worked out, but this is certainly doable.

I think there would be at least four benefits from taking this approach—assuming it resulted in at least one third party candidate on the stage. The first is that it would provide voters with more choices or at least exposure to different ideas. The second is that it could increase the competition for votes, thus forcing the parties to do more to earn those votes. For example, a third party focused on issues of great concern to rural Americans could force the major parties to pay attention to them. At least for the election cycle. The third is that it would require the billionaires who dominate politics to spend even more money—in addition to buying the Democrat or Republican (or both), they would also need to spend on trying to influence third party candidates. This would expand the redistribution of some wealth from the top to slightly below the top. Fourth, it would help increase political diversity, thus allowing people to pick a candidate that might more closely match their values.

There are, of course, some concerns with allowing this. One concern is that the crowd might want some awful fool to be on stage. The obvious reply is that is exactly what is happening now. Another concern is that this would be mere political theater—the third party candidate would get some air time, but the two parties would remain dominate. The obvious reply is that while the first, second or even third time a third party candidate is on stage won’t result in a third party victory, such political theater can have results over time. After all, politics is theater.


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  1. david halbstein said, on September 2, 2016 at 8:34 am

    I am not sure what the best way to go about it would be – I’m not sold on the idea of “polling” because polls can be inaccurate, skewed or manipulated – but I do like the idea. I’m also not convinced that we even have a two-party system; sometimes it seems as though it’s really just one big power structure in Washington that is more interested in its own self-preservation than in any kind of healthy debate or real consideration of the issues we face.

    I voted third party in the last election and I will do so again this time around. I’ve said before that in terms of who wins or loses, I don’t believe my vote will matter. I live in a heavily blue state; my vote will either be one of a pile too small to make a difference or too big to really matter. Nonetheless, I do this in hopes that third party candidates will get enough votes to earn a seat at the table. That will not come about by polling, nor will it come about by changing the rules. It will come about by the people in this state and around the country getting up off their butts, seeking out alternative opinions and voting for them. (How many cable companies offer only one channel? How hard is it to Google “Third Party Presidential Candidates” ?

    Just like everything else in this country, it’s not the responsibility of the government, it’s not the responsibility of the media – they are not to blame. It’s the people of this country.

    We are a complacent society, we expect things to be handed to us on a silver platter with no effort on our parts. If we leave it to the government to make rules that will force a third party candidate to be placed on our TV in front of us in such a way that we never have to move from the couch, do we really think they will place OUR choice there? The government serves its own power structure, the media its own ratings structure. There is only one way for the people of this country to get what we really want, and that is to go and get it. And we do actually have enough freedoms left to be able to do just that – but maybe not for too much longer.

    I heard an appalling statistic yesterday about my home state of New York. There is a lot of anger at our governor for some of his policies and the corruption in Albany – yet in a state of 20 million people (15 million of voting age) there are only about 5 million registered voters and only about 3 million voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election. Not only that, he won by fewer than 500,000 votes.

    I don’t blame the government for my health, I don’t blame FOX news or MSNBC for people’s political views, and I don’t blame the awful condition of this country on anyone but the apathy of the citizens.

    Nor do I blame voting laws (which some did in the NY election) – in fact, I think that’s just a ridiculous cop-out. It may be more difficult in one state or another to register to vote, and the laws may not favor one group or another – but a person can register to vote ANY TIME. There have been four years since the last presidential election – plenty of time to get through mountains of red tape for anyone who is motivated to be part of the system. College students know that if they register for classes early they will get the classes they want- those who do not are the same ones at drop/add every semester. Those who arrive at the movies early get the best seats, those who arrive late sometimes don’t get a seat at all. Every year there is an election there is a hue and cry about how some poor souls don’t get to vote because they don’t have the ID that they have had years to obtain.

    It is up to us, people.

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