Independents vs. third parties

Not much difference, functionally speaking

Just a quick thought. Independents are America’s third parties.

Sure, we have nominal third parties: Greens, Peace and Freedom, Libertarians, whatever. But what is missing in America is that huge and periodic wave of third-party entry, of the type that compels governments to change the very rules that got them into office.

It is common to define political parties by their functions: agreeing on some program, nominating people to carry that program out, and stopping people from running who might spoil the election.

Definitions imply measurement. In a party-list-based system, we measure the number of parties by counting them and weighting. In a candidate-based system, we compute the index for candidates instead. We could compute it for parties, but then we would need a decision rule for non-major-party vote shares. Nobody likes to discard data.

One thing going on right now is a hard time stopping people from running. That has been going on for a while, actually. This is why the Commission on Presidential Debates no longer admits candidates — note “candidates,” not “parties” — with less than 15 percent support in five national polls.

Another thing going on is disagreement about program.

The inability of both major parties to (1) agree on program and (2) restrict candidate entry get us two thirds of the way to understanding what just happened in Maine. For those unfamiliar, Maine has changed its voting system to one that accommodates multiple parties. Maine is walking a well-worn path. Before the introduction of proportional voting rules in Western Europe, many countries had made the switch to two-round electoral systems. Was that in response to more parties or more candidates? I don’t know. But going by a functional definition of party, either would reflect the breakdown of existing parties — or, in purely functional terms, more than just two parties.

Our definition of party is a bit of an ideal type. We write down what we want to see and then go looking for it. Sure, the definition has to be plausible enough for a reasonable person to buy it.

It also is a functional definition. What happens when existing parties struggle to fulfill their functions? Do they exist at all? Is existence a continuous variable? Are there just more parties? Where are they on the spectrum?

One thought on “Independents vs. third parties”

  1. Very interesting, right on target.
    If RCV or two-round runoff voting rules were generalized, my guess is that primaries would not have much sense anymore, as any candidate could run directly to the election (including the first round of the two-round system even if it keeps being called open, nonpartisan “primary”) and then, yes, the traditional American concept of political party would fail to explain anything. Actually parties would have to be reinvented, as there would be multiple really competitive candidacies, not just two big umbrellas and a few nominal ones.

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