The other night I took another of those online tests to see who you should be voting for. You know the type. They ask a set of questions on your policy views and then tell you which candidate you should vote for. Many people, myself included, find that their preferences match more closely with a third party candidate than with either Romney or Obama. As far as that goes, it seems like a useful exercise. But I disagree with the fundamental premise for two reasons.
First, policy agreement is not the only reason to vote for someone. For example, I don’t vote for third party presidential candidates because I doubt they could accomplish the goals we share.
As I wrote in the previous post, the modern presidency is very much part of the two-party system. Both necessity and shared feeling dictate that a president will turn to the party to fill top positions in both executive offices and White House staff. Right now, both parties have deep wells of experts with experience in government office. So even if a president is inexperienced he can draw on the wealth of knowledge provided by these women and men. But a third party president would lack such support staff. I am sure there are talented, knowledgeable members of the Green and Libertarian Parties (for instance) but they lack the deep experience with governing at the highest levels that the two parties possess.
Beyond that,to get much of substance done, a president needs the support of Congress. When the president presides over united government this task is made much easier because he can act as both party leader and president in coercing Congress to adopt his policy positions. Even when a president faces a majority in opposition, major party candidates at least have a solid base from which to begin any necessary vote wrangling. Without large numbers of third party congressmen and -women, a third party president would find governing nearly impossible.
Second, ignorance is not the only (or even the main) reason for the two-party system. Often I run into versions of the argument: “If voters were just more informed about the choices, they would vote for third party candidates.” But there are actually structural reasons that we maintain a third party system. I’ll mention two here.
1) The winner-take-all voting system we have tends toward two-party rule. In countries with proportional representation systems strong third (and fourth, and fifth, etc.) parties are much more common. Unless/until we adopt a proportional representation system, we’re likely to continue with two dominant parties, even if the parties themselves come and go (as they did repeatedly in the 19th century).
2) Now that we have two parties, they act as historical gatekeepers to political participation. Most of the most talented potential office holders will make their way up through the ranks of the major parties because that’s where there is the most opportunity of advancement, the most recruiting work being done, and the most coordination between activists. This is a case where what has been is likely to continue to be. Yes, some talented individuals will, for ideological reasons, tether their careers to the less successful parties. Others will come from outside of the political arena and adopt third party political identities (think Michael Bloomberg). Still others will abandon the main parties when they find their advancement stifled there. (think Gary Johnson). But those numbers will continue to be small because the third parties have been small.