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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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October 21, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 26

  When do third parties come to the party?
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

My computer is infected with some sort of obsessive-compulsive need to know the right answer to the wrong question. In fact, I can't turn it on anymore without getting a pop-up ad that wants to know what I think about the candidacies of George Bush and John Kerry. It asks me that same question every day of the week. The truth is that I haven't changed my mind on that question for months. My computer is wasting its time asking me.

On the other hand, it might be good for the country if it asked me the question the answer to which could possibly affect this country for generations to come. It should be asking me, it seems, what I think about the candidacy of Ralph Nader. Now there is a question that deserves some consideration.

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What we think about Bush and Kerry will be resolved by the election on Nov. 2. What we think about Nader could return to haunt us election after election for years if we don't get it figured out. Nader is raising one of the long-term political questions we ought to think about as a country. And soon.

According to Ralph Nader, his campaign, as small as it is, as dangerous as it is, is not about Iraq, not about preemptive wars, not about terrorism, not about domestic politics or the national economy or American foreign relations. His campaign, doomed to lose, is, he says, really about the creation of a Third Party.

The question is, is that really a good enough reason to run, not just now but anytime?

America, some say, needs a Third Party. That position is not only a political time bomb set to go off on election day this year, but it's also a serious philosophical question. It's possible that we've needed a Third Party for years. The two-party system, as we know it, squeezes creativity right out of the system. A third party system breathes new air into a stale system, the argument says.

And there may be some truth to it.

After all, the social psychologist Gordon Allport pointed out years ago that groups routinely dismiss extreme positions at either and both ends of the spectrum. Groups level aspirations. Groups seldom, if ever, choose to accept the most radical -- or non-traditional -- idea about anything.

But the proposition is not as simple as it sounds. In fact, it may be that it raises a good many more questions than it answers. For instance:

What's the place of a Third Party in presidential politics?

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Third Parties -- the almost 40 organized bodies of voters who gathered around platforms not endorsed by the historically established Democratic or Republican voting blocks -- have not done well in American history. Mainstream news organizations routinely ignore them. Candidates of the major political parties dismiss them entirely. Financial and social support for them is at best slim. Though locally and regionally such parties often manage to make an impact, their presidential aspirations have never, ever been successful. Why? Because everyone knows that, at least on the national level, Third Parties never win.

The best a Third Party routinely manages to do at the polls is to blur what could otherwise be a clear mandate. Unlike multiparty systems that operate on proportional voting, when the counting is over Third Parties in the United States carry no more political weight than they did before the election. They get no share of the available seats. They have no voice in Congress.

How can a Third Party measure success in a two-party system?

If doing well means 'winning the presidency,' that has never happened. Only Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressive Party in 1912 managed to get as many as 88 electoral votes. Roosevelt then returned to the Republican party shortly thereafter.

If doing well means that the Third Party has managed to move one or other of the major parties to adopt what were once unacceptable positions, the success rate is even more difficult to assess. Certainly no major social changes have occurred purely as a result of the presence of a Third Party in an American election, though by inserting those questions into the political mainstream, they certainly did. Many historians, in fact, see Third Parties as a kind of early warning system to mainline parties about the importance of brewing but undefined social issues.

So why create a Third Party in a Two-Party system? And does creating one do more harm than good?

That answer, I believe, has something to do with the way Third Parties and Third Party voters use the limited power they have, not to spoil, but to create. Third Parties enable voters to raise a voice in the center of the system that might otherwise not be heard. They have a valuable role to play. It's only when they confuse their power with their role that they do more harm than good.

What is the ethical obligation facing Third Party voters in the face of a social dilemma?

Third parties have a very specific moral obligation to assess their effect on the whole body politic, I believe: They control the majority vote in a close election. The way they use the power to spoil has ethical overtones at least as important as the ethical obligations of the major parties.

Third Parties in a winner-take-all system can only destroy, they cannot enable. The have no programmatic power unless they barter with one or the other major parties for inclusion, unless they form a coalition with the people who will have the power they cannot get. Unless a Third Party is willing to make cause with a major party or release their voters to support one, they hold an unmerited and undue weight in what is otherwise a system of majority rule.

To say that I am too pure to vote for anything less than my ideals in a system that will not absorb them is at best naive, at worst malicious. And that is surely unethical. It manipulates the process but it does not enhance it.

From where I stand, it seems to me that when an election is about to be decided by decimal points, to insist on serving an ideology rather to bow to the reality of what is the common good of humanity for the next four years has moral overtones. Then the question must be: Which of the two possible options will bring us all as close to the ideal as we can get right now?

Politics is the fine art of deciding what's next best when best is not available.

Come on, Ralph, It's time.

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