Political Parties

Change from Within

Oct 19 '11

In this dialogue with Matt Miller, Ezra Klein channels a lot of political science to poke holes in Miller’s case for a third party.  Via Facebook, a political scientist friend adds this:

Here’s a question for the third-party types: Why a third party, instead of capturing one of the two? Most third party boosters tend to agree with a lot of what the Democrats want, but not everything. Why not move the party in their direction, from the inside?

In the 1940s/1950s, the Democratic Party wanted what most liberals at the time wanted, but they differed on some issues, most notably on race. Democrats were against civil rights, liberals were for it. But liberals worked WITHIN the party to change its direction, and they succeeded. And that change eventually worked its way through the entire party, from the presidency down through congress and the states. Why is that not the strategy, instead of the incredibly difficult “create a party from scratch” approach?

To which another political scientist added:

Not to mention the christian conservatives within the gop in the last 3 decades.

The answer to the question is usually that the major parties can’t do it, won’t do it, etc.  Miller tries a version of this:

The risk aversion that comes with power means you won’t propose things even if you think in your heart they’re the right direction for the country.

Milller seems to assume that there are these unitary actors called “the Democratic Party” and “the Republican Party.” And, once in power (and here Miller is laser-focused on the White House, for no good reason — as Ezra points out), they suddenly get risk-averse and stop making hard choices.  But in fact there are policy debates within each party and most of the ideas that Miller proposes — tax reform, for example — in fact have serious and devoted constituencies within one or both parties.  (Although, as my friend points out above and as Seth Masket pointed out after reading one of Thomas Friedman’s third party fever-dreams, it’s interesting how much these ideas-that-no-party-is-courageous-enough-to-champion are in fact what leading Democrats have been pushing.)

Which is to say, the possibility of effecting change from within — within a major party — is hardly small.  And it is larger than the possibility of effecting change from some nascent third party campaign.  It’s amazing to me that Miller cites Perot in his dialogue with Ezra.  Does he remember the spectacular decline of the Reform Party?   Its presidential ticket got 481 votes in 2008!

Ultimately, I would like to hear Miller say why civil rights could be achieved via activism within a major party but his agenda could not be.