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Third Parties: The Avant-Garde of Change

While they may not have what it takes to win the White House, third parties have been responsible for putting up many of the road signs to future policy directions.

Throughout American history, many big changes in public policy — or in the country, for that matter — have been presaged by agitation from little-celebrated actors in the political process: third parties.

"If you look at the range of issues that third parties were out in front of before the Democrats and the Republicans would touch them with a 10-foot pole," said political scientist David Gillespie, "I could take you down through page after page, including some very important ones."

The Liberty and Free Soil parties wanted abolition before the mainstream did. The Prohibition Party wanted to outlaw alcohol before Congress did (and then did not). Third parties agitated for women's suffrage (the Progressives), farmer's rights (the Populists), and open government (the Anti-Masonic Party). Such parties often formed specifically to champion narrow causes when the existing system would not.

"Especially in the 19th century, third parties were agents of reform, if things were considered to be in need of reform" said Gillespie, whose latest book on the subject, Challengers to Duopoly: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two-Party Politics, is due out in February. "They were always at the counter-current of what may have been the dominant trend of their time."

This history is particularly relevant today amid the drumbeat of headlines begging for a third party to storm the next national election. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has predicted the rise of an influential outsider presidential candidate in 2012. "Damn right," democratic strategist James Carville told the Los Angeles Times. The idea has been debated at, at The Atlantic, and on political science blogs. Last week, Washington Post columnist Matt Miller even took the liberty of penning a stump speech for the third-party candidate who doesn't yet exist. (Much of this presupposes, of course, that a third party's successes hinge on taking the nation's top office right off the bat, rather than building from the bottom up as countries throwing off dictatorships are urged to do.)

These appeals match the historic third-party pattern of "crying out for reform" on a specific issue, in Gillespie's words — but with one small tweak. Today's agitators aren't focused on a particular policy problem but rather the problem of the policy process itself. The Free Soilers wanted to reform federal slave policy. These people want to reform a whole broken governing system.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

"I think almost all sorts of neutral commentators — and I would put myself in this category — say that the crying need for a third party now would be for a party of the militant center, something radically post-partisan in many ways," Gillespie said, "in the sense of looking at the system as broken." In that sense, the Tea Party hasn't been a real third-party movement. For while its members argue they aren't an arm of the GOP, in practice they have become one.

Of course, there is a simultaneous debate unrolling over whether a new party could even logistically surmount the many structural impediments to funding a campaign and getting on the ballot. (Richard Winger compiles a rather awe-inspiring archive of obstacles here.) And political scientists Seth Masket and Hans Noel have questioned whether we'd even really want a third-party president at the end of the day.

History, however, suggests that third parties don't need to win races to matter in the marketplace of ideas (although it may be the rare third-party candidate who will publicly define success this way). The relationship between third-party platform and eventual policy change isn't always a perfect causal one. The Prohibition Party championed outlawing alcohol, for example, but it was largely the Anti-Saloon League that finally made it happen.

Gillespie, though, compiles a long list of third-party priorities — once fringe values outside the Democratic and Republican platforms — that are now national policy, from government transparency to term limits to the progressive income tax to the direct election of U.S. senators. Third parties also get credit for foresight on child labor, anti-trust laws, public land trusts, Social Security and earlier versions of Obama's health care law.

All of this means that whether or not we actually see the rise of a steamrolling third party come 2012, the agitation for one crying out to correct a broken political process in Washington may itself be a sign of the likelihood that such reform will one day come to pass.

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