They’ve injected real substance into their races, and they’ve given voters a much more interesting choice than they would have otherwise enjoyed.
It’s a shame that this doesn’t happen more often. Gerrymandered districts, the power of incumbency and our tendency to self-segregate along ideological lines all help make American elections uncompetitive. But so does the absence of third-party entrepreneurship.
Ignoring for a minute Douthat's dubious attempts to spin the NY-23 race as anything other than wingnuts holding the GOP hostage some more, for fun, this is a seemingly reasonable column making a point with which we can all agree, about voter choice, local issues and interests, and political diversity. It's an agreeable, rational, seemingly nonideological argument—which is exactly what makes it so insidious.
Note the data Douthat selects: the two ideologically "pure" conservatives whose quixotic candidacies he leads with. And some hypotheticals:
Imagine if Bloomberg, instead of using New York’s Republican Party as a flag of convenience, had spent his mayoralty building up a permanent third force in city politics — a good-government party, modeled after the 19th-century Mugwumps, that could provide a civic-minded counterweight to the Democratic machine.
Or imagine if California’s famously polarized legislature included several smaller parties — Libertarians, Socialists, Social Conservatives — capable of forming coalitions with either the left or the right, so that every budgetary debate didn’t pit a bloated Democratic majority against an intransigent Republican rump.
For that matter, imagine if the Alaskan Independence Party — famous in the lower 48 because its rolls once included Todd Palin — decided to take up causes more plausible than secession, and remake itself as a populist counterweight to its state’s corrupt Republican establishment.
Taking on the Democratic machine; a bloated Democratic majority; an authentic conservative spirit.
The subtext of this column is that progressives have a herd mentality and are inefficient, bureaucratic governors; while independent-mindedness is a conservative virtue.
This, plainly, is bullshit, and not just because I disagree with the philosophy behind it. Douthat, lip-services local politics with some exquisitely objective-sounding compliments-that-seem-more-authentic-for-being-condescending ("the cranks and idealists in your local Green Party have more sense than the pundits who fantasized about a Bloomberg-for-President campaign"), but mostly ignores it completely.
Which is odd, because living in New York City (he does, right?), you have a pretty solid example of a progressive third party offering voters an alternative agenda. Has Ross Douthat never heard of the Working Families Party?
If he is indeed unfamiliar, Douthat should perhaps turn to today's NY/Region section of the paper that employs him, and read about my City Council election, in which a young Democrat is running on the WFP line against an entrenched Democratic incumbent. The WFP, backed by the SEIU among other unions and grass-roots, often minority-driven organizations, was started in New York last decade; they generally endorse Democrats in New York (maybe you voted for Obama on the WFP line, to get the party more votes and more viability), but they're increasingly able to play power broker in local politics, especially in Brooklyn, which is overwhelmingly Democratic but also overwhelmingly diverse.
I haven't even mentioned the Green Party, and their effective activist campaigns at the city and local level. I mean, you've been to our website today, presumably, so you already know.
So, yes, going along with Ross Douthat's outwardly inoffensive proposition that third party candidates are good does not mean going along with his stealth ideological argument. And this concludes today's "Please help me I'm afraid I agreed with something a Republican said" re-education session.