The real strength of third parties is on the local level

October 29, 1999|By Micah L. Sifry

THIRD parties and independent politicians no longer can be confined to the margins of U.S. politics. That is the real news underlying all the hyperventilating coverage of Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump's Reform Party presidential aspirations, not to mention other wild cards like Warren Beatty and Jesse Ventura.

Three converging forces -- the public's dissatisfaction with the major parties, the new power of disaffected citizens to band together quickly via the Internet and the 24-hour-a-day need of our tabloidized media system for fresh stories to tell -- have combined to boost third-party politics into the mainstream. Add to that the unexpected election of Mr. Ventura last fall, and the improbable now seems possible.

Cable comparison

As a result, the U.S. political party system is beginning to look a lot like the television market. The two major parties are like the once-dominant networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- while third parties and independent candidates are the cable upstarts. Most of them serve market niches, and it is quite unusual for any one of them to beat the nets head-on in a high-profile manner. But collectively, third parties and independent candidates -- like cable -- are breaking down the hegemony of the big parties. The audience wants more choices, and at long last, that demand is beginning to be served.

The real question about this new media-driven, third-party politics is not whether it will continue but whether it will get more focused and grounded. In a few states, like Minnesota, where the Reform Party is flexing real muscle, and New Mexico, where the Green Party has scored several victories, we are already seeing the emergence of a genuine multi-party system.

In Minnesota, the Reform Party expects to field more than 100 candidates for local and state legislative offices next year.

In New Mexico, the Green Party has not achieved the same level of success, but it is a serious player in state politics nonetheless. In 1997-98, when Green congressional candidates took big chunks of the vote in two special elections, the Albuquerque Tribune ran a front-page story comparing the party platforms of three major parties, not two. One leading Green is on the state board of education. Not surprisingly, New Mexico Green Party registration numbers are up this year, while those of the major parties have stayed flat. Strong third parties are on the rise in these states because a core of talented organizers have learned to hone their message, focus on disaffected voters and neglected issues, groom candidates, build their public recognition and get out the vote. They've been helped by the Internet, which has made it a lot easier and cheaper to mobilize members and to reach the broader public. And they've discovered the right niche to grow in, whether it's the neglected center in Minnesota or the disaffected left in New Mexico. It remains to be seen whether third-party activists elsewhere will figure out how to copy these models of successful local organizing, take advantage of their newfound media attention and translate potential into reality, though many are studying their colleagues' success with great interest.

Driven to distraction

Ironically, Reform Party organizers in Minnesota view much of the current talk about Mr. Buchanan's and Mr. Trump's presidential ambitions as a distraction from the hard work of local party building. And they're right.

At best, presidential campaigns by third-party contenders can show organizers where pockets of support for alternative parties are concentrated.

If third parties are going to have a lasting impact on our politics, it will only happen when they dig in locally and break the two-party duopoly where it is strongest.

Micah L. Sifry, a recipient of a fellowship from the Open Society Institute, is writing a book on America's leading third parties. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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