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Third Parties: Bringing Color and Flavor to American Politics

Speech Given March 8, 2004 at Toastmasters

by Howard Ditkoff

I want you to imagine walking into Baskin Robbins to get an ice cream. You go up to the counter, look in the case, and see only two flavors – chocolate and vanilla. "What happened?" you ask. "I thought it was 31 flavors." The attendant looks back and you and says "No. We changed our minds. We think two flavors is enough."

Or you go into a car dealership to get a new car, and you're finally deciding on the color. You say "Maybe I'll get a nice bright red or green." The salesman looks back at you and says "Sure, you can have any color you or white." Or worse he says "You can have any color you want - light gray or dark gray."

These are relatively unimportant situations, though some people do take their ice cream rather seriously. But even in these scenarios, we would find it absurd to be limited to only two choices. Yet this is the situation that we accept when it comes to choosing our political leaders – those who make laws affecting our economy, our educational system, our health care, and even decide when to send our children off to war.

Let's look at some other countries for a moment.
  • Germany - Germany has 82 million people and its Congress, known as the Bundestag, has 6 political parties represented.

  • France - France has 60 million people and, in its Senate, it has 5 main parties and several smaller ones represented. In its National Assembly, it has 9 main parties and some smaller ones.

  • Brazil - Now this is a bigger country, a little bit closer to the United States with 182 million people. In its Congress, made up of its Federal Senate and Chamber of Deputies, more than 11 political parties are represented.
Yet in the United States, with 290 million people - almost as many as all of these other countries combined - we have 535 members of Congress and only one that isn't a member of the Democratic or Republican parties. I believe strongly that two parties are not enough to represent 290 million people.

So, why do we need more political parties?

The main reason is that third parties bring fresh ideas into our system. Any system, whether it's a political system, an electrical system, - even the systems of your body - dies without fresh, new input into the system. Let me give you some examples of how third parties bring fresh ideas into the system.

How many of us are thankful that we live in a country without slavery, and consider Abraham Lincoln a hero for his Emancipation Proclamation. Yet we forget that this was only the culmination of years of struggling to make the abolition of slavery an important issue. In 1840, the Liberty Party formed for one purpose: to oppose slavery. It was eventually the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln that began to actually move the country towards the abolition of slavery, but it was this third party that was pushing the issue long before. And, remember that the Republicans themselves were a third party only shortly before that. Until that time, it was the Democrats and the Whigs that dominated American politics.

Ladies, when you go to the polls to vote in the next election, you can thank the Prohibition and Socialist parties. In the Late 1800's, these third parties supported womens' right to vote. It took another 30-40 years to get the major parties to strongly support it and pass the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920. But it was these third parties pushing the issue long before.

Did you have a good time relaxing this weekend? You can thank the Populist and Socialist parties. They fought for reducing working hours and for the 40 hour work week in the 1890's. The Fair Labor Standards Act didn't come about until 1938, but it was these third parties pushing the issue long before.

Time and again we see this pattern. Third parties have the freedom to push ideas that are ahead of their time and in the next few decades, as voters become educated, the major parties are forced to finally begin adopting them. See, many times a major party may even want to move in a positive direction, but they're in a bind. They can't back an issue until they know that their supporters want it, but their voters won't know about it until someone brings it up and pushes it. Third parties can break through that catch-22.

Another reason that we need third parties is that the American people want third parties. They show it and they say it. Let me give you an example of how they show it using the presidential debates.

Have you ever watched a presidential debate and wondered why it can go on for an hour without you hearing almost anything that really seems to relate to your life? This is because there aren't enough voices included in those debates. When more voices are included, people watch more. In 1992, Independent candidate Ross Perot was included in the presidential debates, and 60-70 million watched. Perot got 19% of the vote that year, 19 million votes. Yet in 1996 he wasn't allowed in the debates, and viewership was cut almost in half.

The American people also say they want third parties included in the debates. A FoxNews/Opinion Dynamics Poll showed that in 2000, 64 percent of the American people wanted to see Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, the biggest third party candidates, in the debates. That was corroborated in other polls, including an NBC News Today Show Poll.

We also need third parties to represent a vast part of our population. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll in October, 2002 showed 35 percent of Americans consider themselves independents. Only 32 percent consider themselves Republicans and 31 percent consider themselves Democrats. So most Americans do not consider themselves a member of either major party. No wonder almost half of Americans don't vote even in presidential elections when we only have two major parties involved and so many people feel neither one speaks for them.

Third parties, if given a fair chance to be heard, and a fair system that allows people to freely vote for them, could bring not only new issues to the system, but new voters to participate in the system.

So what can you do if you agree with me that we need more voices in our system? I'm not saying you should go out and vote for a third party candidate for president right away, though you can. This isn't a short-term issue, this is a long term issue and it's about planting the seeds and encouraging them to grow. There are many ways that we do this.

First, educate yourselves: Become familiar with some of these third parties. Read what they actually have to say. You might be surprised by how much you agree with what they have to say. You might realize you want to join a third party, or you might just learn about some issues you hadn't thought about that you can call your representatives and urge the major parties to adopt. I have a handout which lists some of the major third parties in America so that you can learn more about them.

We also need to make the soil fertile for these seeds to grow by removing the barriers that keep them from doing so through supporting election reforms and open debates. Other countries have more voices because they have less barriers than us. Many movements exist to remove some of these barriers to getting on the ballot, being heard, and allowing people to feel comfortable voting for third parties and you can get involved with them.

Remember, it's not just about winning, it's about beginning a process of growth.

Even if you aren't going to vote for them, you can support third parties' rights because they raise issues important to all of us and because if they can get a certain amount of support now, they can build on it the next time. For president, even if you don't win, if you get 5% of the vote, you get money from the government in your next run to help you build your campaign over time.

I've also included on the handout some information about important issues involved in opening the process to more voices.

Finally, these seeds start growing locally. Third parties may not win the presidency or senate seats yet, but they can win on a local level and have, and we can support them in these races. 590 Libertarians hold public offices in America. The Green party has 204 members in office in 26 states, and a Green just missed becoming mayor of San Francisco last November by only 6%.

So, in conclusion, one of the things that we are most proud of in America is that our system, unlike a dictatorship or a kingdom, protects the rights of minorities, Third parties have often been the ones speaking out for those minorities. I'm not saying we need fifty political parties, but we need more than two. Otherwise, many Americans feel that they are forced to vote for the lesser of two evils, and even when you vote for the lesser of two evils, you're still voting for evil.

Third parties may not grow immediately except in small local places. But we need to begin the process. If we do, hopefully one day, as your grandson or granddaughter is driving around in his or her red or green car, eating pralines and cream or rocky road ice cream, they can look back and thank you for helping ensure that, in a country that will by then have over 300 million people, they have a variety of choices in who represents them.

Other countries demand these choices and we demand them in our ice cream and cars. Isn't it time we demand them of our leaders?

Supplemental Handout to Speech:

Third Parties: Bringing Color and Flavor to American Politics

Speech Given March 8, 2004 at Toastmasters

by Howard Ditkoff

Links to information about third parties

These are only some of the biggest alternative parties in the United States. There are many other smaller parties. For a more complete list, see

Links to important issues in opening the process to more voices:

  • Open Debates – (also see my Open Debates page)

    Open Debates works to ensure that the presidential debates serve the American people first. Open Debates is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to reforming the presidential debate process. Currently, the presidential debates are secretly controlled by the major parties, through the private bipartisan corporation called the Commission on Presidential Debates, resulting in the stultification of format, the exclusion of popular candidates, and the avoidance of pressing national issues.

  • Ballot Access News -

    A non-partisan newsletter reporting on the trials and tribulations of folks trying to put candidates on the ballot in the United States of America. There are many surprisingly restrictive ballot access laws in this country, which the average voter has no knowledge or conception of. Part of our purpose here (besides reporting on progress made) is to report on these restrictive ballot access laws so that more people are aware of them. As of November 2003, a Republican or Democrat wishing to be on the presidential ballot in all fifty states needs to collect a minimum of 23,500 valid signatures. However, a candidate of a new party needs to collect a minimum of 625,000 valid signatures.

  • Solving the Spoiler Problem -

    Talks about one of the main barriers to voting for a third party candidate – the “spoiler” problem. This is when people are afraid to vote for a third party candidate because they feel they are wasting their vote and helping a candidate that they dislike to win. Also talks about the solution to this problem, Instant Runoff Voting.

  • What is Proportional Representation and Why do We Need This Reform? -

    (also see my page on Proportional Representation)

    One of the main reasons that third (and fourth and fifth…) parties can grow in other democracies and cannot grow in America is because they have proportional representation and we do not. This is a key change that we need to make to allow the growth of more voices in America. The United States, Canada, and Great Britain are the only Western democracies that continue to cling to winner-take-all arrangements rather than proportional systems.

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Dr. Howard Ditkoff, who ran the successful campaign for
Instant Runoff Voting in Ferndale, Michigan, is a personal coach, group/organizational/business consultant and trainer through his company, Emergent Associates, LLC, which shares its unique knowledge, understanding and tools to support health in human systems of all types. Howard helps people discover and develop their deepest talents and potentials, bringing greater satisfaction to all areas of their lives, ranging from health to career to relationships, while helping groups, organizations and businesses of all kinds achieve greater success. For more information, or to contact Howard about setting up a Free Introductory Consultation, visit Emergent Associates, LLC's Website or email him.

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