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We Need a Third Party Think Tank…
Good Governance

In Brief: A viable third party will assume principal leadership, and step out in front of both major parties. It will identify vital issues, take positions, then recruit support from principled, thoughtful members of both major parties.
Click to read about Collaboration and Consensus.

"…we're focusing on the politics of governance, rather than governance itself."
Victoria Hopper, in The Huffington Post

One should probably start an article on governance with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, or even Lyndon Johnson, but the above snippet from activist/celebrity Victoria Hopper may describe today's political ills better than most aphorisms from history. Washington, Jefferson or Adams could have said it.

We didn't invent petty partisan politics in the last quarter century—or even perfect it. It's been with us from the beginning. Political parties weren't written into the Constitution. Some of the founding fathers hoped to avoid them. But before John Adams ran for President to succeed George Washington, we already had parties, and they were born ugly. Confirming the early patriots' fears, political parties seem always to have operated in the interest of their own power, rather than in the best interests of the nation, or even the best interests of their own constituents.

And back to the Hopper quote, that's where we find ourselves today. We see little rational, principled governance, especially on the most important issues, and we see a great deal of the politics of governance—most of it bad. Which brings up an important point: politics is necessary in a democracy, and it doesn't have to be bad. Politics employed in the diligent and honest pursuit of good governance is indeed what minority power politics can provide, and perhaps must provide for the survival and health of American democracy.

To begin a discussion of good governance, let's look at two examples from recent years' headlines: The Gang of Fourteen, and the career of Sandra Day O'Connor.

Fourteen Senators
The Gang of Fourteen is the seven Democratic and seven Republican Senators who united in 2005 to end the crisis over the Senate cloture rule. Their unity prevented threatened action by both parties, media-labeled as, "The Nuclear Option." What allowed their unified strategy to be successful is exactly the kind of minority power governance we're discussing.

By sticking together, these fourteen Senators denied a majority to both parties on the rules issue. The involvement of the seven Democrats actually wasn't critical, because they didn't have the majority anyway. They could have done nothing by themselves. On the other hand, the seven Republicans could have acted effectively without the Democrats. There were fifty-five Republicans and one independent in the Senate. If seven Republicans failed to vote with their party on any specific issue, the party would not have prevailed without Democratic support. (Remember that the Vice President, then a Republican, votes to break a tie in the Senate.) So when the seven Republican Senators declared that they would not support their party's threatened action on rule changes, they blocked that threat.

The involvement of the seven Democrats was more than just symbolic, though. If the seven Republicans were to defy their party, but the one independent, the Vice President, and only one Democrat were to join the Republicans, the Republicans would win. With the seven Democrats as part of the coalition, that kind of problem was prevented.

What the Gang of Fourteen did was pledge, in unity, to put principles ahead of party. They agreed to act in concert to protect the Senate filibuster rule, regardless of what their colleagues did. As long as they honored that pledge, neither party could force any action, because neither party could muster a majority.

The numbers are important in this illustration, but the numbers mean nothing without the adherence to principle. The relevant principle, embodied in Senate rules, is that a majority doesn't have the right to tyrannize a minority. A minority, with courage and passion in its conviction, ought to be able to block domination by a majority. The Senate cloture rule requires sixty votes to close debate on an issue. It means that when the minority party wants to stop a bill, it can. More than that, though, it means that the most important decisions made by the Senate require consensus. Neither party can act entirely alone.

An Independent Woman
This passage, by Denver Post columnist Diane Carman summarizes the twenty-five year role of Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court,

"As a thoughtful, unpredictable moderate, she often was the swing vote. So her colleagues not only had to persuade her to win her vote, but also had to represent her views in their rulings.

As a result, 'sometimes her view became the law even though no other justice shared it,' said [Marianne] Wesson, professor…at the University of Colorado School of Law. Because O'Connor provided the crucial fifth vote in so many rulings, 'her extremely nuanced, highly fact-bound views' are evident in many of the opinions written by other justices. Her impact on the law has been enormous.'"

For years, O'Connor sat on a divided court that delivered countless five to four rulings. Often, four justices were firmly lined up on each side of a ruling, and Justice O'Connor was the deciding vote. Two things set up her power position. The first, obviously, was the numbers. But the other ingredient was O'Connor's rationality and integrity. By always weighing issues carefully, invoking principle, and not allying herself with political ideology, she put herself in the position of power. Had she always voted with the right or the left, she would have had no influence at all.

O'Connor's record exemplifies the principle of minority power governance. In our politically polarized nation, a third political party, independent from mainstream ideologies, could do exactly what Justice O'Connor did. If neither major party could sustain a majority, the third party could be the deciding party on all of the most important issues. But it could do that only if it could exercise the kind of rationality and integrity Justice O'Connor exhibited throughout her Supreme Court tenure.

A Third Party Can Do More
These two examples give us a starting place for the discussion of good governance, but there is more. A political party has different powers available to it than has a Supreme Court justice, or even a bipartisan coalition of legislators. It has the power to be active, not just reactive. A third party wouldn't have to wait for the Republicans and Democrats to line up, split on an issue, and then cast the tie breaking votes. It could assume true leadership, and step out in front of both major parties.

Independents Can Also Be Effective
Minority parties actually aren't essential for minority political power. Independent Senators or Representatives can be just as powerful as a third party, as long as there are enough of them to deny the majority to both of the major parties. In the following discussions, consider the possibility of a small group of independents, instead of, or in addition to a third party. On any issue where the independents vote with neither of the major parties, they couldould have just as much power as a small party. They could even introduce legislation, and recruit support for it from members of the big parties.

How Will Minority Power Govern Effectively?
A third party could identify vital issues, take positions, then recruit support from principled, thoughtful members of both major parties.

Consider Social Security as a realistic example. A third party—or a group of independents—could write a practical plan to assure the long-term viability of the Social Security system. Such a plan probably wouldn't automatically receive everyone's support. On the right are probably some who will be happy with nothing less than the dismantlement of Social Security. On the left may be some with social engineering goals that have little to do with retirement. People in those two groups won't support practical Social Security solutions.

But within both major parties are some Senators and Congresspeople who want to save Social Security. When they no longer have to support the extreme ideologies of some of their party members in order to sustain a majority—because they won't have a majority no matter what they do—they can vote as they believe, and as most of their constituents want them to vote.

Suppose, in the Senate, one major party held forty-eight seats, the other held forty-five seats, and a third party held seven seats. If that third party could put together a coalition of any forty-four Senators from the two major parties, they could win. That coalition could be forty-three Republicans and one Democrat, forty Democrats and four Republicans, twenty-two from each party, or any other combination. The third party would have great flexibility in assembling legislation that could solve major problems, and actually get it passed in the Senate.

Or, consider the possibility of three independents and four Senators from a minority party. Or four members of one small party and three members of another. As long as neither major party has a majority, and as long as the independents and third party Senators can work together at least some of the time, collaborative governance is possible.

Is One House of Congress Enough?
Of course, the same kind of thing could happen in the House, if neither major party had a majority there. But what if only one house of Congress had three minority parties, and the other still had the Republicans or Democrats in control? The smallest minority party in only one house could still block legislation, so that party couldn't be ignored. If it had even a few seats in the other house, so that it could introduce legislation, and engage in political gamesmanship, it would have a great deal of power.

The Solution Is Good Governance
But in all of these scenarios, the ultimate success of a small party depends not only on the numbers, but on the willingness and ability of the small party to govern well. If such a party works in the interests of its constituencies and of the nation, if it governs with intelligence and integrity, if it is rational and principled, then it will survive, and it can profoundly affect the course of our democracy.

Think of the areas where blind partisanship has prevented finding solutions to serious problems: Social Security, a balanced budget, health care and insurance, science, education—virtually every critical social issue facing America today. Sensible, principled governance could change our outcomes in every one of these areas. A viable third party, forged from a commitment to good governance can make that happen.

Click to:
Read about Collaboration and Consensus.

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Please Speak Up…

  • If you have a response or an additional thought regarding something on this page,
  • If you'd like to write an article for possible publication on these pages,
  • If you have an idea or suggestion about developing the think tank…

…Send it along to: leaveparty@greatreality.com

The political saga of the past several years has brought changes across the polical spectrum. It has not, however, changed the fundamental principles expressed on these pages.

Some of the pages have been revised, and some await revision, to add content and to update specific references to parties, events, etc. While that revision proceeds, please read the information posted here for its fundamental ideas and principles.

As always, your comments are welcome: leaveparty@greatreality.com

copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson