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Tom Friedman, Naderite?

That's certainly the impression you get from his Sunday column, which called for a third party that will "rip open this two-party duopoly" and field a candidate willing to say, "These two parties are lying to you. They can’t tell you the truth because they are each trapped in decades of special interests."

That might actually be the easiest thing you can say in American politics. John McCain ran as the enemy of special interests. Barack Obama did, too. His compromises and disappointments, as Friedman admits, had nothing to do with a paucity of anti-special interest applause lines. They had to do with the limits of Congress. "Obama probably did the best he could do," says Friedman, "and that’s the point. The best our current two parties can produce today -- in the wake of the worst existential crisis in our economy and environment in a century -- is suboptimal, even when one party had a huge majority."

And the answer to that is ... a tiny third party running a presidential candidate? No. If the legislative system is broken -- if the best we can do is not good enough -- you need to change the legislative system. Friedman laments Obama's "limited stimulus" and decision to "abandon an energy-climate bill altogether," but he doesn't mention the one thing that would've allowed for a larger stimulus and a fighting chance on an energy and climate bill: eliminating the filibuster.

The worst illusion pundits foist on the populace is the idea that if we just elect the right guy (or gal) to be president, everything will be fine. It won't be. If you don't like how our laws are being made, you have to change how our laws are being made. And that doesn't mean changing the president, who's not even in the branch of government that makes our laws. Elect Ralph Nader, or some other hard-charging third-party candidate with a penchant for applause lines, and everything will just be filibustered to death. "He probably did the best he could do," some pundit will say, "and that’s the point. The best our current three parties can produce today is suboptimal."

Four-party system, anyone?

By Ezra Klein  | October 4, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
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Changing the legislature will do nothing unless you also change the Supreme Court as well as reforming how federal elections are funded.

I think all Supreme Court decisions need to have at least a two vote margin for it to affect law. These recent 5-4 margin votes have been disastrous to the USA. Requiring at least a two vote margin would diminish ideological activism.

So, if people (not corporate money) elected people, and the Senate filibuster was abolished, and two vote margins were required in the USSC, we'd finally have a responsive gvmt for, of and by the people.

Posted by: lauren2010 | October 4, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

"These two parties are lying to you. They can’t tell you the truth because they are each trapped in decades of special interests."

tom friedman needs to pull out his magical ring, that says, "be careful what you wish for."
in my opinion, thinking that a third party will bring sunlight, order and solutions to our system, is naive and magical thinking.
is he still considered a "visionary" thinker??

how many minutes before the a new third party becomes enshrouded in special interests?
human nature will not change. no matter how many parties you create.

we need to fix what we have.
what we dont need is any more uncontrolled chaos in our system., in my opinion.
and when the third party starts splintering and haranguing, after their first march on washington, what then???
everything will be in greater shambles.
we need simplification.
not another small frankenstein.
look what we have now, with the tea party.

is tom friedman still considered to be a sort of visionary thinker??

Posted by: jkaren | October 4, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

What are the prospects for either party abolishing the filibuster? I suspect the problem is not simply how laws are made, but how lawmakers are made. Our plurality system of Congressional elections (all elections, for that matter) creates a structural polarization that excludes third-parties and encourages the sort of conflict and gridlock we all lament. This is to the detriment of everyone except the leadership of those parties.

Change the way Congress is elected - through IRV or approval voting - and suddenly there is a reasonable chance for third (and fourth, and fifth, etc.) parties to compete. This alone might be enough change the dynamic of partisan polarization, by broadening the landscape available to voters beyond R vs. D. Adopt a PR system to replace single-member geographic districts, and we would also solve the corruption that is redistricting (though this wouldn't help the Senate).

Point being, the road to legislative reform runs through electoral reform - or else we're reduced to a version of Friedman's argument ("if we just elected the right Congresspersons"). And the great thing about electoral reform is that it doesn't have to happen with a Constitutional amendment or Congressional assent; all of the above changes could happen through a vote of the state legislatures, or in many states through a referendum initiated by citizens.

Posted by: mdt22 | October 4, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse


As much as you can know yourself, can you answer the following question as truthfully as possible? If the situation were reversed and both houses and the executive branch were controlled by the GOP, would you be ardently calling for eliminating the filibuster? What if the filibuster were the only challenge available to thwart stupid proposed GOP policies?


Posted by: FatTriplet3 | October 4, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

"If the situation were reversed and both houses and the executive branch were controlled by the GOP, would you be ardently calling for eliminating the filibuster?"

We had that, not too long ago. You could probably go into his archives and see if he ever wrote about it then. Personally, I think that the Dems are so spineless, it would be no loss. Even with such powers, they'd just let the GOP do whatever they wanted anyway.

As for Friedman, his main critiques of Obama's major policies are that they were too watered down and too compromised. Tom's desired policies would be labeled as "more liberal" in the press. Yet, he thinks the outcome would be better with someone "more centrist". It makes no sense whatsoever.

He thinks we elected a leftist and he wanted a centrist, when really, we elected a centrist and what he really wants is a leftist, but he can't square reality with his "high-broderism" villager mindset, so he talks gibberish instead.

But Ezra may have a point. It may not be the ideology of the candidates but the rules of the government itself that causes this bad outcome.

Posted by: Nylund154 | October 4, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Your post really makes me wonder which one of you lives in the bigger fantasy world. By making changes to our legislative system you either meant 1) electing better representatives to the House and Senate, or 2) reforming the Constitution to provide a more efficient legislative process. If #1, I'd urge you to look at how much it costs for the average rep or senator to run for re-election. Could such amounts be replicated by a group of well-meaning, middle class Americans interested in ending the influence of special interests? Probably not, because otherwise they'd already be a special interest.

If you meant #2, you are officially far more naive than Friedman.

Posted by: besmit02 | October 4, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Do Senate rules compel every member to caucus with one party or another?

What happens if one party has something like a 49-48 edge, and there are three independents who refuse to join either side? Would the "Majority" be determined by plurality? Or, like in the numerous democracies that have numerous parties, would a coalition have to be formed?

These questions are a bit tangential to the topic of a third-party presidential candidate, and my scenario may not be plausible, but I'm curious about the rules of forming the caucuses

Posted by: spearmint_altoids | October 4, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

"Elect Ralph Nader, or some other hard-charging third-party candidate with a penchant for applause lines, and everything will just be filibustered to death. "He probably did the best he could do," some pundit will say...."

Boy, thank goodness Democratic policy today isn't being filibustered to death. Why would liberals want more liberal candidates, when today's President and Senate are being so forceful? But as you centrists pundits say about Obama, "He probably did the best he could do."

Posted by: stonedone | October 4, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

If we had a unicameral proportionally elected legislature, we'd get real results. The current behavior of the Senate republicans for instance would be political suicide in such circumstances. Dragging the Democrats through the mud wouldn't be political dynamite anymore because left wing voters would have the option to vote for a different left wing party instead of staying home on election day. Instead of making the democrats as unpopular as themselves, they'd be forcing both the democrats and themselves to retire and be replaced by a new batch of right and left wing politicians, which no incumbent wants.

Posted by: theamazingjex | October 4, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Abolish the senate and the supreme court! Problems solved!

Posted by: ns3k | October 4, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Let's play a game.

I put 100 tokens in a line; these are voters. I will also place two larger tokens between any two voters; these are the two major parties. Each voter votes for whichever party is closest to it (if you're concerned about ties, 1/2 a vote for each party).

The game is, you get to place a 3rd party, also between any two voters, and you win the game if your party gets the most votes. Ready?

I put 1 party between the 17th and 18th vote, and the other between the 83rd and 84th.

You lose.

Nearly five out of six voters think the party on the left is too far left, and nearly five out of six voters think the party on the right is too far right; but a third party can never win; and if they try, whichever major party they are closer to, also loses.

(To head off the first obvious retort: playing this game on a two-dimensional board doesn't make it winnable.)

If we use plurality voting, third parties are playing a losing game. If you want to beat the two-party system, you need to be playing a different game.

Approval voting--where each voter can vote for ("approve of") as many or as few of the candidates as they want--gives third parties (maybe even fourth or fifth parties) a fair chance to win. And not just by running to the extremes, snatching a primary, and winning an election by being just slightly-less reprehensible, but by appealing to the center.

Posted by: mudlock | October 4, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

I have to strongly disagree. The Republicans chose to object to whatever policy the Democrats put forward this time around regardless of how mild or centrist it might have been. This was brilliant tactically. Democrats got no credit for ultimately passing what could at best be described as compromise measures and they still own all the blame for the things they couldn't get done. Under our system, the party out of power can win by sabotaging the government.

In a three party system the third party can let the Dems take the blame for the sorry state of the economy and the GOP for being totally obstructionist while actually pushing a constructive agenda on its own. It wouldn't even require a radical change to the system. What it would require is a third party ready to work on building itself from the ground up, working to take specific districts rather than trying to somehow take the presidency without any existing base of support. All this third party would need to do is position itself in the center and steal just enough votes from either side that it's impossible for anyone to govern without a coalition. It doesn't take much more than 10-15% of the seats in Congress to do that. Heck it probably takes a lot fewer senate seats than that with the filibuster still around.

Posted by: VictorGalis | October 4, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

If the house lacked a majority party, it would be more like the Senate.

Posted by: staticvars | October 4, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Any third party with margainal success will just be coopted by whichever of the two major parties it's most closely aligned to. I think all ballots should allow candidates to be ranked (2 points for 1st, 1 for second, none after that), with the candidate with the most points winning. Also, ever ballot should have "None of the above" as an option. Then any person, no matter how disgruntled, as an option on the ballot and liberals and conservatives can vote their consience without necessarily undermining the more traditional parties.

We should also phase out the filibuster and unanimous consent (and yes, Steve, Ezra has been pretty consistent over several years on this point, as have many of us with similar views) in the Senate, excepting filibusters of judicial nominees. I'd also like to see some sort of streamlining of the process by which bills from the House and Senate are merged. I'd like it to be harder to derail a bill after it comes back from the conference. I want to avoid a situation where one Senator allows a bill to pass so he can seem reasonable but then drops support when it goes to conference.

I'd also like card check to pass so it would be easier for people to unionize, if they want to do so. And I'd like the Disclose Act to pass.

Finally, and much less likely, are reforms that require Constitutional Amendment. Stating that money is not speech in elections (or that money is speech, but the amount can be reasonably regulated) would be nice. Stating that the default interpretations of statutes should be that businesses are not people unless specified by the statute would be good. I'd like changing the Senate to be proportional rather than fixed to 2/state or some other way of reducing/adjusting/tempering the power that small states currently have. I'd like to change the way redistricting works so that we're not just codifying safe seats for long-serving legislators, and I'd like to see term limits for both Congress and the Judiciary, including the Supreme Court.

Posted by: MosBen | October 4, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

So good ideas here, but:

To mdt22: IRV doesn't do much of anything to promote third parties. Australia has used it for almost 100 years for their House, and they have a two-party system, just like ours.

To MosBen: the system you describe is called the Borda count. It is much better than IRV (which mdt22 suggested.) The problem with it is that it is very susceptible to poor outcomes from tactical voting. Borda himself was known to have said "My system is made for honest men."

But approval voting has been shown to best-resist the negative effects of tactical voting (and, with a saintly-honest electorate, perform nearly as well as Borda.)


(An even better, but slightly more complex method, is range voting (AKA score voting.))

Posted by: mudlock | October 4, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

If there were annual awards for stupidest opinion column of the year, Friedman's columns on the "third party tea party of the radical center" would be the odds on favorites at this point to sweep all categories.

Posted by: StevenDS | October 5, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Remember political parties are not protected under the U.S. Constitution. They would be protected by a ratified treaty such as the Copenhagen Document of the Helsinki Accords. It was signed by President George H.W. Bush, but has not been ratified by the Senate. The U.S. is one of the few democratic nations to fail to ratify it.

The relevant sections of the treaty:

(7.5) - respect the right of citizens to seek political or public office, individually or as representatives of political parties or organizations, without discrimination;

(7.6) - respect the right of individuals and groups to establish, in full freedom, their own political parties or other political organizations and provide such political parties and organizations with the necessary legal guarantees to enable them to compete with each other on a basis of equal treatment before the law and by the authorities;...


The United States has been criticized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) for its harsh ballot access laws in the past. In 1996, United States delegates responded to the criticism by saying, unfair ballot access "could be remedied through existing appeal and regulatory structures and did not represent a breach of the Copenhagen commitments."

SEE: ballot access.

Posted by: Jack54 | October 5, 2010 7:26 PM | Report abuse

Remember U.S. political parties have been "reformed" around the turn of the century.

Great quote from 1927:
"Here in the last generation, a development has taken place which finds an analogy nowhere else. American parties have ceased to be voluntary associations like trade unions or the good government clubs or the churches. They have lost the right freely to determine how candidates shall be nominated and platforms framed, even who shall belong to the party and who shall lead it. The state legislatures have regulated their structure and functions in great detail."

Source: American Parties and Elections,
by Edward Sait, 1927 (Page 174)
Quoted from: The tyranny of the two-party system,
by Lisa Jane Disch c2002

Posted by: Jack54 | October 5, 2010 7:32 PM | Report abuse

I think it is a both-and situation.

Yes, a 3rd party candidate stands next to no chance to make an impact even if elected because politics is a team sport -- no team and you can't score.

However, if there is a large movement that pulls from both sides -- like the Progressive/Bull Moose party in the early 20th century. Granted, there was no significant electoral win. However, the presence of the 3rd party had an effect on the two main parties.

I side with you that the issue is fundamentally an structural issue but I don't see a clear way to accomplish any structural reform with out a 3rd party (not a disgruntled branch of the GOP pretending to be a 3rd party) emerging to force the 2 main parties to get serious about it. Electoral success is not the yard stick that Friedman suggests but affecting the debate.

Posted by: kcar1 | October 6, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

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