Sal Peralta - Third party emerges
Five years ago, I was asked by some friends to help them with a new project. They had just gathered 35,000 signatures to form the Independent Party of Oregon, and they needed someone to help them get organized.
Although I am skeptical about the degree to which any minor political party can influence events in Salem, the IPO has added nearly 100,000 members since it was formed, making the Independent Party the third largest political party in the state. It has more than twice as many members as the other minor parties combined.
Since the formation of the IPO, Independent parties have emerged in Florida, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Mexico and Florida. In each case, the growth of the party has been rapid, an unusual phenomenon.
The major political parties are not winning popularity contests: only 34 percent of all voters favor either of them and more than half believe neither major party is “working for them.”
But, despite their belief that a third “Independent Party” is needed, very few voters actually favor the agenda of any of the best-known minor political parties.
Prior to the emergence of the Independent Party, no minor political party in Oregon had more than 15,000 members, and on a national basis, fewer than 10 percent of the people have voted for a candidate of any minor political party in a presidential election since 1992.
And therein lies one of the frustrating conundrums of American politics. While almost no one believes the two-party system is working well for the country, even fewer people share the values of traditional third-party alternatives.
One reason is that most third parties are deeply ideological, while most voters are not. Indeed, one can make the case, based on polling, that satisfaction with Democrats and Republicans has decreased as their partisanship, rigidity and inability to find common ground on major issues of the day have increased.
A second reason for the lack of support for minor political parties is their lack of resources relative to Democrats and Republicans. More than $7 billion was spent on elections in 2012, virtually all by candidates of the two major parties and their allies.
The biggest impact of that spending was making our political leaders less responsive to the will of the people, making our nation more cynical, more divided and less interested in finding common ground on the major issues of the day.
So most voters do not believe the major parties are working for them. Even fewer people think traditional third parties have the answers. It’s a situation lending itself to pessimism for anyone wanting government to work effectively for “we, the people.”
Is there a path forward? Perhaps.
If people are angry about the inability of the major parties to work collaboratively and frustrated by the ideological rigidity of all political parties, then maybe the answer is to build a political party decidedly not ideological. This party could be used as a lever to promote greater collaboration among candidates of major political parties on a range of issues believed important by voters across the political spectrum.
This is what the Independent Party of Oregon has tried to do. In 2009, the IPO successfully lobbied for election reforms, allowing candidates accepting nominations of more than one political party to list all those nominations on the ballot.
In 2010, we became the first political party in more than 100 years to conduct a primary election at the party’s expense. We opened the election to candidates of the major parties. Gov. John Kitzhaber, two members of Oregon’s congressional delegation and more than 50 state legislators participated.
More importantly, the party developed a platform based on a series of member surveys asking members to select the issues they most wanted to emphasize and tied that platform to actual measures under consideration in the state Legislature.
During this process, we have learned that “Independents” from across the political spectrum, liberal to conservative, share common ground on a range of issues, including the reduction of special-interest influence over our political process, consumer protection, controlling government costs to ensure a more efficient use of taxes and some form of incentive for businesses to hire Oregon workers.
The net result is that voters now have a lever beginning to pressure Democrats and Republican candidates to be more responsive to voters outside their core constituencies of partisans and big-money donors. Failing that, perhaps a non-ideological third party, like the IPO, may succeed in attracting broad public support where other third parties failed.
It is too early to know whether this experiment in democracy will bear fruit. Ours is a political system that yields slowly and painfully to change, but the early results are promising.
Guest writer Sal Peralta is a media consultant for the News-Register and secretary of Oregon’s Independent Party. He lives in McMinnville with his wife, Tanya, daughter Bella, and two dogs. When he is not working or thinking about public policy, he can usually be found playing the violin or enjoying lazy summer evenings with family and friends.