The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Lightning Strikes And Third Parties

Here’s the thing about third parties: sometimes they get elected. In first-past-the-post duopolies it’s uncommon, but it happens.

Recently I wrote that voting for the lesser evil doesn’t work.

Most of the time, neither does voting for third parties. But sometimes it does. The NDP (Canada’s most left wing party) had never formed a government in Alberta, then suddenly in 2015 they defied all the polling and won. For most of the 19th century Britain alternated between Liberals and Conservatives, then suddenly in 1924, Labour won—and this is back when Labour actually was fairly radical. The Liberal still exist (as the Liberal-Democrats), but they haven’t formed a government since.

There come times when people are upset with the status quo and truly want to change it. FDR is one, Reagan is another. In both those cases, the change was channeled thru an existing party.

If you can get control of an existing party, that’s what you should do. FDR, once elected, sidelines his Democratic enemies and remade the party in his image.

But, often you can’t, and in such times controlling a third party allows you a chance for the lightning strike; the moment everything changes. If the mainstream parties won’t accommodate it, you can.

The key here is to keep the part aligned with your ideology. A third party which changes its ideology too much to “win’ is not a good third part. A third party’s job is to catch the wave of discontent, ride it to power and displace one of the previous major parties. It is up to them to make the case that they are the “real change” and that the big two aren’t (or big however in proportional states.)

The problem with this, for individuals, is that it’s a long game. Your entire life could pass before the lightning strike. But if you manage it, you can change everything, as indeed Labour did, when Atlee came to power at the end of World War II.

The other option is to create and sustain a faction in one of the main parties. If you can do that, great. But right now, every attempt to do so in the Democratic party has failed. On the other hand, it has been done repeatedly in the Republican party, so if you’re right wing, forget third parties: take over the Republicans or form a faction and wait your chance to do so.

If, on the other hand, you’re left wing, do the third party thing. Keep it on the ballots in every state and wait and work and pray for the lightning strike.


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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – February 18, 2024


More Statistical Manipulation In Real Time (Top 1% Wealth)


  1. I’m praying for a third party victory in a U.S. presidential election.
    However, unlike a parliamentary system, where victory confers an ability to enact legislation, for us in the U.S. a president can execute executive orders but without Congressional assistance a legislative agenda is not likely to happen. Still, gaining the bully pulpit could help shift the Overton window.

  2. Stewart Millen

    Ian, I’m replying here to past comments as well as this post.

    You say that Israel can’t ethnically cleanse Gaza without US support. With that, I agree. Moreover, I agree with you on the facts on the ground about Gaza. However, I don’t’see any better or realistic choice than Joe Biden at the moment. I would also argue that (as everything I’m hearing is the Biden administration is becoming increasingly frustrated with Bibi’s intransigence about Gaza, coupled with pushback inside his own party) there is more of a chance that Biden will react more favorably than would Trump or any Republican. I also think Biden won’t live forever, and his “train” or followers will enact a more positive policy towards the Palestinians.

    You say “I draw the line at genocide”. I understand your sentiment. However, let me give you an example and ask what you would have done. The election is the one of 1860.

    In 1860, in the US, one of the great ethnic cleansings/genocides was underway, directed against Native Americans. This is the very genocide that would inspire the young Adolf Hitler to tame his “Wild West”–though that was in Eastern Europe, and his “Indians” to be reservation’ed and pushed off a cliff into extinction were Poles, Russians, Slavs, and of course, Jews.

    At the same time, a great moral crime was being committed: the enslavement of African-Americans.

    Now, let’s look at who’s running in 1860 for president:

    Abraham Lincoln: Against the expansion of slavery into the territories; however, unwilling/unable to go beyond that, so slavery would continue. The genocide against Native Americans would continue.

    Stephen A. Douglas: Willing to allow some expansion of slavery into the territories; defending slavery as a necessary institution where it existed. The genocide against Native Americans would continue.

    John C. Breckinridge: Eager to expand slavery into the territories, defending slavery as a necessary and even a positively good institution. The genocide against Native Americans would continue.

    John Bell: Non-committed about the expansion of slavery into the territories, likely a defender of the institution. The genocide against Native Americans would continue.

    Who do you support? Do you say that there is no difference in the goodness and evil between the candidates? You say you ‘draw the line at genocide’ but NOBODY in 1860 is really against the genocide–and why should whites be? After all, like Israeli settlers, they will receive the “free” land that was stolen from the natives.

    Likewise, nobody is really against slavery. Only Lincoln is steadfast against its spread, but if the Civil War had not come it is safe to say he would have done nothing against it where it was already established.

    So—is there “no difference” or not enough difference between the lesser evil of Lincoln, versus the greater evil of Breckinridge?

    The other thing I want you to consider—people change. Lincoln by 1865 had done things I’m sure he didn’t imagine he would have done in 1860. Likewise, I think you are overstating FDR’s progressivism (remember, he campaigned in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression on a balanced budget!!). The “liberals” and “progressives” of their times complained and complained loudly on how obstinate, slow, tepid, timid, non-committed both Lincoln and FDR were in their actions. To these, both men were manifestly not doing enough to support the causes they cared about. Lincoln only issued the emancipation proclamation as a war measure (and he had to be PUSHED to do that) and FDR was trying to save capitalism, but ending up reforming it to save it.

    I also want you to consider the solution that both of us think is right—the dissolution of Israel and its replacement with a secular state (I would add in that Israelis should pay some sort of reparations to the Palestinians, maybe permanent rent on the properties they stole if these aren’t returned?) is supported by almost nobody. The imperfect two-state “solution” being bandied about is likely to result in the Palestinians getting the dregs (like the reservations our Natives were put on) and would likely result in two irreconcilably hostile states where war could and likely would flare up again at any moment.

    Just because the choices aren’t good, and aren’t the choices we think are necessary or right, doesn’t mean there isn’t a meaningfully different choice.

  3. Bill

    Stewart- Ian answered this in his essay on 2/14, Why Voting For the Lesser Evil is Strategic Imbecility. Our culture is so far descended into corruption and depravity that there are no meaningfully different choices. I for one will be following Ian’s suggestion of voting third party.

  4. capelin

    The main reason to not vote for lesser evil (outside of rare, local strategic instances), is to free your mind from the addiction of it.

    At the very least, your vote enters in the historical record that somebody wanted change. At the best, energy atrophies from the war parties and finds something useful to do.

    Years ago I read a New Yorker or Harper’s article on 3rd party runs in the U.S., and it was pretty convincing that there’s not a hope in hell of one ever making it through the structural razor-wire of the process, what with their Electoral College etc.

    Stacked against in Canada, but still, much more opportunity.

  5. DMC

    Absolutely nobody who is remotely serious considers the two state solution an achievable or even desirable outcome.

  6. Huntly

    My biggest issue with third parties is that they, at least the one who get funding/airtime, invariably think that they can start at the top and run for president. If they were at all serious they would have a Howard Dean style 50-state strategy starting with city councils, mayors offices, etc.

  7. Daniel Lynch

    In the U.S., voting 3rd party is largely a symbolic “protest vote.”

    But sometimes the mere threat of a 3rd party has forced the major parties to adopt watered down policies of the 3rd party. FDR adopted a watered down version of Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” to “steal his thunder.” Woodrow Wilson adopted watered down versions of some of Eugene Debs policies. In those cases you can argue that the 3rd party movement was partially successful in bringing about change.

    The Progressive Party of the late 1800’s had some great policies, and the party was starting to get traction, but then they “sold out” by merging with the “Free Silver” movement sponsored by silver mine owners. Then the Democrat party co-oped “Free Silver” and that made the Progressive party irrelevant. Today history books associate the Progressive movement with “Free Silver” and the original progressive platform has largely been forgotten. Moral of the story:
    don’t sell out.

    Occupy Wall Street briefly posed a threat to the Duopoly, but OWS was easily co-oped by “Occupy Democrats,” and OWS was quickly forgotten. OWS never had clear demands, anyway.

    I will vote 3rd party, knowing it is a rather futile protest vote. Basically, the only reason I bother to vote is for state ballot initiatives and local school tax levies, that seem to be the only real democracy we have in the U.S..

  8. Carborundum

    As a technical note, the NDP did not defy the polling – the electorate changed voting intention dramatically and the polls did actually pick this up.

  9. Anonymous


    Pretty sure that if most voting eligible males in 1860 thought genocide was the crime of crimes that most decent people in 2024 think it is, then all the politicians you mentioned would and should be rejected.

    Times have changed and voting for any of the genocide enabler in DC is grotesque, and expecting any positives from voting for anyone with the lifetime track record of GenocideJoe is insane.

  10. In regards to Daniel Lynch’s comment.
    Post war Europe was governed almost exclusively by right wing political party(ies).
    Despite that Europe during this time had some of the most left wing policies in the western world in all of history.
    One explanation for this is that post war Europe had “third party” Communist parties that managed to get 20%-30% of the vote. Even right wing parties adopted watered down versions of the left.

  11. bruce wilder

    Two-party duopolies often feature minor third and even fourth parties lurking or emergent on the margins and both Parties may be competing to hold together diverse coalitions with only some vague precedent or principle as a uniting principle. One Party may be little more than a conglomerate of factions repelled by the Other Party.

    Realignments in two-party duopolies are periodic though the dynamics are irregular. Policy success for one Party can provoke a “me, too” response more easily than determination to reverse. The failure of one Party’s coalition can destabilize the system.

    In U.S. politics, the “failures” of third Parties is dogma but not history. The Republican Party emerged from the antebellum collapse of the Whigs and the chaos of the emergent Know-Nothing reaction to waves of immigration due to the Revolutions of 1848. The election of 1860 featured four Parties and contrary to popular belief the Electoral College victory secured by Lincoln was solid. It was not the first election with four candidates nor the last.

    Realignments feature failing Parties and often generational change among leading politicians. Sound familiar?

  12. John Anthony La Pietra

    I would encourage Huntly to look into how state laws (written by the R & D folks) often *require* alternative parties to run candidates at the top of the ticket to stay on the ballot without having to shoulder the burden (also imposed by Ds and/or Rs) of massive petition drives every few years.

    One fairly recent example (from last year) of stifling the free exchange of political ideas is discussed in this article:

    Others can be found at the venerable Ballot Access News site:

  13. Stewart Millen


    Stewart- Ian answered this in his essay on 2/14, Why Voting For the Lesser Evil is Strategic Imbecility

    My point is–where has there EVER been any other choice than lesser evil?

    As per my example, only some of the anti-slavery abolitionists (Wendell Phillips) appeared to be genuinely concerned about the plight of Native Americans and the genocide/ethnic cleansing being directed at them (remember, some of the southern Indian tribes became slaveholders too) Some split with the movement over the issue of having women in prominent positions, so while they were against slavery they were definitely not for gender equality. And one shouldn’t suppose that being even stridently anti-slavery meant that one was for African-Americans having equal legal and social status. Many ended their support after slavery was legally dead.

    One of the most prominent and personally brave abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison (who had southern states put a bounty on his head, dead or alive) and who checked most of the “good guy” boxes, was also a raving anti-Semite. So you have that. During the war, many of these cheered on measures which I would consider war crimes (an estimated 50,000-200,000 civilians, mostly Southern whites and blacks, die during the Civil War, mostly due to the deliberate destruction of their food sources and shelter).

    These were the “good guys” in the mid-19th century!!!

    Show me a choice that didn’t involve a lesser evil. Can you even name me one “good guy” today? I can’t find anyone who I think is entirely good.

  14. Stewart Millen


    Pretty sure that if most voting eligible males in 1860 thought genocide was the crime of crimes that most decent people in 2024 think it is, then all the politicians you mentioned would and should be rejected.

    They didn’t see it as genocide, for sure. They ‘re-framed’ the issue in other terms, just like modern Israeli supporters do. When cultures commit such atrocities, they always re-frame their actions in some other guise. Those who carbonized accused witches alive in the 16th century weren’t committing any atrocity–oh no–they were both protecting themselves and (by preventing the witch from adding to his/her damnation) DOING THE WITCH A FAVOR. It was an *act of mercy*, they were told.

    Anonymous, I do not see us moderns as particularly more enlightened. In every age, including ours, I see those among us who pat themselves on the pat on how “liberal” and “enlightened” they are. When Allied troops liberated concentration camps at the end of WWII, most of the inmates got medical care and were released. Except, of course, for those with the pink triangles, those convicted of homosexual acts; they were just transferred to a different prison when liberated by the “good guys”.

    Barbarism is hardly in the rear view mirror, by my view. Barbarism is advocated by those who don’t know that future generations hopefully will see them as barbaric too.

  15. Anonymous


    This is the ghoul that you’re arguing as the lesser evil. He was an unmitigated horror of cruelty and corruption even before his brain turned to Swiss cheese.

  16. John Anthony La Pietra

    Update — especially for readers who want alternative/”third” parties to have a 50-state strategy with candidates running (and sometimes winning) below the top of the ballot . . . try this article for a start:

    Personally, I know more about the Green Party than the others. The GPUS Ballot Access home page:

    shows 21 states already, with more news still coming in. And for news of state- and local-level candidates, try this historical database:

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