Third Parties: Some Substance, Some Rage

Third parties are vessels for ideas, values and policy proposals that are being rejected by a nation’s reigning party duopoly. Most of us think of third party supporters as people who are drawn to a platform that substantively represents their political views, which otherwise get no oxygen. Yet the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in the UK suggests that part of support for third parties has a less rational foundation.

After winning 23% of the vote in the 2010 election, the LibDems are now polling at only 8% nationally. If you assume support for third parties were substantively rational, it would follow that LibDem supporters disillusioned with the Tory-LibDem coalition have sought a new leftish alternative for their progressive policy views.

This seems to be the case for a plurality of them: 39% of 2010 LibDem voters now intend to vote Labour, and 6% intend to vote Green. Yet 14% now intend to vote Conservative. Even more striking, 7% intend to vote either for the UK Independence Party or the British Nationalist Party, which substantively disagree virulently with the LibDems on pretty much everything.

Some third party support thus seems to emerge from pure alienation, i.e., I’m against whoever is in power, even if I voted for them. And I am for whoever is out of power, even if they have nothing in common with the people I supported last time around.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

22 thoughts on “Third Parties: Some Substance, Some Rage”

  1. “Some third party support thus seems to emerge from pure alienation”

    Although this seems to be evidence for irrationality, it doesn’t necessarily follow that irrational voters are motivated primarily by a sense of alienation. One alternative might be a Lib/Dem “bubble” at the last election. Rational voters on the left shifted from Labour to Lib/Dems causing a surge in media and public enthusiasm. Irrational voters then shifted due to some form of bandwagon effect. Alienation still seems plausible but I would need to know more about these voters to really guess at their motivation(s).

    1. @sven: That is a good point, there could be a range of emotional drivers here not limited to alienation.

  2. How much of that is an artifact of first-past-the-post voting systems, though? If you look at parliaments in countries with more proportional representation (including variants like MMP, STV, etc.), you generally find at a minimum three established parties (and often four or more).

    In first-past-the-post systems, chances are that you will waste your vote if you don’t vote for one of the two biggest parties. In practically any other system, you can safely vote for the third or fourth party and still have your vote count (proportional systems often still have a cut-off point, so votes for fringe parties may still be wasted). So, in a first-past-the-post system, we can probably assume that a number of third-party voters will vote strategically for one of the two dominant parties rather than seeing their vote go to waste, even if they’d prefer a different party.

    What complicates the LibDem situation even more is that the Liberal Democrats have done a godawful job at just about everything they attempted. So, even though I am a social liberal and thus in theory part of their core constituency, I would now carefully consider whether to vote for them in any future election [1]. Does it really matter how much their program appeals to me if they are singularly ineffective when it comes to getting any policy implemented that actually matches their program and instead seem to be rubberstamping conservative policies that bear the Cameron/Osborne imprint [2]?

    [1] While I am not a British citizen, I can vote in local elections in the UK, European elections, and even the elections for the Scottish parliament on account of having dual American-German citizenship and Germany being a member of the EU.
    [2] I may be exaggerating a bit, but not much. Starting with the coalition agreement (no experienced junior coalition partner in a continental European government would have settled for the cabinet posts the LibDems got, just for starters) and the inept handling of the AV referendum, the LibDems have not exactly covered themselves in glory.

    1. Katja: But of course the electoral system didn’t change between the time the LibDems garnered almost 1 in 4 votes and now. It’s no more or less strategic to support UKIP or BNP now than it was 2 years ago, yet a number of people have moved that way from the LibDems.

      I understand your point about competence, which would explain why rational people (such as yourself) might move to the Greens or Labour, but how could it be rational to say “I am not happy with how competently the LibDems pursued European integration, so I will now support a party that is completely opposed to it”?

      It may be that boffinites such as you and me have a hard time accepting that some voters are simply bats*** crazy and we look for rational meaning to their behaviour not because it is there, but because it makes us feel better to imagine so.

      1. Keith: I think that the 2010 general election was simply a perfect storm for the Liberal Democrats; they looked like a credible alternative to both Labour and the Tories to begin with and eventually pushed past the critical mass in the polls, too, where a vote for them didn’t appear to be wasted. This was, I think, because even with New Labour, i.e. the rightward shift of Labour under Blair, there was still plenty of daylight between Labour and the Tories that could potentially be occupied by a third party. In 2010, many voters apparently envisioned the LibDems to be that party. The daylight is still there, especially with Ed Miliband now leading Labour, but voters (understandably) do not seem to trust the LibDems anymore.

        I will readily agree that protest votes have always existed and will always exist (see, e.g., what’s currently happening in Germany with the Pirate Party). But in this case we’re talking about 7% of the previous 23% (i.e., about 1.6% of all voters) switching to UKIP/BNP. 2% more (i.e. about .46% of all voters) switching to an unspecified “other party”. The rest goes to Labour, the Conservatives, the Greens, and the SNP (for non-British readers, the SNP is a center-left nationalist party, odd as that may sound, so they are a fairly natural migration target for Scottish LibDem voters). So, only a small minority of votes can be clearly classified as protest votes. About 20% of the original 23% voters still plan on voting for an “established” party (votes for the Greens can be a bit difficult to classify, given that they attract both genuine supporters and protest votes, but the rest seem to be largely unambiguous).

        1. To take the second point first, agreed: This is a mercifully small proportion of voters in absolute terms even though it is a large chunk of the LibDem vote.

          On the first point, I am always puzzled that so many people see 2010 as a watershed year for the LibDems, when they got fewer votes on election day than they were polling and ended up losing rather than gaining seats. I actually see it as a worse year for them than 2005, which is why I suspect they were grateful for the cabinet posts they got (re: what you said above about them not getting good enough ones…I think they did well given that they had a poor election).

          1. You may well be right there. Unfortunately, 2005 was more or less a blur for me (between getting married, my husband and I both finishing our respective Ph.D.s, looking for jobs, let alone trying to figure out what country to live in, we had only so much time for politics). As a result, I’m awfully vague on the subject of the 2005 elections. If you say so, I’ll take your word for it. 🙂

            Concerning cabinet posts: Percentages don’t really matter. In Germany, for example, even if the junior coalition partner has only 5%-6% of the vote, they’ll still ask for and get the Foreign Office (which will all but guarantee them positive headlines and high approval ratings [1]). As the prospective junior coalition partner, you’re in most practical cases the kingmaker. The government isn’t going to happen without you. Lib/Lab was a serious enough alternative that Cameron could not have risked turning down reasonable requests. And, as the junior coalition partner, you need at least one cabinet post that will help you with your reelection chances (Business in the middle of a recession probably isn’t the best choice — too much of a double-edged sword).

            [1] Except when the foreign minister is called Westerwelle, apparently.

        2. It’s quite possible that 2010 would have been the LibDems’ high water mark even if they hadn’t gone into coalition. As Keith points out, although they polled marginally more as a percentage nationally than in 2005 (23% against 22%), they in fact lost 5 seats net. That implies that at least some of their tactical voters were already going back to their original parties and thereby bolstering their constituency results, whether as a specific result of their experience with LibDem representation or because they no longer felt that tactical voting was appropriate.

    2. In first-past-the-post systems, chances are that you will waste your vote if you don’t vote for one of the two biggest parties. In practically any other system, you can safely vote for the third or fourth party and still have your vote count (proportional systems often still have a cut-off point, so votes for fringe parties may still be wasted). So, in a first-past-the-post system, we can probably assume that a number of third-party voters will vote strategically for one of the two dominant parties rather than seeing their vote go to waste, even if they’d prefer a different party.

      I don’t follow this reasoning. In a winner-takes-all system your vote is “wasted” unless there’s a reasonable chance of your candidate winning? So doesn’t this also mean that you have wasted your vote even when the major-party candidate you voted for ends up losing? After all, your vote didn’t “count” for anything. Oh sure, your vote was counted, but your candidate and party won nothing as a result of your vote for that candidate — just like a vote for a third-party candidate that fails to win the election. When Bob Dole ran against Bill Clinton, everybody knew he didn’t stand a chance, but that didn’t stop a lot of people from “seeing their vote go to waste” on him. What do you suppose they were thinking?

      So what does one hope to gain by avoiding a “wasted vote” on a third-party candidate she feels is best for the job? A lot of people refer to it as a lesser of evils. In the U.S., we hear a lot of people advocating for voting in favor of one “evil” out of fear that another will be worse, yet those same people will complain about the state of politics and lack of quality candidates when they’re getting exactly what they’re voting for. How rational is that? Ever contemplate how things got the way they are? We truly are “getting the government we deserve”. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, we WILL get fooled again (and again and again…) as long as we are stuck in a cycle of “rationally” voting for evil out of fear of evil or “wasted votes”.

      1. “Wasting a vote” is a conceptual shorthand for a probabilistic concept. Very rarely will moving a single vote around make a difference in any system. However, there is a much higher probability of a vote for one of the dominant parties to affect an election in FPTP than a vote for a third party candidate (relatively speaking). Whereas, if you have a proportional system, your vote has approximately the same likelihood of affecting the seat distribution whether you cast it for a big or for a small party.

        Obviously, this does not explain why in districts that vote overwhelmingly for one party (say, 75% Republicans), there aren’t more voters who vote for third parties to make a statement (or perhaps there are? I’m not really certain). I suspect, though, that the overall futility of voting for a third party candidate also shapes our political culture in other important (and not always desirable) ways.

        Also, there are plenty of voters who will just always vote a certain way, no matter what. For example, I have a Catholic great-aunt on the German side of my family who has always voted for the German Christian Democrats and would not be caught dead voting for a non-Christian party.

        And yes, I agree that this is very much a “prisoner’s dilemma” kind of problem. I used to buy the argument that FPTP systems have the benefit of leading to more stable governments that also (at least in a parliamentary system) have it easier to enact legislation. But lately I’ve been thinking that FPTP systems tend to fall short in other, important ways, namely in that they allow parties to become too set in their ways.

        1. I suspect, though, that the overall futility of voting for a third party candidate also shapes our political culture in other important (and not always desirable) ways.

          Voting for a third party is only futile in the sense that your candidate isn’t likely to win the election, but winning isn’t everything (nor is it the only thing). If we were gambling instead of voting, I’d agree that it is futile to place a bet on a third party candidate. I agree with you that most people do see it as futile and that view “shapes our political culture in other important (and not always desirable) ways”. Though many don’t seem to consider it, minor parties don’t need to win elections to force significant changes (hopefully desirable) in the major parties. When third parties begin to bleed off significant numbers of votes, you can bet the majors pay close attention to that, and they do adapt to what they perceive as the will of significant blocks of voters in order to lure them back.

          But lately I’ve been thinking that FPTP systems tend to fall short in other, important ways, namely in that they allow parties to become too set in their ways.

          I would argue that the popular conceptual short-hand of “wasting your vote” has a lot to do with that. Major parties can afford to become set in their ways when they know people won’t vote for alternatives in significant numbers because of that fear. Fear is a great motivator, but it does little to encourage rational decision-making, particularly when the fear is less than rational to begin with.

          Here in the U.S., I think we’d have much-improved major parties, a better and less partisan Supreme Court, and much more pleasant campaigning, if more people rejected the inaccurate conceptual short-hand of a “two-party system” where minor party votes are considered “wasted”. Unfortunately the two-party dichotomy is encouraged and reinforced by those in power who benefit from it. Divide and conquer.

          1. I think it’s worth remembering at this point how very heavily FPTP systems are skewed towards having two dominant parties and single party governments, even without wasted votes.

            Consider the 2010 UK general election. Looking at the popular vote, the Conservatives, Labour, and the LibDems got 36.1%, 29.0%, and 23.0%, respectively. That resulted in 306, 258, and 57(!) seats, respectively.

            In short, the LibDems got about one fifth of Labour’s seats with about four fifths of the votes. And the Conservatives were very close to having an absolute majority (which would have required 326 seats) with just a little over a third of the popular vote.

            Consider also that instant-runoff voting doesn’t really fix this problem, even though it does away with wasted votes. Australia uses IRV for the elections of its House of Representatives and has a de facto two party system. The net effect is that one of the “parties” is actually a coalition of several center-right parties with heavily overlapping constituencies (IRV allows them to co-exist without Labor benefitting from a split vote); the Greens as a genuine third party have one seat out of 150 with 11.76% of the vote. So, even when you don’t have wasted votes, FPTP still will have a strong two-party bias. That is largely a mathematical problem — a third party does not have to lag much behind the two major parties to end up with only a very small number of seats (if any at all).

          2. Good point and excellent analysis. Democratic politics do seem to naturally favor two-party dominance.

            In any event, I’ve always felt comfortable voting for whomever I felt best for the position, regardless of party, and I’ve never felt like I had wasted my vote when a candidate lost as expected. Conversely, I know several people who regret having voted for Bush and several more who regret having voted for Obama — those people don’t feel like they’ve won anything by picking the winner. To me, that’s the ultimate wasted vote. I know my vote won’t prevent it, but that doesn’t mean I have to vote for it. I’m not arguing against two-party dominance, just saying I don’t let it guide my voting decisions.

  3. It is also worth pointing out that both unpopular governments and Liberal Democrats do badly in mid-term opinion polls in a way which does not predict future ballot-box performance.

  4. It might be worth pointing a simple left-right spectrum is by no means universal in politics, although it probably works okay for understanding the US.
    In France, a person who votes for the Communists this year is just as likely to vote for Le Pen the next. France might be a good example of alienation voting.
    In Germany, the Free Democrats are the libertarian alternative to left and right. And the Greens are a very different kind of left than the Socialists. Karl Marx was no Rousseau.
    Israel has at least four axes: left-right, beard-secularist, Russian-other, Sephardi-Ashkenazi.
    Japanese politics are at least as factional as they are polarized on a left-right spectrum. Although left-right, I suppose, does describe the broad arc of Japanese politics.
    Indian politics (and here I go far astray) seems as much ethnic as anything else.

    1. I’m inclined to agree with Ebenezer, at least about the Front National vote. The far-left vote is ispected to transfer to Hollande pretty well.) You would expect Le Pen’s voters all to vote for Sarkozy in the second round, as he’s closer to them than Hollande is on the FN’s core issue of immigration, but all the polls say that not enough will do so to reelect Sarkozy. The FN electorate is a curious stew of racists, Poujadists, disillusioned ex-Communists, generic anti-establishment types, and up-yours nihilists. Very depressing.

      1. Yeah. James just described how ultra-nationalism works in any country. It is the new anti-semitism: the socialism of fools. It tends to use the old antisemitic tropes, although they now usually apply to Muslims (Europe) or “liberals” (US).

  5. I think that the shift to places like the BNP might also be explained by what you might call the messianic vote: not exactly alienated or bugfsck crazy, but addicted to the idea that you just need to do some particular thing and then all will be well. And once those expectations are dashed, voting for a party you know won’t be elected can be a “rational” response because it lets you persist in your belief without any further risk.

  6. I’m not very familiar with the details of British politics. But while it makes sense to me that most people defecting from the Liberal-Democrats would turn to Labor, I’m not as surprised as Keith is that the next largest chunk (although much smaller) intend to vote Conservative. My thinking is, there must have been something that made these people (both groups) hesitate to vote Labor in the first place. For some of them, whatever that was is sufficiently important that, if they decide not to vote Liberal-Democrat, they still can’t vote for Labor, and so end up (however reluctantly) preferring the Conservatives.

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