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Challenging the Duopoly [Carl M. Cannon / RCP] (and a note on US third party tactical considerations)

January 8, 2017

[updated with additional links, and additional note on Ackerman, video, it gets weird…]

[updated with even more Ackerman bio]


The above link is a follow-up the story about the LPF vs FEC lawsuit, which has financier Peter Ackerman‘s electoral-reform organization suing, to challenge the CPD (Commission on Presidential Debates) – on the subject of rules which effectively bar third parties.

See my previous blogpost for more. See also:

This is so far the first and only headline I’ve seen on this story. It does not provide any links to further resources (I tried to get some in my previous blogpost above), and it jokingly compares the CPD to the girl scouts, which is in a way relevant, since the CPD in fact was created by the Democrat and Republican parties to replace and displace the League of Women Voters, who used to oversee the presidential debates prior to Reagan’s time. The RCP story above does bring up the important example of the Perot debate, making a valuable insight.

Peter Ackerman also appears to be an interesting character, form his wiki-bio above. Former honcho at Drexel Burnham  involved in international political advocacy, including various civil society and democratic reform, IISS think tank. 1992 bio piece from Bloomberg. Now into 3rd party politics in the US. Helped sponsor the guy who introduced Maine’s RCV initiative.

Additional Ackerman bio update

Gene Sharp, one of the most influential writers on the doctrine of non-violence of the Englers’ intellectual godparents, was cited by Foreign Policy and the New York Times as an inspiration for the “Arab Spring” (though some Egyptian critics noted that the Palestinians’ long struggle against the occupation, and the attendant international solidarity movement, was a much more salient reference point).  His writings on the strategic use of nonviolence were widely cited during the “Green Revolution” in Iran and the various other “Color Revolutions” that swept the former Soviet republics of central asia and eastern europe in the early 2000s.

Sharp’s teachings became prominent in these movements because they had powerful institutional backers. One of the most significant transmission belts for the style of activism favored by the Englers is the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, a non-profit founded by a billionaire investment banker and former graduate student of Gene Sharp, Peter Ackerman. The ICNC’s trainings featured prominently in accounts of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak that focused on Sharp’s influence. Ackerman’s other major political intervention was an attempt to woo Michael Bloomberg or some similar public figure to run as an independent pro-austerity candidate in the 2012 presidential election. Ackerman’s methods have caught the attention of the agents of US foreign policy: a 2006 New Republic profile of Ackerman noted that “When some of State’s desk officers don’t want to create international incidents by advising activists on how to overthrow governments, they gently suggest visiting Ackerman, who has fewer qualms about lending a helping hand,” and pointed out that the ICNC might provide a blueprint for regime change more palatable to the public than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Ackerman on C-SPAN in 2015: – He lays out a sketch of how “his” 3rd party would work — you selected from a group of 5 or 6 “prominent americans”, run a TV reality show like American Idol, and the winner gets to be “America’s Independent Candidate”, who has a podium reserved at the CPD Presidential debates under proposed FEC/CPD rule change?? 27:40 in the video. I’m not making this up.

Other Press on this:

Google News has 3 results (count’em):

(recommended) Judge Grills FEC about Debates:

(recommended) How the 2-party system could end:

Libertarian Debate News:

Additional note on third parties in US politics

To begin with, I support any action opening up 3rd party politics in the US very strongly. The US would benefit from third parties, if for no other reason than to stimulate the “main” parties to be more responsive to needs of voters, and to avoid the kinds of sclerosis that lead to the miserable election we had just now.

However, there are some important tactical considerations that deserve to be addressed, some known previously, and some which I only realized after the “Faithless Electors” episode this year. The following applies specifically to US presidential elections.

The well known consideration is the spoiler effect. Perot’s presence, campaigning against NAFTA ironically, effectively elected Clinton to win in 1992 and 1996 [update – unclear if true]. More controversially, Nader helped Bush get within inches of the goal line in FL, and he muscled his way through.

However, I think there is a positive side of the spoiler effect, that could be used, with care. Spoilers are kingmakers. The main parties do not want to lose, so they have adopted and will adopt third party agenda, when left with no other choice. It is a bit of a rough game to play, but the 2 entrenched parties are not especially kind about blocking out third parties. More to the point, our current election structure leaves no alternatives. If the US system allowed third parties (similar to European electoral systems, for example), it would not be necessary to rely on the spoiler effect.

The more novel (to me) consideration has to do with the asymmetries coming from the electoral college, in particular the endgame where the electoral college goes to the House of Representatives. Important assumption: for this discussion, I assume the state rules specifying winner-takes-all in the electoral college remain unchanged. The scenario is when either of two things happen: (1) third party votes are geographically concentrated in a small number of states (2) third party votes are evenly dispersed, but reach a threshold where they start taking a few states.

This is where it gets interesting. When a third party starts taking states, it is likely to send the election to the House of Representatives. There, the structure is, (once again!), winner-take-all-by-state, but with each state getting 1 vote as the Representatives form into state-delegations for that process.

So whichever of the main political parties controls most states (i.e., Rep) would win, regardless of whether the third party was coming from the left or the right.

Combining with the spoiler effect, you have a glaring asymmetry. A third party siphoning votes from the Democrats still has tremendous leverage to obstruct and thereby extract concessions from the D party. It sounds bad, but negotiated de-obstruction is exactly how the Senate works, for example.

However, a third party siphoning votes from the Republicans cannot make use of this scenario at all! For anti-establishment alternatives to the R party, especially ones whose support is geographically concentrated in a few states, the inside strategy is all they have.

Trump is not his own party, but he certainly is his own phenomenon. A wacky wildcard possibility future Republicans may play, to defend against inside takeover, is to encourage and co-opt a third party which is geographically localized to “purple” areas, and let them win electoral votes – to send elections to the House ???

The flip side is that third parties on the left should take this geographic game into account. Be serious about being a spoiler, and be smart about it too.

From a left-progressive point of view, the path I see going forward is the combination inside/outside strategy. Take the outside strategy by itself, and you end up receiving tremendous verbal abuse, and end up holding the bag and being blamed for being a spoiler. Inside strategy by itself, and you get shut down by primary a election process stacked against third parties, with the D establishment confident they can hold their left wing hostage by the logic of lesser-evil-ism. Taken together, the combination inside/outside strategy has substantial leverage to have a positive influence on the D party, and even more so if it concentrates its resources on swing states (obviously, but maybe not, given both Nader/Stein’s  “50 state strategy”, and Clinton’s “don’t-go-to-Wisconsin” strategy).


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