Resist Those Calls for the Formation of a Third Party

By 01/09/2012

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A lot of people, unhappy with both the Obama Administration and the Republican alternative, are searching for a middle way. My friend and Education Next colleague, Chester E. Finn, Jr., gave voice to their frustrations a week or so ago when he asked others to join him in a third-party movement.

That I think would be a serious mistake.  As I explain in an op-ed appearing on Sunday in the Chicago Tribune, the two party system is one of the bulwarks of American democracy.  When parties are limited to two (apart from tiny splinter groups), the public, in presidential elections,  generally gets a choice between two consensus-building political leaders who have the skills needed to lead broad, heterogeneous parties with significant internal cleavages.  They may seem to be unprincipled flip-floppers, but they have the ability to sense the public’s thinking, the ability to listen to a wide range of perspectives, and the pragmatism necessary to adapt to new circumstances.

We all would like to vote for leaders whose thinking reflects our own thoughts exactly, and in a world of three, four or five parties, it becomes easier to find such “principled” leaders.  But the countries of the world that have a multi-party system (Greece, Israel, Italy, France, Spain, to mention only the most obvious cases in point) hardly offer models of effective government.

It is the job of policy analysts and interest group leaders, in education as in other policy areas,  to clarify the issues and propose striking alternatives.  It is the job of party leaders to translate those ideas into laws that the public as a whole can accept.

I, for one, will resist the song of the third-party siren.

-Paul Peterson

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