Joe Lieberman's Run as an Independent is Bad for the Democratic Party, But Is it Good for Democracy?

By MICHAEL C. DORF
Monday, Aug. 14, 2006

After losing last week's Connecticut Democratic primary to challenger Ned Lamont, Senator Joseph Lieberman announced that he would nonetheless run for re-election, albeit as an independent. Although many prominent Democrats had endorsed Lieberman during the primary, following tradition, those same Democrats now back Lamont, and have urged Lieberman to abort his independent run. Thus far, Lieberman has ignored the advice.

Lieberman has announced that if elected as an independent, he will continue to caucus with the Democrats, but his decision to stay in the race is nonetheless bad news for the Democratic Party. For one thing, he might end up playing the role of spoiler, drawing enough votes away from Lamont to hand the election to the Republican nominee, Alan Schlesinger. In addition, even if Lamont or Lieberman wins the general election, Lieberman's close alignment with President Bush and the Republicans on the Iraq war issue will undermine the ability of the Democrats to develop and project a consistent message.

What's bad for the Democratic Party, however, could be good for the voters of Connecticut and democracy more generally. Connecticut undoubtedly includes many voters who would prefer Lieberman to either Lamont or Schlesinger. If the point of democracy is to give citizens a choice of who represents them, one might think that each additional choice makes the election more democratic.

That turns out to be true sometimes, but not always. It all depends on the reason for a third-party run.

Why We Have a Two-Party System, More or Less

To understand how third-party candidacies function in American democracy, we first need to ask why we ordinarily see only two major-party candidates. The key, as political scientists have long known, lies in the fact that we tend to have winner-take-all elections, rather than proportional representation.

In a proportional representation system, seats in the legislature are distributed in proportion to the number of votes (above some relatively low threshold, such as five percent) a party receives in the general election. For example, if roughly ten percent of the population favors a fringe party--the Greens, say--they can vote their conscience and know that their representatives will be able to strike bargains in the legislature.

By contrast, with winner-take-all elections, it makes little sense to vote for a candidate unless you think that candidate will win the most votes. As a consequence, small parties tend to draw little or no support from voters who do not want to throw their votes away. Because, in general, no more than two candidates can vie for the lead, winner-take-all elections tend to produce a two-party system.

Indeed, the relationship between winner-take-all elections and the two-party system is so strong that many political scientists consider it a "law"--in particular, "Duverger's Law," after its discoverer, Maurice Duverger.

To be sure, exceptions to Duverger's Law sometimes arise, but they rarely produce a stable array of three or more parties over time. More typically, third party candidacies arise because of some defect in the choices offered by the two major parties. These defects come in several, sometimes overlapping, varieties. Understanding the possibilities will help us figure out whether Joe Lieberman's independent candidacy serves to remedy or create a democratic defect.

The Contributions Third Parties Make--Even When They Lose

Neither major party in a two-party system tends to innovate very much. Why would they? The whole point of two umbrella parties is to appeal to the great middle of public opinion, and, except in times of grave crisis, the median voter will likely regard bold new plans with suspicion.

Yet a third party with nothing to lose can bring a fringe idea onto the agenda by championing it. If the idea gets traction, it may propel the third party past one of the major parties, thereby causing a realignment. The clearest American example of this phenomenon occurred in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, when the Republican Party emerged to oppose expansion of slavery into the territories, and eventually eclipsed the Whig Party, which soon thereafter became extinct.

Much more commonly, however, a third party puts an idea on the political agenda, and then, if the idea proves popular, one or both of the existing major parties co-opts the idea. In recent years, that occurred most famously when Ross Perot campaigned quite strongly on a platform that emphasized deficit reduction and campaign finance reform. After winning a narrow victory in a three-way race in 1992, Bill Clinton embraced deficit reduction, and thereafter both parties embraced campaign finance reform. (Neither major party's leadership, however, signed onto Perot's other main issue: opposition to NAFTA.) Campaigning under the banner of his newly formed "Reform Party" in 1996, Perot ran a weaker race than he had in 1992, and he and his party have, since then, disappeared almost entirely from the political landscape.

Third parties, then, are able to put ideas on the national agenda, but rarely to gain electoral success for themselves. As historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1955: "Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die."

Joe Lieberman Will Not Play a Third Party Candidate's Traditional Role

In sum, third parties and their candidates sometimes serve a useful function in bringing to public attention issues that the major parties have ignored. But that point can hardly justify Joe Lieberman's independent campaign for the Senate.

Lieberman has no signature issue or program. Rather, he claims that simply by virtue of his experience representing Connecticut, and his support for most positions that Democrats favor, he can do a better job than Ned Lamont. Neither point is convincing.

First, if Lieberman's experience alone were sufficient to justify continued government service, then every incumbent ever to lose a primary should then respond by running as an independent.

Second, while Lieberman may get high ratings from environmental, civil rights and other organizations that generally support Democrats, the actual Democratic voters of Connecticut evidently concluded that Lieberman's support for President Bush's conduct of the war overshadowed other issues. Lieberman's suggestion that he can better serve Democrats than can Lamont rings hollow.

Fed Up With "Republicrats?" Another Function Third-Party Candidates Can Serve

In addition to bringing new ideas into the political arena, third parties can also provide a useful outlet for voters whose views place them far outside the mainstream.

To most Americans, the differences between Democrats and Republicans on issues of taxation and social welfare are substantial. But to those on the far left--who believe in massive redistribution of wealth and perhaps even public control of the means of production--or the far right--who believe in abolishing nearly all social welfare functions of the government--the similarities between the parties dwarf their differences. Neither major party represents the views of these polar voters.

Voters who feel sufficiently alienated by what they perceive as the similarities between the two major parties do not fear supporting a "spoiler." Ralph Nader, running for President in 2000, summed up this attitude nicely by referring to Democrats and Republicans alike as "Republicrats." He also deliberately conflated the major party candidates' names, calling them "Gush" and "Bore."

To mainstream Democrats, Nader's 2000 campaign was irresponsible and infuriating, because mainstream Democrats viewed the differences between Bush and Gore as enormous. But to those voters whose own views were far distant from those of both Bush and Gore, the opportunity to cast a vote for a candidate whom they affirmatively supported--rather than one they regarded as the slightly lesser of two evils--outweighed what they regarded as the small harm of electing the slightly greater evil.

Accordingly, third-party candidates can provide opportunities for political participation by those most disaffected with what they regard as a narrow range of choices provided by the two major parties.

But clearly, Joe Lieberman cannot claim to be running as an independent to give voice to voters outside the mainstream positions of both major parties. Indeed, he has claimed the opposite. The parties, he says, represent the extremes, and he is a centrist.

Combating Political Polarization: The Case for Centrist Third Party Campaigns

There are precedents for centrist third-party campaigns. Ross Perot was, in important respects, politically in between Bill Clinton and the first President Bush. Likewise, John Anderson ran as an independent in 1980 in part because he thought that his party's standard-bearer, Ronald Reagan, was to the right of the party generally. He sought to split the difference between Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

Moreover, in recent years, evidence has accumulated to show that the parties are more highly polarized than the country as a whole.

To be sure, the phenomenon is worse in the House of Representatives than in the Senate, because state legislatures armed with sophisticated computer maps routinely gerrymander their states into districts that are safe for incumbent Republicans and Democrats alike; such gerrymandering cannot occur for Senate seats because states vote as a whole.

But even without gerrymandering, polarization occurs in the Senate as well. Partly, this reflects genuine red state/blue state divisions. Partly, it reflects the primary process. More Americans vote in general elections than in primary elections; the ones who vote in primaries tend to care more about politics; and those who care most about politics tend to be the most ideologically-committed. Thus, successful candidates in the primaries will tend to be those who most strongly support the views held by party activists: candidates, says Joe Lieberman, like Ned Lamont.

Once in Congress, strong partisans of one major party do not much cooperate with strong partisans of the other major party. Yet government is the art of compromise, and so the lack of cooperation leads to gridlock. It would be better, say Senator Lieberman and others, to elect representatives who are centrists, willing to cross the aisle and work together on a bipartisan basis.

Lieberman's Peculiar Brand of Centrism

No doubt Lieberman has a point, but he overstates it.

Where common interests exist, even strong partisans work together. For example, Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy have repeatedly co-sponsored legislation on such matters as education and health care, despite fiercely supporting their respective parties in other matters.

And in any event, Senator Lieberman's particular brand of centrism looks more like capitulation than compromise. Echoing the Bush Administration's talking points, he has more than once suggested that opponents of the war in Iraq lend unwitting support to our enemies. It is difficult to see exactly how that counts as centrism.

Indeed, it is not as though Senator Lieberman has worked to hammer out foreign policy compromises with President Bush and Senate Republicans. For his part, President Bush has consistently sought to conduct foreign policy on his own, engaging in precious little consultation with Republicans in Congress, much less Democrats.

The Wrong Messenger: Lieberman's History Shows He's Not a Credible Centrist

In any event, Joe Lieberman's case for bipartisanship is only slightly less disingenuous than his announcement last week that he would run as an independent for the sake of the Democratic Party. At each crucial moment in his Senate career, Lieberman has made plain that the cause about which he cares most deeply is Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman professes to lionize the generally liberal Senator who crosses party lines to vote for good policies, regardless of their party of origin. But if he really held this ideal, he never would have run for the Senate in 1988. That year, Lieberman narrowly defeated incumbent liberal Republican Lowell Weicker, who had been a maverick in his own party, and thus the very kind of politician that Lieberman should have worked to keep in the Senate.

Then, in 2000, Lieberman potentially jeopardized Democratic control of the Senate by insisting on running simultaneously for Vice President and Senator. Lyndon Johnson had done the same thing in 1960, but there was a crucial difference: at the time, Texas had a Democratic governor, who appointed another Democrat to fill Johnson's Senate seat. In 2000, in contrast, Connecticut had a Republican governor, who would have appointed a Republican to the seat Lieberman would have vacated had he become Vice President.

Thus, for my part, I can't shake the suspicion that behind Lieberman's disarming wit lies the soul of an opportunist. I hope he proves me wrong by dropping his independent candidacy soon.

There are times when the two-party system fails the voters. This is not one of them.


Michael C. Dorf is the Michael I. Sovern Professor of Law at Columbia University. He is the author of No Litmus Test: Law and Politics in the Twenty-First Century.