Watching Zephyr Teachout on "Inside City Hall" talk with our Errol Louis last night made me wonder about the meaning of third political parties in New York.
I remember going into the voting booth with my mother as a small child – like sneaking into a confessional – and seeing the wide array of different party symbols and my mom explaining to me that there are other options besides the Democratic and Republican parties in the state.
But with all of this wheeling and dealing over party endorsements in the race for governor, it's becoming unclear why these little fiefdoms exist – except to mirror the political machinations of the two larger parties.
The selling point of these organizations is that they are the true moral compass for Democrats and Republicans, standing for ideological purity while others are forging messy compromises in smoke-filled rooms. In its heyday, the Liberal Party was about "good government" while the Conservative Party reached its zenith by actually electing one of its own, James Buckley, to the Senate in 1970.
But watching the Liberal Party cha-cha with Rudy Giuliani over the years and looking at the aftermath of the Working Family Party's lost weekend with Andrew Cuomo, it's unclear if these parties exist to give voters more options or to simply empower the party leaders themselves. And let's not even talk about the Independence Party which has turned into something rich and strange after being launched largely as a vehicle to aid Ross Perot's run for president.
There is an appeal to the parliamentary system in Europe where single-issue parties exist and sometimes take part in coalition governments. You're an animal-rights activist? There's a party for you. You're a neo-Fascist kook? Sign right up to your little group. These parties can act as a safety valve in a democracy, letting people feel included and be a purer part of the process where issues and solutions are often watered-down in sluggish compromise.
And that was the idea here in New York, where third-parties were supposed to be the wake-up call for the big-boy Democrats and Republicans. Instead, they're often engaging in the same kind of politics that are already putting many voters to sleep.
It might be worthwhile for New York to follow the lead of 42 other states and end fusion endorsements – ensuring that each party picks its own candidate and that candidate can run only on that one ballot line. It would broaden the debate and prevent big-name politicians from pandering to win the support of the groups. After all, what's the point of throwing a party if every candidate is invited?