Third Parties are under the gun. A highly touted bill, “HR 1: For the People Act,” is now before Congress. It has already been passed by the House. It multiplies by five times the amount candidates for president must raise to qualify for matching funds. It replaces the present required amount, which is  $5,000 from each of 20 states, to a sky-rocketing $25,000 from each of 20 states.

Though the present amount is reachable by third parties, the projected one is way beyond their reach. They simply do not have the resources. The two major parties do.

The excellent provisions for greater democracy are obscured, indeed blind-sided. By a sleight of hand, the major parties and especially the Democratic Party build their own nest and destroy third-party competition.

Not only will the bill do grievous harm to third parties in any given election, it also spells the death knell of the traditional American Party system as a whole, of which third parties are an essential part. Though often referred to, even by many political scientists, as a two-party system, this is in error.

Third parties have been and are a corrective of the tendency of the major parties to get into a bitter factional dispute and thence into gridlock. The common good, and even the perception of a common good, is sacrificed again and again. Third parties advocate a different perspective. They provide a counterpoint and thus a basis for shaking the two major parties out of the doldrums. A third party can bring a refreshing breeze that blows away clouds of cant and foul invective. It can be a force for balance within the party system as a whole.

But even more than a corrective, third parties provide a response mechanism, a channel, for the people at large to form a political force that deals resolutely with urgent problems which are not being sufficiently addressed, or not addressed at all. A historic example is the rise of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party in the 1850s over slavery. The existing parties were in gridlock over it and nothing got done. Consequently, things got worse and worse. Lincoln and the new party ended the gridlock and the government got going again.

Unfortunately, some civic organizations and political commentators push for the bill, thinking they are acting for the progressive principles contained in HR1. They wrap themselves in the garments of the Common Good. Actually, they reveal themselves as ardent partisans of a Democratic Party that is riddled with factional strife. These advocates are doing harm to the meaning and practice of the American party system.

The existence of third parties is a crucial part of the system. Without them, the major parties are without the corrective and responsive functions of third parties. I ask and plead with our Representatives and Senators to preserve the progressive features and truly democratic principles of HR1. Eliminate the poisonous fine print. Restore the present traditional qualifying requirements of matching funds.

John Rensenbrink is a professor emeritus at the Department of Government and Legal Affairs at Bowdoin College, and is a co-founder of the Maine and national Green parties and former Senate candidate. He lives in Topsham.

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