‘Challengers to Duopoly’Timely study of third parties in American politics

CHALLENGERS TO DUOPOLY: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two-Party Politics. By J. David Gillespie. University of South Carolina Press. 290 pages. $39.95.

Given the oft-expressed frustrations about the status quo in our national political system, which many citizens see as a growing paralysis, “Challengers to Duopoly” is a long-awaited but nonetheless timely follow-up to J. David Gillespie’s 1993 book, “Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two-Party America.”

Gillespie, professor of political science at The Citadel and the College of Charleston, prefaces his new book’s final chapter, “Looking Back, Looking Ahead,” with the signature line of Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog: “It’s not easy being green.” Indeed, Kermit’s rueful observation, extrapolated to refer to the challenges faced by all third-party and independent political groups (not just the Greens), is a recurrent theme throughout “Challengers to Duopoly.”

In it the author convincingly achieves his stated goal to offer “in one accessible volume a reasonably comprehensive look at third-party movements” in the United States.

For some informed readers familiar with the term “monopoly,” the term “duopoly” may seem esoteric. A duopoly is defined as “an economic or political condition in which power is concentrated in (only) two persons or groups.”

As for those two parties in which most of the political power in this country is concentrated, supporters of the Green Party, a fast-growing third party, have coined a characterization to describe them: the “corporate parties.”

Not surprisingly, the role of Ralph Nader, longtime crusader against the excesses of corporate power and for many the face of the third-party movement in America, is examined extensively by Gillespie. In fact, his index appears to cite Nader more often than any other individual.

Nader’s impact on the controversial 2000 presidential election is reviewed, with attention given not only to Democrats’ charges that Nader spoiled it for Al Gore, but also to Nader’s cogent rebuttal of those charges.

As for why third parties matter, Gillespie describes how, among other accomplishments, they have “broken down the barriers of gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation in nomination for high office.”

The nominations of Sarah Palin and Barack Obama are among the best-known cases in point. “Challengers to Duopoly” also notes many other less well-known but no less remarkable cases such as the Green Party’s nominations in 2008 of Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente, respectively, for president and vice president.

Gillespie enumerates a multitude of changes in our national life that, even if implemented by the “corporate parties,” had their genesis in proposals and platforms of third parties.

The most significant of these changes include ending slavery, giving women the right to vote, enacting child labor laws and national health care.

And, as for the latter, it is a third party, the Green Party, that has been most vocal in advocating what many see as the ultimate solution to our national health care inadequacies: a single-payer system such as has worked reasonably well in Canada.

“Challengers to Duopoly” may not be as gripping as a best-selling novel. Nevertheless, it is relevant, eminently well-written, and, especially for a work of political nonfiction, uncommonly engrossing.

Reviewer Eugene Platt, senior commissioner of the James Island Public Service District