A review of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America, by Micah L. Sifry

Former Nation editor Micah Sifry is an unabashed proponent of 100-proof, pure Left politics. But he condemns both the Democratic and Republican Parties as a "duopoly," wanting something better than their messy coalition-building and compromise. Thus his interest in third parties. Spoiling for a Fight is part tract, part chronicle, and part inspirational self-help book. It would be twice as good if it were half as long. But it is good; Sifry has patience for the nuts and bolts of party-building, and persuasively argues that the third-party phenomenon deserves serious attention.

Though Sifry focuses on the 1992-2000 presidential races, he sets the stage for his account with the story of Jesse Ventura's 1998 Reform Party campaign for Minnesota governor. On election night, Ventura announced that he had shocked the world when he defeated the Democratic and Republican candidates. Sifry portrays the race as a portent of dissatisfaction with the major parties in Minnesota and elsewhere. But in the 2002 election, Ventura was through, and Republicans posted their strongest showing since the "Minnesota massacre" of 1978—a notable accomplishment in a state that has long been a Democratic stronghold. Perhaps Ventura's brief moment was more a harbinger of waning Democratic strength than of waxing third-party importance.

The heart of Sifry's book is the rise and fall of the Reform Party and the rise (so far) of the Green Party. He traces the Reform Party back to retired financial planner Jack Gargan's "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" newspaper advertisements in 1990 and his formation of Throw the Rascals Out. Enter Ross Perot, who seized the moment to become the self-financed independent presidential candidate who gave voice to the anger of Gargan's troops. While we are all familiar with Perot the candidate, Sifry shows us his skills as an infighter seeking to control his organizational bases. Perot parlayed his strengths and President Bush's weaknesses into the best showing of any independent candidate for president since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. But two years later, Perot voters had already returned to the G.O.P. and helped make history again, electing the first Republican Congress in 40 years. Repeating the old pattern, one of the major parties had quickly absorbed the discontent that had manifested itself in Perot's 1992 campaign.

Sifry dutifully chronicles Perot's eventual founding of the Reform Party in 1995, despite repeated denials that he would do so. Then in 1996 Perot got less than half the popular vote he had won four years earlier. Frenzied struggles for control fueled the rapid decline of the party, which bottomed out with Pat Buchanan's nomination in 2000. Sifry isn't exaggerating when he reports the death of the Reform Party, and despite his third-party enthusiasm, he sheds no tears writing its obituary.

By contrast, Sifry eagerly recounts the history of the Green Party in the United States. A German import dating from 1984, the party's predecessor state committees coalesced in the early '90s into a highly ideological national organization that then split and gave birth to the electorally-oriented Association of State Green Parties. The party first recruited Ralph Nader to run for president under its banner back in 1996, but Nader's candidacy was so ineffectual that readers will be forgiven for not remembering. Nader's star turn in the 2000 election was also a failure, according to the author, but it was only a failure when measured against Nader's own ambitious goal of winning five percent of the vote (he won just under three). Still, the Green Party remains the biggest and most significant third-party in the United States, and, as the author makes clear, is profoundly Marxist in all but name.

In the end, Sifry remains guardedly optimistic about third parties. Yet the popular vote of the third-party presidential candidates fell precipitously in 1996 and 2000, following the high tide of 1992. Despite Sifry's own will to believe, Spoiling for a Fight suggests that, in a country split politically almost 50-50, the fight may have gone out of third-party movements.