Is big money really “rigging” the game in the two-party system? Does America need a viable third party? Are voters so fed up with the political backstabbing that they feel alienated from the election process? Those were among the issues discussed by some of the nation’s most prominent experts on U.S. party politics at a conference sponsored by Fordham University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the political science department. Speakers at the conference, “Political Parties and the Future of American Politics: An Assessment at the Millennium” gave differing viewpoints on how the American political system is succeeding or failing, and what reforms are needed. In a lively and provocative address, key note speaker Theodore J. Lowi of Cornell University considered a U.S. system stripped of the “paternalistic state and federal laws” he maintains have unfairly perpetuated the two-party system and prevented the emergence of a viable third party.

“First, my imagination tells me that the Democratic and Republican parties would remain the two most important parties,” Lowi told about 60 participants at the Nov. 5 conference, held at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. “But three- and four-party systems would develop in a number of cities and states as soon as the legal trash is swept away.” This, he predicted, would lead over time to improved voter turnout, greater electoral competition, policy-focused rather than candidate-centered campaigning and a reining in of excessive campaign spending.

Lowi’s paper and those of the nine other conference speakers, from universities throughout the northeast, are to be compiled in a book, “The Future of American Politics,” edited by Fordham political science professors Richard Fleisher, Jeffrey Cohen and Paul Kantor. A final conclusionary chapter, written by Cohen and Kantor, will identify trends and speculate on the future direction the parties are likely to take. Among the themes it will address are the degree to which “voters are becoming more alienated and disgusted with government and how this has affected party politics,” Kantor said. “The dominant political rivalry is becoming down and dirty, and it’s not benefiting the voter at all.” In comments after his address, Lowi denounced the high cost of getting onto the ballot as a third-party candidate, saying it has rigged the game in favor of big money. He cited Patrick J. Buchanan’s recent defection from the Republican Party, saying Buchanan’s leap to the Reform Party was unlikely to bring him any closer to the 2000 presidential nomination. “It’s a quick sand. They’re telling all these guys they can jump out and get the nomination when all they’re likely to do is sink,” Lowi said. Only those candidates able to raise the $50 million or so needed to get onto the ballot in each state will succeed, he added.

“For Trump that’s petty cash … Not for Buchanan.” Lowi predicted the political group most likely to emerge as a successful third party would not be the Reform Party but rather the Christian Coalition inside the Republican Party. “The Christian Coalition could become the third party they have the organization and the financial base: 2 million members who pay dues,” Lowi said. “They are the largest membership party in the history of democracy.”