So people are always asking me if I think the time is ripe for a third party, and why can’t we have lots of parties, etc.
Ignoring the fact that we actually do have lots of parties—Idaho Republicans are different than Illinois Republicans, and South Carolina Democrats don’t look much like California Democrats whatever party label they use—the short answer to the first question—are we ripe for a third party?—is: no.
Historically, major American political parties have faded away only when one of two things happened: the constituents they represented declined in number to such an extent the party was no longer viable, or the political positions the party represented boxed the party into a position from which it could no longer remain effective.
The first explanation largely accounts for the decline of the Federalists in American political life in the 1810s and 20s. The Federalists were a relatively elite, relatively aristocratic party (at least in the American sense of that word), and as the nation grew in population, geographical size and electoral participants, the Federalists faded away. Eventually the Whig Party arose to represent some of the ideas the Federalists had fought for, but Whigs were not Federalists. The Federalists lacked the numbers they needed to succeed in a growing America.
The second explanation largely accounts for the collapse of the Whig Party in the 1850s. Whigs were relatively a pro-business, pro-government sponsored economic development party, but they were agnostic on the question of slavery. Whigs tried to elide the problem of slavery by not taking a clear position on the issue—an issue that grew in importance in the US as the country expanded into new territories and people wanted to take their slaves with them into the new territories. Democrats favored the expansion of slavery, while Whigs tried to avoid the controversy.
So where were the people who opposed slavery to turn for a party to represent their views? Eventually, they formed a new party—the Republican Party—in 1854, ran their first presidential candidate (in 1856), and won their first presidential election (in 1860). The Whig Party disappeared, overwhelmed by a political issue it could not address—slavery.
Since 1860, both the Democratic and Republican parties have survived, at least as names and labels, by coopting popular issues and bringing various new constituencies into their party orbit. In the 1890s Republicans became the party of federal regulation, seeking to use the power of the state to limit the power of abusive monopolies and predatory corporations during the Progressive Era. (Democrats remained a largely marginalized Southern party defending states’ rights and Jim Crow.) In the 1930s Democrats became the party of labor rights and economic stimulus in the New Deal. Democrats expanded their political base in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society; starting in the 1970s Republicans captured “old” Southern Democrats offended by civil rights. Republicans also started to win the votes of northern union Democrats who felt the Great Society gave too many benefits to people — usually minorities — who hadn’t earned them.
In any case, whatever the coalition of the moment, the “Democratic” and “Republican” parties have survived by evolving to adapt to the political realities of the moment.
So, then, is this process of adaptation likely to stop? Are both (or one) of the Democratic and Republican parties likely to stop evolving to adapt to contemporary political realities?
Clearly, if either party is likely to freeze in place today it’s the Republican Party. Republicans seem to be struggling to figure out how to offer a program that will appeal to today’s voters and today’s problems. But there’s nothing particularly new about parties struggling to make such changes. It’s a process, and always has been.
So if a third party rises, it seems to me that it will have to be a party that builds off Republican voters but offers some new take on an issue that the Republicans AND the Democrats haven’t offered. And I don’t really see an issue that can serve this end.
So will we have a meaningful third party in the near future?
Don’t bet on it.