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.
So a few days ago jasencomstock asked me a question to the effect of, “why do so many people like third parties so much”?
The context of his question derived from a series of queries I answered about the prospects of a third party emerging in the United States any time soon. In each case I noted I did not think a credible third party was going to arise in the near future, and explained why. But people kept asking.
So I kept thinking. Not about third parties—I stand by my analysis of why third parties aren’t on the way in. You can see those posts here, here and here. Rather, I kept thinking about the question of why so many people — NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman is perhaps the most famous of them all — want a third party so badly.
Two reasons pop out. First is simple political fantasy. People wish to believe that in a profoundly divided electorate, where large percentages of the population disagree about both WHAT is wrong and HOW to fix it, that someone somewhere has a magic formula that can bridge all the complexity and just make American politics work. The problem with American political life, then, isn’t structural, the result of people pursuing what they understand is their self interest at all costs. Instead, it’s technical: if only “they” would stop dividing us, we would all come together and do the right thing for America.
The second is laziness. What I mean by this is that hoping for a third party is in some ways the political equivalent of punting on third down: rather than get down and fight, one declares one’s prospects hopeless and waits for a new chance to play. Notably, almost no one calling for a new team actually wants to go to the trouble of creating it … they just want it to appear so they can join it. Or at least like its Facebook page.
The hard truth is that politics in democracies almost always reflect the social and political character of the nation being governed. We are a divided nation. We have political institutions that were designed from their inception to be inefficient and mostly ineffective. We have lost a willingness to compromise and to imagine a tomorrow that is worth shared sacrifice today. The combination is brutal. And no third party is going to make it all go away.