The Hapless Third Party Choice

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 23, 2022

Dissatisfaction with our politics is rampant, as we know.

Not only don’t we like the people, their ages and leanings, or their policies, we don’t like the divisions they promote. We allow polls to ask whether “the country is headed in the wrong direction” when that question could mean anything and lead in totally opposite conclusions: You don’t like rising prices, I don’t like censoring books.

Once again, we’re hearing that the prescription for what ails us is a third national party that neither represents MAGA-dominated Republicans nor overly progressive Democrats.

But a series of recent articles already is decrying the emergent Forward Party, announced by the former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, the former governor Christine Todd Whitman and the former congressman David Jolly.

Liberal columnist Jamelle Bouie in The New York Times and longtime Republican operative Tim Miller, now a never-Trumper who writes for The Bulwark, are among those already claiming early doom for the effort.

The political demise for very conservative Rep. Liz Cheney — or the launch of her new national self as a confirmed Donald Trump opponent — solely for her attempts to bring accountability to the acts of the former president, is another hint that there is some desire for an alternative, however slight.

What all the pundits say regardless of political orientation is that third parties just have not worked in America, and that the practical steps required to succeed are beyond us.

Once again, we find ourselves stuck in a system we don’t like, choosing split Congresses that cannot act, beholden to an Electoral College presidential system that is rewarding to candidates who cannot win a popular majority, and giving more vote power to rural areas than to cities.

To that mix, you can now add in popular support for authoritarian leadership, court support to eliminate selected liberties and enforce state mandates over federal rules, and the shakeout of election denial practicalities in a growing number of states.

Practical Obstacles

According to Miller, rich donors have provided $50 million to try and make a No Labels ticket happen. But for practical reasons as well as political ones, both Miller and Bouie agree that the effort towards a third party will fail once again, as it has through American history. The difficulties of raising money, getting through all the procedural thickets to get on ballots in 50 states and organizing national campaigns have been fatal to several prior attempts to diversify.

“It will wither on the vine as the latest in a long history of vanity political parties,” writes Bouie. “Why am I so confident that the Forward Party will amount to nothing? Because there is a recipe for third-party success in the United States, but neither Yang nor his allies have the right ingredients.

For Miller, this means identifying enough anti-Trump voters who are not already leaning towards Democratic candidates and promoting a handful of issues that could attract the attention of voters who would otherwise vote for Trump.

Maybe that means eliminating regulations for corporate behavior or blocking immigration or promoting the military — but without the behavioral excesses of Trump. But then that is how the would-be Trump successors like Ron DeSantis of Florida or Greg Abbott of Texas already promote themselves.

“In review, the voters you need to attract: Voted for Trump. Like Trump. Hate Never Trump Republican Traitors. Hate “Woke” Culture. Are mad at people who drive a Prius with a “Coexist” sticker while drinking their coffee coolattas.”

History of Failures

To Bouie, the fatal flaw for this Forward Party is its essential claim to “reflect the moderate, common-sense majority” by not being “ideologically too narrow.” He thinks that Yang-Whitman-Jolly call that “voters are calling for a new party now more than ever” is not reason enough to cull the needed votes to win.

It’s a misreading of American history, he says. “The most successful third parties in American history have been precisely those that galvanized a narrow slice of the public over a specific set of issues. They further polarized the electorate, changed the political landscape, and forced the established parties to reckon with their influence.”

Of course, the least successful efforts have simply siphoned votes from a Democrat or Republican who might have succeeded without the third party running.

To succeed in this American system, a party needs to understand the rules of the game. Winning a majority or even a plurality means having a message — or personality — that will draw. Then add in the complexities of winning the Electoral College politics.

We can all agree that Andrew Yang or Christine Todd Whitman is unlikely to be that personality.

In Bouie’s thinking a successful third party isn’t necessarily one that wins national office, but one that influences the programs of one of the two major parties.

Neither writer comes up with a winning formula for a third party or a suitably centrist candidate, though Miller talks, disparagingly, about Joe Manchin as a presumed model.

“There are a lot of things about Manchin’s candidate skills that would make him a terrible presidential contender. But he’s about right for the type of ideological profile (a third party would be) looking for: An anti-PC, lib-triggering, economic populist who wants to stick it to the bankers is the ballpark of what might conceivably work. Forgive me for presuming, but Manchin is not generally the person people seem to have in mind when they ask me for a moderate who can win.”

Other than making people feel there is more choice, it’s unlikely that a third party is the practical answer to None of the Above.

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www.terryschwadron.wordpress.com

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