Post-Trump, Do We Really Want a Viable Third Party? Survey Says Yes, History Says GTFO
Lincoln was the last person to win the presidency as standard-bearer for a new party. And look what happened to him.
GOP adviser Juleanna Glover writes in The New York Times that more and more "disaffected Republicans are wondering whether, if they came up with a truly great candidate, they could jump-start a new party, just as the original Republicans did in the 1850s."
If they did, they would also be delivering something that a majority of all Americans (and a super-majority of younger voters) say they want: a viable third choice in politics.
A September Gallup poll found 61 percent of American the idea of a third major political party, the highest level of support Gallup had ever recorded. Young voters seem especially eager to junk the two-party system; NBC reported in November that 71 percent of millennials want another choice.
In a world in which Alabama voters elected a Democratic senator, all kinds of previously unimaginable possibilities make a new kind of sense. A third-party presidency in 2020 is no less likely today than the prospect of Donald Trump's election appeared to be two years ago.
Of course we want more choices! We can get any goddamned coffee drink we can dream up at the shittiest convenience store we walk into, we can choose among 50-plus gender identities on Facebook, we can instantly stream virtually any movie or TV show we hanker after. This is the golden age of personalization! Politics and the parts of our world that politics command (such as medical care and K-12 education) are the only places left where monopoly and duopoly rule. As political scientist Morris P. Fiorina notes in Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate, the Republicans and Democrats have become ideologically pure with virtually no overlap between them. Republicans are conservatives, which means they are anti-abortion, pro-defense and surveillance, anti-immigration, and yet ostensibly for small government. Democrats are the liberal party: pro-choice on abortion (and nothing else) and in favor of a more-expansive safety net, against gun rights, for heightened business regulations, and ostensibly against war and the surveillance state (as with the Republicans, the operative word here is ostensibly).
Fiorina finds that as the two major parties have moved to the ends of the spectrum, American voters have mostly remained centrist; independents are the single-largest bloc of voters. Most of us are OK with current levels of immigration, for instance, or want more; OK with current abortion laws that give unfettered access for the first trimester and less as a pregnancy develops; are suspicious of war and defense spending; and on and on. But we don't get to express those beliefs in the choices either party offers up. As a result, says Fiorina, we're in a new "Era of No-Decision," like the one that characterized national politics between 1874 and 1894. Not even two decades into the 21st century, we've seen as many switches in control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate as we saw in the last 50 years of the 20th century. Each party starts each national election with about 30 percent of the vote in its pocket and then fights over the 40 percent of voters who are up for grabs.
So yes yes yes to a third choice, if not necessarily the ones the Glover skylarks in the Times:
Ask your neighbor whether the idea of a Joe Biden-Ben Sasse independent ticket is appealing — with Mr. Biden pledging to serve only four years (to address concerns about his age). Jeff Flake or Bob Corker could be a contender.
Another possibility: a business executive with a record of sound leadership, moral authority and a quick wit: the financier David Rubenstein, Ginni Rometty of IBM or Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, perhaps? How about a centrist Republican governor like Larry Hogan of Maryland, John Kasich of Ohio or Charlie Baker of Massachusetts? And then, of course, there's Oprah.
None of these people is particularly exciting or interesting because they don't actually represent anything particularly new or different from what the parties already offer. It took eight years of serving as Barack Obama's vice-president to transform Joe Biden from a laff riot to an elder statesman and the transformation was never convincing (watch this). John Kasich was in the last Republican primary season and didn't do particularly well, partly because he represents the worst tendencies of both parties. He's an unapologetic big spender and social conservative who just signed a ban on abortion after 20 weeks, hates pot legalization, and continues to defend Medicare expansion and Common Core. Even Oprah isn't buying into her campaign these days; one two-minute speech at an awards show is a slender reed to hang a future on.
More meaningfully, in 2016, the Libertarian Party put together a presidential ticket with as much administrative experience as the GOP and Democratic tickets combined. Johnson/Weld set vote records for the LP but still never made it out of the pits and on to the racetrack itself.
The third-party dream is mostly that, a dream of a savior who will reboot the political machine. In a sense, this is what Trump pulled off in 2016, running less as a Republican and more as an independent who bent the GOP to his base desires. The Republicans have been mostly anti-immigrant for a long time (nativists sank George W. Bush's original DREAM Act in the mid-aughts) but the Donald added protectionism to the stew, along with a certain winking tolerance for what Ted Cruz denounced as "New York values" (when's the last time you heard Trump rail against the gays? Or support Jeff Sessions' new war on pot?). Bernie Sanders pushed Hillary Clinton so hard in the primaries she started face-planting into her getaway cars; more influentially, he's pushed the Democrats much farther to the progressive left. Like the Roman Empire in Edward Gibbon's telling, the parties will be torn down from internal strife, not a dashing pirate swinging in to the presidential debates on an sparkly new ideological chandelier.
That's simply a reality check, though, and not cause for depression. If the Trump presidency proves anything, it's that the near-future is non-linear and anything is possible (though not predictable). The trick is for the 40 percent of us who decide every election to bend either party to our wills the way that Trump has done with Republicans. Or, as Matt Welch and I wrote in The Declaration of Independents, create ad hoc alliances that coalesce over specific issues and policies rather than fixating on hostile takeovers of the last remaining duopoly in American life.