Thursday, June 01, 2006

Is a third party in our future?

Peggy Noonan feels a change a-comin’, and to her that change includes a third political party in the United States. I agree with her whole heartedly that there is a very disconnected feel in the air right now, but I’m not so sure that I agree with her opinion that we are on the cusp of the development of a lasting third party.

It is not unusual in American politics that the country occasionally develops third party fever. Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, John Anderson, Strom Thurmond, and Theodore Roosevelt all were third party candidates that people easily remember from the last 100 years. The love affair with the third party always wears off pretty quickly, though, when people realize that most third parties only serve to give the oppose party an easy electoral majority. Sometimes third parties can alter the course of the parent party, but often as not they do not even accomplish that. There are several ways in which a viable third party may develop, and none of them resemble the third parties of the last 100 years, and all will have their own set of problems.

The most logical place to look for a constituency for a third party is in the center of American politics. It is in that middle ground where a third party may be able to siphon off enough Democrats and Republicans from the big two to form some sort of rough parity. Divisive as politics in the United States sometimes seems, there is remarkable balance in our system, and our politics always move toward maintaining that balance. For a breakaway party to work, it is going to have to weaken both existing parties a bit to prevent its constituency from moving back to the status quo 2 or 4 years later. The problem is that the middle of American politics is not a place of reasoned positions but of compromises. Any new third party that develops from the political center will either have to struggle to maintain morale while molding the positions of the left and right into compromises, or they will have to break that paradigm and find a way to develop centrist positions that do not splinter back off former Democrats or Republicans. Neither one of those would be an easy task.

Another possibility is the Libertarian party. Libertarians are unique in that they already cross the traditional political spectrum, and would thus already be well placed to draw power away from both parties. The Libertarian party has an inherent flaw when it comes to party politics, though. Many Libertarians are so independent and strong willed that they do not “play well with others,” even within their own party. Libertarians tend to be an “army of one,” if you will, and melding them together along with former Democrats and Republicans to form coherent platforms that play the party politics game would be a Herculean task. The individualism of Libertarianism may make it difficult to ever create a strong party or to recruit enough members to maintain it.

A third possibility, and if the status quo changes anytime soon, perhaps most likely, may actually be the formation of a third and a fourth party. The four party system would require a near simultaneous break in both parties. It has to occur at the same time because if one party cracks before the other, the remaining whole party will come together as they salivate over an electoral feast. The conditions are certainly ripe for this, as we are in a near perfect storm of frustrations in both parties. The Kos Progressives are trying to exert their new found strength over the Democratic party, and Conservatives are trying with much frustration to steer the Republican ship back onto a conservative heading. If this would occur, it would create strong ideological parties on both the right and the left, and leave less ideological Republican and Democratic parties in place that are more concerned with political expediencies. This double split is still highly unlikely, though, and if it occurred it could conceivably have serious unintended consequences for both Progressives and Conservatives. Minus their core ideologies, the remaining Democratic and Republican parties could easily ally with one another or merge, creating a three party system where one majority party is everything that Conservatives and Progressives hate.

This post is, without a doubt, a reasoned guess. Given that, I’d like to hear from a lot of people in the comments as to what you think both of the third party possibilities, and also on my thoughts from this post.

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