Thesis: In the United States, third parties always fail. But, on rare occasions in our history, with the right conditions, a New Party can successfully gut, destroy and replace one of the two major parties. This could be that time.
Here are two steps necessary to make a New Party a Major Party:
Step One: Do not call your New Party a “Third Party.” Calling it a “Third Party” guarantees failure.
History tells us that U.S. Third Parties always fail. Meaning they:
- Do not fulfill the political objectives of their supporters.
- Never become a significant vehicle for wielding long term political power in our federal government.
- Are always either electorally irrelevant – or –
- Only have an impact on an election by siphoning votes from the major party candidate that is closer to their own political position and spoiling the election in favor of the major candidate that is less likely to be sympathetic to their political policy perspective.
- Green Party – Mostly irrelevant. In 2016 Jill Stein arguably spoiled the election in favor of Donald Trump. In 2000 Ralph Nader definitely spoiled the election in favor of George W. Bush.
- Unity ’06 / Unity ’08 / Americans Elect – Irrelevant, Irrelevant and Irrelevant
- Libertarian Party – Always irrelevant.
- Reform Party – In 1992 Ross Perot spoiled the election in favor of Bill Clinton. Since then – irrelevant.
- Independent Party – In 1980 John Anderson garnered 5.7 million votes, no electoral votes and had no impact on the election result.
- American Independent Party – In 1968 George Wallace garnered 9.9 million votes, 46 Electoral votes and no impact on the election result.
- State’s Rights “Dixiecrat” Party – In 1948 Strom Thurmon garnered 1.2 million votes, 39 Electoral votes and no impact on the election result.
- Progressive – In 1948 Henry Wallace garnered 1.1 million votes and no impact on the election result. In 1924 Robert LaFollette garnered 4.8 million votes, 13 electoral votes and no impact on the election result.
If the objective is to be a meaningful political player that can shape policy in our system – failures one and all. But what about everybody’s favorite Third Party candidate – Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party? Good question. I’ll answer by plagiarizing myself …
“Consider the 1912 Bull Moose campaign of Teddy Roosevelt. In Teddy Roosevelt we had a highly qualified, wildly popular ex-President who also served as Vice-President, Governor of New York, and Secretary of the Navy. He was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a true war hero, and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He championed a platform rooted in the same populist, centrist politics that is the very essence of the Moderate / Centrist political strategy today.
And what was the result? He garnered 27% of the popular vote, handily beat the Republican Party candidate in both popular and electoral votes, but nevertheless succeeded only in splitting Republican Party votes and ensuring the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The Bull Moose Party lasted exactly one election cycle. Ultimately, like Ralph Nader and Ross Perot, Teddy Roosevelt’s impact was nothing more than just another spoiler who sabotaged the major party candidate closer to their own political position. If Teddy Roosevelt could not get elected President on a third party ticket in the United States, no one can.”
Stipulated: Third Parties have an important role to play in our political show. They can bring visibility to and raise the profile of specific issues or under-represented constituencies. To the extent that they are successful, those issues and that constituency will generally be targeted and subsumed by one of the major parties. This benefits that constituency, but as a consequence, the third party itself usually evaporates or is exiled to irrelevance.
Yes, they provide a useful, educational, and important service in our political discourse. But I suspect the proponents of these parties were hoping for more than that limited outcome. All Third Parties fail.
Corollary: If you don’t want your new Centrish Party to fail, don’t be a third party. To call a new party a ‘third party’ is a failure of imagination on a grand scale.
I’ve spent years on my blog and social media citing political science scholarship and historical precedent to show the utter futility of third party efforts. Seven years ago I was arguing with Solomon Kleinsmith – our host and Editor In Chief of this Uniters.org site – on the very topic of how delusional any third party centrist effort would be. That was then. This is now.
While third parties always fail, history shows that there are circumstances when a new party can emerge, gut and completely replace one of the top two legacy parties. That happened most recently in 1856 when the new Republican Party first ran against the Democrats and Whigs. Within two election cycles the new Republican Party dominated the federal government and the Whigs were consigned to the dustbin of history. Which brings us to…
Step Two: Attack, eviscerate and destroy a Legacy Party by capturing their followers and defeating their candidates.
It’s not enough for a new party to win. An old party must die. If you want a new party to succeed, don’t start with limited goals that guarantee you will lose before you start. Start with the knowledge of what it’s going to take to succeed. This is the existential test of a new party. It’s kill or be killed. Don’t pretend otherwise.
The political science term for this kind of tectonic shift is “partisan realignment.” The last major partisan realignment occurred when the new Republicans replaced the old Whigs. Can we learn any lessons from the history of the Republican Party emerging as a dominant Party in 1860 and apply that to what it would take for a New Party to succeed today?
Philip Wallach is a Senior Fellow at the R Street Think Tank and has done a lot of analysis on Partisan Realignment (Same surname – no relation. To avoid confusion I’ll use his initials “PW” when citing him in this post). A year ago, as a Fellow at the Brookings Institute, he wrote an article that examined exactly this question – “Prospects for partisan realignment: Lessons from the demise of the Whigs. What America’s last major party crack-up in the 1850s tells us about the 2010s.”
PW analyzes the key factors that led to the destruction of the Whigs and looks at how applicable they are to the Republicans and Democrats today (as of March, 2017). He concludes there are indeed parallels, but there is no polarizing “cross-cutting” moral issue today that mobilizes Americans with the same intense passion that slavery represented to Americans in the 1850s. It was that issue that finally ripped the Whigs apart. And yet …
“… it was difficult for Whigs, in the wake of Zachary Taylor’s election, to imagine that their party, still basking in an unexpected victory, could become obsolete over the next eight years. There are many reasons why the GOP and Democrats may avoid that fate. But it is failure of historical and political imagination to think they are necessarily immune.” – PW
In March, 2017 – when he wrote this – conventional wisdom was that Donald Trump would grow into the role and pivot to some semblance of Presidential norms. That didn’t happen. I’d submit the deepening and polarizing partisan chasm created and amplified by Donald Trump’s behavior and the national focus on Donald Trump himself may be – in and of itself – a mobilizing and moralizing fissure sufficient to fracture and kill the GOP.
PW’s list of factors that destroyed the Whigs provide a handy checklist that we can monitor and update since he wrote the article. I won’t repeat all of his historical comparisons between the Whigs and current political parties in this post. It’s a great article that you should read it in it’s entirety. I will, however, use his factors as a checklist to update and compare the degree to which the GOP is barreling headlong down the same path as the Whigs.
A. “Decline in importance of traditional lines of contestation“
The Republican Party electoral fusion strategy traditionally stood on the three pillars of security, fiscal and social conservatism. They contested Democrats on fiscal responsibility, spending restraint, balancing the budget, limiting the size of government, law and order, defending family values, and projecting a strong military with a muscular foreign policy response to authoritarian adventurism worldwide, particularly against the USSR or Russia.
In the last two months, the unified Republican government passed a budget and tax bill that each blew a $1 trillion dollar hole in the debt and deficit. It was reported that the President’s lawyer paid a porn star $130K in hush money before the election to cover up an alleged extramarital affair. The President and his surrogates in the administration and Congress publicly undermined our Intelligence agencies, the FBI and Justice Department.
The administration declined to impose sanctions on Russia for their meddling in our elections and violating Ukraine sovereign borders. The sanctions were mandated by an overwhelming bipartisan congressional majority of our democratically elected representatives and ignored by the President. That’s just the last two months and that qualifies as a serious “decline in traditional lines of contestation”.
B. “Increased importance of issues dividing party, profusion of intra-party factions”
The GOP Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives opposed the Senate and President’s budget. Traditional security-centric conservatives in Congress like Lindsay Graham and John McCain have publicly stated the President’s policies are doing the work of foreign adversaries. They are routinely attacked as disloyal “RINOs” by the President and his surrogates for challenging Russian interference in our elections and supporting our Justice Department and federal enforcement institutions.
The President’s most ardent media supporters are stirring up the base of President Trump’s support in opposition to the President advocating a path to citizenship for 1.8 million dreamers. Libertarianish Republican Senator Rand Paul closed down the unified Republican government with parliamentary procedures to block a budget bill supported by the Republican President and the majority of his party.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake wrote a book calling the Republican President a threat to our Democratic institutions and regularly takes to the Senate floor to criticize his actions. A center right bi-partisan coalition in the House of Representatives are crafting policy initiatives independent of the Party or President. Looks like a lot of intra-party factions to me.
C. “Outsider infiltration and broken conventions”
There is no greater evidence of outside infiltration of the Republican Party than Republican outsider President Donald Trump and his supporters. He and they are not conservative and not Republican by any conventional understanding of those terms. They are best understood as a populist cult of personality that has hijacked the GOP and to the degree they control the party, traditional conservatives and Republicans will not have a home in the Republican Party.
Any other examples of “outsider infiltration” of the GOP pales in comparison to the Trump faction that is now in control of the party apparatus and to cite additional examples would be “carrying coals to Newcastle.”
D. “Ferment of third party activity”
“A decisive factor in the Whigs’ decline was the rise of third party alternatives, including the Liberty and Free Soil parties focused on slavery and the American Party channeling nativist energy. The emergence of these parties meant that anti-Democratic energy did not necessarily accrue to the Whigs’ benefit. The weakness of third parties in our contemporary moment is, conversely, the best thing going for today’s two parties.”
I cannot argue with that conclusion, but since he wrote it last year, I would note there seems to be a significant increase in serious efforts to put real Independent alternatives on ballots across the country. It could be early signs of a significant realignment.
Consider this list of active efforts to counter the current duopoly, whether through independent parties, electoral reform or lobbying. Now, I am not pretending the following is a comprehensive list, nor am I representing that any of these organizations have real traction or are likely to have any impact in any election at any time.
Moreover, since I am focusing on comparing the 2018 GOP to the 1854 Whigs, I’m only including Third Parties that might be of interest to homeless and disheartened Republicans (i.e. I did not include Greens, Socialist Workers, Communists, The Berniac Party, etc.) That said, the following are, for the most part, earnest efforts with real organizations and real candidates that are active now:
Fair Vote | Uniters.Org | Independence Party of Minnesota | Independent Party of Oregon | American Party of South Carolina | No Labels | Libertarian Party | Reform Party | Centrist Project | Modern Whig Party | Unite Colorado | Orman – Kansas | Simon – Maryland | Walker – Alaska | Serve America Movement
E. “Widespread contemplation of party dying, public abandonment by notables”
PW illustrates how this factor signaled the beginning of the end for the Whig Party…
“… after Scott’s bruising loss of 1852, worse than almost anyone had anticipated, some of the Whigs’ most important second-tier figures decided to abandon the party. The influential New York City publisher Horace Greeley, whose New York Tribune had been one of the Whigs’ most influential organs, publicly denounced the party in 1853. Then Truman Smith, a Whig representative from Connecticut who had acted as party’s de facto national chairman since 1842, walked away from the party and declared himself ready “to have Whiggery charred and burned.” A number of influential Whigs decided simply to withdraw from politics rather than face what seemed to them the impossible task of holding together Northern and Southern Whigs.”
For comparison, let’s go through a partial list of Republican and Conservative notables who have publicly abandoned the Republican Party, or at least this Trump-led hostile takeover of the Party. It started two years ago during the campaign with the “Against Trump” cover story from the National Review. The issue included a series of anti-Trump essays by Glenn Beck, David Boaz, Mona Charen, Ben Domenech, Erick Erickson, Michael Medved, Edwin Meese III, John Podhoretz, and Thomas Sowell among others:
“Trump has shown no interest in limiting government, in reforming entitlements, or in the Constitution. He floats the idea of massive new taxes on imported goods and threatens to retaliate against companies that do too much manufacturing overseas for his taste. His obsession is with “winning,” regardless of the means—a spirit that is anathema to the ordered liberty that conservatives hold dear and that depends for its preservation on limits on government power. The Tea Party represented a revival of an understanding of American greatness in these terms, an understanding to which Trump is tone-deaf at best and implicitly hostile at worst. He appears to believe that the administrative state merely needs a new master, rather than a new dispensation that cuts it down to size and curtails its power.”
The conservative anti-Trump momentum continued throughout the election and the inauguration. More recently, even with significant legislative victories, the #NeverTrump hashtag continues to trend and Republican notables continue to abandon ship:
George Will: “This is not my party”… Speaking with The Post, Will said that he changed his voter registration from “Republican” to “unaffiliated”
Senator Jeff Flake: “We must stop pretending that the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal,” Flake said in a passionate speech on the Senate floor aimed clearly at Trump… “There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party,” Flake told The Arizona Republic.
Bill Kristol: ” …the country would be better off with the Democrats running the House, because, if the Republicans aren’t willing to check Trump, someone has to.”
Senator Ben Sasse: “Mr. President: Words spoken by the President of the United States matter. Are you tonight recanting of the oath you took on January 20th to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment?”
Mitt Romney: “POTUS is inconsistent with America’s history and antithetical to American values.”
Representative Justin Amash: “According to a memo written by Comey after the February meeting, the president told Comey “I hope you can let this go.” Asked by The Hill if the details in the memo would merit impeachment if they’re true, Amash replied: “Yes.”
Some Republican are taking it to the next step and questioning whether the GOP will (or should) survive Trump:
Steve Schmidt: “Is this the beginning of the end of the Republican party? I think that’s the proposition that’s on the table.”
Jennifer Rubin: “How Republicans behave from here on out will play a huge role in determining the extent of the housecleaning/destruction of the GOP required. It makes all the difference in the world whether Democrats (by winning elections) save the country from Trump or whether the GOP (by impeachment, support for prosecution, primary challenge) takes matters into its own hands to expunge Trump.”
Bruce Bartlett: “The Republican Party needs to die. It’s already a zombie. It’s brain dead.”
Tom Nichols: “He has gravely — perhaps even mortally — wounded the Republican Party. His endorsement of an accused child molester in Alabama’s Senate race coaxed a final humiliation of evangelical and “family values” conservatives … People who once insisted on religious beliefs and a sterling character as paramount in their evaluation of a president now wave away alleged payoffs to porn stars; fiscal conservatives now blithely applaud the addition of $1 trillion in debt; foreign policy hawks now mumble quietly as the president draws moral equivalences between the United States and Russia.”
Joe Scarborough: “I did not leave the Republican Party. The Republican Party left its senses… the wreckage visited of this man will break the Republican Party into pieces and lead to the election of independent thinkers no longer tethered to the tired dogmas of the polarized past. When that day mercifully arrives, the two-party duopoly that has strangled American politics for almost two centuries will finally come to an end.”
Most recently, Esquire chronicled what they called “The GOP Civil War”:
“Call them Republicans with a conscience, conservatives without a party, or simply, as most do, the Never Trumpers … One sharp blow after another—from Trump’s humbling of Fox News to the reductio ad absurdum of Roy Moore—has deepened the enmity between the pro-Trump faction and its adversaries on the Right. This latter group sometimes sounds like liberals, but its members are in fact counter-Republicans who mean to take their party back, or blow it up. Others are seeking a third way. A group that includes Boot and Applebaum is creating a centrist sanctuary and talk shop, the Renew Democracy Initiative.”
This is different. We’ve seen partisans attack their own parties on ideological grounds before. That happens all the time on both the right and left. Much more rare – In 2006 we saw leading Conservative thinkers and Republican leaders call for their own party to lose a mid-term election in favor of a divided government. That was cool. But this is different. We’ve never seen the wholesale abandonment of a party and a President by party intellectuals, elected representative, ex-presidents, presidential candidates, moderates and ideologues as we are seeing now. Certainly not to this extraordinary degree.
If PW is right about this being a key indicator of a party in decline, we may be seeing early symptoms of a GOP collapse. And that presents the first time in the lifetime of any American alive today to see the possibility of a real partisan realignment and the opprtunity for a New Party to succeed.
It’s different this time. It’s still going to be damn difficult, but it can happen. A necessary first step is for Republicans to lose at least one House of Congress in the midterm election. There must be no doubt (for anyone outside of the Trump Cultists) about the unmitigated catastrophic disaster the Trumpist takeover has visited upon the GOP.
If/when that happens, things could unwind very quickly and Centrists should be ready to move. The jigsaw pieces are there, but organization must be in place to pull the picture together.
Consider this speculative scenario – Start with the “Problem Solvers Caucus” in the House of Representatives that are generally reviled by the extremes of both parties. Add the elected (and recently resigned) Never Trumpers, Moderates, and Libertarianish in the Senate (McCain, Amash, Sasse, Flake, Corker). Throw in some ex-presidential candidates with a score to settle (Romney, Graham, Rubio, McMullin, Cruz). Gild with the No Labels leadership co-chairs Manchin and Collins, pick up some moderate Democrats in Reddish/Purple States like McCaskill, Tester and Jones, and you’ve got quite a coalition.
The Centrist Project has been diligently working Wheelan’s “Fulcrum Strategy” to raise funds, recruit volunteers, build infrastructure, and support moderate independent candidates around the country. They have built an infrastructure foundation that could be expanded to support a nascent new coalition party. Heck, if they recruited a fraction of the potential coalition names listed above, their policy moderating “Fulcrum Strategy” would be fully realized overnight.
Of course, something like this is not going to be simply wished into existence. Political inertia keeps every partisan in place. But to quote Buffalo Springfield, “Something’s Happening Here” and like the Whigs of 1852, the Republican Party is pulling apart at the seams as we watch. A devastating 2018 loss in the House of Representatives could be the last straw breaking the nervous Republican rank and file’s back. GOP regulars in panic mode will not be susceptible to Trump’s tweets, Bannon’s bullshit or Putin’s propaganda. They’ll know who to blame.
Drowning Republican operatives will be grasping for a political life preserver to get as far away from a sinking Trump administration ship as they can get. That scenario presents a once in a century opportunity for a partisan realignment that could propel a New Party into a Major Party in just two or three election cycles, as it did in 1856 to 1860.
Since the legacy party most likely to sink between the waves is the GOP, a new center-right Centrist Party with familiar common sense ex-GOP leadership at the tiller would be a welcoming lifeboat.
The GOP ship is steaming full speed ahead at an iceberg, and the time to prepare to rescue the passengers is now.