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Discontent Is Never Enough
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Discontent Is Never Enough

There has never been a better time for a third party to emerge. But a new party needs an issue to drive it.

Hey,

I set out to write this new effort to launch a third party and then, a few hundred words in, I started putting out a cigar on my face just to remind myself I’m alive. So, I’m starting over.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d be delighted to see a third party emerge that could send either the GOP or the Democrats the way of the Whigs. It’s just that the topic has been so exhaustingly chewed-over you could drink it with a straw. So let me at least try to come at it from a different angle.

First, I do think that conditions have not been better in my lifetime for a third party to emerge.  

Think of it like a man with three buttocks. No, wait, don’t do that.

Think of it like our national forests, where bears continue to defecate with libertarian impunity. We’ve spent a century suppressing natural fires to the point that there’s an enormous amount of fuel lying around, making a much bigger fire inevitable.

I think there’s an enormous amount of fuel for a third party. That’s because the only reliable, enduring form of real bipartisanship in this country is the tandem effort by both parties to protect their status as the only viable game in town. The PGA’s war on LIV golf is child’s play compared to the institutionalized opposition to opening up the system to upstart parties.

This is not to say there aren’t plenty of other parties out there. People know about the Libertarian and Green parties. But there are plenty of micro-parties too. I learned from Phil Bump that there’s a Homo Sapiens Americanus Party, an Order of the Dragon Party, and of course the National Cannabis Party. I’d love to see them all debate one another; the Cannabis Party can provide the refreshments. But the only thing all these parties have in common is that the Democrats and Republicans have done a great job keeping them at bay. After all, who writes America’s election laws? Elected legislators. Nearly all of whom are Republicans or Democrats. You can look it up.

Still, I don’t want to exaggerate the competence of the GOP and the Democrats in this regard. The two major parties are aided enormously by the structure of our “first past the post” election system that rewards whoever gets the most votes. Thanks to something called Duverger’s law—or something else called math—such systems encourage a two-party symbiosis. Add in all sorts of cultural and psychological phenomena and you get an incredible amount of path dependence, inertia, and other fancy words that describe common sense stuff, which makes the job of partisan lawyers and legislators to maintain the status quo all the easier. For instance, most self-described independents—nearly half the electorate—tend not to vote for a party, but against whichever party they hate more.

Still, the two-party system has been suppressing a major threat to its duopoly for so long, the kindling is there for a political conflagration that consumes one of the parties. And because both parties basically exist to provide a sole viable alternative to each other, I can actually see both parties as we know them vanishing pretty suddenly. In a system where each party lives to not be the other, when one dies the other loses its reason to live.

As Taoist philosophers never said, “If crime vanishes, so does Batman.”

The typical story of third parties plays out along the lines of Richard Hofstadter’s famous observation, “Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.” The Bull Moose party stung the GOP, getting Woodrow Wilson elected, and then for all intents and purposes it died. Ross Perot’s Reform Party stung George H.W. Bush, and then it spiraled off into insanity and death. But sometimes, third parties sting so hard the victim dies of anaphylactic shock. That’s what the Republican Party did to the Whigs.

Forward, not backward.

The reason I don’t want to talk about third parties—too late, I know—is that the folks who tend to champion new parties get the causality backward. Read this quasi-manifesto in the Washington Post from three founders of the Forward Party: Andrew Yang, Christine Todd Whitman, and former Rep. Dave Jolly. There’s plenty of stuff in there I agree with to one extent or another. But it starts from the premise that we need a new party because we need a new party. Republicans and Democrats are too noisy and mean, too polarized and dogmatic. Translation: We need a new party because people like us should be in charge.  

So three groups from the left, right, and center are joining forces like Wonder Triplets to create the Forward Party. There’s just one problem: This isn’t how even moderately successful parties form. New parties ride issues to power. The GOP sprung into existence to oppose slavery. The Free Silver Movement formed around … someone check me on this … silver stuff. The Know Nothings (aka the American Party) formed out of opposition to immigration and the fear that Irish Catholics and Jews were drinking the milkshakes of “real” Americans (or something like that).

Sometimes the issue or issues are synonymous with a personality championing them (see: William Jennings Bryan and the Populist Party, or Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party). Ross Perot had a cult following, but he also had real issues—debt, trade, etc.—that drew voters to his personality.  

The GOP and the Democrats have transformed before our eyes since 2016, in large part because they’re so weak that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump skipped forming third parties and simply took over the existing ones. If the parties took themselves seriously, Sanders and Trump would have been like Henry Wallace and Strom Thurmond in 1948. Instead, Democrats tied themselves in knots trying to explain they weren’t socialists to voters who didn’t want to vote for socialists and how they were to voters who did. And Republicans, well, you know what they did. 

The Forward folks think they can ride discontent with the two parties to success. They boast that it is an “open” party. “Americans of all stripes—Democrats, Republicans and independents—are invited to be a part of the process, without abandoning their existing political affiliations, by joining us to discuss building an optimistic and inclusive home for the politically homeless majority.” To this end, they write, “We are actively recruiting former U.S. representatives, governors, entrepreneurs, top political operatives and community leaders to make it happen.”

In other words, they don’t have any issues to garner grassroots support beyond the desire for grassroots support. It feels a little bit like the dynamic on college campuses where everybody wants to declare themselves a “leader” of an organization, so kids start some new club or activist group without much thought about who will attend the meetings other than other people looking for a title on their résumé. This approach might work in a different system—Emmanuel Macron pulled it off in France. But we’re not France.

Still, the reason I’m not closing the door on this project—or one like it—is that we may be turning into France. As I described in Suicide of the West, partisan affiliation is turning into a stronger predicter of attitudes and behavior than religion or ethnicity. In other words, partisanship is a new form of identity. Look at the bright blue and red spots on electoral maps. For obvious reasons we associate these demarcations with partisan affiliation. But in previous eras, such maps would make no sense politically. You’d think they were labels for older forms of identity like race, religion, or ethnicity. Or maybe different kinds of political economy. American partisan sorting today makes political maps look a lot like old-style European regional sorting by language or religion.

In an era defined by the logic of identity politics, being neither left nor right just might turn out to be a kind of identity, too. That was the secret sauce to Macron’s new party in 2017, and it worked for him. Both the left and right had become so concretized as identities that he could carve out a space splitting the difference between the two. “When you walk, you need two legs, the right and the left, and you have to step with first one and then the other,” Macron was fond of saying. He called his party En Marche, or “Republic Forward.” It wouldn’t surprise me if the American Forward Party’s strategists know this, which is why many of their proposed reforms sound like an effort to import a big chunk of the French electoral system, starting with as many jungle primaries—in which all candidates are on the same ballot regardless of party and the top two make the general election—as possible.

Again, all things being equal, I’d like them to succeed to one extent or another. But the system they want and need isn’t here (yet) and I’m not convinced that adopting such a system would be an improvement. Regardless, you run with the electoral system you have, not the one you want. In our personality-driven politics, it matters a lot who the face and voice of Forward is. And what happens when Forward takes a position on abortion or guns or immigration other than some focus-group-tested, difference-splitting, Goldilocks position between the two parties? I’m sure there are many Dispatch readers who’d like that, but how many of you will show up to stuff envelopes for it? Because the members of the GOP and Democratic coalitions who do stuff envelopes and knock on doors for the issues dearest to them won’t be joining. The Whigs died because they were the compromise party on the central issue of slavery while the Republicans took a stand. Various third parties died because the Republicans or Democrats—but mostly the Democrats—co-opted the issues that gave birth to them. The Forward Party hoists a Laodicean flag over a platform of “Let us reason together! We’ll figure out the issues later.”

A party that depends on rallying a reserve army of raging moderate voters eager to give voice to their willingness to compromise with the people they disagree with most is an interesting idea. But it’s also a new idea, and most new ideas don’t work.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.