Clearly the current political landscape is stomach turning for most if not nearly all citizens. That’s why the ranks of the politically homeless have grown so. Pew Research Center findings show that the number of Americans who refuse to align with either major party is at its highest level in 70 years. That speaks volumes about the disillusionment so many feel about politics and those in power.
The question is what to do about it. Neither major party is seen as working for the common good or doing what’s best for America. They are seen as working for the narrow, wealthy interests that fund them. This leads more than a few to pine for a third way.
The problem is that third parties in this country are destined to fail. Third parties fail because, well, their aim is to make it so we have three parties. For better or worse, ours is a two-party system. It is not a parliamentary democracy.
Third-party movements also routinely fail because they organize to the left of the Democrats or to the right of the Republicans. Thus they largely operate on the political fringes, and only meaningfully compete for the votes of a small part of the electorate. Put another way, they seek to clip a major party’s wing but don’t try to cut its heart out.
Third-party aficionados rightly lament that their fate is sealed by the fact that we have winner-take-all elections. They have a point when they say that if we had proportional representation or instant runoff voting or one of its variants, things would be different.
Such reforms would greatly benefit society and improve our democracy. The Democracy Campaign has advocated this kind of reform for nearly a decade. But how do you get from point A to point B? How do you get proportional representation or rank-order voting or a none-of-the-above ballot option? Any of these reforms would have to be passed by a legislature controlled by the major parties and signed into law by an executive from one of the major parties. The major parties would have to agree to weaken themselves and threaten their grip on power. Not bloody likely.
So the rules are rigged against third parties and changing the rules won’t happen without the consent of the two major parties. How then do you loosen their stranglehold?
An answer can be found right here at home. Attempts to create alternatives that can shake the major parties to their foundations have succeeded a couple of times in Wisconsin’s history, but in each case they were what I would call first-party movements, not third-party movements.
First-party movements do not aim to give us three parties. They force one of the two existing major parties to either adapt or perish. One time a major party got replaced. The other time both major parties were reformed.
In the time of slavery, the Whig Party was one of the two major parties in America. The Republican Party was born here in Wisconsin out of frustration over the lack of a true anti-slavery party and eventually drove the Whigs to extinction.
And then out of the cauldron of bank failures and economic depression in the 1890s, the Progressive Party rose to challenge the Republicans and Democrats. That first-party movement didn’t end up replacing either, but reformed both. Both parties developed predominant Progressive wings. Teddy Roosevelt was elected president as a Progressive Republican. Woodrow Wilson won the presidency as a Progressive Democrat. The nation's character, and Wisconsin's in particular, were fundamentally reshaped.
The lesson from the history books is to stop hoping for three parties and start focusing on creating one that is worth a damn. You do that by creating some competition in the form of a new political brand and then go to battle in major party primaries to win voters over to that new brand.
To be both constructive and successful, the brand can’t be an appeal to the fringes, it has to be a threat to the major parties by strongly appealing to the heart of the electorate. It also can’t be a resurrection of an old political brand. The Progressive label, for example, doesn't means what it once did; the term is now loaded. If there’s a new political brand to be created, it needs a new name.
Rather than trying to run candidates on a separate party line on the ballot, leaving them vulnerable to the spoiler and wasted-vote phenomena, why not compete directly with the major parties in their own primary elections? Most people who end up voting for Republicans or Democrats are actually politically homeless. Most hate both parties. Create some competition within each party. Give people an appealing new option within each party.
In private industry, if a product is out there and no longer seems to meet the needs of consumers, some competitor jumps into the market with a new and improved product. The same principle needs to be applied to politics, in a realistic way that takes into account the way the American system is structured.
Third-party organizing has been tried many times, and many times it has failed. First-party organizing has been tried twice – when enough people were feeling alienated and politically homeless – and two times it succeeded in producing major political realignment and reform. Maybe we are approaching another such moment when the established political arrangement can be subverted from within. Maybe the time has come for a new political brand. What might that brand look like? More on that soon....