Why Third Parties Don't Work

It was inevitable. This election season has been so tumultuous, so bitter and bloated with radical rhetoric, wild ideas, and even wilder characters, that we are now witnessing the return of the Terribly Sensible Party.

It’s what the citizenry say they want, especially when they’ve been beaten down by enough dinnertime robo calls and TV attack ads: a sensible, moderate, eminently reasonable party that embraces the best ideas of Democrats and Republicans alike. It will arise from the middle of the political spectrum any time now, just as soon as centrists and people of good will from both sides see how right it is.

What would such a party look like in practice? We got an idea recently from a pair of major op-ed columnists (the Terribly Sensible Party exists mainly in the minds of op-ed columnists). The moderate-liberal Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times earlier this month that “the level of disgust with Washington, D.C., and our two-party system” is so great that it may well produce a serious third party by 2012. “There is a revolution brewing in this country,” he said, one taking place “in the radical center.”

David Brooks, the moderate-conservative columnist just across the page from Friedman, was also fantasizing recently about reasonable people leading a political movement. Like Friedman, he envisions a sensible party that would slash wages and old-age benefits for public workers and use the money to make wise investments in the infrastructure of the future. “The anti-government types perpetually cry less, less, less,” he wrote. “The loudest liberals cry more, more, more. Someday, there will be a political movement that is willing to make choices, that is willing to say, ‘this, but not that.’ ”

Don’t hold your breath. It won’t happen because politics just doesn’t work that way. Not electoral politics, and certainly not in the United States. It’s not about reasonable people who think pretty much alike sitting around in a room, saying, “Well, why don’t we do this and not that, and split the difference? Who wants a crumpet?”

Look at where third parties have come from throughout American history. Always, they emerged not from the middle but from marginalized peoples, on what were considered the radical fringes, motivated by a deep sense of frustration, and even betrayal.

Two hundred years ago, Westerners felt themselves overtaxed and underserved by the federal government (this would be a recurring theme). Hence, Andrew Jackson and his Democratic populists arose to break up what had become a virtual one-party system in the 1820s. Neither major party was willing or able to address Northerners’ moral abhorrence of slavery, or—more urgently—their fears that small farmers would be unable to compete with the plantations of the “Slave Power.” Hence the birth of Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans.

On and on it went. Rural poverty and anger over how urban political machines and the big money of Wall Street had captured the Republican and Democratic parties alike led to the rise of the populist movement after the Civil War. Middle-class concerns about monopoly power and unhealthy industrial practices led to progressivism. Socialist parties advocated ideas such as Social Security that became an integral part of the New Deal.

Most of these movements failed to create permanent new parties. But nearly all of them succeeded in raising up dynamic new leaders and forcing the established parties to accept many of their ideas, their world views, and their constituents.

Again and again, established elites were forced to acknowledge the existence and the struggles of others—pioneers, immigrants, farmers, African-Americans, workers, women, Hispanics, gays, etc.—thanks to what were then considered radical movements outside the established major parties. Even some third-party movements that have been less successful—or downright repugnant to us today—provided millions of Americans with a part in the process. Ross Perot’s mercurial third-party efforts gave voice to those fretting over federal spending and the effects of free trade. The “know nothing” party of the 1850s was a democratic outlet for the immigrant haters and conspiracy theorists of the time. Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats and George Wallace’s American Independent Party drew Southern—and Northern—whites opposed to civil rights, co-opting voters who might otherwise have been drawn into more violent resistance.

Where are the voters for the would-be sensible third party? Liberals think we can have big public projects and pay generous wages and benefits to public employees, too. Conservatives aren’t clamoring to slash these same wages and benefits so they can make judicious new public investments. Instead, they want to shrink government, privatize it as much as possible, and turn the savings into tax cuts.

The differences on any number of other issues are just as deep and unbridgeable. But then we shouldn’t be surprised. Change in America is all about large, often primal forces smashing into each other, until somebody gives ground or a ramshackle compromise is finally hammered out. That’s democratic politics in all its awful splendor, and it’s especially true when times are bad and radical solutions are seen as necessary.

The gridlock in our politics today comes from the fact we have two insurgent movements, almost diametrically opposed in how they view the world, and in their solutions. Over the last two election cycles, both the right-wing, libertarian Tea Party and a rather inchoate, more or less liberal movement centered around Barack Obama have sprung up. They are likely to battle it out for some time to come. The argument they are having may often be ugly, but there is no common ground between them, sensible or otherwise.

Baker is, most recently, the author of the history America: The Story of Us.