Third party to the rescue?

Not so much.  Excellent post from Ezra Klein (thoroughly endorsed by smart political parties scholars on FB) on the folly of looking for a mythicial third party to improve our current political situation.  (I also like that he extensively cites Ron Rapoport– one of my very favorite people):

The question I get more than any other about American politics is: The Democratic Party and the Republican Party both suck. Don’t we need a third party to fix this?

Well, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends what the meaning of “this” is.

If you think the problem with American politics is that there are ideas that are popular among voters but suppressed by the two major parties, then a third party could potentially help a lot.

But if you think the problem with American politics is that Congress is gridlocked, the president seems powerless to do anything about it, and Americans are increasingly frustrated, then a third party might well make things worse.

Political scientist Ronald Rapaport wrote the book on third parties. Literally. It’s called Three’s a Crowd, because of course it is. And the key thing he found about third parties is that “they need some sort of unique agenda. There has to be a reason why you’re going to support a third party.”

Third parties are a political weapon: they force the system to confront issues it might otherwise prefer to ignore. Take Ross Perot, the most successful leader of a third party in recent American history. “People like to think of Perot as being centrist. But he was not,” says Rapoport. “He was extreme on the issues he cared about. And with Perot, it was economic nationalism and balancing the budget.”

It’s worth stopping on that point a moment. In Washington, the yearning for a third party is often by elites — and for elites. It’s for the third party of Unity08, or No Labels, or Mike Bloomberg, or Simpson-Bowles. It’s a third party of technocrats: fiscally moderate, socially permissive. A third party of sober moderates. A third party of things people in Washington already care about.

That third party won’t work. The space for a third political party — if it exists — isn’t in Washington’s zone of elite agreement. It’s in the zones of popular agreement that elites have little patience for. America’s unaffiliated voters aren’t moderates. They are, by Washington’s standards, extremists — they’re just extreme in a way that blithely crosses left and right lines, then doubles back on itself again. They support single-payer health care and tax cuts. Or they’re against gay marriage but for a living wage. Or they’re for open borders and cuts to social spending. Or they want a smaller military and sharp restrictions on abortions. [emphasis mine]

Not to mention Duverge’s Law.  There’s a lot that’s wrong with our current politics, but it simply not going to be solved by any third party that is going to appeal to any decent-sized segment of both elites and voters.  We need our existing parties to fix what’s wrong.  Especially one of them.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Third party to the rescue?

  1. John F. says:

    And we won’t get true democratic representation until the overwhelming influence of monied special interests are driven out. If we can’t get a constitutional amendment to restrain this influence, and we should continue fighting for that, we should support publicly financed elections and restrictions on former representatives and staff from participating in lobbying.

  2. rgbact says:

    Obviously, these polls need to ask people if that 3rd party should be centrist….or more liberal or more conservative. Thats where the 3rd party support will crumble. Beltway insiders obviously assume the 3rd party would be centrist. It would be interesting which has the greatest support. I think left wing 3rd parties are more typical, but right wing 3rd parties are currently doing the best in Europe.

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