The problem for third parties? America is not a politically free market.


Americans are deeply frustrated with politics. They see the country heading in the wrong direction. They are regularly forced to choose between two candidates they do not particularly like. Between 40 and 50% of the country does not identify as a Democrat or a Republican but as an independent.

For someone who knows the basics of market economies, it would seem like a no-brainer: create an alternative. If people think all local cafes are terrible, you open a new cafe. And if both major political parties are terrible, bingo: start a new major political party.

There is only one problem: other cafes control who can open a cafe and its size. Additionally, people who are frustrated with cafes still often have a vested interest in seeing one of the cafes succeed. And the problems snowball from there.

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The announcement Wednesday that a group of former candidates and elected officials from both parties were forming a new party — Forward — is hardly surprising. It’s a flash of admirably American optimism, the idea that their low prices on pourovers and tasty muffins will set them apart. And it is even to a certain extent self-awareness: the essay introducing the party is based on the idea that this third will not fail.

I wrote a bit about this last year. A key point of this article is that the fact that we constantly hear about new “third parties” makes the inherent problem obvious. There are, of course, dozens of other parties there, a third and a fourth and a 20th party that oppose the Democrats and the Republicans. But since the purpose of a political party is to amass political power and none of these parties have amassed much, they have been relegated to insignificance. There’s no powerful third party, no counterweight to Democrats and Republicans. Largely because Democrats and Republicans have worked hard to make sure there isn’t.

The problem begins even when appearing on the ballot.

Here’s what it takes to be on the ballot in Pennsylvania. Read it noting the difference between candidates for “political parties” and “minor political parties”. Imagine you’re considering challenging a public office holder, but you don’t want to run as a Democrat or Republican. What are the chances of you getting tripped up by the rules?

The founders of Forward have an advantage that you don’t. They all know lawyers who do this stuff and can figure out how to file what needs to be filed and where. But it’s expensive — and even if lawyers find out, the system is in many places specifically skewed to make running as a Democrat or Republican easier than running as something else. And who is going to change that, the Democrats and Republicans who are making the laws now?

As I wrote last year, American politics is a duopoly. Want to enter the market? Good luck.

The Forward crew’s optimism goes beyond the simple assertion that they can break into the political economy. Here is a pie in their sky:

“That’s why we are offering the first ‘open’ evening. Americans of all stripes – Democrats, Republicans and Independents – are invited to be 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.

Bring the town together and negotiate solutions. America!

The problem, of course, is that Americans have strong opinions about specific things that they often won’t be willing to compromise on. The Forward essay criticizes the far left for wanting to get rid of guns and the far right for wanting to get rid of gun laws. But that’s not where parties are, because the parties are sensitive to the coalitions they have formed. If you just take independents and seat them, let alone supporters! — you will very quickly find many important questions on which there is no reachable consensus. So what?

What’s important to remember about the Forward group’s regular invocation of the number of independents is that most independents always align themselves with one party or the other. In Gallup’s most recent poll, 43% of respondents identified themselves as independent. But just under half of that group said they leaned toward the Democrats; most others leaned toward the GOP. What drives independents who lean towards one party or the other isn’t that they support centrist positions, it’s that they hate the other party. Republican-leaning independents do not necessarily share “being independent” with those of Democratic leanings. They simply share a disinterest in being part of a political party… which, of course, does not bode well for those looking to start a new political party.

This confusion between “independent” and “centrist” is a fatal flaw in this argument. Both parties harbor centrists (although the Democrats are more so). Parties have traditionally worked hard to make their positions acceptable to those in the middle. These are great coffees for a long time! They will do what they can to keep customers, however reluctantly.

Then there is Donald Trump. Trump won in 2016 in part because he activated more right-wing voters — but he did so while largely holding off more moderate elements of the GOP who were skeptical of his nomination. Hillary Clinton worked hard to eliminate these voters. Partly because (bipartisan) partisanship is a powerful motivator, it hasn’t helped much.

His rise offers a useful example of how the long-held dream of building a third party misunderstands American political power. Trump was not a strong Republican, not a party guy. He switched between party identities at various times, just as he changed his positions on issues. Then, in 2016, he took over the GOP and remade it in his image. He understood a latent and underrepresented political force and associated it with the infrastructure of the Republican Party.

It hasn’t been easy, due to many factors unique to Trump: fame, wealth, charisma. These factors have also propelled third-party efforts in the past, such as with Ross Perot in 1992. Perot was a third-person, in effect, creating a party around his own personality and money. It continued into 1996 and even into 2000 – with a Donald Trump briefly considering running as his presidential nominee.

Without Perot, the party withers. Locked out of power, he nonetheless meandered like so many “third” parties do. He has a website; it even has social media.

On Thursday morning, his 1,677 Twitter followers saw a message intended in part for Andrew Yang, one of the founders of the Forward Party. Yang had asked his much more substantial Twitter following which animal Forward might adopt as a mascot. He offered a Twitter poll that included “eagle” as an option – unaware that the Reform Party had already claimed that one.

Sorry, you can’t call your cafe “Caffiends”. It’s been trademarked since 1992 by a store that closed in 1993. The detritus of past third party efforts is all around us, unseen, unnoticed and helpless.

About Glenda Wait

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