Which problem does your third party solve?
Whenever friends of mine begin idly fantasizing about a third party, I always have the same question: which problem of American governance, specifically, is your third party meant to solve? Gridlock in the Congress? Corporate money in politics? Ideas that go unmentioned by the two major political parties?
But more often than not, the party seems to exist to give a good speech voicing ideas either slightly to the left or to the right — though usally to the left -- of the major parties in American politics. A case in point is the eloquent address my colleague Matt Miller penned for a fantasy third-party candidate. As Greg Sargent pointed out, the speech sounds substantially like speeches President Obama has given, either recently or during the 2008 campaign. The policy ideas, too.
Miller’s platform calls for short-term stimulus and long-term deficit reduction. It calls for corporate tax reform and the imposition of an energy tax. It calls for higher salaries to teachers and easier ways to fire the ones who perform poorly. It calls for universal pre-k and tweaks to the Affordable Care Act. It calls for higher capital ratios to rein in the banks and campaign-finance reform to clean out our elections. It calls for dramatically higher taxes and a lift in the eligibility age for both Medicare and Social Security. It calls for a temporary truce on issues like abortion and gun control until we get the economy back on its feet.
In other words, it looks, with some exceptions, like what the Obama administration would do if it didn’t have to clear its policies with Congress or the American people.
Miller’s speech implies that what’s holding American politics back is that there are no candidates willing to give this speech, or hold these positions. That’s not accurate. What’s holding American politics back is a polarized Congress that has collapsed into gridlock. What’s holding American politics back is that the minority party understands that the quickest path back to power is undermining the majority party’s ability to govern. What’s holding American politics back is that voters want a government spending at about 23 or 24 percent of GDP but they want taxes around 18 percent of GDP, or maybe even a bit lower.
These types of third-party proposals tend to talk a lot about hard truths, tough choices and unpleasant realities. But in almost all cases, they skirt the hardest political truth of all, which is that politics is hard, often boring, work. We all want political change to come from one dramatic presidential campaign, where the president galvanizes the country with an Aaron Sorkin-esque speech and the barriers to change crumble before the force of an inspired population. That’s the most seductive political promise of all, because it promises that this will be easy, exciting and quick. It promises that it’ll be like the inspirational romp of Obama’s 2008 campaign rather than the tough slog of his subsequent presidency. It suggests that our problem is that we simply lack a leader, not that we lack the necessary consensus, institutions, and popular engagement required for change.
But lack of leadership is not our problem, or at least not our most important problem. Radical change doesn’t begin with the president and filter down. It begins at the bottom and filters up to the presidentcy. And if we truly want “to lay out the facts and explain the steps we need to take to truly fix things,” as Miller says, that’s where we need to start.