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US Third Parties Aren’t Always Pointless


As third-party launches go, it’s rare to have one with as little intuitive appeal as that of the Forward Party, Andrew Yang’s latest attempt to draw attention to himself. Yang is joined by former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and by David Jolly, who was a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Florida for two terms. Whitman and Jolly were moderate Republicans whose party no longer has any use for moderates; Yang ran for president in 2020 and then for mayor of New York City last year without making much of a mark. In addition to a lack of star power, the new party also features no issue agenda.

It’s hard to figure out just who exactly the voter pool for this effort might be.

The 2024 presidential election may be a good opportunity for an independent campaign. It’s implausible that such a candidate would win the presidency, but making enough noise to be noticed isn’t rare; it happened during the 20th century in 1912, 1948, 1968, 1980, 1992 and 1996.

All those efforts except the last one — Ross Perot’s second run — had one thing in common: They were all launched against an unpopular incumbent president who was running for re-election (although in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson wound up dropping out of his bid for a second full term). If President Joe Biden remains unpopular and continues running for another term well into 2023, that would set up the same circumstance.

There’s no guarantee it will happen; it didn’t, for example, in 2020, when President Donald Trump was unpopular and on the ballot. Someone who can capture public attention has to step up. After all, there are always lots of independent and third-party candidates running for president; it’s just that most of them remain unknown and get very few votes.

The obvious wild card in the 2024 contest is Trump. Normally, unpopular incumbents leave room for independent candidates because voters who would normally support the incumbent party aren’t thrilled about doing so, while voters who tend to support the out-party have no particular attachment to the nominee, and might be inclined to give an outsider a look. If Trump is the Republican nominee, that process may not play out as it normally does, since most voters would begin the campaign with very strong opinions about the outcome. There’s also a possibility that Trump could wind up running as an independent if the Republican Party refuses to nominate him.

None of the noteworthy third-party efforts of the 20th century generated viable political parties, and Yang, Whitman and Jolly aren’t likely to establish anything lasting even if they find a popular candidate to run in 2024. Some political scientists will tell you that the structure of US elections makes viable third parties hopeless, but others argue otherwise and they seem to have plenty of evidence on their side. Not only do multiple parties successfully elect legislators in Canada and the UK, but the US in the 19th century had similar results.

Generally, however, the best advice for new parties would be to start locally or regionally, not nationally, and to organize around policies that the current two-party system excludes from consideration. Just the fact that Democrats and Republicans hold almost all offices is not a promising organizing issue, since it’s hard to believe that many voters actually care.

Even a well-focused party faces significant hurdles. Media norms and, in many locations, election law is set up to minimize the chances of third parties. Perhaps a new group could organize its own party-aligned media, but the same market and tech situation that makes it easy to set up a web page or social media network or streaming channel (at least compared to how things were in much of the 20th century) also make it hard to imagine those start-up efforts yielding a vigorous party.

It’s not just rules and habits. The major US parties have proven to be good at absorbing new groups and new policy ideas (sometimes, to be sure, pushed along by short-lived third-party efforts). And that leads to the argument for the two-party system, as long as both parties are functioning well. As long as the Democrats and the Republicans are permeable, so that there’s a low bar for newly activated citizens to have a voice in party affairs, the need for multiple parties isn’t strong.

And while that hasn’t always been the case in US history, it is a fairly strong tendency. Open nominations with self-chosen candidates, formal party organizations that are easy to join and informal party networks that welcome the like-minded combine to give new groups the chance to meaningfully participate. And that tends to reduce the fuel needed for new parties.

As for the Forward Party? My favorite part of its rollout was the complaint that Democrats and Republicans are too extreme on questions of gun safety. Its claim that the “far left” wants to “confiscate all guns” overlooks the fact that most Democratic elected officials actually don’t, and have supported far more moderate policies. Nor do Republicans line up uniformly behind what Yang, Whitman and Jolly call the “far right’s insistence on eliminating gun laws.” Congress just passed, and Biden just signed, a compromise gun bill. That hardly proves that a new party isn’t needed. But one might think the advocates could at least cite actual examples of irreconcilable extremism.

Oh well. At least they aren’t complaining that the current parties could never agree to support the semiconductor industry or fund basic science research. Yet.

For weekend reading, here are some of the best recent items from political scientists:

• Natalie Jackson on House votes on marriage and contraception.

• Donald Moynihan on Republican plans to take apart the civil service.

• Rick Hasen on reforming the 1887 Electoral Count Act.

• Sarah Binder at the Monkey Cage on why legislating on climate is so hard.

• Also at the Monkey Cage:  Joshua A. Schwartz and Sabrina B. Arias on climate policy at the state and local levels.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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