The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the third-party talk from Forward goes nowhere

Andrew Yang, who ran for president in 2020 as a Democrat, is one of the founders of Forward, a new third party. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The moment has come for a third party in America!

Or so say a post-partisan trio of former politicians who have merged their organizations under one banner, called simply Forward, which is intended to speak for the great mass of Americans who don’t feel represented by Democrats or Republicans. The leaders are former Republicans David Jolly (who served in Congress) and Christine Todd Whitman (who was a governor and Cabinet secretary), and former Democrat Andrew Yang (who ran for president).

Their Post op-ed pitching the idea is headlined “Most third parties have failed. Here’s why ours won’t.” Despite their celebrity, they’re almost certainly wrong, and what they’re offering is political vaporware. They’ve located a real problem, but they have the same solution that has been tried before — one that seldom accomplishes anything.

Their party, they say, is “for the majority of Americans who want to move past divisiveness and reject extremism.” Sounds appealing, but as it exists so far, Forward is less a party than a shapeless outline of what a party might be if it actually existed.

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It’s being presented with the same vapid sloganeering we’ve gotten from every top-down attempt like this to form a third party: What Americans yearn for is a way to “get beyond the partisanship” and find “common sense solutions” to “solve problems” in a way that “brings us all together” and “moves the country forward.”

For a classic of the genre, click on the video on the homepage of No Labels, a direct predecessor of Forward. You’ll hear earnest Americans from across the country repeat these bromides over and over while inspiring music swells in the background over stock footage of people walking through fields holding American flags aloft (as one does) and linking hands while the sun sets behind them.

Which inevitably leaves one asking, “Okay, but what do these people actually want to do?” There’s the rub.

Because while politics can sometimes be flags and sunsets and stirring encomia to “common sense,” if you actually wind up with power — which, after all, is the whole point — you have to make choices.

You will search the Forward website in vain for actual policy positions. One page labeled “Our Platform" consists of vague goals (“Reinvigorate a fair, flourishing economy”) along with a trio of political reforms: ranked-choice voting, nonpartisan primaries and independent redistricting commissions.

All of which are perfectly fine; the first and last are also supported by many liberals and a few conservatives. But if your goal is to run candidates and win offices (as Forward says it plans to do), you have to tell people what they’re voting for.

In one paragraph of the op-ed, the Forward leaders almost get specific:

On guns, for instance, most Americans don’t agree with calls from the far left to confiscate all guns and repeal the Second Amendment, but they’re also rightfully worried by the far right’s insistence on eliminating gun laws. On climate change, most Americans don’t agree with calls from the far left to completely upend our economy and way of life, but they also reject the far right’s denial that there is even a problem. On abortion, most Americans don’t agree with the far left’s extreme views on late-term abortions, but they also are alarmed by the far right’s quest to make a woman’s choice a criminal offense.

There are two important things to see here. First, their both-sides-are-extreme description is highly misleading. It presents positions of the “far left” like “confiscate all guns” and “completely upend our economy,” which are not the positions of the Democratic Party or Democratic elected officials, and contrasts them with positions like “eliminating gun laws” which are the position of many or most Republicans.

In other words, to claim the two parties are equally “extreme,” they have to exaggerate the extremism of Democrats and downplay the extremism of Republicans.

But more important is what’s missing: the actual position of the Forward Party on these issues. They’ve told us Americans want a compromise between Democrats and Republicans, but they hint at their own stance without ever actually revealing it.

It’s not that the political reforms they advocate are unimportant. The winner-take-all rules of most U.S. elections are designed to make it nearly impossible for third parties to build support, since they never have the chance to make policy except in some local offices.

There’s no question that if you split the Democrats and Republicans into smaller but more ideologically coherent parties, people would be able to vote for candidates who more closely represent their beliefs; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) are part of the same party despite their very different views.

If we had multi-member districts, the Conservative Democrats and the Democratic Socialists could both be represented. Political scientist Lee Drutman has made a strong case that the two-party duopoly is the source of many of our problems, and structural changes we could make to promote third parties would make the system more responsive to the public.

But whatever structural changes you prefer, sooner or later, a third party has to stand for something. This is the problem with the kind of centrism Forward represents. In true centrist fashion, it defines itself not by what it believes, but by an unease with whatever the other parties believe. One suspects that the people behind it are worried that if they take real positions, they’ll start alienating people; better to stick to vague notions about coming together to solve problems.

But that’s not real politics. Real politics requires you to not just say “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if everything was better?” but to make hard choices, choices that will make some people mad. It means risky stands on principle and tradeoffs and imperfect solutions and fights.

If you aren’t willing to take all that on, you aren’t serious about politics. And so far, the Forward folks don’t seem to be.