Last week, I stumbled upon an article by centrist pundit John Avalon on one of this favorite subjects: starting a centrist third party. Stories like this used to excite me, but these days, not so much. Below is a repost from September 2010 that explains why my love for a third party has cooled. I’m curious to hear from the centrists out there about this. Can a third party emerge? How?
A recent Gallup Poll has stated that Americans increasingly want a third party saying that both the GOP and Democrats have done a poor job. The poll notes that the biggest support for a third party comes from Independents with 74 percent wanting an third option. Whenever there is talk of a third party option it always follows with that this new party will be a centrist one that will appeal to those in the middle.
There was a time that such polls filled me with hope. Now I respond with a sort of “meh.”
Why? Because in some ways, these polls are meaningless. Yes, a lot of people want third parties. I want a third party. But a lot of people also want sunny days and to lose 30 pounds. Wanting a third party is not the same as having a third party movement.
As Dick Polman notes that the desire for a third party has had appeal in good times and in bad times. It has become a constant of wanting some kind of third force is beyond the stale choices of the elephant and the donkey. But despite that desire, a viable third party has never emerged? Why? Well, lack of ideas for one:
…despite all these spikes of majority interest, then and now, no viable third party has ever emerged; and the list of failed third-party leaders, and those who froze at the starting gate, is ever-lengthening: Perot, Powell, John Anderson, Ralph Nader, Lowell Weicker, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, Pat Buchanan, Michael Bloomberg. (NYC mayor Bloomberg froze in ’07, and now his name apparently is being floated again, mostly by Bloomberg.)
The main reason for the persistence of the GOP-Democratic duopoly – aside from the fact that a viable third party faces serious financial and ballot access obstacles – is that there is no broad agreement on what a viable third party should stand for. Powell talked about a party that would represent “the sensible center,” but the problem is that everyone has a different concept of what is sensibly centrist.
Gallup reports that the greatest support for a third party comes from the tea-partiers; 62 percent say yes to the concept. They would undoubtedly argue that it’s sensibly centrist to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich and to eradicate a variety of federal safety-net programs. Gallup also reports, however, that 61 percent of liberals favor the third-party idea – but they would surely argue that it’s sensibly centrist to march out of Afghanistan and to offer Americans the option of government health insurance.
And there you have it. We can’t really have a centrist third party if we don’t know what the center is all about. We can have a center-left party. We can have center-right party. We can even have a centrist party, but it means spelling out what centrist means. As long as it remains airy-fairy then all the talk about a third party is in vain.
A third party has to be built; it just doesn’t appear. I stumbled upon an old blog post from an Indian magazine that talks about the need for true center-right party in India. What this writer said could apply to the situation here in America:
Swatantra, India’s first and only genuinely right of center party openly advocated free markets, individual freedom and private property rights long before these terms became fashionable. In fact, at a time in which socialism was on march and was increasingly seen as the natural system of governance, it stood upto it and offered an alternative system of governance.
But Swatantra leaders were not merely politicians. Its president, C.R.Rajagopalachari popularly known as Rajaji was an intellectual tour de force: brilliant writer and a passionate speaker. Rajaji’s open defiance of the existing consensus was in many ways repudiation of his own life’s work–better part of which was spent in Congress. Apart from Rajaji, Swatantra was blessed with towering intellects such as K.M Munshi, Minno Masani and H.M Patel many of whom were not only intellectual leaders of the country but also institutional builders.
If a real third party is going to emerge, then you need people spanning from intellectuals to media types, to politicians, to the common joe. Real political movements are built and they need “institution builders” to do that.
The other observation is that third parties exist already in America. If Americans are upset at the Big Two, then they might want to consider supporting other parties.
So, as much as I would love to see a real thrid or fourth or fifth party, I don’t see it happening until America stops wishing for more parties and starts acting on it.