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What it Would Mean to Create a Third Party


Dan Hopkins asks some questions about third party advocacy. For my part, I wouldn’t say that I’m so much against the idea of a third party as skeptical on both the process and outcome side.  Yglesias had some thoughts a few weeks ago that lend themselves easily to both over- and under- interpretation:

Which is all just to say that what happened in 1860 was not at all the case of an outsider third party presidential campaign sweeping the nation and changing things up. Instead, starting in 1854 and with continuing force in 1856 and 1858 a large number of established northern politicians left existing parties and came together at the Republican Party. Then, with caucuses already in place in the House and the Senate and strong bases of support in every northern state legislature, they won a presidential campaign against a splintered Democratic Party. So, yes, a third party that manages to persuade large numbers of incumbent officeholders from both parties to jump ship and join it could have a huge practical impact on American politics.

When we think about the rise of a third party in American politics, it’s hard to imagine an outcome that will involve the long term survival of three major political parties. Even a third party that emerges around a platform of major institutional reform will quickly find itself subject to the incentives of the US electoral system, and to the control of veto points by the rump parties. It’s much more likely that the development of a third party would mean the replacement of one of the two existing parties.

So let’s say we could implode the Democratic Party and build a party more oriented towards progressive goals from the rubble.  On the one hand, any replacement for the Democratic Party would quickly be subject to the same electoral pressures as the current Democratic Party, and would of necessity include many of the same personnel as the extant Democratic Party.  The precise electoral coalition that this new party would try to assemble would vary depending on the ideological infrastructure of the party, but would presumably focus on a coalition defined primarily in economic terms that would try to recapture elements of the white working class while mobilizing previously under-mobilized poor voters from the existing Democratic coalition. There might also be some effort to peel civil libertarians off from the Republican coalition, or ensure the loyalty of civil libertarians from among the (small) population of genuinely independent voters, but this has a limited upside and is in some tension with populist economic policies. Long story short, populist economic policies require a more activist state, which inevitably and appropriately makes civil libertarians nervous. Non-interventionist foreign policy might make up a third plank, and probably could also peel some voters away from the Republican coalition, but foreign policy rarely makes for a lasting component of a coalition’s appeal.

This effort might succeed in producing a party more geared towards left-populist economic policies, although I suspect it would also involve some unpleasant ideological concessions. But as the experience of the Republican Party in the 1850s demonstrates, ideological narrative and institutional structure do matter.  Although the Republican Party contained many of the same people and appealed to many of the same interest groups as the Whig Party, it had an obviously distinct political program, as well as a different geographic base. However, the GOP also had some advantages that a “New Progressive” party is unlikely to enjoy, including most notably the political monopoly produced by the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The gist is that party structure and ideology do matter, and I think we could expect that a replacement for the Democratic Party would act differently from its predecessor in consequential ways.  However, any new party has to threaten to grab 50% of the Presidential vote every four years, and has to run competitively for a majority of House districts and Senate seats.  The need to do this inevitably produces a degree of ideological conflict, even in an organization as demographically coherent and tightly run as the modern GOP.

But let’s also be clear; I’d vote for a “New Progressive” party without hesitation, just as soon as it was evident that a tipping point had been reached with respect to the old Democratic Party. As a political actor I wouldn’t weep over the death of the Democrats, because I don’t link my identity to the health of the Democratic Party in any personally meaningful way. American political parties are broad-based coalitions that strive to link interest groups together on a few major points of agreement.  Becoming too attached to the institutional infrastructure of such a coalition is a guarantee of disappointment.  If I view the development of third party infrastructure with skepticism, it’s because I view the prospects of replacing the Democratic Party as somewhat less likely than the prospects of reform, and not because I have any attachment to the existing forms.

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