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The Centrist Fallacy

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Now that Jamelle Bouie is a columnist at the Times, the overall quality of the paper has improved by precisely 31.9 percent. His analysis of third party runs in American presidential politics demonstrates why. Noting that what third party runs have been successful(ish) have tended to revolve around either seemingly radical platforms (Weaver, TR, Henry Wallace, Nader) or tightly targeted regional appeals (Thurmond, George Wallace), he notes that there simply haven’t been demands in American politics for what Schultz thinks he brings to the table:

All of these examples share key elements. The most successful third-party candidacies relied on a pre-existing mass constituency, whether a movement or a charismatic following or a distinct minority with shared political and cultural interests. To mobilize those constituencies, candidates threw themselves into polarizing the electorate from novel positions — not the center — sharpening differences and working to reorganize the electoral playing field around their concerns. And they played on divisions in the major parties themselves, capitalizing on shifting attitudes within each coalition. The Populists exploited agrarian discontent within the Democratic Party; the Dixiecrats did the same for white Southern opposition to racial liberalism.

To believe, as Howard Schultz does, that “a formidable third choice for president also has a chance to succeed for the first time since George Washington,” one also has to believe that the structure of American politics has suddenly changed, with a large and distinct constituency of voters just waiting to be tapped by an enterprising candidate. Neither is true. One must also ignore the virtues of our particular system, especially in its modern, polarized form. By pushing varied interests and communities into one of two sides, it clarifies the stakes, helps ordinary people make otherwise complicated political decisions and produces governing coalitions with points of real consensus.

Let’s say Schultz is right. Should we want an “independent” president? Would it benefit American democracy? If you see partisanship and traditional political parties as major obstacles to representative government, the answer is yes. But if you see them as an essential part of our democracy, necessary tools for taming conflict, balancing discordant values, ordering democratic deliberation and organizing democratic action, you might recoil when someone like an unaccountable billionaire suggests we’d be better off without them.

Now, what Bouie does not discuss is Perot, and he probably did need to tackle that to preempt the inevitable conversation. I imagine part of the reason he didn’t is that Perot’s run and relative success is kind of hard to categorize. In my view, it certainly doesn’t counter Bouie’s thesis. Rather, Perot was a Trumpist figure who was just a little ahead of his time. Taking place right in the middle of significant party realignment, Perot basically appealed to what we would later call Trump voters–white men who felt culturally alienated from the Democratic Party they had growing up in the Jim Crow era who were not yet ready to jump ship to the Republicans, especially the part of a plutocrat like George Bush. And while Perot had more money than Bush, his faux-populism based around trade really appealed to that future Trump voter, which is also why analysts point out that Perot probably drew as much from potential Clinton voters as Bush voters. Eight years later, those would have mostly been W voters and 24 years later, definitely Trump voters, but the parties were weird in 1992.

In any case, the only constituency for Howard Schultz’s campaign is Dylan Byers and the like, which is more than enough if you only pay attention to people who go to events at the Aspen Institute or in Davos.

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