ALL-REQUEST: Third Parties

Longtime Friend-of-BTQ (and soon-to-be first-time-father) Sebastian asks, “Ok, I’ve got a legitimate post request I would like your take on. Given your study of US and [Canadian] populism, what do you think of the chances in the current political environment for a legitimate 3rd party to get established. What do you think a third party would need to grow and be sustainable? (think tanks, billionaire sugar daddy, etc.).”

None of my thoughts are truly innovative or original, but here they are. I guess there might be a sticking point over the definition of “legitimate.” Does that mean a party that fields candidates in several successive elections and makes a fair showing at the ballot box? Elects state officials or Congressmen? Elects Presidents? I think it will be a minimum of fifty years before we see a President who is not a Democrat or Republican. The other hangup is the “current political environment.” I just don’t see anything now that could be the catalyst for the formation of a major third party. The Democrats and Republicans seem pretty capable of co-opting the best ideas from third party upstarts. Also, billionaires like George Soros seem to prefer to work within the established parties rather than spend their capital on a start-up. And when the big boys aren’t responsive, the disillusioned voter tends to stay home rather than seek a third way. Basically, I think we’re going to see the status quo for a while.

Some nuances to that broad statement. First, I think there is a small (10%?) possibility that the Democratic Party could be riven over Iraq. However, I think the desire for both segments of the Dems to get back in power is greater than either’s willingness to sacrifice power for principle. If the Dems get back in charge of the White House and Congress, disputes could boil over. But that depends on the situation in Iraq staying the same for a few more years. By definition, that won’t happen — in a few years, if nothing changes, it will be much easier to call it a “quagmire” and propose withdrawal.

Second, I think there is a somewhat larger (25%?) possibility that the GOP could be riven over abortion. Assuming the Supreme Court overturns Roe, state officials will have some hard choices to make. (My prediction, though, is that many would like put off those choices as long as possible, possibly through state constitutional litigation around the country.) I get the sense that the Feddies of the world are perfectly willing to sacrifice power for principle and abandon the Party if other Republicans aren’t sufficiently rock-ribbed over abortion. I think such a development would be the most fascinating development in American party politics since the birth of the Republican party. I don’t think the Life Party (what else would they call themselves?) would be able to do more than swing a few close races here and there, but that would still be significant.

Third, all bets are off if some truly outsized figure decides to run. Judging by his popularity before the 2000 election, Colin Powell might have been able to run on the Kill Whitey ticket and win. Such people are of course very rare, and even more rarely able to have coattails or spark some long-term shift in party politics. We don’t speak of the “Eisenhower Revolution,” after all, even though he was so popular after World War II that both parties courted him as their presidential candidate. But who knows — maybe President Oprah will change all that.