Analysis | The problem for third parties? America is not a political free market. – The Washington Post | Region & Cash


Americans are deeply frustrated with politics. You’re looking at the country the wrong way. They are regularly forced to choose between two candidates they don’t particularly like. Between 40 and 50 percent of the country do not identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans, but as independent.

For someone schooled in the basics of market economics, this seems like a no-brainer: create an alternative. When people think all the local coffee shops are terrible, open a new coffee shop. And if the two major political parties are terrible, bingo: form a new major political party.

There’s just one problem: the other coffee houses control who can open a café and how big it can be. Additionally, the people who are frustrated with the coffee shops often still have a vested interest in one of the coffee shops being successful. And the problems snow from there.

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Wednesday’s announcement that a group of former candidates and elected officials from both parties would form a new party – Forward – comes as no surprise. It’s a streak of admirably American optimism, the notion that their low prices on pourovers and scrumptious muffins will set them apart. And it’s even self-aware to a degree: the essay introducing the party is based on the idea that This Third party will not fail.

I wrote something about this last year. A key takeaway from this article is that our constant hearing of new “third parties” makes the inherent problem apparent. Of course there are countless other parties out there, a 3rd party and a 4th party and a 20th party opposing the Democrats and the Republicans. But since the purpose of a political party is to accumulate political power, and since neither party has accumulated much, they have been relegated to insignificance. There is no powerful Third, no counterbalance to the Democrats and the Republicans. Mainly because the Democrats and Republicans have worked hard to make sure there isn’t one.

The problem starts with the appearance on the ballot.

Here’s what it takes to vote in Pennsylvania. Read through this and note the difference between “political party” and “small political party” candidates. Imagine you’re thinking about challenging a sitting state official, but don’t want to run as a Democrat or Republican. What is the probability that you will trip over the rules?

Forward’s founders have an edge you don’t have. You all know attorneys who can do these things and figure out how to file, what to file, and where. But that’s expensive — and even if the lawyers find out, in many places the system is so skewed that it’s easier to run as a Democrat or Republican than anything else. And who will change that, the Democrats and Republicans who are currently making the laws?

As I wrote last year, American politics is a duopoly. Do you want to enter the market? Much luck.

The Forward crew’s optimism goes further than just arguing that they can penetrate the political economy. Here’s a cake in her heaven:

“That’s why we propose the first ‘open’ party. Americans of all stripes — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents — are invited to be part of the process, without relinquishing their existing political affiliations, by joining us to discuss building an optimistic and inclusive home for the politically homeless majority.”

Bring the city together and haggle solutions. America!

The problem, of course, is that Americans have strong beliefs about certain things that they are often unwilling to compromise on. The Forward essay criticizes the extreme left for wanting to abolish guns and the far right for wanting to abolish gun laws. But that’s not where the parties because the parties are reacting to the coalitions they have formed. If you just take a few independents and put them down – a lot less partisans! – You will very quickly find many important issues on which there is no achievable consensus. Then what?

It is important to remember, with the Forward group’s regular reference to the number of independents, that most independents still agree with one party or another. In Gallup’s most recent poll, 43 percent of respondents identified as independent. But a little less than half of that group said they lean toward the Democrats; most others leaned towards the GOP. What drives independents leaning towards one party or the other is not that they support centrist positions, but that they hate the other party. Republican-leaning independents don’t necessarily share “being independent” with Democratic-leaning ones. They simply share a disinterest in being part of a political party…which, of course, bodes ill for those looking to start a new political party.

This conflation of “independent” and “centrist” is a fatal flaw in this argument. Both parties are home to centrists (though the Democrats are stronger). The parties have traditionally worked hard to make their positions palatable to the centre. They’re big, long-established cafes! They do what they can to keep customers, even reluctantly.

Then there is Donald Trump. Trump won in 2016 in part because he activated more right-wing voters — but he did so while largely holding the GOP’s more moderate elements, who were skeptical of his nomination. Hillary Clinton worked hard to turn these voters away. Partly because (bipartisan) partisanship is such a powerful motivator, it hasn’t done much good.

His rise is a useful example of how the long-standing dream of building a third party misunderstands America’s political power. Trump was not a strong Republican, not a partisan. He switched between party identities at various points, just as he changed his positions on issues. Then, in 2016, he took over the GOP and remade it in his image. He understood a latent, underrepresented political force and paired it with the infrastructure of the Republican Party.

It wasn’t easy, depending on many factors unique to Trump: fame, wealth, charisma. These factors have also fueled third party efforts in the past, as with Ross Perot in 1992. Perot was actually a one-person third party who built a party around his own personality and money. It continued into 1996 and even 2000 – with a Donald Trump briefly considering running for president.

Without Perot the party withered away. Shut out of power, it nonetheless meandered on, as so many “third parties” do. It has a website; It even has social media.

On Thursday morning, her 1,677 followers on Twitter saw a message intended in part for Andrew Yang, one of the Forward Party’s founders. Yang had his much larger Twitter message asking what animal Forward might adopt as a mascot. He offered a Twitter poll that included “eagle” as an option – legitimately unaware that the Reform Party had already claimed it.

Sorry, you can’t name your coffee shop “Caffiends”. This has been protected since 1992 by a store that closed in 1993. The waste of past efforts by third parties is all around us, unseen, unnoticed and powerless.

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