Against the Grain: What are we waiting for? Washington shows the country why it’s time for a third party

againt_the_grain_thumbWalking the fine line between braving and courting controversy, ‘Against the Grain’ plays devil’s advocate to voice ideas worth hearing. 

Good news: you no longer have to read Waiting for Godot – Samuel Becket’s drama about characters who drift through life without purpose, waiting for a resolution that never comes. As Peter Coy (over at Bloomberg Businessweek) has pointed out, we’ve all been living inside Washington’s theatre of the absurd for a little while now.

For example, Jean-Paul Sartre gave us this famous line in No Exit : “Hell is other people.” It’s only a matter of time before somebody puts that on a bumper sticker. Or how about Albert Camus’ The Stranger, in which the protagonist kills a man for apparently no other reason than it was hot outside and the sun was in his eyes. One moment you’re strolling down the beach with a loaded pistol in your hand, the next you have no idea what you want to get out of shutting down the government.

First, visitors were prevented from visiting monuments carved out of stone because of the partial government shutdown. Then, people expressed horror at the thought that a government shutdown would prevent people from enjoying government-run attractions. We don’t have to search long for hints of the absurd. © Pedro Alberto Arroyo

First, visitors were prevented from visiting monuments carved out of stone because of the partial government shutdown. Then, people expressed horror at the thought that a government shutdown would prevent people from enjoying government-run attractions. We don’t have to search long for hints of the absurd. © Pedro Alberto Arroyo

And we’re all still waiting – but for what exactly? A grand bargain? The deal that the Democrats and Republicans seem to have settled on reopens the government, avoids a default, kicks everything down the road, and makes zero significant changes to President Obama’s healthcare law – the stated reason the GOP got us all into this mess in the first place. Last week, I argued that Speaker Boehner was in the driver’s seat and could use this moment, despite the White House’s claims that it wouldn’t negotiate, to push through a compromise bill that could make a real impact. Alas, it seems he was more comfortable punting.

What is he waiting for? Godot?

Truth is, most of us are waiting for Washington to get its act together. A poll last week asked Americans if they would be willing to vote every member of Congress out of office, 60% said ‘yes’. Of course, as I’m tiring of pointing out, that’s meaningless. Most incumbents will be reelected next year because no one votes for every member of Congress, people just vote for their one guy. And your one guy is fine – it’s the other guy who’s the problem.

Queue Sartre: Hell is other people.

* * *

Democratic politics is supposed to accomplish three things. As a matter of principle, democracy is about recognizing every person’s right to participate in how they are governed. That’s great, but as a matter of practicality, democracy is about finding good solutions and about moderating extremes. Political parties, on the other hand, exist to win elections. One way they’re supposed to do this is by building broad coalitions that hold together somewhat divergent but not irreconcilable positions. In this way, political parties are also supposed to be a moderating influence. (I know – it’s a bit of a shocker.)

That mini foray into civics is intended to highlight something you already know: there is something wrong in the Republican party. The GOP is having a difficult time moderating it’s extreme elements, and as a result it’s having a hard time winning elections.

That’s bad for the party, but it isn’t supposed to mean a whole a lot for the country, or even for conservatism. That’s because when a party starts to go a little haywire and the political market punishes it, one of two things is supposed to happen: either the party changes direction or a third party emerges to take its place.

The first option seems stalled for a very bizarre reason: today’s Tea Party Republicans simply don’t seem very concerned with winning elections. (At least not elections outside of their district.) They’re also either not interested in enacting legislation, or they’re very out of touch with how incompetent they are at it. None of the negative feedback mechanisms seem to be working; the GOP is all steam ahead and the track seems to be running out.

In 2010, Christine O’Donell had to run a memorable ad telling Delaware voters that she was not a witch. Not a very promising start.

In 2010, Christine O’Donell had to run a memorable ad telling Delaware voters that she was not a witch. Not a very promising start.

Maybe that’s why people are talking about a third party again. During the last presidential election, you might remember a group called Americans Elect. Their goal was to clear the way for a third-party candidate to appear on the Presidential ballot in every state. (They failed.) Similar in tone to the No Labels group that emerged around the same time, Americans Elect received some praise for their anti-vitriolic demeanor. But, in the end, the effort was probably self-defeating.

The problem with third-party runs for the Presidency is that the contest is zero-sum: every vote you give a losing candidate is a disservice to your second option. Voters intuitively understand this, which is why third-party candidates have such a hard time. (Even up against that, Ralph Nader probably managed to cost Al Gore the 2000 election.)

But there’s a better way. There are currently 54 Senators in the Democratic majority of that body, along with 46 Republicans. That means that five Senators could make the difference between which party controls the Senate. In the House of Representatives, the split is 232-200 (with 3 vacancies). That means that as few as 18 members could determine control of the House. In both cases, that represents roughly 5% of the seats – a much lower threshold than the absolute majority needed to make a difference in the Electoral College.

There are other things to consider as well. Ironically, because so many House districts are safe seats,  a ‘third’ party wouldn’t run the same liabilities as it does during the Presidential contest. That’s because voters already know the minority party can’t win there, so they’re free to ignore strategic voting and simply giver their support to their preferred candidate.

Also, because a minority third party would still be able to exert influence by caucusing with either the Democrats or Republicans, or by lending it’s votes to particular bills, there is no minimum size for a Congressional group to achieve before it can be relevant. Heck, Vermont has been sending a socialist to Congress since 1990. Today, Senator Bernie Sanders is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs.

* * *

The talk about third parties these days has mostly been about whether or not the GOP will splinter into a Tea Party wing and an establishment wing. That might happen, but I doubt it. First, the Tea Party has no incentive to go; they exert much more influence by nudging the Republican Party than they ever could from outside of the two-party system. Second, the establishment knows that keeping the Tea Party within the fold is their only chance at a governing majority (for now). Besides, purging the party from the inside would be too unseemly and splintering off would go against the establishment’s sense of entitlement over the party brand.

But how about the Democrats? While an insurgent third-party is possible, any movement would be much better served by starting as a coalition of already elected officials. If those officials won’t come from the GOP, could they come in the form of conservative Democrats?

West Virginia Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin, shoots a copy of the President’s cap and trade proposal in a campaign ad. Not exactly good party discipline.

West Virginia Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin, shoots a copy of the President’s cap and trade proposal in a campaign ad. Not exactly good party discipline.

I think so. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has been successfully running against the Democratic party from within for years. Previously, Ben Nelson (NE) and Joe Lieberman (CT) seemed slightly uncomfortable in the Democratic caucus. On the other side, it’s not difficult to imagine people like Maine’s Susan Collins or New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte being part of a centrist coalition. Such a group might have kept Olympia Snowe from leaving the Senate. And while it’s hard to see Bernie Sanders joining forces with such a motley crew, Maine’s independent Senator, Angus King, could easily be party leader.

Since 2010, there have been a number of instances of the Republican party losing a general election after it had failed to nominate a clear frontrunner in favor of a doomed right-wing radical. My contention is that in each of these cases, a pragmatic centrist coalition would have had an easier electoral path than the Democratic candidate who ultimately won.

* * *

A third party on the edges of the spectrum would probably only serve to make things worse. But a third-party in the middle (which, by the way, is where most Americans are) might serve to discipline Washington politicians. With only two alternatives, it’s too easy to use the other political party as cover. A viable centrist option might help with that. It would also make political reform such as independent redistricting and fixing campaign finance easier – a third party could demand such changes as the price for joining a majority caucus.

Political realignments are rare – they tend to look plausible but unlikely right until they happen. After years of disfunction, it might not be too far off. And it might just be what Americans are waiting for.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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