The big problem with starting a third party

Another election cycle is upon us, and it seems, more and more, that elections really do have consequences.  Trump's victory in 2016 was an earth-shaker.  The Democrat sweep of the presidency, House, and Senate (okay, a tie, but really 51-50 if you count V.P. Kamala Harris) in 2020 changed the political landscape of the nation significantly, and not for the better.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that U.S. citizens aren't happy with the current party in power, but as many weren't so thrilled with the previous, one either.   A lot of people have to hold their nose as they fill in their ballots these days, and many are changing their affiliation on voter registrations to "independent."

If you were a businessman, you would consider this to be a great time to roll out an alternative.  If you were selling gizmos, and the two big gizmo retailers were putting out terrible products, wouldn't a third, better gizmo shop take over the market?  Cha-ching!

Yes, by "gizmo," I mean "third political party."  With the current parties pulling the country in opposite directions, wouldn't it be great to have a different choice right in the middle?  It makes you wonder why it hasn't happened already.

There have been honest attempts in the past, some of which have even had a hand in deciding which of the two big parties won an election.  In 1992, billionaire Ross Perot ran a third-party campaign for president, which took enough votes from George H.W. Bush to make Bill Clinton president.  Ralph Nader ran an anemic third-party campaign in 2000 that squeezed just enough votes from Al Gore to crown George Bush the Younger our chief executive.  Some claim that Jill Stein's Green Party took votes from Hillary Clinton in 2016.  But besides spoiler roles, not much ever became of these efforts.

Now former Republican New Jersey governor Christine Whitman and former Democrat presidential candidate Jerry Yang have formed "Forward," the latest third party offering.  This is admirable, an attempt to run a better gizmo up the flagpole and see who salutes.  But it's as unlikely to gain traction as any of the fringe parties that dot the political landscape.  Why?

Here's why: the two controlling parties in the United States aren't interested in letting new players into the system.  There's no significant third-party player because the Democrats and Republicans won't allow it.  There are rules relating to running for office as an organized body.  These rules can be Byzantine in nature and expensive (sometimes very) to navigate.  You might be able to cobble together signatures enough to put your individual name on a ballot, but an entire political party?  Ouch.  Even Michigan Republicans found themselves kneecapped by ineligible signatures on petitions. 

Third parties often rely on the personality and charisma of the person who establishes them.  After Ross Perot and Ralph Nader moved on, their movements petered out as a political force.  Jerry Yang's money and personality may get things started for Forward, but what happens when he moves on?  It's probable that, without the established Republican Party to forge in his image, even Donald Trump might only be a footnote in history.

Even if a third party could get off the ground, what platform would attract a large enough crowd to win an election?  The philosophical divisions in the U.S. are so ingrained at this point that there is likely something in a new party's platform that's a deal-breaker for most.  It's hard to be pro-gun and anti-gun or pro-abortion and pro-life, and many aren't interested in compromise.  As for independents, you can't assume they're coming in as a blank slate.  They lean liberal or conservative and have their own opinions, some of which are, independent or not, etched in stone.

So what's the formula to make a new third party into an equal partner to the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.?  I don't know.  I doubt anyone does.  In the short run, any success would most likely take away more votes from one party or the other, leading to dominance for one party for a generation.  That's the dilemma, isn't it?

Take the individual example of John Wood.  Wood, an investigator for the Jan. 6 committee, is running for Senate in Missouri as an independent.  He claims a conservative life view and promises to caucus with the Republicans if elected.  Sounds reasonable, but, more likely, he'll just siphon off votes from Eric Schmitt, the Republican candidate, and give the Democrats a real chance to flip the seat.

This scenario could happen nationally if a third party gains steam.  Any traction it attains will almost certainly leave one of the established parties crippled rather than take an equal portion from both.  The end result is one-party rule for longer than might be healthy.

Some political pundits proudly proclaim their "independence" by refusing to vote for Republicans or Democrats.  With conservatives, it's "I vote Libertarian."  This seems admirable to some, but if you believe that the Democrats have done a bad job running the country in the last two years, this attitude is arrogant and selfish when there's a close election.  If this is the case where you live, voting Republican is the best course of action even if you're not happy with everything they stand for.  Just hold your nose with your non-dominant hand.

Joe Alton, M.D. is a physician, preparedness advocate, and N.Y. Times bestselling author of The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide When Help Is Not on the Way.

Image via Max Pixel.

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