The Myth of the Middle
Why we should be skeptical about the current mania for a third party that appeals to independents and libertarians.
Political consultants and lobbyists aren’t the only base these imaginary third parties have. Political reporters are strangely gullible to their attractions as well—and the more insider-ish the reporter, the more likely he is to swoon. The late David Broder of The Washington Post, for example, never met a centrist third party that didn’t cause him to lose all pretense of objectivity, predicting in 2006 that Unity08 would address “a hunger in the land for consensus and an end to partisanship.” Mike Allen of Politico, whose daily “Playbook” e-mail is the in-house newsletter of the political ruling class, on September 27 declared a complaint about taxes from the CEO of Coca-Cola to be “a massive wake-up call” about discontent among business leaders that “explain[s] why an independent presidential candidate could have historic support.” Politico even launched its own Americans Elect-style online primary for its insider readers, in which Hillary Clinton defeated several other D.C. insiders, including runner-up David Walker of the deficit-obsessed Peter G. Peterson Foundation, who ran an actual campaign, promoted by No Labels. What leads these otherwise jaded reporters to fall, repeatedly, for such implausible scenarios as the idea that the anger that has motivated the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could be channeled into a centrist candidacy by a Washington insider, or that discontented corporate executives represent a significant new voting bloc? That’s a question worthy of a book of its own, one that would reveal much else about the faulty vision of the elite political media.
The second characteristic of these imaginary third parties or independent candidacies is that they invariably invoke a banal litany from the business world to explain how they will break the “duopoly” of party politics. Since no one does that rap better than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, let’s turn it over to the master: “What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life—remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in.”
Aside from the fact that these are the incumbents, Friedman’s happy analogy overlooks a political science principle known as Duverger’s law, which holds that any system of plurality or winner-take-all voting is likely to lead to a two-party system in which it is nearly impossible for a third to take hold. There are reforms that would loosen the hold of Duverger’s law on U.S. politics—such as the party fusion system that allows the Working Families Party to thrive in New York State, proportional representation in Congress, or a move to a full parliamentary system. But none of the fantasy initiatives has shown any interest in the patient work of promoting these reforms.
And while there’s room for greater electoral competition both within and outside of the two parties (my own preferred reform would involve reducing the barrier to entry posed by money), after the election the purpose of politics has to be, as Max Weber put it, to create a sort of monopoly on a few powers that don’t lend themselves to endless competition. The dysfunction in our politics that we’ve seen in the Obama years is not a result of too much concentrated power, but of too little. As the political sociologist Juan Linz argued in an influential 1990 essay comparing multiparty presidential systems such as ours with parliamentary systems in which one party or coalition holds full power, we are unable to advance a coherent approach to solving problems under our system because there are too many veto points. In the current structure, the vetoes belong to senators like Lieberman and Landrieu, as well as Senate Republicans, House Republicans, the Federal Reserve, and other institutional forces in Washington. In this already tangled web, a third party president would not suddenly get things done, but would only add another layer of complexity and dispersed power.
Third, these efforts are always deliberately vague about policy. While alluding to various sensible goals like clean energy, there’s really just one policy problem that they get passionate about and foresee the imaginary president solving: the federal deficit. On the Americans Elect website, for example, the one question that candidates must answer about the economy has to do with how to reduce the deficit—which is hardly the only economic question our nation faces. While for many Americans the deficit is a metaphor for a lousy economy, for the fantasy-politics industry it symbolizes the entire failure of the political process. If only we had a president who really cared about reducing the deficit, they reason, we would buckle down and solve the problem.
It’s certainly not wrong to see the deficit battles of 2011 as emblematic of the failure of our politics. But the budget deficit itself has several other causes: the economic downturn, demographics, health-care cost inflation. It’s hard to imagine that a president who cares even more about the deficit than Barack Obama does (Obama was willing to alienate much of his own party in pursuit of a grand bargain on deficit reduction) would be able to reverse those trends, especially as a third-party president would have no allies in Congress.
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