The Myth of the Middle
Why we should be skeptical about the current mania for a third party that appeals to independents and libertarians.
The American political system has evolved several mechanisms to protect its own dysfunction. One of them is fantasy. Like a spouse who manages to remain monogamous by continually imagining the affairs she is going to have but never does, the political process protects itself by imagining an alternative in which a third party or independent presidential candidate will emerge any day now, sweep away partisanship, polarization, corruption, and stasis, and enact lots of sensible policies.
In the year before a presidential election, the fantasies come in a rush: Books are published with titles like Independents’ Day, Declaring Independence, this year’s The Declaration of Independents, and other variations on that hackneyed theme. Organizations and websites appear, promising to hold tryouts for the mystery candidate, like Unity08 in the last cycle. Sometimes, there is even a brief, rumored flash of an actual candidate, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The last three years have brought the dysfunction of the political system into sharp relief, and, not surprisingly, the fantasy third parties and independent candidates-to-be-named-later have sprouted like mushrooms after a rainstorm. There’s No Labels, an organization that promises to recast American politics without partisanship. There’s Americans Elect, which seeks to secure a ballot line in as many states as possible and then use the Internet to nominate a presidential candidate to occupy it. The books have just started to appear, with The Declaration of Independents by the libertarians Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie the first of them. But just as in previous years, actual candidates willing to play the role of savior are scarce on the ground.
These third-party or independent projects usually have three characteristics in common, with one exception to be noted below. First, the people stoking these initiatives are rarely outsiders—typically, they are the very people for whom the existing political system has been most lucrative. They are lobbyists, fundraisers, political consultants. If there is, as is often alleged, a continuous cocktail party that runs the country from Georgetown salons, this is it. No Labels, for example, was founded by Nancy Jacobson, a legendary Democratic fundraiser, co-founder also of the Democratic think tank Third Way, and a Georgetown doyenne whose husband, Mark Penn, masterminded Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and runs the third-largest public relations firm in the world. Penn’s sometime business partner, Douglas Schoen, is another practitioner of fantasy politics; he’s the author of the 2008 book, Declaring Independence.
These initiatives are like company unions, designed to redirect discontent into safe, controlled forms that don’t threaten existing power structures. The list of co-founders of No Labels begins with Bill Andresen, a former chief of staff to Senator Joe Lieberman, now a lobbyist, and ends with Al Wynn, a former member of Congress, now… a lobbyist.
Most of the co-founders, like many of the other third-party fantasists, come from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. They often claim, as Lieberman does, that they have been frozen out of politics as their party moved to the left and the Republicans moved to the right. But in fact conservative Democrats have held the balance of power for two decades. They have limited what Presidents Clinton and Obama could accomplish, and they enabled many of George W. Bush’s accomplishments. Take this example of their power: When a promising alternative approach to health reform—allowing 55-to-65 year olds to buy into Medicare—emerged in early 2010, all it took was a single negative gesture from Lieberman, and the idea was buried in less than a day.
Few senators in history have held the veto power that Lieberman, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and a few others hold in the current political structure. The closest parallel would be the Southern Caucus of the 1940s through the 1960s, by which the (even more) conservative Democrats of that era used the seniority system and committee chairmanships to block civil rights legislation and many other progressive priorities. Lieberman, Landrieu, and Nelson, however, exert their power without leadership positions or control of key committees. No Labels, Third Way, and Americans Elect seem designed to strengthen this already-overempowered bloc.
Americans Elect, which has gained ballot status in four states so far for its candidate-to-be-named-later, has a similar pedigree to No Labels, though it is more secretive. Its gimmick is that it will provide an open Internet platform allowing citizens to nominate candidates and then vote among the finalists—a “second nominating process,” they call it. But the nominee is required to be a “centrist” or hold a “moderate philosophy.” What if the nominee of the “open” process isn’t a moderate? And who gets to decide whether he is or isn’t? In 38 pages, a recently released briefing book for potential candidates fails to answer those questions.
Initially financed by investment banker Peter Ackerman, and run by Ackerman’s son, Americans Elect appears to be an outgrowth of Unity08, a thinly veiled effort to draft Bloomberg organized by a group of political consultants in 2006. (No surprise that political consultants are Bloomberg’s core constituency: His self-financed mayoral campaigns have made several New York consultants quite wealthy. A presidential run would surely enable a few of them to acquire the ultimate consultants’ status symbol, a Virginia horse-country estate.) Americans Elect’s leadership ranks are thus heavier on consultants—such as Schoen, former Bush and McCain aide Mark McKinnon, and direct-mail pioneer Roger Craver—than lobbyists, although several of the latter recently joined its board.
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.
The refreshing thing about this year’s first entry in the category of books promising political independence is that it breaks the first of the rules: Its authors, both of Reason magazine (Gillespie edited it from 2000-2008; Welch is the current editor), are not successful lobbyists or political consultants. Welch and Gillespie “declare independence not just within politics, but from the politics.” Unlike the careerists of Americans Elect, they don’t much like politics, and it shows. Their purpose is to make politics small enough that we don’t have to give much thought to it, and can return to “the pursuit of happiness” through loose, decentralized activity, which is their real topic. Early on in their book, for example, we’re treated to a well-executed ten pages about the Velvet Underground and its influence on Czech dissidents in the 1980s—a fascinating subject, but one only tangentially related to American politics in 2011. (A later digression about the characters in a 1988 video game called Lee Trevino’s Fighting Golf is hilariously even less relevant.)
The authors would probably hate this comparison, but the tone of the first quarter of the book reminded me of John Maynard Keynes’s charming 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which he held out the prospect of a world in which “the economic problem”—scarcity—had been solved, and rather than chasing basic resources, much of humanity would be free to enjoy music, art, leisure, and personal freedom. Unlike the cramped vision of the insider efforts, they describe their philosophy as “a confident, all-chips-on-black wager on the ability of free individuals to invent more and more interesting choices for how we can live our hyphenated lives.” Their children, they predict, will “get to do stuff we cannot imagine…maybe vacationing in a different solar system or building a house without having to apply for a zoning variance.” Their playful sense that politics is a means to an end, and the end is for each of us to be able to lead a fulfilling life, is a refreshing alternative to the narrow outlook of the insiders.
As libertarians, Welch and Gillespie also have a far more legitimate claim to be politically homeless than the Lieberman Democrats. Their comprehensive libertarianism—minimal government, laissez-faire, civil liberties, drug and reproductive rights, open borders, deregulation—is not represented in either political party, not even at the far-right edge of the Republican Party, which talks a good game but is really libertarian only on economics (and even there, most invested in protecting the current winners). Former New Mexico Governor and current presidential candidate Gary Johnson is far closer to a real libertarian than even Ron Paul, but he can barely qualify for inclusion in the Republican debates, despite two terms as a popular governor.
Libertarians do have what Americans Elect can only dream of—a ballot line. The Libertarian Party’s presidential ticket generally appears on the ballots of 45 to 50 states. But Welch and Gillespie mention the party only twice, in passing, with no explanation of why they don’t see it as a vehicle for their independence. While the book promises an optimistic alternative vision of politics, in form it adopts the conventional argument for the mystical independent or third-party candidate. That starts with the Friedmanesque litany of “Amazon, iPod, drugstore.com,” but Welch and Gillespie extend that riff into the bulk of the book, with only minimal effort to connect it to politics. These chapters are mostly interesting case studies in various businesses or individuals who broke down established structures through individual initiative—free-agent statistical blogger Nate Silver, Southwest Airlines, microbreweries. These anecdotes have their own shortcomings—very few people have the nerve, genius, and luck to be Nate Silver, and the microbreweries struggle daily against the price-setting power of the two multinationals that control four-fifths of the American beer market. And here’s where the implied analogy to politics shatters: If you start a microbrewery that gains 1 percent of the U.S. beer market, you’ll become fabulously wealthy, but if you start a political party that gets 1 percent of the vote, you are, even in the best-case scenario, Ralph Nader. In 1996.
While Gillespie and Welch are coming from a different orientation than the insider-centrists, their substantive argument takes a similar form: We need an independent candidate because of, you guessed it, the deficit. The federal deficit is what forces them to abandon their lucrative and rewarding private pursuits, and return, unhappily, to politics. They are pulled back to the battle, they say, only because “we are so out of money.”
The long-term federal deficit is indeed a problem to be solved, and there are lots of reasons to be concerned about it—but “we are so out of money” is a particularly misleading way to describe it. We can no more run out of money than we can run out of smiles. The United States has the good fortune to be sovereign in its own currency, which is to say that we can handle the current debt and much of the projected debt. At certain levels, there will be bad consequences, such as inflation, but we’re nowhere near that point and certainly not “out of money.”
From that stale premise, the authors recycle a wish list of unexciting or long-discredited ideas on health, education, and retirement, such as the Social Security privatization scheme that George W. Bush never even sent to Congress in 2005 or health-care ideas like allowing insurers to bypass state regulations or requiring individuals to bear more of the cost of health care. They’re too pragmatic to endorse the more bracing libertarian absolutes, like eliminating any public role in health insurance. On education, they write in apocalyptic tones about the failure of K-through-12 schooling (they’re wrong), but they pull their punch, not even endorsing private-school vouchers, but instead a budgeting scheme known as the “weighted-student formula” that has recently been embraced by many large urban school districts (you know, the same ones that are failures).
Most of this, by the way, would have no effect at all on the federal deficit. Unlike the straight libertarian tonic, in which government would simply stop doing certain things, these hybrid, market-based solutions are likely to cost more, for comparable public benefits, than direct delivery of benefits through government. That’s true in health (single payer is cheaper than a subsidized private insurance scheme), retirement (Bush’s Social Security privatization by itself would have worsened the system’s long-term finances), and education (student loans through banks cost more than government loans, and a real voucher system would cost more than public schools). There may be good reasons to prefer market-based solutions in all these cases, but “we are so out of money” certainly isn’t one of them. All the verve of the first part of the book is lost in the final journey through the zero-sum choices of deficit politics and stale policy solutions that don’t even address the deficit.
In many ways, the alternative politics that Americans Elect, No Labels, and, to a small degree, Welch and Gillespie were looking for was embodied in the campaign and election of Barack Obama—a campaign that reached people who hadn’t been interested in politics, promised to transcend partisanship, and built an electoral coalition that reached deep into Republican territory such as Indiana. As the President points out even in his more recent “populist” mode, many of the ideas he’s embraced on health-care reform, deficit reduction, education, and job creation come from Republicans. But his presidency quickly became a very ordinary one, smashed on the rocks of economic crisis and obstruction.
If you see this as a failure or betrayal by Obama, the case for a third party is strong. Here’s Politico’s Allen again, with executive editor Jim VandeHei, explaining their online primary: “Voters have watched first George W. Bush and then Barack Obama promise to reach out to the other party—then not only fail spectacularly at bipartisanship but make the city’s divisions even deeper.” But the failure here was not principally Obama’s. Nor was it entirely the fault of congressional Republicans. It was the system as it has evolved, a system with too many veto points and too much entrenched power, and one in which money carries too much weight. It’s a system that can be reformed, in ways large and small, but a third party or independent candidacy, absent other reforms, won’t do a thing to the system. And the fact that many of the leading advocates for a third party or independent candidate are so deeply embedded in the system, and are its winners, should make us all even more skeptical about the fantasy.
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