May 8, 2012
Hoping For Third

So a few days ago jasencomstock asked me a question to the effect of, “why do so many people like third parties so much”?

The context of his question derived from a series of queries I answered about the prospects of a third party emerging in the United States any time soon. In each case I noted I did not think a credible third party was going to arise in the near future, and explained why. But people kept asking.

So I kept thinking. Not about third parties—I stand by my analysis of why third parties aren’t on the way in. You can see those posts herehere and here. Rather, I kept thinking about the question of why so many people — NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman is perhaps the most famous of them all — want a third party so badly.

Two reasons pop out. First is simple political fantasy. People wish to believe that in a profoundly divided electorate, where large percentages of the population disagree about both WHAT is wrong and HOW to fix it, that someone somewhere has a magic formula that can bridge all the complexity and just make American politics work. The problem with American political life, then, isn’t structural, the result of people pursuing what they understand is their self interest at all costs. Instead, it’s technical: if only “they” would stop dividing us, we would all come together and do the right thing for America.

The second is laziness. What I mean by this is that hoping for a third party is in some ways the political equivalent of punting on third down: rather than get down and fight, one declares one’s prospects hopeless and waits for a new chance to play. Notably, almost no one calling for a new team actually wants to go to the trouble of creating it … they just want it to appear so they can join it. Or at least like its Facebook page. 

The hard truth is that politics in democracies almost always reflect the social and political character of the nation being governed. We are a divided nation. We have political institutions that were designed from their inception to be inefficient and mostly ineffective. We have lost a willingness to compromise and to imagine a tomorrow that is worth shared sacrifice today. The combination is brutal. And no third party is going to make it all go away.