Once again, Americans appear to be clamoring for a third major political party.
Gallup reported last Friday that 58 percent say yes and only 35 percent say no, which echoes the Gallup numbers posted in July ’07, when 58 percent said yes and 33 percent said no. Other pollsters during the past decade have similarly reported solid majorities signaling thumbs-up.
And I hear it all the time. Sometimes it seems that the fourth-most frequently asked question these days (aside from “What did the Dow do today?” and “How about those Phillies?” and “Who’s this Snooki person and why should we care?”) is probably, “Why don’t we have a major alternative to the Democrats and Republicans?”
Actually, there are several reasons why no such party exists, or will exist in the foreseeable future. We’ll talk about that in a moment.
But first, let’s parse the stats. The current majority support for a third party clearly mirrors the public’s fervent disdain for the status quo.
According to Gallup, only 28 percent of Americans like the congressional Democrats, and only 18 percent like the Republicans. Meanwhile, 77 percent currently dislike the job that Congress is doing – the second-worst rating since January ’09. And President Obama continues to take hits from his own disgruntled supporters (at a town hall yesterday, an African-American woman told him, “I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for”). All told, as Gallup concluded in its Friday report, “Given the lack of alternatives, it perhaps is no surprise that Americans’ desires for a third party are as high as they’ve been” in years.
But it would be dead wrong to assume that the desire for a third party is solely due to the onerous economic conditions and polarized politics of 2010. The truth is, majority sentiment for a third party has repeatedly surfaced in good times as well. Back in relatively complacent 1999, a Fox News poll reported that 54 percent of Americans liked the idea, with only 32 percent opposed. And third-party talk was particularly strong in 1995, a time when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were at loggerheads; that year, Colin Powell declared that “the time may be at hand for a third major party to emerge (from) the sensible center of the American political spectrum,” and he himself was thought to be a viable third-partier.
Let’s also remember that Ross Perot drew 19 percent of the presidential vote in 1992, heading up what would later become the (ill-fated) Reform party. And, in general, it’s important to note that Americans are always getting fed up with the two parties and Congress in general, as evidenced by the fact that Frank Capra’s classic film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was released in 1939.
And yet, despite all these spikes of majority interest, then and now, no viable third party has ever emerged; and the list of failed third-party leaders, and those who froze at the starting gate, is ever-lengthening: Perot, Powell, John Anderson, Ralph Nader, Lowell Weicker, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, Pat Buchanan, Michael Bloomberg. (NYC mayor Bloomberg froze in ’07, and now his name apparently is being floated again, mostly by Bloomberg.)
The main reason for the persistence of the GOP-Democratic duopoly – aside from the fact that a viable third party faces serious financial and ballot access obstacles – is that there is no broad agreement on what a viable third party should stand for. Powell talked about a party that would represent “the sensible center,” but the problem is that everyone has a different concept of what is sensibly centrist.
Gallup reports that the greatest support for a third party comes from the tea-partiers; 62 percent say yes to the concept. They would undoubtedly argue that it’s sensibly centrist to extend the Bush tax cuts for the rich and to eradicate a variety of federal safety-net programs. Gallup also reports, however, that 61 percent of liberals favor the third-party idea – but they would surely argue that it’s sensibly centrist to march out of Afghanistan and to offer Americans the option of government health insurance.
So it would appear that we’re stuck with choosing Coke or Pepsi, oscillating between brands whenever the taste of the moment inevitably fizzles – just as in the ’06 midterms, when the GOP Congress went Democratic, and in ’10, when the reverse seems likely. (Meanwhile, the permanent government in Washington – otherwise known as lobbyists – is predictably gearing up to tack with the prevailing political breeze.)
And as I noted in a live chat not long ago, everything in our culture seems to conspire in favor of greater polarization between the brands – with the ideological blogs and cable TV shows feeding on further argument, all of it stoked by the economic distemper of the times.
The best we can do, perhaps, is to simply maintain our sense of humor. Although even a political cartoon can be quite wince-worthy.
With respect to Christine O’Donnell’s remarks about how she once “dabbled into witchcraft,” I began to think late yesterday that – contrary to what I wrote here yesterday – perhaps the Delaware senatorial tea-partier might be getting a raw deal. After all, her dabbling phase occurred when she was in high school, and how many of us would like to be judged today on what we did in high school?
As the great British novelist L. P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Back in my own very distant high school days, for instance, I supported the Vietnam war, and I owned and revered three record albums by the Monkees.
But just as I was getting ready to favorably rethink O’Donnell’s youthful experimentation, I ran across a comment posted on The Atlantic’s political website:
“What if Barack Obama had dabbled in witchcraft in high school? Would we ever hear the end of it?”‘