The last presidential election left the traditional Democratic and Republican parties splintered. The growing sentiment that the Washington establishment is more interested in representing themselves than the people that elected them helped lead to the rises of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, as people turned out to express their displeasure with the status quo.
How could this have happened? A lingering hangover from Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy may be a good place to start. After the Johnson administration championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Southern white voters found themselves in a quandary with the Democratic Party. Nixon, sensing a true opening, courted the South to move to the Republican Party, leading to some unintended consequences.
In his book, Religion in America: A Political History, Denis Lacome notes: “The recapture of the South by Lincoln’s Party came at a price: the rightward shift of Republican ideology and especially the leaders’ adoption of cultural, and religious values that a majority of the white, Southern, evangelic electorate hold.” At the same time that the Republican Party was shifting to the right, Lacome notes “another long term trend: the increasing secularization of American society.” According to author Clarence Munford in his book, Race and Reparations: A Black Perspective for the 21st Century, liberal Democrats, as a reaction to the Republican Southern Strategy, had “a white middle-class strategy of their own, committing the party to sink or swim with the votes of white Reagan Democrats, white Baby Boom suburbanites, white Gay and Lesbian, white Pro-Choicers and white Environmentalists.” Today, Democratic party leaders all but ignore the black “special interest” on the assumption that African-American voters have nowhere else to go—either vote Democrat or refrain from voting at all.
Both main parties thus began to gravitate to the “wedge issue strategy.” As Jack Snyder notes in his book Power and Progress: International Politics in Transition:change_me
A party adopts a wedge issue strategy when it takes a polarizing stance on an issue that 1.) lies off the main axis of cleavage that separates the two parties, 2.) fits the values and attitudes of the party’s own base, yet 3.) can win votes among some independents or members of the opposing party who can be persuaded to place a high priority on this issue. It is worth stressing what this strategy is not. It is not just playing to one’s own base; it is also designed to raid the opponent’s base.
But now the drums are beating. Democrats are tiring of their party ignoring their traditional social-justice core and Republicans are growing weary of the ever-increasing government debt and centralization of power in Washington. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.”
Enter the 2018 election cycle where several seats in many states will be up for grabs. Lately, state legislatures are even more polarized than the U.S. Congress. Followers of Bernie Sanders feel that the Democratic Party cheated them out of their voice—some even defected to the Trump camp. Many well-intentioned Trump supporters, although in lockstep with some of his agenda, are disgusted by his personal antics. The Democrats have suffered from an inability to recruit interesting new candidates and the Republicans have failed to bring fresh blood into many of their races. In fact, some potential new Republican candidates have been advised to “sit out” this fall’s campaigns because of a potential Trump backlash.
This is the perfect recipe for the emergence of a viable third party.
Traditionally, the largest third party in modern American politics has been the Libertarians. The Libertarian Party has been around since 1971 and has had a significant influence on the current administration as well as the Republican Party as a whole. Its views have created a perception that it’s “far-right,” but lately it’s made forays into conservative and even progressive realms with popular candidates and leaders like Ron Paul, who ran for president under the Libertarian moniker in 1988. Other Libertarian presidential candidates have included former Republican congressmen Bob Barr, Harry Browne, and most recently former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson.
Also ranked near the top has been the Green Party, which was founded in 2001 and has become known for its activism in environmental causes. Often associated with the “far left” and represented in the past by Jill Stein and Ralph Nader, the Green Party has had an influence on the Democrats, with several of their causes having been incorporated into the national Democratic platform.
Also quietly gaining momentum is the American Solidarity Party (ASP) . According to their website they are:
a true, organically-grown grassroots party that was formed by people looking for a third way in the polarized and interest-group-driven landscape of American politics, modeled on Christian Democratic parties throughout the world, shaped by unique aspects of American culture and law. In 2016, we officially incorporated, registered as a political party with the FEC, and ran a nationwide presidential campaign, all with purely volunteer efforts and small donors.
With a focus on trying to “seek to bridge the bitter partisan divide with principled and respectful policies and dialog,” their platform could appeal to both Trump and Sanders supporters weary of the current winner-take-all wedge climate now pervading politics. ASP’s unique mixed platform presents a tremendous amount of potential among younger voters and disenfranchised stalwarts alike that feel more comfortable with a broad majority compromise. Again, Tocqueville put it best when he underscored the need for a politics of solidarity:
Without common ideas, there is no common action, and without common action men still exist, but a social body does not. Thus in order that there be society, and all the more, that this society prosper, it is necessary that all the minds of the citizens always be brought together and held together by some principle ideas.
The de facto historical role of third parties has been to inject their perspectives into the major party’s platforms. Because both the Green Party and the Libertarians have been associated with the extreme ends of the political spectrum, it’s difficult to imagine that one of them will ever rise to the status of majority party. Furthermore, many consider a third-party vote to be more of a protest than an actual precursor to victory.
All that could change with the rise of a centrist alternative like the ASP. Consider this: the Senate is currently made up of 51 Republicans, 49 Democrats, and two Independents. Imagine the election of just five senators from a third party who sometimes voted with the Democrats and sometimes voted with the Republicans—they would instantly become the most powerful senators in Washington.
Furthermore, will many Southern Strategy Republicans, fearing draconian cuts to social programs look for a centrist alternative? Will socially compassionate Democrats who are disgusted with the extreme partisanship in Washington move to the middle? Neither shift is beyond the realm of the possible.
The winds of change are starting to blow. 2018 could emerge as the year that a third party achieves viability—through moderation, not ideology.
John Burtka III, who was formerly involved in the global automotive industry, now acts as a Lean-Six Sigma business consultant, entrepreneur, Community Mental Health board member, and county commissioner.