Some new data relevant to one of my favorite false political theories became available, so I wrote about it at New York:
An enduring fantasy about American politics is that our polarized two-party system may give way to a centrist third party that will rise to power on the frustrations of voters tired of gridlock and refusals to compromise in the national interest. You hear this cry for a fresh option more and more as Republicans systematically deploy the filibuster to obstruct Joe Biden’s agenda, and Joe Biden’s Democrats cannot or will not chase Republicans around Washington with candy and valentines until deals are cut and things get done. Indeed, Gallup found earlier this year that a record-high 62 percent of Americans agreed that “the parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.”
That’s in theory, of course. In reality, a lot of Americans who say they are angry at the two-party system are really just angry at the party opposing their own for failing to get out of the way or go off to die. And even if you could somehow get all the malcontents together in one room, do they actually speak the same ideological language and agree on what is to be done when all the “getting things done” commences?
A new typology of American voters from the Pew Research Center shows why a centrist third party is problematic in the extreme. After asking a very large sample of voters a battery of questions aimed at determining their partisan leanings and ideological tendencies, alongside positions on key issues, Pew came up with nine groups. Four (Progressive Left, Establishment Liberals, Democratic Mainstays, and Outsider Left) are Democratic leaning, four more (Faith and Flag Conservatives, Committed Conservatives, Populist Right, and Ambivalent Right) are Republican leaning, and one (Stressed Sideliners) leans neither way.
If you take the left and right groups least intensely partisan (the Outsider Left and the Ambivalent Right) and add them to the nonpartisan Stressed Sideliners, you get a substantial 37 percent of the electorate, enough to form a plurality in close three-way political contests. But there are two big obstacles to them becoming an effective Third Force, notes Pew:
“Surveys by Pew Research Center and other national polling organizations have found broad support, in principle, for a third major political party. Yet the typology study finds that the three groups with the largest shares of self-identified independents (most of whom lean toward a party) — Stressed Sideliners, Outsider Left and Ambivalent Right — have very little in common politically. Stressed Sideliners hold mixed views; Ambivalent Right are conservative on many economic issues, while moderate on some social issues; and Outsider Left are very liberal on most issues, especially on race and the social safety net.”
These three groups do have one negative point of conjunction:
“What these groups do have in common is relatively low interest in politics: They had the lowest rates of voting in the 2020 presidential election and are less likely than other groups to follow government and public affairs most of the time.”
So even if you designed a party or a candidate that could somehow appeal to all of the politically dispossessed, many in the target audience might not notice or wouldn’t vote anyway. And if they did get motivated enough to consider the Third Force, they might tear each other apart on the way to saving the country.
Ultimately, the purported constituents for a centrist third party aren’t as large a group as is often imagined and aren’t really centrists, either. And their alienation from both parties may be more about alienation from politics or, to put it another way, from the prospect of doing anything about their grievances. This fantasy will never die, but it’s not springing into real life in the foreseeable future.