Thursday, June 01, 2006

Is a New Major Political Party Coming?

A couple of months ago I opined here that there was little chance of the emergence of a new strong political party in our country. I wrote, “[T]here is little chance that any third party will become a long-term major player in national politics unless one of the major parties succeeds in destroying itself.”

But what if both major parties destroy themselves, or at least weaken themselves to the point that some other entity must arise to fill the power vacuum? Peggy Noonan thinks that we’re just about there (see here).

Noonan argues that partisanship in Washington has “become so vicious because the stakes are so low.” She claims that little actually divides the reds and blues in Washington, and that those few issues that do divide them are seen by them as wedge issues rather than important matters.
“The problem is not that the two parties are polarized. In many ways they're closer than ever. The problem is that the parties in Washington, and the people on the ground in America, are polarized. There is an increasing and profound distance between the rulers of both parties and the people--between the elites and the grunts, between those in power and those who put them there.”
Noonan mentions an effort called Unity08.com, which is discussed in greater detail in this Newsweek article by Jonathan Alter. The idea is to build a centrist third party using the Internet. Alter suggests that our political system is ripe for an Internet-based makeover, since “more than 40 percent of voters now self-identify as independents,” and because “"free media" shapes the outcome of presidential races, and the Internet is the freest media of all.”

I have several questions running around in my head about all of this. Is partisanship really worse than ever in Washington, or is it just more apparent to us due to modern media exposure?

As an analogy, I believe that TV coverage of the Vietnam War (where the phrase “Film at 11” was coined — ancient history to Gen-Xers and younger) was at least a partial factor in reducing support for the war. Prior to that time the public was largely shielded from the grizzly realities of combat zones, but in the late 60s and early 70s it was in our living rooms every night. This changed modern warfare and altered the will of the American people regarding what types of military actions we will support. Does anyone really think that we are not truly capable of rapidly wiping out the insurgency in Iraq? We are capable, but we lack the will to do what would be necessary. We cannot support the collateral damage, injury, and death that would occur.

Maybe the available visibility into politics simply allows us to see how bad it has always been. German statesman Otto von Bismarck is famous for likening laws to sausages, saying (here) “you should never watch either one being made.”

I have recently read comments by several long-time Washington insiders and/or observers who seem to agree with Noonan that partisanship is more bitter than ever. Is this view simply due to a short timeline, i.e. three decades instead of a couple of centuries? Would political historians agree that partisan bitterness is at an all-time high?

Are the two major parties together really weak enough that a sufficient vacuum exists for a third party to gain power? Remember, our politicians have succeeded in erecting extremely strong barriers to entry into the party system. Mark Steyn calls it Incumbistan. He seems to echo Noonan’s argument of elitist detachment in this article. Of course, many seemingly secure giants throughout history have fallen by failing to guard against vulnerabilities they couldn’t see or that they thought were unimportant.

Would a third party solve the problem of detached rulers? I assume that an upstart third party would really change the way things work in Washington. But would it be any better at actually solving the nation’s problems? Would a house cleaning along the lines of what appears to be happening to the GOP in Pennsylvania (see here) work just as well?

Is the root of the matter simply that the federal government has grown to such a size that it is essentially ungovernable? Solving this problem would require a lot of discipline by politicians and citizens as well as self-sacrifice by the increasing number of people that have come to rely on this expansive behemoth. Could those of us in the ‘Me’ generation (where everything is always about me and where I deserve everything I want) generate sufficient will to do this?

Is the advent of a third party possible? Of course. Is it probable? At this point I have more questions than answers.

4 comments:

David said...

I have looked at the possibility of a third party emerging. At first I thought it was a good idea. After some consideration I have concluded that a new third party would not provide any guarantee of long-term change. It would definitely provide an initial shakeup on the power structure of our government, but emerging third parties are nto new in our history. There was a time when the GOP was a third party.

The gap between elites and grunts in the existing parties is definitely a problem, which will eventually be corrected by some mechanism - that's just the way things work.

In the end, I think there would be little difference between having a third party emerge and having the existing parties cleaned up so that there was no large gap between the party elite and the voters on the ground.

I don't think that partisanship is at an all time high, but I think we're about due for a shakeup of some kind.

Reach Upward said...

Mark Steyn had this to say here about Noonan's suggestion of a third party:

"I think long term, conservatives have to rethink how they advance their position in the country, because there's not doubt that at the national level, a lot of Republican legislators are contemptuous of the conservative base. And that does pose some serious challenges for conservatives. There's no [chance] of a third party being in place before 2006 or 2008. So it's a fancy on Peggy Noonan's part in that respect. But at some point, something is going to give with this coalition."

So, Steyn appears to agree with David that a third party isn't going to happen (at least any time soon), and that some correction mechanism will right the GOP ship. If that is true, I wonder what form it will take and how long it will take to happen. The national GOP could be in for a rough ride.

Travis said...

I think that the answer to the question of can a third party overtake the present system is found in Noonan article and the Unity08 campaign. If Noonan's arguement that "the problem is not that the two parties are polarized. In many ways they're closer than ever" is true. Then the Unity08's argument that the polarity is causing problems is false.

The problem is that there really is no Unity among the separate 3rd parties that are out there. There needs to be a larger uprising. Sure Unity08 looks like a start, but I don't think that it will succeed because of it has no founding princple other than let's unite. There is no foundation. It is sand on the beach and will be washed away. They need guiding principles and firm ideas, a strong platform if you will.

Reach Upward said...

Good point, Travis. While the Unity08 movement sounds interesting, it seems to lack any cogent 'oomph' that would get a lot of people to think, "Yeah, these guys are the best bet." I think its founders actually admit as much if you read the Newsweek article. They seem to be casting about for some great savior to come along and adopt their movement so that it can become something. Still, its advent seems to be a symptom of the leader-grunt divide Noonan highlights in her article.

When the status quo political landscape looks bad, it is important not to fall into the 'anything else would be better' syndrome. My Dad grew up in Nazi Germany, and he says that this is the precise sentiment that allowed Hitler's party to come to power. Granted, there were many other dynamics at play there, but the point is that different does not necessarily mean better.