Third parties and independent movements have appeared in our nation’s history before, especially in times of crises, to exert a lasting influence.
Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, for example, advanced a platform that included a woman’s right to vote and the direct election of US senators. The radically impractical People’s Party pushed for a graduated income tax, the establishment of a Federal Reserve, and elections by secret ballot. We take all these things for granted now, yet they were once rejected by both Democrats and Republicans. Without independent minded people pushing for change, America today would be a lot different than it is.
The major parties tend to stagnate over time for some reason. Maybe it’s because of the way different constituencies become invested in, and dependent upon, the parties. Unlike parliamentary democracies, where political coalitions are formed after elections by parties who agree to form a government, coalitions in America are formed within the parties themselves. The Republican and Democratic parties each represent a broad but fixed coalition of interests, which vie with each other to gain power and distribute benefits. Since influence and benefits are distributed exclusively through the parties, members of a coalition, once they have joined, have strong incentives to stick with their party even if they are dissatisfied. Many conservative Christians voted for Donald Trump although they disliked him, because they saw no chance to advance their social agenda outside the Republican Party. In a parliamentary system the same voters might have voted for a Christian or social conservative party, which after the election would become a potential coalition partner with someone else.
Since political coalitions in America are forged within parties rather than between them, they tend to last longer than coalitions in parliamentary systems. That tenacity also makes them slow to respond to new challenges and changes. Abandoning a coalition is just too risky for those who are invested in it, which means the parties have to be prodded from the outside before they will change. Every now and again they need to undergo shock therapy, in the form of increased political competition, to ensure they stay healthy. Right now, though, they’re pretty sick.
We’ve forgotten how important third parties can be because we’re living at the end of a period of political stability dating back to the end of WWII. No one alive remembers the Gilded Age and Great Depression, yet that was a time when third parties and independent movements worked to reform American democracy under stress. Surely our own period resembles 1910 more closely than it does 1950. Why should anyone be surprised that groups like the Centrist Project are rising up? The old political coalitions no longer make sense; the Republican and Democratic parties have become the brittle fossils of an earlier age.
Is the Centrist Project realistic? Can it help reform American politics? I think it can. What isn’t realistic, in my view, is to look out on our country today and think that politics can stay the way it is now. Things are going to change one way or another. Why not work, then, to bring about good change instead of accepting the status quo.
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