article

07.01.11

Has the Third Party's Moment Arrived?

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, columnist Tom Friedman said he would vote for a third-party candidate. John Avlon on how technology and gridlock could spell an end to the curse of Ross Perot.

Independence Day came a few days early this year, as columnist and author Tom Friedman declared his support for a third party at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

“We need a third party. I am for a third party,” Friedman said to applause. “We are trapped in a corrupt duopoly.”

Expressing disappointment with President Obama, dismay with what passes for Republican policy debates, and frustration with the culture of hyperpartisanship in Washington, Friedman sees a reckoning coming, pushed by new technology. “One thing about the Internet and the hyperconnected world—it has flattened every hierarchy in the world from The New York Times to the banking industry. It’s flattened every hierarchy in the world except the two-party system, and that will not remain. That is a prediction that I will make.”

He’s right. Professional partisans are still playing politics by analog rules—they have not woken up to information-age reality. Politics is the last place where people are expected to be satisfied with a choice between Brand A and Brand B.

Friedman launched into this criticism while talking with Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson about his upcoming book on U.S. domestic politics, co-written with Michael Mandelbaum, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.

Friedman is just the latest and most prominent addition to the chorus of voices concluding that hyperpartisanship is hurting our country because it is stopping us from solving the serious problems we face.

In May, the Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans support the creation of a third party, including 68 percent of independent voters.

A Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans support the creation of a third party, including 68 percent of independent voters.

In 2003, when Gallup started asking the question, a majority of Americans thought a third party was not necessary. But the polarization of the Bush years has metastasized in Washington despite candidate Obama’s core campaign promise to bridge these divides. The two parties are more polarized that at any time in our modern history—more ideologically and geographically stratified. Demonizing people who disagree with you has become standard-operating procedure, as RINO and DINO hunting proliferate in closed partisan primaries. Policy debates have been hijacked by special interests. All or nothing has become the negotiation position of choice.

The current issue crystallizing the problem is the cataclysmic game of chicken that D.C. is playing with the debt ceiling. Bipartisan proposals to deal with the deficit and the debt, like the plan put forward by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles late last year, are dismissed by ideologues on either side—especially House members appointed to the commission. And the hottest place in that particular hell goes to the folks who are content to demagogue the deficit and the debt and then refuse to embrace any realistic plan to deal with it.

“If Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles want to run as president and vice president, I will vote for them,” Friedman said. “If Michael Bloomberg wants to run, I’m very happy to vote for him. We need a shock to the system.”

The point of encouraging a third party, in Friedman’s view, would be to influence the national debate and dislodge the dysfunction through shock therapy.


“Now, I don’t think a third party can win for a lot of reasons…[but] if it’s led by a Bloomberg, it’ll have more impact on the next president than the person who does win. Because let’s remember that Ross Perot won almost 20 percent of the vote. At one point he had 40 percent of the polls, and he was nuts.” For all Perot’s not-ready-for-prime-time-ness, he did succeed in shifting the national debate around the deficit, which put Clinton and Gingrich on a political course to create a surplus by the end of that decade. We need that same reset today.

I spoke to former senator Alan Simpson after Friedman’s endorsement, and the quotable senior statesman declined that particular honor. “I don't see a third party, unless the frustration level is that both parties are stupid. And if the recognition level goes up that the Republicans are stupid and the Democrats are stupid, then there's an easy chance for a third party.” But, Simpson said, he would remain a Republican. “I'm an ornery-enough bastard, if I get into a thing or an organization I'll get in there and fight for my position. That's the way I've always lived all my life. So I'm a Republican. But I always say to them, ‘I thought Republicans believed in government out of our lives, the precious right of privacy, and the right to be left alone. Well, then what they hell are we doing in abortion, and gay/lesbian issues, and mental health…I have a cousin who was gay who was a war hero, World War II. We're all human beings,” he said. “I am rather lyrically profane, because the only way to cut through the shit is to get profane and say, ‘You, sir, are speaking bullshit, and the American people know what bullshit is.’”

Speaking of lyrical profanity, a major contributing factor to the current hyperpartisanship is the rise of partisan media, which is causing us to self-segregate into separate political realities. Friedman had dreams of how to dislodge that as well, imaging an on-air centrist truth-teller who launched into the talking points parroted by partisans, saying: “'Those two people are talking complete nonsense. This one actually thinks that we can get out of this hole without raising taxes, and this one thinks we can get out of this hole without cutting entitlements. What nonsense…That’d be pay-per-view for me. I would love that. And that’s what’s totally missing.”

Given the fact that 41 percent of Americans are now self-described independents, there is a rare opportunity for political and media innovation—an emerging market that is already a near majority.

The two parties are deeply polarized, but the American people are not. That’s why we’re witnessing a market breakdown in our politics. A rising tide of voters might describe themselves as fiscally conservative but socially liberal, but because of the disproportionate influence of special interests like the religious right and public-sector unions, the two parties cannot meet this market demand. They are polarized and paralyzed—incapable of reasoning together to solve long-term problems, absent a crisis.

As we paddle closer toward a cliff, frustration is growing. The status quo is not working.

Impractical extreme voices dominate the debate. And unless they show a new capacity to self-correct, it just might take a third party to remind Republicans and Democrats that they are Americans first—and that hyperpartisanship is the opposite of patriotism.