I bet Charlie Crist spent last night glued to the BBC. Crist, you’ll remember, is the Florida governor running as an independent for the Senate. Across the pond, the British elections may transform that country’s traditional two-party political system into a three-party one. British politics has presaged American politics before: Think of Margaret Thatcher, who won the prime ministership a year before Ronald Reagan was elected president. Crist must be asking himself: Could third-party mania—like the Beatles, Thatcherite economics, and televised singing contests—made the trans-Atlantic hop?
Plenty of people think so. In 2008, veteran political consultants Hamilton Jordan, Gerald Rafshoon and Doug Bailey created “Unity 08,” a movement aimed at propelling a serious third-party candidacy in the United States, and Michael Bloomberg toyed with being that man. Now another graybeard pollster, Douglas Schoen, is out with a book entitled Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System. The Washington Post’s David Broder recently penned a column speculating about whether Crist could follow the lead of Nick Clegg of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, whose third-party success may change Britain’s electoral system forever.
Historically, America’s successful third-party candidates haven’t split the difference; they have articulated alternatives too radical for either party to embrace.
To which one can only say: Good luck with that. The more you know about what’s happening in Britain, and the more you know about the history of third-party candidacies in the U.S., the more dubious the whole idea becomes.
• More Daily Beast writers weigh in on the U.K. electionIn the U.S., third-party boosters usually start with this claim: The Democrats and Republicans have both grown ideologically extreme, thus leaving hordes of independent voters unrepresented in the center. But the bizarre thing about the rise of the Liberal Democrats is that it has occurred at a time in which the ideological divide between Britain’s two parties has clearly narrowed. Ever since Tony Blair, the Labour Party has been steadfastly moderate: embracing free-market economics and a muscular foreign policy. Now, under David Cameron, the Tory Party is hugging the center, too: shedding the hard-edged anti-welfare-state rhetoric of the Thatcher years. In fact, on economics and foreign policy, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are slightly to Labour’s left. So whatever is happening in Britain, it doesn’t look anything like what Schoen and Crist envision for the U.S.: a centrist third-party candidate who grabs the middle because Democrats and Republicans are captives of the ideological extremes.
In fact, the ideological polarization of America’s two major parties is probably a reason the U.S. won’t see a serious third party anytime soon. That’s because, historically, America’s successful third-party candidates haven’t generally run in between the two parties; they have run outside them. They haven’t split the difference; they have articulated alternatives too radical for either party to embrace. Think about Robert La Follette, who won 17 percent on the Progressive ticket in 1924 because both the Democratic and Republican nominees were tools of big business. Or Henry Wallace in 1948, who ran on cooperation with the Soviet Union at a time when both Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey were preaching anti-communism. Or George Wallace in 1968, who ran a more racist campaign than either Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon. Or Ross Perot in 1992, who ran against the North American Free Trade Agreement after it had been embraced by both Republican and Democratic elites. Or Ralph Nader, who in 2000 opposed the pro-globalization policies of both George W. Bush and Al Gore.
In the U.S., third-party candidacies run on passion. And difference splitting doesn’t produce it. The reason is that most independent voters aren’t actually that independent. Most vote consistently for one party or the other; they just affiliate as independents because doing so makes them feel more thoughtful. Given that most independents lean basically left or right, a candidate who tries to run in between the two parties—a little more pro-financial regulation than the GOP but a little less than the Democrats, let’s say—can’t generate enough excitement to overcome the natural tendency of most independents to vote for the party they usually support. (Nor to overcome the massive logistical barriers to running on a third-party ticket).
A candidate who takes positions too extreme for either party, on the other hand, can gain traction if those extreme views resonate with some portion of the electorate. Imagine if Barack Obama had refused to push universal health care or the serious oversight of Wall Street; space might have opened up for an Alan Grayson or Dennis Kucinich on the left. Or let’s say the Republicans in 2012 nominate a presidential candidate who seems comfortable with bank bailouts, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and a larger government role in health care. Space might open up for a Tea Party candidate on the right. It’s the convergence of the two parties—the sense that on some burning issue they are tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum—that usually fuels third-party runs. And that’s precisely what is not happening today. From health care to financial reform to the environment, the Democrats have moved left in the Obama era, thus soaking up the anger of MoveOn types who felt betrayed by the centrism of the Clinton years. Meanwhile, the GOP has moved right to soak up the anger of Tea Partiers enraged by the supposed big government policies of George W. Bush. In the last few years, while Britain’s two parties have been growing less ideologically polarized, American two parties have been growing more polarized. Which means that in the United States, people can vent their anger within the two-party system rather than against it. Which means that no matter what Charlie Crist hopes, third-party mania is not the political equivalent of Simon Cowell. It’s the political equivalent of the chip-butty. It’s not coming our way anytime soon.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.