Is American ready for a strong third party? If so, what kind--what ideology? Right? Left? Center?
One thing is for sure: Across the board, people are mad. According to a January survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 53 percent of Americans think that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms. That is the first time in the history of the Pew data, we might note, that a majority has felt so threatened by its own government.
Meanwhile, according to the same Pew poll, a mere 26 percent of Americans say that they can “trust the government always or most of the time,” while 73 percent say that they can trust government “only some of the time,” or that they can “never” trust it.
Such findings don’t seem very favorable for incumbents, or for the establishment in general. And so, looking at these data, one might have thought that President Barack Obama would have had a tough time winning re-election last year. But of course, Obama was lucky enough to be challenged by a man who seemed to be even more a part of the establishment, Mitt Romney.
Still, looking ahead to the 2014 midterm elections, members of Congress in both parties might be a bit unnerved by yet another Pew data point showing that just 23 percent of Americans approve of the national legislature. To be sure, approval of individual lawmakers is much higher, but when overall disapproval is that high, there’s the distinct possibility that a “throw the bums out” election could be on the way.
Meanwhile, thoughtful observers and journalists are attempting to explore some of the implications of these data, including the possibility of a peaceful overturning of our two-party duopoly. One such commentator is Doug Sosnik, a longtime Democratic activist who served as political director in the Clinton White House. In a February 12 memo, Sosnik wrote of profound alienation:
The public’s widespread disillusionment with our institutions and political leadership is underscored by its low regard for our political parties. This is particularly true for younger voters (age 30 and under), who represent a new generation of leadership.
Then he added that this alienation could jeopardize the standing of both parties:
Even though the Republican Party is in free fall, the Democratic Party's position among the electorate has only marginally benefited from its misfortune. The broad sense of alienation leaves a very wide door open for a third-party presidential candidate...
Meanwhile, veteran reporter Ron Fournier, who now writes for the National Journal, has taken up two very different change-scenarios in a pair of recent pieces.
In a January 14 article headlined, “Talkin’ About Revolution: 6 Reasons Why the Two-Party System May Become Obsolete,” Fournier dealt with the prospect of a third party emerging in the political middle, declaring, “A revolution is brewing: a non-violent public upheaval that forces change from within the two-party structure or usurps it.” He concluded:
One of two things is likely to happen: The existing parties will dramatically adapt to the times (a demographically challenged GOP has the farthest to go), or voters will demand and get alternatives. An independent presidential bid is increasingly likely. The rise of new parties is not out of the question.
And then, a month later, on February 14, Fournier tossed a not-so-Valentine into GOP precincts. His sources were telling him it was quite likely that Sen. Rand Paul, (R-KY), or some other Tea Partier, would launch a “party-busting independent presidential bid” in 2016.
Some on the right, to be sure, might wonder how Fournier got that story first, ahead of reporters and bloggers who are closer to the movement. Yet if someone indeed runs as a third-party candidate in 2016, that would be a bombshell, because depending on one’s point of view, it would a) doom the GOP’s hopes to regain the White House, or b) teach the Republican Establishment a lesson.
So will a Republican go rogue? We will have to wait and see. But in the meantime, we might take a look at the fascinating history of third-party candidacies. As we shall see in the next installment, third-partiers almost always have an impact--and sometimes they even win.