Is America Ready for a New Third Party? Is “No Labels” the Next Big Thing? (Part 3 of 5)

In the previous installments, we asked, “Is America Ready for a New Third Party?” and then took a look at the history of third parties in the US. As we saw, third parties emerge when the existing two parties are not addressing the concerns of a new and vocal group.   

Today, of course, there’s plenty of general dissatisfaction with the status quo. Polls show that Americans think we are on the “wrong track,” as opposed to heading in the “right direction,” by a nearly 20-point margin, and so a large potential market exists for insurgent change. The question is, who can satisfy that market--the middle? the right? the left? Or something else? In this installment, we will take a look at the middle.    

In January, the National Journal’s Ron Fournier published a piece entitled, “Talkin' About Revolution: 6 Reasons Why the Two-Party System May Become Obsolete.”  Here’s his list of why he thinks the US is “on the brink of a major political realignment”: 

1. Americans are disconnected and frustrated with politics unlike virtually any time in the history of polling.

2. The country is in the midst of a wrenching economic shift from the industrial era to an info-tech economy. The transition coincides with unsettling social change. The nation's institutions, especially government, are not adapting.

3. History suggests that periods of socioeconomic change in the U.S. lead to political upheaval, including transformation of existing parties and the rise of new ones.

4. Technology gives consumers enormous purchasing power, which has been used to democratize commerce and other institutions. One example: In a few short years, Americans gained the ability to ignore an artist's album and buy only a favorite one or two songs. The music business was radically changed by we, the people. So why would Americans be expected to settle for the status quo in politics?

5. The parties are weakened. For a variety of reasons, the Democratic and Republican structures no longer have a monopoly on the ability to raise money, broadcast messages, and organize activists.

6. The nation faces existential problems including climate change, debt, income inequality and the decline in social mobility.

Okay, so that’s a pretty good itemization of what might be called “pre-revolutionary” circumstances. Yes, lots of aggrieved people. Also, lots of new kinds of power available to those people--if they want to raise a ruckus. 

Fournier cites one group of disaffected centrists, No Labels, as potentially benefiting from the current flux.  Started in 2010, No Labels describes itself as “A movement of Democrats, Republicans and everything in between dedicated to the politics of problem-solving. We stand united behind a simple proposition: we want our government to stop fighting and start fixing.”  

No Labels is in the tradition of all the high-minded reform groups of the past, from the Union League to the National Civic League to the League of Women Voters to Common Cause. That is, mostly upper-middle-class folks, most often gathered around favored issues such as accountability and transparency.  Yes, these are the good-government folks, aka “goo-goos.”  

Yet the goo-goos get it from all sides. The incumbent political class--the ones that the goo-goos are trying to reform--regards them, at best, as dilletante-ish naifs, and, at worse, as meddlesome threats to business-as-usual. Meanwhile, leftists regard them as bourgeois incrementalists, getting in the way of the needed radical change. And the view from the right is that goo-goos are “useful idiots,” pawns of the public-employee unions and other tax-increasers. 

Still, this newest goo-goo group, No Labels, which seems to have emerged from the old Democratic Leadership Council, has struck a minor chord with the public as it pushes for its vision of small-bore, but well-meaning, process reforms for Congress and for the Presidency. Perhaps its best known action item is “no budget, no pay”--that is, if Congress can’t agree on a budget, then lawmakers don’t get paid. That sounds good, until one realizes that it has no teeth; according to the Constitution, Congress can’t do anything that would affect its own salary  So what, exactly, does No Labels hope to accomplish? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Indeed, we might further note that No Labels has no position on the biggest issues of our time, from taxes to spending to foreign policy. Instead of wading into such controversies, No Labels sticks to its “kumbaya” approach of lowest-common-denominator goals. There are worse things, to be sure, but there are also more exciting things. If, as Fournier suggests, this is a pre-revolutionary moment, No Labels doesn’t seem poised to chorus up in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

That’s the weakness of No Labels as a possible platform for a third party. It attracts its share of middle-of-the-roaders eager to do the right thing, but it doesn’t offer anything that truly galvanizes people to take bold action. Nor does it have a strong national leader, and that shortcoming chills its chances of, well, national leadership. And so No Labels seems destined to be more of a discussion society than a hard force for change.   

A similar lesson is provided by Americans Elect, a sort of companion group to No Labels. After the 2008 election, people close to New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg--a moderate Democrat at heart--donated tens of millions of dollars to the group, which aimed, in a No Labels-ish way, to put a fresh face into presidential contention.  Americans Elect went to the considerable expense of securing a place for an “AE” nominee on the 50 state ballots, cheered on, all the while, by the D.C. Establishment. In April 2012, for example, Morton Kondracke, yet another moderate Democrat, wrote a piece for Roll Call in which he dissed Democrats for being too liberal, and Republicans for being too conservative, before concluding, “There really is a crying need for a centrist alternative.” 

Many saw the effort as a stalking horse for Bloomberg himself, but when he declined to run, the organization plodded ahead with its “nomination” effort, only to find in May 2012 that it couldn’t find anyone who could garner a measly 10,000 votes to win the Americans Elect online “primary.”  After that, the group went into remission--unless, perhaps, Bloomberg, or some other billionaire gets interested for 2016.   

Something is missing from the No Labels/Americans Elect model. And that something is zeal. If you want to start a third party, you need to be willing to go to the barricades. You need a leader such as Teddy Roosevelt, who bullishly declared his commitment to the cause in the midst of his 1912 third-party campaign: 

We fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind; fearless of the future; unheeding of our individual fates; with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.

That’s the sort of passion that it takes to mount a third-party insurgency, and nobody in the upper-middle-class middle seems to have it.  And so this pre-revolutionary situation awaits its revolutionaries.

Next, in Part 4: "The passion of the Rand Paulistas"


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