Three possible “third parties” for America -- the Establishment Party, the Populist Party, and the Problem-Solving Party

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As we saw earlier, in Part 1 of this series, both of the two major political parties are having a hard time winning the confidence of the American people--and thus failing to win an effective majority.

In fact, this popular dissatisfaction with both political parties has predominated for more than four decades. So just about all present political incumbents feel jittery, worried that they, too, might get caught in a “throw the bums out” moment.

In the face of this consistently sour sentiment, many politicians, in recent years, have adopted various survival strategies, seeking to separate themselves from their unpopular parties.

In the mid-90s, for example, Bill Clinton and his then-guru and pollster Dick Morris came up with the idea of “triangulation”--the strategy that the 42nd president would build his own unique brand; he would stand apart from, and above, not only the opposition Republicans, but also his fellow Democrats.

The plan worked.

It’s no wonder, then, that pundits and savants have thought that Clinton-ish “third way”--that is, in the middle between right and left--thinking could morph into an actual third party, maybe even bringing about the election of a third-party president.

Indeed, from the actual candidacies of John Anderson in 1980 and of Ross Perot in 1992, to the hoped-for candidacies of Colin Powell and Donald Trump in more recent years, many have tried, or at least thought about, blazing a new political trail into the history books. And perhaps for a brief moment it seemed as if those candidates and possible candidates could win; for a time in ’92, Perot was polling ahead of both Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

Yet meanwhile, the two extant “third parties” with steady ballot access, the Libertarians and the Greens, standing on the outer edges of the political spectrum, have failed to gain voter-share.

The Libertarian Party has never won more than a single percentage point in national balloting, and the Green Party has never won more than 2.7 percent.

One reason for this third-party failure is that the two existing parties, increasingly ideological as they have become, actually seem better qualified at attracting intensely ideological voters on the fringes--libertarian-leaning and green-leaning--than they are at attracting swing voters in the middle. Most environment-conscious green voters, for instance, seem comfortable enough in the Democratic Party, and so the Green Party is left on the margin.

For libertarians, the situation is a bit more complicated--because both parties are draining “freedom”-oriented voters from the formal Libertarian Party.

Most self-described libertarians are Republicans, attracted to the GOP’s economic message; at the same time, those who describe themselves as civil libertarians are Democrats, attracted to that party’s message of free speech and personal freedom. And so the Libertarian Party’s potential vote is bisected between the two parties:

The Democrats are sufficiently pro-choice and pro-gay marriage to satisfy human-rights-oriented left-libertarians, while the Republicans are sufficiently pro-small-government to satisfy economics-minded right-libertarians.

Yet in the meantime, even as the formal third parties are killed with this kind of kindness, a great many voters, and potential voters, in the middle are still not spoken for; neither major party really speaks for them.

A 2012 Gallup Poll found, for example, that 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as “conservative,” 21 percent describe themselves as “liberal,” and 35 percent as “moderate.”

These numbers have held steady for decades, and so as a matter of pure mathematics, both parties must reach out beyond their ideological bases to get to 50. And although it might seem that Republicans are playing from a stronger hand, since 40 percent of Americans count themselves as conservative, the proof is in the balloting--in who wins the elections. So if Democrats prove more adept at luring moderates, thus adding them to their liberal base, then Democrats win.

The target voters, in other words, are mostly in the middle.

They may well have voted for one or the other party in recent elections, displaying little consistent loyalty to either party. Or in some cases, they they seem hostile to the political system itself, and in their hostility--or apathy, or alienation--they simply do not seem interested in voting. In any case, they are hard “gets.” Still, if one party could win the affection of these “indies,” it could win the majority.

The big challenge for the two parties is that their respective ideological cores tend, of course, to look askance at newcomers; they fear that the “newbies” might dilute their ideological purity.

On the Republican side, pro-lifers are often not excited to see pro-choicers join the party, even though the pro-life forces routinely crush any real influence that pro-choicers might have on social issues.

Similarly, on the Democratic side, the pro-gay-rights forces are not always happy to see conservatives join their team; it’s a safe bet that no speaker at the Democratic convention this summer in Charlotte this summer will vocally oppose gay marriage.

Yet there are many other issues that Americans worry about, and both parties could benefit from expanding their issues portfolio, thereby enticing new voters.

So now let’s look at some of these potential new voters, and how they see themselves. For purposes of understanding, we might divide them into three groupings, groupings that do correspond, in fact, to historical categories.

We might think of these groupings as informal parties, or "proto-parties." Once again, these parties do not exist--but they could. And maybe they should, so that we could have a broader and better national debate.

So let’s examine what we might dub the Establishment Party, the Populist Party, and the Problem-Solving Party.

The Establishment Party

The Establishment Party is avowedly centrist, internationally minded, even high-minded, and so larger planetary issues--such as economic and cultural globalization, climate change, the Middle East and Africa--are all important to those would belong to it.

At home, Establishmentarians often focus on “good government”-type process reforms, such as increased governmental transparency and campaign-finance changes--although, of course, when it comes to providing an “essential” bailout to pillars of the establishment, such as the banks, they have proven willing to waive good-government procedures in the interests of speed, secrecy, and closing the deal.

The New York Times, The New Yorker, and NPR loom large in the Establishment Party worldview, but so do business-oriented publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times.

Some Establishmentarians are on the left, others are on the right, and many are in between; what unites them all is a common worldview, which prides itself on being global, as opposed to parochial.

If the Establishment Party were to have an actual platform, it would dwell heavily on deficit reduction, carefully balanced between tax increases and spending cuts. There would be no argument about social issues such as gay marriage, to be sure--because everyone they know is in favor of it.

If the Establishment Party, clustered in and around the bicoastal big cities, could nominate a presidential candidate today, it would be one of their own--such as New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The Establishment Party is influential, because its members tend to have easy access to the media; indeed, a good chunk of the media could be said to belong to the Establishment Party.

Morton Kondracke, editor-in-chief of Roll Call and blue-chip Establishmentarian, wrote a piece recently in which he denounced the two major parties for their supposed extremism, concluding, “there really is a crying need for a centrist alternative” in national politics.

Yet of the three possible parties under discussion here, the Establishment is by far the smallest, in terms of quantifiable ballot-box power.

Let’s face it: The affluent elites who form the Establishment Party are simply not numerous, and so they and their ideas can never go to the next level; they can never go from articulating the agenda of a candidacy to actually running a candidate.

It’s commonly thought that Bloomberg, for example, has wanted to run for president; one well-funded independent group, Americans Elect, was commonly thought of as Bloomberg-for-President front group.

It’s been reported that Bloomberg was considering spending billions to seek the presidency, but he could never see a clear path to 270 electoral votes.

So Americans Elect is scrambling to find any kind of credible candidate to run this year, while Bloomberg will have to settle for being rich and powerful, as opposed to being rich and presidential.

The Populist Party

The second grouping, the notional Populist Party, shares some common characteristics with the historical Populist parties of the late 19th century--that is, not rich, not elite, not urban, not happy.

Populists tend to get that way--riled up--because they are feeling hard-pressed, even oppressed.

In the 1800s, Populists felt squeezed by the banks and the railroads; today, they are feeling squeezed by the financiers, the globalizers, and the open-borders cheerleaders--and not just squeezed on economics, but also, then and now, on cultural issues. And so Populists pick up their pitchforks and seek to raise some hell.

So we can see that the Populists are the polar opposite, on most issues, of the Establishmentarians; indeed, under one name or another, folks in small towns and rural areas have always been hostile to people in the big cities, and vice versa.

At times in the past, populists--operating mostly through the Democratic Party--proved effective at advancing their goals through politics.

In 1891, for example, they were instrumental in establishing the Texas Railroad Commission for the purpose of regulating the railroads which had been hurting small farmers and merchants; at a time when few other states were facing up to the threat from unchecked monopoly, Texas was leading the way in essential economic regulation.

Yet for the most part, throughout American history, populists have been better at winning elections than at winning sustained policy arguments once in office. Unlike today’s notional Establishment Party, the notional Populist Party has a hard time getting its message across; indeed, Populists often have a hard time even connecting with each other, since they lack the infrastructure of publications, universities, and think tanks needed to build up a movement.

E-mail and Facebook are great communications tools today, but if one wants to build a cohesive movement, one needs a cohesive body of thought; lacking widely-read tomes and manifestos, the Populists are scattered all over the place--from hardscrabble Democrats to Uncle Sam-oriented veterans to Tea Partying Republicans. And that scattering, of course, tends to undercut Populist political effectiveness.

If the Populists were to run a presidential candidate today, they would probably choose Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas. Yet because they are so dispersed, others in the same notional party might demand that he be coupled with, say, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for the sake of “party unity.” Manchin is a blue-collar-oriented moderate on most issues, but an unabashed champion of coal, which would infuriate the Establishment Party--and thus delight the Populist Party.

The Problem-Solving Party

Third, we come to the hypothetical Problem-Solving Party. This “party” is really a grouping like-minded men and women, and its “members” hold few ideological convictions of the type that animate hardcore Democrats or Republicans.

What sets Problem-Solvers apart is their pragmatic search for a better life--and the fact that they are willing to work hard to get it. In their world, technical debates loom large and political debates loom small; if you have a business to run, you have to answer technical questions, such as which mobile OS serves the enterprise and users best: Android, RIM, iOS or Windows? If such a question seems abstruse and irrelevant to politicos, that’s the point.

Problem-Solvers might ask: What’s the ideology of technology? And the answer, of course, is that there isn’t any. Is an operating system properly to be seen as on the political left, or on the political right? If one is trying to develop an engineering solution, or a medical cure, or a new consumer product, does one consult either Karl Marx or Adam Smith? The patron saint of the Problem-Solvers is the inventor Thomas Edison, not some ivory-tower dreamer.

So most researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs tend to be apolitical; one reason is that they are too busy. And on a deeper level, the worldview that seeks to understand the universe--and then rearrange it a little--is profoundly different from the political worldview, which seeks to win power over fellow humans.

Yet if the Problem-Solvers are not always aware of their potential to make political careers, they are fully aware of their potential to make change.

Henry Ford built cars on a revolutionary assembly line because it was fun for him to solve all the problems of mass-production--and, of course, he was happy to get rich. Ford had plenty of political opinions, many of them noxious, but the only reason anyone listened to him was because he was rich and powerful. And in any case, Ford’s place in history depends on industry, not ideology.

In the same vein, decades after Ford, what was Bill Gates’ motivation when this Harvard dropout co-founded Microsoft in April 1975?

That same month in that same year, the US military evacuated the last Americans from the embassy rooftop in Saigon, but if Gates had an opinion on that, or on any other aspect of the Cold War, few know of it.

Gates’ big idea was completely different: “a computer on every desk and in every home.” How to do that--that was Gates’ mission in life.

Since then, everybody on earth has felt the impact of that idea.

Over the last decade, of course, Gates’ interest has shifted to international philanthropy, and so he has, we might say, switched parties; he is now more properly pegged as a member of the Establishment Party.

Meanwhile, other tech-minded visionaries have emerged as national leaders in their field, and they are similarly non-political.

Everybody wants to know more about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, for example, but nobody knows much of anything about his politics.

The Problem-Solving Party is the natural home to scientists, engineers, and businesspeople--even if, at present, they belong to another party, or to no party. But if Problem-Solvers did have a party, they would have found an ideal presidential candidate: Steve Jobs.

Tragically, of course, Jobs, one of the most insanely great problem-solvers in American history, died last year. And so, in a best-case scenario, the Problem-Solvers might have to wait till Mark Zuckerberg turns 35 in 2019.

And of course, none of these imaginary groupings--Establishment, Populist, Problem-Solving--is about to come into existence, let alone field a presidential candidate.

Yet if, as we have seen, the two major political parties, Democratic and Republican, are having a hard time forming and holding a majority, then perhaps they need to look at these proto-parties, because if they could mobilize their votes, they could win and win big.

But who should target whom? More immediately, how could the two presidential candidates, Obama and Romney, go about attracting these potential additional voters this November, if they were so inclined?

We will take up those questions next Friday, in Part 3.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer and Fox News contributor. He is the editor/founder of the Serious Medicine Strategy blog.