Editor’s note: For an alternative viewpoint, see: Counterpoint: People Are Ready for a New Approach to Politics.
It’s no secret that Republicans and Democrats have retreated toward the extremes in recent years. Trump-era Republicans leaned into their populist base, while the progressives increasingly set the agenda of the Democratic Party.
Some have responded to this polarized world by renewing calls for a more moderate third-party alternative, theorizing perhaps that better politics would exist if there were only an outlet for them. It’s an idea that sounds great in theory, but has no chance of making a difference in practice.
That’s because both parties also have large voter blocs motivated increasingly by gut feelings rather than rational views.
For Democrats, those issues tend to be related to economics, including populist calls to raise the minimum wage, increase benefits and tax the super wealthy. Many conservatives and libertarians, the core of the Republican base, have long lamented that their economic policies are more difficult to understand than those of Democrats — they have the right solutions long-term but are against popular short-term handouts and programs.
They may be right — regardless of who has the “better” policies, Democrats have the edge in appealing to voters’ gut instincts.
But arguing in favor of free trade, free markets or deregulation? Well, it can be a lot harder to understand how such ideas may benefit the little guy in the long run. No wonder some Republicans have begun to abandon these planks in recent years. Meanwhile, Republicans increasingly rely upon their own set of feelings-based politics, shifting debates to divisive social issues that appeal to their core voters’ basest instincts.
This tendency is nothing new. In his 2005 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” Thomas Frank concluded that conservatives had “won the heart of America” because many Americans ultimately vote against their own self-interest as long as their social views are upheld in a general sense.
In essence, Democrats have the opposite problem of Republicans: while their economic views may be easier to express to voters, they struggle to explain their social policies.
It’s not always easy to grasp why letting millions of immigrants into the country is good for the people who already live there. It can be challenging to explain the need for criminal justice reform in a time of rising violent crime. And the same goes for ideas like allowing flag burning or opposing the death penalty for a convicted murderer — issues that have long been supported more on the left. Perhaps that’s why both parties simply do what’s easy, emphasizing the gut-feeling policies and pulling back from tougher debates.
What does this have to do with the prospects for a third party?
For a new party to be successful in a meaningful sense, it would have to provide a unique perspective from Democrats and Republicans. But as both major parties lean in to feel-good, slogan-driven populism, the lane remaining is difficult to build a coalition from.
Put more simply, if the Republican and Democratic parties, with their decades of institutional power, failed to capture voter imaginations with more difficult issues, can we expect a new entity to be successful at doing so?
Polling consistently shows that few Americans prefer moderate views across all issues. As a New York Times analysis put it, “There are very few voters in the middle across all issues.” Though frustrating, it’s unsurprising that the major parties prioritize their extremes: that’s where the market is.
A new, more moderate party would surely appeal to some Americans, but the unfortunate reality is that the current two parties in the United States are the way that they are because they reflect the underlying views — and instincts — of most Americans.
A new party would struggle to appeal to Americans’ gut feelings on economics or social issues, and so its ability to gain traction would ultimately be an uphill struggle.
Without making bigger changes to how we elect politicians in the first place, there’s little opportunity for an alternative to the parties we’ve got — as appealing as such an alternative might be.