Could a Centrist Third-Party Challenge the Two-Party System in 2020?

The 2016 election triggered one of the most significant shifts in United States political history, but looking at all outward appearances, nothing has changed. We are as divided now, if not more, than the time of this election. Our two major political parties increasingly battle each other from the political perspectives of their extremes. Many Americans are deeply troubled by the current state of affairs, regardless of their political leanings.

Tensions are high.

While I too find the current atmosphere noxious, I find myself surprisingly encouraged and optimistic, because I am confident that the “shift” is real and will produce a substantive and positive change in the political dynamic. Here’s why.

Two concepts – one from philosophy the other from physics – may be helpful in explaining our current political situation. One is Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The second concept is that of dialectic theory. As dialectics have come in many different flavors, let me use the well-known Hegelian example in which any interaction between thoughts or concepts can be modeled: a thesis arises, an antithesis is produced, and then a synthesis is achieved. In other words, I believe the divisions we see today in the United States are acute and painful and ugly, but the actions and reactions (theses and antitheses) will ultimately result in outcomes superior to any of the original positions.

I predict that out of the current maelstrom of opposing ideas and beliefs will emerge a strong, centrist third-party that not only represents a synthesis of the best principles of the two major parties but will also break new ground, developing new strategies to successfully serve the United States going forward.

In 2004, Gallup began including the category “Independent” in its polls on political party affinities. Polls in early September 2018 showed voters self-identified as 26% Republican, 27% Democrat and 44% Independent. However, Gallup recognized the dominance of the two major parties and asked independents towards which of those parties they leaned. The September 2018 poll showed that when independents were added to the results of Republicans/Democrats the final tally was 44% to 47% respectively. This roughly equates to the division of the popular vote in the 2016 election. In other words, claiming “independence” is virtually irrelevant in a two-party system. Voters do not want to “waste” their votes and thus feel they must choose between the “lesser of two evils”. This attitude is starting to change; confidence is building that change is possible.

There is a surge of new interest in third-parties at the “grassroots” level throughout the country. However, the better-known third-parties, such as the Green, Libertarian and Constitution Parties, are not attracting new members. Even their once-enjoyed meager popularity as limited-issue parties is waning as they move further left like the Greens, or to the right as with the Libertarian and Constitution Parties. The real movement is taking place among newer, centrist parties that have recognized and stepped into the void left by the Democrats and Republicans abandoning their moderate followers and ideas.

Make no mistake – there are new candidates and third-parties out there with their sights set on winning elections, from local municipalities all the way up to the presidency. And they have a long-term vision. They will run. Don’t be surprised, like the Republicans who ended up electing a President they didn’t want, or the Democrats who are still reeling from their loss. A centrist third-party will soon surface on the national stage, and it will rapidly gain traction to substantially influence the 2020 general election. Winning any office during that election will be a hard slog for any third-party, but it will test the mettle of the members and party structure if nothing else. My sense is that current third-party convictions are strong enough to persist into the out-years. 2020 will not be the last we hear of alternative party options.

The United States has had a two-party system in place for over 150 years, so what are the chances of us expanding to three? Can a third-party significantly influence an election or our political thinking? Yes and yes. I’ll tackle that first question shortly, but to answer the second question, third-parties have already influenced our political system and our political discourse, for better or for worse.

In 1912, two-term Republican President Theodore Roosevelt ran once again, but under the banner of the Progressive Party (nicknamed the “Bull Moose” Party), winning 27% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes, making this the most successful third-party effort in U.S. history.

In 1968, former Alabama Governor George Wallace won 13.5% of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes on the ticket of the American Independent Party.

In 1992, Ross Perot ran as an independent, receiving 18.9% of the popular vote.

In 1996, Perot ran again with the Reform Party and received 8.4% of the popular vote.

In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won only 2.74% of the vote, but this was sufficient to keep the Green Party on the federal ballot in later years.

In 2016, Libertarian Gary Johnson won over four million votes, 3.3% of the national total, which was the highest response in the party’s 45-year history.

Why might a centrist third-party have wider appeal today in 2018 and beyond? A “middle-of-the-road” party, along with the moderate elements of both major parties, would provide the “friction” to slow or even stop erratic swings in the political pendulum.

A centrist third-party, composed of both slightly left and right-leaning members, would be well-placed to formulate bills, laws, and policies acceptable to the moderate members of both other parties – a tri-partisanship in effect. Congress would be better poised to exercise its Constitutional responsibility as a check and balance on the Presidency in cases when, as James Madison phrased it: “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm” (Federalist Papers). The pressure would also be on all three parties to find and nominate only “enlightened statesmen” at every level of elected office.

Are there credible and centrist third-parties out there? Yes, and at every political level, despite not much being reported in national media. Luckily, momentum is building. Here are what appear to be the most active centrist parties at this moment:

American Moderates Party (https://americanmoderates.com)

The Federalist Party (http://thefederalistparty.org)

The Modern Whig Party (http://www.modernwhig.org)

The Reform Party (http://reformparty.org)

The Unity Party (https://www.unitedunitedstates.com)

While these centrist parties all have their unique characters and constituencies, there are common threads in their platforms, whether slightly more conservative or liberal. All of them promote limited/minimalist government at all levels, emphasizing personal liberty over unrestrained government control and regulation. All adhere strongly to the precept that powers not expressly assigned in the Constitution to the federal government must reside with the States, and that not every issue, practically speaking, can have a national solution. Separation of church and state, i.e. secularism in governance, is a key principle shared by these parties. All support a strong national defense and effective veterans’ programs. Fiscal responsibility is a major tenet – a balanced budget, elimination of the national debt, and an end to corporate dominance in government.  Plus, a pervasive social conscience in government is deemed essential.

I am certain that unstoppable historic forces are in play in the United States of America and that a centrist third-party will mount a credible 2020 challenge to the major parties. The most practical and logical outcome will be for us to move, over time, to a three-party political system, one based on pragmatism, reason, and a shared pride in being Americans. This will come. Let’s just hope it’s sooner rather than later.