Review by Ramesh Ponnuru Bloomberg
The founders of a new political party, “Forward”, recognize that third parties generally fail. They say previous efforts by third parties failed “either because they were ideologically too narrow or because the population was not interested.”
Theirs will succeed, they reason, because polls show that Americans are hungry for an alternative to the two dominant parties and theirs will be broad and moderate. That’s the explanation two former Republicans and a former Democrat — former U.S. Representative David Jolly of Florida, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang — offered in the Washington Post.
What they say about what their new party will represent is vague enough to sound appealing. As a general rule, going ahead beats the alternatives. But people don’t always agree on where they should go. The trio tries to gain broad support by not specifying a destination.
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There is immense discontent with Democrats and Republicans, but that dissatisfaction is diffuse. Some people think that no party is conservative enough, others that no party is progressive enough.
Some voters favor low taxes and social liberalism, and find that neither party suits them well. They consider themselves moderates. Other voters are unhappy with the parties because they have exactly opposite views. They want national health insurance and laws against abortion. They also see themselves as moderates.
Forward’s conceit is that grievances against the political status quo can unify Americans even if the content of those grievances diverges wildly.
On issues that mobilize large numbers of voters, all the new party offers is a rejection of cartoons. They don’t want to eliminate the Second Amendment, they say, but neither do they seek to abolish all gun laws. You can see the vibe they are trying to invoke. But Democrats don’t usually say they’re hostile to the Second Amendment, and Republicans rarely say they want to get rid of all gun laws. The attacker did not find his place between the positions of the two parties. In its vagueness, it encompasses the positions of both.
Where the trio gets more specific is on procedural issues that few voters care about or even know about. “We will passionately advocate electoral changes such as preferential voting,” they write. Those of us who find the arguments about preferential voting interesting should admit that our interest puts us in a small minority. Most people will passionately ignore Forward on the subject. And anyway, procedural fixes aren’t a magical way to overcome the divisions among Americans that Forward so carefully ignores.
Party founders are also subtly mistaken in their diagnosis of what is wrong with contemporary partisanship. They see the problem as “extremism” on the part of existing party leaders. Their ambition is therefore to free the public to select more centrist leaders.
What the United States actually has is extremely broad negative partisanship. Many voters who do not hold extreme conservative views themselves view the progressive coalition with fear and hostility, and vice versa.
That’s why even when both parties nominated wildly unpopular presidential candidates in 2016, less than 6% of voters chose anyone else. (True, these voters did not all agree on a single third-party candidate.)
This year also shows that one of Forward’s fixations, the need to “open up” parties, is a distraction. The Republican Party has proven susceptible to takeover by Donald Trump, a candidate most of its leaders hated, even though he held more moderate views than his former leaders on a host of issues, including federal spending. . The open primaries Forward advocated also had no noticeable effect on moderating California’s very liberal politics after they were passed.
Another implicit assumption of the new party is that Americans, though dismayed by Republicans and Democrats, yearn to be governed by former members of their ruling castes. But as far as party-disaffected Americans share one sentiment, it’s contempt for the political elites of the recent past.
Jolly, Whitman and Yang have overlooked one of the major flaws that has doomed previous third parties, and which they themselves exemplify: a weakness for wishful thinking.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review and a Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.