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Third Party Dreams Distract from Real Centrism

Published on April 4, 2024

Every four years we see an extra day in February, an Olympic torch in the summer, and the emergence of third parties in the one place they are guaranteed to be the least effective and beneficial: Presidential politics.

From a centrist perspective, the most disheartening aspect of the quadrennial Presidential focus of third parties is that they could play an important role in diversifying our democracy if they turned their focus to legislative and local races. Most communities in the United States operate under single party rule, where the opposing party’s brand is so toxic that a viable alternative to the dominant party never appears on the ballot.

Given time and focus, third parties could establish footholds at the state and even national legislature levels. The Senate is already effectively a coalition government, with three independents in the ruling majority. In the House, the Speaker of the House was forced to create his own multi-party coalition in order to fund the government, and may once again have to rely on a coalition to save his own job.

But while third parties can offer benefits at the local and legislative level, in a Presidential race these efforts do little to amplify voices at the center. If anything, third parties mute the political center, as low percentage “unity candidates” draw centrist votes away from the major parties, while challenges to the left and right draw the major parties closer to the extremes.

A better choice for centrists looking to moderate the partisan divide at the Presidential level is to engage directly with the major parties, and help amplify centrist voices under both banners, so their influence can be felt in state party organizations, national party conventions, and yes, the oval office.

Americans often lament the “Two Party System”, looking enviously to the multi-party parliamentary systems of Europe and beyond. But this misses a fundamental point: Most of the world’s democracies operate under an effective one party system, even if they call it multi-party.

The United Kingdom is a perfect example. The Tories have ruled the United Kingdom for 14 years, during which time four Prime Ministers were forced to resign in disgrace and public opinion (as well as the post-Brexit economy) have plummeted. And yet, for now, they still hold complete power. Prior to this, the Labour Party held power for 13 years, during which it also faced furious backlash related to the Iraq war, but remained insulated from electoral feedback for years.

That’s 27 years in which British executive and legislative power changed party hands exactly once. In that same time, the American chief executive changed parties four times, and each time, the American people turned legislative control over to the other party in mid-term elections. That’s a total of eight significant power shifts compared to the UK’s one. That’s because we’ve had two strong parties capable of both ruling and providing spirited opposition. Third parties have not risen to this level, nor are they likely to do so if all they do is play spoiler every four years.

At the Presidential level, third party efforts have done far more to thwart the electoral will of the American people than provide an outlet for it. From Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan in 2000, to Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in 2016, third party candidacies played outsized roles in swing states, handing the Presidency to the loser of the popular vote and diminishing, not elevating, faith in the American electoral system.

If third parties can give voice and focus to the many different voices and political forces in this nation, state and federal legislatures could indeed look more like European parliaments in their makeup, and true coalition legislatures could be achieved, with all of the positives and negatives that entails. But the continual obsession with Presidential runs destroys the brand of third parties and associates them solely with their Quixotic and often conspiracy minded candidates, not the ideals the parties themselves are intended to promote.

There’s a reason Green Party leaders denied Nader a third try on their ballot line in 2004 – they wanted their party back. But like it or not, that party will always be remembered not for its many local efforts but for two times it tried to turn the Presidency to one direction and sent it hard over to the other. Centrists trying to drive a middle course with their Presidential support this year may find themselves contributing to a similar fate.

Cori Smith Kramer is CEO of Center Forward, which brings together members of Congress, not-for-profits, academic experts, trade associations, corporations and unions to find common ground and give voice to the center of the American electorate.