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Big Idea | Third Parties Feed Our Need for Pragmatism 

Long-shot third parties are everywhere this season. That says something about Americans’ perspective on the economy.
Third parties

American third parties are poised to send at least a small jolt of amperage through the U.S. electorate this season as they try to short-circuit the Democrat-Republican status quo. 

In what has, so far, drawn little notice, a fresh cadre of unaligned political groups is seeking to sew up a cleaved nation and win the hearts and minds of the country’s vast middle — even as the two dominant political parties seem so far to be sleepwalking toward another Biden versus Trump smackdown.  

There is the sprawling No Labels party; a reinvigorated Forward Party (a merger of three groups); and the Third Way think tank (which is stimulating political action through advocacy). 

Here’s something the current crop of third parties — and many of their more or less successful historical predecessors — have in common: They each show up with constructive, and often powerful, critiques of the American capitalist system. They point to wealth disparity and a corresponding erosion of democracy, and offer solutions that, far from radical, appeal to common sense, tapping into the nation’s abiding belief in, well, pragmatism. 

Speaking of pragmatism, let’s be clear. The likelihood of any sort of third-party victory in 2024 is extremely low. But movements that have succeeded to any degree in the past have tended to do so by drawing attention to one big idea and thereby influencing the nation’s thinking — from Ross Perot’s common sense economic populism to Andrew Yang’s why-not progressivism.

Pie in the Sky?

Indeed, the modern third-party era may be said to have been ushered in by Perot, the Texan who founded Electronic Data Systems and grew it to greatness before selling it to General Motors in 1984. When he ran as an independent in 1992, Perot’s self-defined mission was to give America some straight talk – along with some bar charts and pie graphs. He failed to carry a single state, but he drew voters from both sides of the aisle who sensed the U.S. was going astray. 

Though No Labels and the Forward Party are aiming for the center, each has found the bulk of its enthusiasm on opposite sides of the spectrum. No Labels is conservative in nature, aiming to return America to the glory days of the 1980s, when tax cuts and deregulation revved up the economy, and kicked off stock and bond market booms. (On balance, it’s worth remembering that the Clinton administration pursued similar, third-way policies too.) 

The Forward Party’s platform is squishier, but its belief in government as a force for good that acts primarily via wealth transfers resonates widely, especially as the pandemic era proved cash handouts can make a real difference in people’s lives. (On balance, some trickle-down conservatives also embrace indirect wealth transfers as a rationale for policies that may otherwise favor business-owning classes.)

As the national Democratic and Republican parties increasingly try to appeal to extremes, today’s third parties are broadcasting the idea that a centrist just might unite large blocs of both sides.

Americans, in fact, agree on a lot, from foreign policy (Ukraine, China) to domestic issues (money in politics, voting rights). They say, foremost, that the economy doesn’t work for everyone, as the pandemic plainly revealed: Wealth accumulation among top earners and asset owners is ever-higher, racial groups are treated differently and have widely divergent outcomes, and privilege is America’s original sin.

The solutions, they say, are both pragmatic and idealistic. The Forward Party, headed by entrepreneur Yang, put universal basic income in its platform. Whether it’s viable is beside the point: The economy is simply too lopsided and can’t be righted easily. Pandemic paychecks showed that dropping money on America can work.

No Labels promotes itself as an upsetter. If the party isn’t happy with the eventual Democratic and Republican candidates, it vows to run its own pair, describing the strategy as an “insurance policy.” And it has serious heft: Potential candidates include conservative Democrat Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who left the Democratic Party and registered as an independent. No Labels looks more Republican than middle of the road, aiming to reduce regulations, promote entrepreneurship, and boost spending on the military and energy.

That recalls the tenets of “make America great again.” No, not Donald Trump’s MAGA, but Ronald Reagan’s. That message surely resonates, but perhaps only with voters of a certain age.  

The Third Way think tank is a center-left group that promotes opportunity, especially for those who don’t attend college. On the economy, it’s pushing for the introduction of an apprenticeship system and large-scale federal help for workers in the trades, who earn half that of their college-educated peers. The group aims to buttress political movements with high-level research and policy recommendations.

For third parties to win, they must erode the two-party system, which controls primaries, elections — even debates on TV. This system crushes true democracy by creating a winner-takes-all outcome. That’s why it might be reformed one day by younger generations’ push for greater equality.

Change might ultimately come from within. The Problem Solvers Caucus, a 63-member bipartisan working group in the House, is credited with gathering enough support to pass the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The collective was formed in 2017 as a result of meetings held by none other than No Labels.

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