As the Republican party marches further and further in the fever swamps of conspiracy and white nationalism, the obvious question is, where does it end? Back in 2012, Barack Obama predicted that the fever would break after his re-election. What we got instead was Donald Trump, who has thoroughly captured the GOP as an extension of his own disordered personality.
As a result, we’re going into an election where disaffected Republicans are urging conservatives to put country over party and vote for Joe Biden. There are multiple organizations run by anti-Trump Republicans running ads to that purpose.
This is an alliance of convenience, made more palatable by the fact that Biden is a known quantity and not the wild-eyed socialist (or dupe of socialists) that Trump supporters make him out to be. But at some point even anti-Trump Republicans are going to have a hard time accepting Biden’s progressive proposals and the Democrats’ leftward drift.
Could a third party be the answer to that tension? If the Republican party keeps relying on a smaller and smaller base to win and Democrats are just too liberal for some moderate voters, a third party seems like a solution.
The problem is that the two-party system is so engrained in the American political system, it’s almost impossible for another party to gain any traction.
For one thing, because voters are primed for a binary choice, third-party candidates are primarily spoilers. There’s ample evidence that they can sway an election. (Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader may well have handed George W. Bush the 2000 election by siphoning votes from Al Gore.) But with a few scattered exceptions, they aren’t very good at winning outright. Many voters seem to believe that casting a vote for a third-party candidate is throwing their vote away.
But the biggest problem remains structural. Third-party candidates have a hard time competing in a system that favors two parties. Getting on the ballot is difficult without the machinery of a major party. Moreover, the U.S. is set up to grant majorities a winner-take-all prize.
The Electoral College was the founders way of ensuring a president had broad support. (Of course, it doesn’t work that way any more.) That meant two parties facing off, and not the system common in the UK and elsewhere of multiple parties forming governing coalitions. The founders didn’t want the chief executive to be dependent upon the legislative branch’s decisions.
Finally, whenever a third party does pop up, its ideas are often assimilated into one of the two major parties. That can take some time. In 1948, segregationist Democrats outraged at the party’s promotion of civil rights split from the party to run South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond as the Dixiecrat presidential nominee. Twenty years later, Richard Nixon was able to parlay southern resentment over the civil rights movement into electoral success. (Thurmond, who served in the Senate for 48 years, became a Republican in 1964.)
Of course, the Republicans of today more often resemble the Dixiecrats than Nixon-era Republicans. But as long as they can keep winning elections from the fever swamps, they won’t change. If anything, they may double down on their worst ideas, knowing their base loves it.
Meanwhile, the toll that polarization is taking on the country keeps growing. Anger has replaced discourse, and scoring points is more valued than governing. At some point, something will have to give. Just don’t expect a third-party to be the answer.