I have averaged 125-150 speeches a year for much of the past decade and a frequent question asked deals with the likelihood of a new party in the United States. There is always a new party waiting to be formed, a mass of voters who are dissatisfied with both Democrats and the Republicans, and a rising number of self-described independents. Opinion polls – including those by Zogby Analytics – consistently show a mass of voters who favor the formation of a new party. Gallup has found an even split 46% in favor and 45% saying a new party is not needed. Three in five independents supported a new party in late 2012. That is a lot of voters.
But a “mass” does not mean a “critical mass”. Historically, several conditions were needed for the success of a new party: first, a hopeless split in a major party (as in 1828 when the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans divided over regional economic interests, class interests, and well-known personalities to create the Whigs and Democrats); and 1854 when the Whigs split over slavery, leading to the free-soil Republicans and the nationalistic “Know Nothings” to oppose Democrats. Second, there was the emergence of new demographic groups into the electorate (workingmen and non-property holders in the 1820s and 1830s). And third, there was the blatant inability of the major parties to make problem-solving policies (the 1850s).
These were new parties that replaced one or both of the existing parties. We have had no real change in the two-party system since 1854. From the mid-19th century until today there have been a number of third parties with varying degrees of impact on politics and policies, but nothing with longevity or traction that emerged from the tumultuous period before the Civil War.
The Populists of the 1890s had a strong base in the South and Midwest among exploited farmers and industrial workers who were victims of Second Industrial Revolution. But they folded into the Democratic Party under William Jennings Bryan’s candidacy in 1896 and fizzled out, though much of their non-economic agenda passed during the Progressive Era.
After the Populists, third party efforts have been dominated by narrowly ideological groups, vanity candidates, and single-issue campaigns. Third parties suffer from their inability to win, the lack of proportional representation that might allow legislative winners to impact policy, and by the lack of sustained leadership.
Do any of the historical conditions that warrant the formation of a new second party exist today? Some actually do:
- The Deep crisis that pervades all of our institutions - not just politics and government -is as profound as the pre-Civil War and Great Depression. Confidence levels in both the Democrats and Republican parties are at low points
- The Bankruptcy of ideas - Big government liberalism ran its course in the 1970s and three decades of conservatism has gotten old: free market/unregulated business activity; huge deficits; adventurous and unsuccessful militarism; invasive threats to civil liberties and private behaviors.
- GOP hopelessly split - There are not enough “conservative” voters to win on a pure conservative agenda, but conservatives are fragmenting themselves by waging a war of purity among three separate wings: traditional internationalists/neo-conservatives; religious/moral conservatives; free market/libertarians/anti-statist conservatives. It is hard to see a common ground emerging.
- Stasis - Hyper-partisan gridlock and a sense that both existing political parties are not problem-solvers.
There have been recent efforts to create a centrist alternative via social media and direct democracy. But these have largely failed. But watch the strife within the GOP. If conservatives continue their internecine war and the party fragments (as in 1828 and 1854), if they show no capability to move beyond their support from a declining white male base; and if they lose control of the House of Representatives in 2014 – then a centrist-conservative formula will rise to fill in the gap. It will have to be more than ideological or single issue, or built around one dominant figure. And it cannot be a third party but the real opposition to the remaining party. For now, the Democrats are winning (in many ways because they are not the Republicans who are seen as too traditional and incompetent) and are boosted by having key, growing demographics on their side.
My short answer to the title of this post: not yet, but keep watching the GOP. They have a serious demographic problem as the numbers of Latino, African American, and younger voters rise. (18-29 year olds will provide 29% of the vote totals by 2032 and they are having a difficulty accepting the party’s positions on social issues, the environment, and war). A debate over “real conservatism” leaves out too many voters and only serves to marginalize the party from the mainstream (e.g. the 2012 GOP presidential debates). And there is no logical heir to the nomination as there has been in every presidential election since 1968. The party has some interesting but controversial governors and they still have a significant power base (though declining) in state legislatures. But the Democratic electorate is growing and the party’s future is enhanced by a crop of interesting and successful mayors who can document how best to put new ideas to work in crisis situations.