Third-Party Delusions

Everyone seems to want to start a third party now. Perennial failed candidate Andrew Yang announced he was forming his own party last month. NeverTrump columnist Jonah Goldberg set off a debate within the conservative chattering class with his demand for a conservative third party. Both ideas are silly, cater to a very narrow demographic, and completely misunderstand the public mood.

Yang presents his third party as moving beyond partisanship. The platform of the Forward Party reads mostly like platitudes crafted by a McKinsey consultant:

  • “Ranked-choice voting and open primaries.” 
  • “Fact-based governance.” 
  • “Human-centered capitalism.” 
  • “Effective and modern-day government.” 
  • “Universal Basic Income.” 
  • “Grace and Tolerance.”

Outside of the call for UBI and ranked-choice voting, there are no concrete proposals here. Just things that sound nice to upper-middle-class people who feel neither party sufficiently represents their class. While people who supported Yang’s presidential campaign and mayoral run love the plan, it’s unlikely to resonate with the wider population. “Fact-based governance” is the model Joe Biden promises, while his administration insists there is no inflation or border crisis. “Facts” are determined by the mainstream media, so they often don’t reflect reality.

Yang’s agenda didn’t win him a single delegate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and he finished a distant fourth in the New York City mayoral primary. The people aren’t really enthusiastic about his message and there is no large constituency for it. It’s just another grift for him to get media attention and inspire his deluded fans. It’s following the path of many other “beyond partisanship” ventures like No Labels. No Labels got a lot of media attention in the early 2010s; now no one remembers it. The same will happen to the Forward Party. 

Populism, not milquetoast centrism, is the mood of the country.

Jonah Goldberg’s idea of a third party isn’t to attract disgruntled centrists, but to rally “true conservatives.” The former National Review writer believes Donald Trump has ruined the Republican Party and the “real” conservatives need to teach it a lesson. He disagrees with other NeverTrumpers who’ve turned into Democratic cheerleaders, feeling that the Democratic agenda is too much to stomach. A third-party pressure group appeals more to him. He says its agenda would be “a simple, Reaganite conservative platform combined with a serious plank to defend the soundness of elections . . . For simplicity’s sake, think of it as a GOP minus the Trump personality cult.”

He knows it could prove to be a spoiler in elections, but that is its purpose:

The point is to cause the GOP some pain for its descent into asininity. Giving conservatives turned off by both the Democrats and the Trumpified GOP a way to vote their conscience in the general election would put political pressure on Republican candidates to curtail their Trump sycophancy. It would also serve to remind the GOP that if you abandon conservative principles, conservatives might abandon you.

This idea was loved by conservatives in 2016. They even acted upon it and made a literal nobody named Evan McMullin their preferred candidate. McMullin received a lot of positive press for his campaign, despite having no credentials or charisma. He was touted as a man who would spoil the race for Trump and may even win Utah. In the end, he only received .5 percent of the overall vote and came nowhere close to winning in Utah. He later became an embarrassment to many of his voters in the conservative chattering class after turning into a standard hysteric liberal during the Trump presidency.

The enthusiasm for a Trump-free Right has only diminished since 2016. Over 80 percent of Republicans believe Trump should continue to exert influence over the GOP, with self-described conservatives favoring this stance more than moderates. Anti-Trump candidates did horribly in the 2020 Republican Primary (yes, there was one) with Trump winning 94 percent of the vote. Even the conservative commentariat that was so eager for this possibility—and remains the most eager to get rid of Trump—isn’t thrilled with Goldberg’s idea. His former outlet National Review politely chastised it as idiotic and only David French could be found to defend it (meekly). The smart NeverTrumpers decided it was better to stay within the GOP or become Democrats. 

Nobody outside of the Beltway wants a NeverTrump third party. 

The two-party system isn’t perfect and there are many reasons to hate it. But it’s the system we have and only a charismatic billionaire with a popular message could have any hope of shaking it up. Neither Yang nor Goldberg meets that criteria. Yang still fits in with the Democratic Party, even if he claims he doesn’t. He doesn’t disagree with identity politics or anything Democrats deeply care about. He just thinks they should be nicer and elect him more often. It’s much the same story with Goldberg and the GOP. He still fits in with the Mitch McConnell wing and can still influence Republican politicians through his columns and TV appearances. He just can’t stand party leaders not listening to him enough, thus he wants his own party. At least he’s not calling for a new one to grift like Yang.

The two-party system isn’t permanent, but it would take revolutionary changes in our society to disrupt it. The third-party delusions of centrists and NeverTrumpers are not those changes. Too many people will continue to pine for third parties rather than facing the reality that the two-party system is here to stay. The only way to affect political change is through that system.

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