NEW YORK -- On Tuesday conservative activist and commentator Steve Baldwin penned an article for the right-leaning website Barbwire calling for the emergence of a third political party in the US, one made up of religious and fiscal conservatives that could supplant the Republican Party. Baldwin even proposed a leader for this new political coalition – Sarah Palin, erstwhile governor of Alaska and, memorably, the vice-presidential Republican nominee in 2008.
According to the activist, the thrust of this new political force would be to eliminate “all federal abortion funding, reversing Roe vs. Wade [the Supreme Court decision to legalise abortion], and prohibiting the Federal government from granting special rights to people based upon sexual behavior (laws that almost always infringe on our religious, property, and freedom of association rights).”
Of course, the notion of Palin leading an alliance of the faithful and the frugal all the way to the White House is fanciful. However the US does have a history of intermittent dalliances with third parties, while the current dysfunction in Washington, a deadlock that peaked with the government shutdown late last year – a period in which Gallup revealed 60% of Americans thought it was time for a third party to emerge – has led to rumblings once again.
Palin herself floated the idea of a third party in a recent interview with Fox News, asking, “If Republicans are gonna act like Democrats, then what’s the use in getting all gung ho about getting more Republicans in there?”
But if Washington is broke, allied to widespread dissatisfaction with both main political parties, why has an alternative not emerged? After all in Britain, a country in which divergent political opinions are far more cramped in the middle, a genuine third party has still found room to manifest in the form of the Liberal Democrats (four parties if Nigel Farage is to be believed).
Speaking from a conservative standpoint, Baldwin suggests the main impediment to a third party in the US is the fear that it will “weaken the GOP, thus allowing more Democrats to win”. It’s certainly a legitimate concern with Tory strategists in the UK currently wracked by similar speculations as to what extent Ukip will split the Tory vote in 2015.
"Although many Americans say they want a strong third party, there are a lot of reasons to doubt that one will establish itself as a long-term presence in American politics," Andrew E. Busch, a Crown professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College, tells HuffPost. "For one thing, Americans can't agree on what sort of third party they want."
For Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, the prospect of a third party emerging is hampered by the existing parties' grip on power.
"The two major parties do not do many things very well, but they are tremendously skilled at maintaining their duopoly over the American political system,” he tells HuffPost. “When a new issue or movement does emerge on the landscape, one party or the other invariably manages to co-opt it.”
The emergence of the Tea Party, a movement created in response to the 2008 financial crashes and galvanized by the election of the first African American president in US history, is a case in point.
Likewise the Libertarian movement, once an outlier in the GOP, which in recent years has been brought into the Republican mainstream, so much so that Rand Paul, the movement's de facto leader, is expected to run for President in 2016. “That doesn't leave a lot of creating room for a third party to emerge,” says Schnur.
According to Peter Levine, the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service of Tufts University, the existing system is rigged in favour of a two-party system. He tells HuffPost, “as long as legislators are elected in single-member districts where the candidate with the most votes gets the seat, two-party systems are inevitable”. As such, Levine argues, a vote for a third party invariably looks wasted.
Busch agrees that the entire electoral system favors big and broad parties, and unlike in proportional representation systems, "you get nothing for coming in second, let alone third with 15 percent of the vote". He adds: "The most successful third parties in American history fill a space and address issues that are neglected by the major parties, make a splash for a short time, draw one or both of the big parties in their direction, then collapse."
However, Levine suggests there are exceptions, such as when strong regional parties come to prominence: the rise of the Scottish Nationalists in Scotland is an obvious example. Another exception would be during what the academic calls “moments of disequilibrium,” such as when the old Whig Party collapsed and then the Republicans arose to fill the gap.
It’s a parallel not lost on Baldwin, whose wishful Palin-led collation, he suggests, should “do to the GOP what the GOP did to the Whig Party 150 years ago”. However, without these moments of disequilibrium, Levine argues, “systems like ours produce duopolies”.
Yet if the odds are stacked against a national third party emerging, the prospect of an independent candidate being elected to the state legislature may be more likely. Earlier this year Schnur ran as an independent candidate in California for Secretary of State, a bid he ultimately lost in the state’s June primary election.
Yet despite that defeat, the academic says he believes “even more strongly" than a year ago that "an independent candidate can be elected to statewide office”. He does, however, concede it will take a candidate with “much more time and much more money than the usual campaign” in order to “convince voters to cast their ballot in a fundamentally different way than they've become accustomed”.
Schnur concludes: “While the political space probably doesn't exist for a full-fledged third party, a candidate who was better prepared and better funded than I can certainly occupy the political center that's been vacated by the two major parties."