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Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The founders of a new political party, “Forward,” acknowledge that third parties usually fail. They say that previous third-party efforts flopped “either because they were ideologically too narrow or the population was uninterested.”
Theirs will succeed, they reason, because polls show that Americans are eager for an alternative to the two dominant parties and theirs will be broad-based and moderate. That’s the explanation that two former Republicans and one former Democrat — former U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Florida, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang — offered in the Washington Post.
What they say about what their new party will stand for is vague enough to sound attractive. As a general proposition, going forward beats the alternatives. But people don’t always agree on where they should go forward to. The trio is attempting to get broad support by not specifying a destination.
There is immense dissatisfaction with the Democrats and Republicans, but that dissatisfaction is diffuse. Some people think neither party is conservative enough, some that neither party is progressive enough.
Some voters favor low taxes and social liberalism, and find neither party fits them well. They think of themselves as moderates. Other voters are unhappy with the parties because they have exactly the opposite views. They want national health insurance and laws against abortion. They think of themselves as moderates, too.
The conceit of Forward is that grievances against the political status quo can unify Americans even though the content of those grievances diverges wildly.
On the issues that move large numbers of voters, all the new party offers is a rejection of caricatures. They do not want to eliminate the Second Amendment, they say, but they do not seek to abolish all gun laws either. You can see the mood they’re trying to summon. But Democrats by and large do not say they are hostile to the Second Amendment, and Republicans rarely say they want to get rid of all gun laws. Forward hasn’t found a spot between the positions of the two parties. In its vagueness, it encompasses the positions of both.
When the trio gets more specific, it is on procedural issues that few voters care or even know about. “We will passionately advocate electoral changes such as ranked-choice voting,” they write. Those of us who find arguments about ranked choice voting interesting should admit that our interest puts us in a small minority. Most people will passionately ignore Forward on the topic. And anyway, procedural fixes are not a magic way to overcome the divisions among Americans that Forward so studiously ignores.
The parties’ founders go subtly wrong in their diagnosis of what’s wrong with contemporary partisanship, too. They see the problem as “extremism” on the part of the existing parties’ leaders. Their ambition, then, is to liberate the public to select more centrist leaders. What the U.S. actually has is an extremely broad-based negative partisanship. A lot of voters who do not themselves have extreme conservative views regard the progressive coalition with fear and hostility, and vice-versa.
That’s why, even when both parties nominated very unpopular presidential candidates in 2016, fewer than 6 percent of voters chose someone else. (True to form, these voters did not all agree on a single third-party candidate.)
That year also shows that one of Forward’s fixations, the need to “open” the parties, is a distraction. The Republican Party turned out to be susceptible to being taken over by Donald Trump, a candidate whom most of its leaders detested, even though he held more moderate views than its past leaders on a host of issues including federal spending. Nor have the open primaries that Forward advocates had any noticeable effect in moderating the very liberal politics of California after it adopted them.
Another implicit assumption of the new party is that Americans, though dismayed by Republicans and Democrats, long to be governed by former members of their leadership castes. But to the extent that Americans dissatisfied by the parties share a sentiment, it is disdain for the political elites of the recent past.
Jolly, Whitman and Yang have overlooked one of the key flaws that has doomed previous third parties, and that they themselves exemplify: a weakness for wishful thinking.