Gallup says most Americans want a third political party, but there are problems with that idea
The Gallup organization is out today with THIS REPORT:
Amid the government shutdown, 60% of Americans say the Democratic and Republicans parties do such a poor job of representing the American people that a third major party is needed. That is the highest Gallup has measured in the 10-year history of this question. A new low of 26% believe the two major parties adequately represent Americans…
A majority of Americans have typically favored a third party in response to this question. Notably, support has dropped below the majority level in the last two presidential election years in which Gallup asked the question, 2012 and 2008. Support for a third party was lowest in 2003, the first year Gallup asked the question. That year, 40% thought the U.S. needed a third party, while 56% believed the Republicans and Democrats were doing an adequate job.
Republicans (52%) and Democrats (49%) are similar in their perceptions that a third party is needed. In fact, this marks the first time that a majority of either party’s supporters have said a third party is needed.
OK, but before you start nodding your ahead in agreement with this idea, let’s discuss a few realities.
First of all, those folks who favor the emergence of a new political party are not in complete agreement on what that party should stand for. There are hard-core right-wingers, for example, who think the Republican Party is not now sufficiently conservative. Some of them want the Tea Party movement to leave the GOP and become a party of its own. There are perhaps others who want to see a more moderately conservative Republican Party, especially now that the Tea Party gang has gained considerable power in the GOP.
And on the left, there are Democrats who see their party as too beholden to monied interests and therefore not sufficiently liberal.
In other words, you could assemble a crowd of people who are all in favor of the idea of a third party, but it wouldn’t take long before they would start bickering among one another about the principles that party should champion.
Perhaps the most important factor in all of this is that the history of third parties in American politics is impressive only for the failure of such movements.
Because of the way our elections are structured, ours is basically a two-party system. It’s always been that way. Third parties arise with almost every generation, but their successes are relatively minor and transitory. Their positions on the issues often are absorbed by one of the two major parties, and then these third parties quickly fade away.
The most that can be said for third parties is that they sometimes move one of the major parties in one direction or another — perhaps even for decades to come.
When segregationist George Wallace ran for president on a third-party ticket in 1968, he carried five Southern states and captured 46 electoral votes. Some historians also say he helped Republican Richard Nixon defeat Democrat Hubert Humphrey.
But four years later, after Wallace was badly wounded in an attempted assassination, he wasn’t a factor at all in the presidential election. His third party drifted into obscurity, and his states’ rights platform eventually was absorbed by the Republican Party.
Make no mistake. Wallace was influential, but only fleetingly. He was just one in a long line of third-party candidates who have come and gone over the years. The others have included Teddy Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette, Strom Thurmond, John Anderson, H. Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. The political parties of all these people have long since disappeared, their platforms having been adopted to one degree or another by either the Democrats or the Republicans.
More such third-party candidates will arise in the future, and often they will benefit one of the major parties. That was the case with Perot, who helped Bill Clinton defeat George H. W. Bush, and with Nader, who helped George W. Bush defeat Al Gore.
In the final analysis, then, I’m not going to take this Gallup poll too seriously. Political movements come and go in this country. Some of them have a considerable influence, and some of them don’t. Some of them even result in the two major parties changing places on fundamental issues and principles. There was a time, for example, when the Democrats, especially in the South, were states’ rights segregationists, while Republicans were comparatively liberal and were known as the Party of Lincoln.
The two major parties will continue to evolve, significantly or otherwise, but I don’t see any third party rising to a position of permanence in my lifetime.