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This morning, Gallup released a poll showing that a majority of Americans (52%) want a third party. The rare convergence of a majority of Americans around any issue related to political parties underscores just how far the two parties have fallen.
Its clear that Americans are frustrated and in search of an alternative. But for most people, a third party is probably not the answer.
The most immediate problem with third parties is that they face steep organizing hurdles and are often fraught with internal dissent, as those searching for alternatives realize they are not a monolithic whole. Further, simple game theory encourages two – not three – rival factions, putting pressure on any alternative faction to end up fusing with one of the two major parties.
So does this mean we are stuck with two unappealing options? Maybe not, as it’s becoming increasingly apparent that political parties are not that necessary after all.
Consider this: for most of our nation’s history, parties served an important purpose. In the early days of our democracy, our Founding Fathers formed parties to organize the diverse viewpoints in the new democratic experiment. Their acceptance of parties, though, was grudging. Recall Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote:
“I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”
Even in recent history, parties served a purpose. Before campaigns became professionalized, candidates solicited contributions from party regulars, relied on party materials for message, and used party volunteers to self-address, stamp, and seal envelopes in mass mailings.
It’s a different ballgame today. Candidates raise money from their own networks or with the help of professional fundraising consultants. They send mail through outside mail firms. And their messaging is their own. The best example of the evolution of campaigns is Obama 2008, when candidate Obama built a fundraising empire that was largely composed of people who couldn’t be found on the DNC’s lists.
As candidates are slowly weaning themselves off parties, so are individuals. Most people join a party because it gives them something in return. There is an implicit trade: in exchange for the party helping elect politically like-minded people, the individual forfeits her political identity and absorbs the party platform as her own. But as 527s are rising in prominence and candidates are increasingly independent of parties, many Americans are finding themselves with the short end of the stick.
If we were to tear down the two-party system tomorrow and build something new in its place, its unlikely the new system would look anything like the Democratic and Republican parties of today. This is because the two parties no longer comport with how we live our lives. The technological revolution over the last decade has left us feeling accustomed and entitled to multiple choices. Ten years ago, if we wanted to see a movie, we needed to get in our car and drive to a theater or our closest Blockbuster, itself a recent invention. Today, we need nothing more than an Internet connection to download any movie we want on demand, to say nothing of the other options that exist on cable or NetFlix. Similarly, if we want to buy a pair of shoes, we don’t need to rely on our local merchants. We can go online, compare prices, and even have them shipped to arrive the next day.
Options abound in everyday life. But, when it comes to politics, we still have the same two choices we’ve had for almost two hundred years. The experience is like walking into a restaurant that only serves meat or fish.
There is another disconnect when it comes to giving feedback. Because of technology, we can now write and share our own restaurant reviews, recommend movies to friends, and “like” or “dislike” about anything. But there is no app for giving your party feedback on what it should stand for. If you are a progressive Democrat who believes that the party should support legalizing marijuana, your best option is probably writing a letter (though considering the likely impact of any such letter, you’d be better off smoking it).
It is no wonder that a rare majority of Americans have come around to the notion that we need something other than the two main political parties. Over the last few decades, the two parties have become elite bodies, pushing information down on the frustrated masses. The masses have, in turn, reacted by finding other alternatives, such as the tea party or Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity.
Our collective frustration with parties is a linear trend, and it’s unlikely to go anywhere until something significant changes. As technology puts hundreds of products on the market each day to innovate how we live our lives, it only seems natural that it will provide a better organizing vehicle too. If technology does for politics what it has already done to information, entertainment, and commerce, we just might see political parties go the way of record stores, travel agents, and encyclopedia salesmen.
Up in heaven, Thomas Jefferson would be smiling.