Whether they be Libertarians, members of the Constitution Party, Reform Party members, angry independents, or tea partiers who don't feel either party is serving their interests, there are plenty of disaffected people agitating for a third party in America.
Although I think it's extremely unlikely that a successful third party could get off the ground, let us, for the length of this column at least, assume that the Republican Party folds and a newer, purer, more conservative party rises in its wake. Sounds great, right?
Well, not exactly.
First off, the last time this happened in American history was when the Republican Party replaced the Whigs within a couple of election cycles because of a tremendous disagreement over slavery. The Whigs, like the Democrats, supported it. The Republicans didn't.
This time, the switch wouldn't be as quick -- partially because there isn't a huge galvanizing issue like slavery to drive the switch. Additionally, there's too much of a party structure, too much big money involved, and too many people with vested interests in the Republican Party to give up on the GOP without a long, bruising fight.
Let's say (and keep in mind, we're posing fantastical scenarios here) two popular Republicans like Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity decide to break off and lead the charge for a third party. Well, Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney (among others) would probably be thrilled to declare that they are blockheads who are leading the party into the wilderness in an effort to peel off their supporters. Incidentally, if Rush and Mitt Romney were leading the third party charge, the reverse would be true. The names don't really matter; what does is human nature. Any popular mainstream political figure who tries to start a third party would be taking a huge gamble and competitors would assume that his/her supporters/audience members would be up for grabs. What that would likely mean is that any victory for a third party over the GOP would likely only happen after a long, slow war of political attrition.
So, let's just say instead of taking 2 election cycles for the GOP to fold, it might take 5. In the interim, because we have a winner-take-all political system, the Democrats would have absolute, unmitigated control -- even more so than they do now. You might say, “How could that happen?” Simple: you'd see a lot of results that look like this: Democrat 46%, Republican 28%, Third Party 24%.
Imagine 300 Democrats in the House, 75 in the Senate, and a Democratic President for 10-12 years -- at least. In other words, the Democrats would be able to make their wildest dreams law and stack the Supreme Court with liberal judges.
Then finally, at long last, the Republican Party goes into the dust heap of history and the new purer third party rises up, phoenix-like from the ashes to take its place. Then, everything would be right with the world!
Well, not exactly.
First of all, setting aside the possibility that the Democrats would rig the rules of the game to make it all but impossible for an opposing party to get back into power -- given how radical the Democrats have become, the country would likely never recover from a decade of their mismanagement. Imagine becoming captain of the Titanic right after it hit the iceberg -- and then having the ship hit by a meteor. That's what it would be like after giving people like Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama a full decade to try to turn the United States into a sunnier, happier version of the Soviet Union.
Well, at least, bad as it would be, we'd have a real conservative party back in charge for the long haul, right?
Well, not exactly.
Here's the one that will really infuriate the third party diehards: given time, the exact same people who are ruining the Republican Party would move over to the third party and ruin it, too. The inside-the-Beltway snobs, the squishes, the elitists, the country club Republicans, the our "conservatism" can be bought for the right price crowd -- if people can't figure out how to deal with them in the Republican Party, what makes anyone think they can be dealt with in a third party?
Sure, the Libertarian Party, Constitution Party, Green Party, etc. are much purer than the Republican and Democratic parties -- but there's a reason for that: they're not in power. They don't have a leech class that just wants to keep their cushy jobs. They don't get to hand out earmarks that indirectly put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pockets of their families, friends, and political allies. They don't have to take electoral considerations into their policy positions because they don't ever get elected to anything. It's easy to be pure when you're on the outside looking in. When you have skin in the game and doing the right, but unpopular thing may cost you the job of a lifetime -- judging by what goes on in Congress, most people's moral courage goes out the window. That's not because of what party they're in; it's because of human nature. A third party isn't going to change that any more than communism suddenly makes everyone care as much about their neighbor down the street as they do their own family. That's why a viable third party, even if it were to exist, wouldn't solve anything.