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%.