Why a third political party isn’t likely to work in the United States

Opinion: As Steve Bannon continues his war against Republican elites, there is talk of a third-party challenge to the GOP. That matters.

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White House chief strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with county sheriffs in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP/CP)

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with county sheriffs in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP/CP)
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with county sheriffs in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP/CP)

A spectre is haunting the Republican Party: the spectre of Bannonism. Last week, former White House advisor and current Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon gave an interview on the New York Times’ podcast The Daily in which he doubled down on his promised “war” against the party, targeting in particular GOP Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, whom he seeks to remove from his role as the top Senate Republican. “This will be looked at as a revolt of working-class people of both parties,” he said. “At a time that really rejected the permanent political class that is inextricably linked, both Republican and Democrat in Washington, D.C., and … try to take back their government and have it more responsive to themselves.”

Since Bannon’s departure from the Trump Administration, observers have been paying close attention to the Republican civil war. Some watchers are predicting that Bannon will start a third party to challenge the Republican Party, which he sees as run by elite, out-of-touch oligarchs and plutocrats all too concerned with their own wealth and all too little concerned with the plight of the American worker.

If you feel a bit uncomfortable reading the last few lines, it’s likely because you’re picking up on the fact that Bannon’s assessment is accurate. He’s right about the Republican leadership. But his solutions—among them a return to an outdated, bigoted, fascistic “America First” policy—are no better, premised as they are on xenophobia and hate masquerading as concern for the “little guy,” backstopped by swapping plutocracy for mobocracy.

Bannon’s threat to the GOP is not idle chatter. In October, Senate Republican Jeff Flake used the occasion of his not-quite-brave decision not to seek re-election to deliver a jeremiad against the Trump Administration, highlighting a growing concern that the “traditional conservative”—who “believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration”—was having a tough time finding space these days under the Republican Party’s big tent. A Pew Research Center report, highlighted and analyzed by James Hohmann in the Washington Post, supports Flake’s take.

The Republicans are a party divided, held together by an electoral system that encourages a two-party system, a deeply polarized population, and the tendency for many—especially non-elites—to treat their preference for a political party as a commitment akin to religious faith. So, if Bannon fails to get his way with the Republican Party—if he fails to commandeer the vessel, directing towards a port of his choosing—he might indeed start his own party.

Then what?

If past is prologue, the story of a third-party effort by Bannon is likely to be something of a tragedy. Third parties in the USA are not unprecedented, and occasionally, they do affect electoral outcomes; most famously, Theodore Roosevelt won 27 per cent of the vote and 88 electoral-college votes in 1912 as a third-party candidate with his progressive Bull Moose Party, splitting Republican support for William Howard Taft and making space for Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the White House. In 1992, Ross Perot ran as an Independent against President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, winning 19 per cent of ballots cast, draining Bush votes and helping Clinton secure the presidency for the Democrats, though he won zero electoral college votes.

But all of that was then. This is now. And you might have noticed that now is…unusual. In 2016, Donald J. Trump, unqualified upstart politician, businessman, reality TV star, and sexual-assault braggart, became the most powerful human being on the planet. He took the Republican Party, the country, and the world by surprise, building a coalition of (largely male, white) voters including traditional Republican supporters, the far-right, and disaffected Democrats. He received fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, but in America’s first-past-the-post electoral college system, it’s not the number of votes that counts—it’s their distribution. Trump managed enough support in the right places to become president. Could the coalition he cobbled together with the help of people like Bannon form the backbone of a third party that might have a shot at winning?

MORE: Why Trump’s inauguration speech may have revealed him as an Independent in GOP clothes

The answer: “yes” to the first bit of the question, and “no” to the second. If it comes to it, Bannon might easily lead an exodus from the Republican Party, but he’s unlikely to create a third party successful enough to win a presidential election. There’s a reason why third parties in the United States are traditionally unsuccessful: the electoral system entrenches, protects, and rewards the two major parties. It’s why, in 2009, the Tea Party Movement—launched in protest of what supporters saw as unreasonable levels of taxation in America—was folded into the Republican Party. The whole electoral apparatus of American politics—from the first-past-the-post electoral system and the Electoral College to incumbency to fundraising to party identity to debate participation and beyond—encourages and rewards big-tent politics, flapping tarps and sagging support beams and all.

A rebellion party led by Bannon or one of his surrogates could, however, have one or two other effects on American politics. First, there may be enough support for an anti-elite, anti-Republican movement to siphon votes from Trump and GOP candidates across the country to make it easier for Democrats to win throughout the country, including a good shot at taking back 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the top five U.S. elections for third-party candidates, four of them resulted in the party who lost votes they would otherwise likely receive losing (1912, 1924, 1968, and 1992).

A new third-party on the right might also have an agenda-setting effect. Barbara Perry, director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia, points to Perot as an example of a successful agenda-setter. In the 1990s, his focus on balancing the budget forced the two major parties to focus their attention on the issue. Bannon and a new third-party could have the same effect. This might be good for Trump—who, like tofu, merely takes on the taste of whatever is cooked beside—but not for other Republicans who are uncomfortable with Bannonism. Nonetheless, this approach only makes sense—assuming we haven’t stopped making sense—if the eminence-neon can indeed no longer affect the GOP agenda directly, since a third-party bid would be a far less efficient, and a much more difficult, endeavour.

Third parties as vehicles for forming government don’t often make sense in first-past-the-post systems. The recent French election gives us some reason to question that wisdom, but that contest stands out for being exceptional. Still, think of the NDP in Canada, or the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom. Similar patterns hold in India and several other countries.

There is no crystal ball for predicting the future of American politics, but institutions tend to be “sticky”—they don’t change often or easily—and that tells us something. Political institutions in the United States favour the status quo. Accordingly, there is no reason to expect that a third-party effort by Bannon—or anyone else—will find success, must less lead to a third-party win. But there are other reasons to launch a third-party bid; on top of that, every so often we come to a critical juncture—a path, diverged—at which there is an opportunity for profound change. It’s possible, though not likely, that America is approaching one. We can only hope it doesn’t lead straight off a cliff.