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Posted by on Jan 1, 2012 in Politics | 9 comments

New York Times Sunday Dialogue: Does America Need a New Centrist Political Party?

Has America’s political system now become so broken with two major political parties that indulge in politics, polemics and legislate almost by rote that the country desperately needs a new centrist party?

The idea has come up over the years and analysts — speaking from the conventional wisdom — have usually labeled it a pipe dream. But the idea is becoming more popular than ever as many Americans see two parties dominated by partisans who seem to view every debate and action as political professional wrestling and a power struggle to win one for their side and rub the other side’s face in it.

Plus, many moderates have vanished from Congress (RINOS are now almost officially extinct in the Republican Party), there are fewer centrists to hold the balance and influence outcomes, and the way most media is set up is to showcase right and left and forget about or not bother with the political center. (How many cable shows do you see where they have right, left and center or do most only set up a right and left or D and R so they can yell at each other and moderate can sit there with a smugly satisified look and say: “This was great! We’ll have to have you back..”?)

The New York Times is hosting a serious dialogue at the idea of a centrist political party. The catalyist is a letter the paper asked Robert A. Levine, author of the superb, serious book Resurrecting Democracy and a TMV Guest Voice Columnist, to write a letter that could set the stage for the Sunday Dialogue.

We don’t normally run a letter in full, but in this case it’ll help TMV readers go to the link to read the ongoing dialogue. Here’s his letter:

Why does America have only two political options? Every day, the news from Washington showcases the inability of our two political parties to govern effectively.

Rigid partisanship has repeatedly hindered or prevented Republicans and Democrats from reaching compromise solutions on vital legislation, provoking a crisis of confidence in our political and economic system. And elected officials beholden to lobbyists and special interests allow their priorities to supersede those of ordinary citizens.

The economy is stagnant, unemployment remains high, and budget deficits and the national debt keep climbing. Yet no answers are forthcoming from our representatives in Washington. The continuing dysfunction reinforces the need for a third party of the center as an alternative to the current parties.

Using the Internet and social networks to organize and raise money from small donors, this new centrist party could be independent of the special interests and able to work for the benefit of all Americans. Its hallmarks would be ethical conduct, transparency and pragmatism. Instead of being constrained by ideology, it would be guided by common sense and practicality in its search for solutions.

A centrist third party could prosper in today’s political environment and end the stalemate in Washington. There is a large body of moderate Republicans, disaffected Democrats and dissatisfied independents looking for the kind of political home that this party could provide. Unhappiness with the political options now available to Americans will sooner or later translate into a groundswell for alternatives.

Westport, Conn., Dec. 23, 2011

The writer is a neurologist and the author of “Resurrecting Democracy: A Citizen’s Call for a Centrist Third Party.”

How did the readers react? GO HERE.

P.S. I encourage all TMV readers to join the dialogue at the Times or start one here in comments. I’ll be reviewing Robert A. Levine’s book later today. It is MUST READING and a MUST OWN for centrists, independents, moderates — and frankly anyone who wants to read a highly readable serious book packed with research, background and ideas on fixes to our political system. I took it on the road with me during my recent 3 1/2 month road trip.

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  • In my years as a (theoretically) politically-savvy voter, I’ve seen four trends in third party movements:

    1) the most common — fringe parties that really don’t amount to much of anything. The Greens are the biggest example. They do have seats in towns, counties & boards of education scattered across the country, but that’s about it.

    2) third-party movements headed by Big Celebrities or Big Idea People. Think Ross Perot, John Anderson, Teddy Roosevelt. They are totally dependent on the Big Cheese and fail to make real change when the Big Cheese (inevitably) loses.

    3) (or, more accurately, 2A). In rare cases, like Connecticut with Gov. Lowell Weicker, the Big Cheese wins, and then his third party ends up fronting very few candidates of its own. Instead, it endorses other candidates who then get the right to run using two lines on the ballot. In the end, the third party dies off with the end of the Big Cheese’s term(s).

    4) third-party movements that are re-absorbed back into the Big Two parties. The Tea Party is this, although I will admit they did change their host party (for good or for evil I’ll leave to others).

    It seems to me that in order for a new party to really form, you need a confluence of factors (I’ll go A, B, C with this list):

    A) it must start with more than one Big Cheese. A collage of senators, congressmen, governors, members of state legislatures, town councilman, etc. must form up a new party and run as that third party. If there is no Big Cheese but a true, widespread get together, success is bigger.

    B) it must immediately have its own political identity. It took a few months for the T.P. to be usurped by the GOP, and now they really aren’t a third party. A true third party must shun re-absorption into one of the other parties, and must differentiate itself from the other two right off the bat.

    C) like it or not, but it needs big financial backers. So not only do politicians need to flop, but they need donors. This will be REALLY hard, the Big Two have long-standing channels for raising money, the third party will need to create brand-new ones. Having a few big (Bloombergian?) financial backers will help tremendously.

    Grass roots can’t do it alone.

  • Quelcrist Falconer

    For there to be a centrist party, you would need a “left party” and a “right party”. Since we only have a center-right party and a far-right party, a nice leftist party that supported labor, consumers and the environment and opposed corporatism, imperialist wars and colonialism is what is needed.

  • Jim Satterfield

    One problem is that nowhere does Levine show any evidence that in fact the current Democratic Party is extremist. I keep seeing these claims but no proof. I do not mean that you can’t find some very liberal members of the party but that they both have a great deal of influence and refuse to compromise. Why a centrist party when you already have a centrist party versus a far right party?

  • zephyr

    It would be nice to see a viable third party emerge (somehow) but as one of the NYT comments observed:

    “For any such multiparty plan to work, we will have to have major campaign finance reform, and a complete reworking of the election laws that give special privileges to the two major parties.”

    The two parties will likely do all in their power to keep a third party from gaining any real strength. To the extent that voters have the power to keep the 2 parties in check, then they will need to become FAR more savvy and active than they are now.

    Of course I agree with the two comments immediately preceding this one. The continued depiction of democrats as liberal (by people who should know better) is amusing at best.

  • ShannonLeee

    Zeph’s quote nails it.

    The system has been rigged by the 2 parties to ensure that it is extremely difficult for a 3rd party candidate to be viable in all 50 states.

    and without campaign finance reform, any third party would just become part of the beast after a decade or so.

  • Jim Satterfield

    I also do agree with Zephyr. Our current system just won’t support a successful third party.

  • OldRoger

    In several local elections this year instant runoff voting was used. It is interesting to speculate the response that third party candidates would get if voters could indicate their preference – even if the voter felt that the candidate was unlikely to win the horserace – if they didn’t have to feel they were thowing their vote away. Ranking all candidates (1,2,3…) would allow votes to freely express their preferences and would might have the additional effect of electing centrist candidates (e.g. the “winner” is the one who got the most number of 2d choice votes).
    Before third party candidates have real impact on electoral outcome simple majority voting stands in the way.
    Many countries have instant runoff voting for national elections. The the US, it’s hard to see how IRV could be made compatible with the electoral college. So it’s difficult. But not impossible. It doesn’t seem to be a partisan issue. Is it?

  • epiphyte

    In national politics, a plausible practical role for a third party is to decide which of the two established parties gets to win.

    Unfortunately this mechanism is even more open to distortion than the current system.

    Take, for example, a group such as “Americans Elect”, which purports to be a third way, but which is actually a means of ensuring the election of the most hedge-fund friendly candidate in each and every jurisdiction.

    In each jurisdiction the hugely undemocratic people funding this group will get to field a candidate whose sole purpose is to take votes from one of the others, thereby ensuring his/her opponents election.

    It’s a great force multiplier. Go to a candidate and say “Do as I say, and I will field a candidate who will take votes from your opponent, thereby letting you win. Alternatively, I can field a candidate who will take votes from _you_, thereby making you lose.”

    It’s a system tailored to reinforce the current political spectrum of corrupt-extreme-right vs. corrupt-center-right, by giving the corrupting influences more leverage for less money. Fantastic.

  • While campaign financing and the way our primaries and elections are structured are major problems for our “democracy,” serious reform is not going to occur as long as the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats has unfettered power. It’s to their advantage to keep the status quo and they’ll do everything they can to maintain it. The only way real change will occur is with a third party whose primary objective is to make government more effective and equitable

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