“Neither left or right: forward”: this is the third party that wants to end polarization in the US

“Third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die”. The analogy is from the American historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970), and he made such a fortune that there is no way to set up a political grouping in this country outside the lines marked by Republicans and Democrats without being thrown in the face of the appointment with which Hofstadter summarized the life cycle of alternative formations. They are born, they grow, they hit a good blow to the left or to the right and they disappear.

Andrew Yang, a 47-year-old millionaire businessman and the face of the newly formed Forward Party, believes this time will be different. He trusts that the unbearable climate of confrontation between two irreconcilable factions will convince voters, fed up with a dysfunctional system, of the need to seek a third way for the third America.

Yang has a certain intimacy with defeat. He fell by the wayside in the 2020 Democratic primary and lost in the New York mayoral race the following year. Perhaps he was not in vain; his defense of a universal basic income and his pragmatic and optimistic profile earned him a loyal fan base in those campaigns. In October 2021 he dropped out of the Democratic Party, and registered a Political Action Committee, the first step to raise funds. In July he joined his cause with two other organizations, Serve America and the Renew America Movement, which bring together Republicans, Democrats and independents to, respectively, serve and renew America.

In the inaugural manifesto of the Forward Party (Partido Adelante), whose leadership Yang shares with the former Republican governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman, its promoters declare themselves convinced that “Americans can solve ANY sic problem.” They are fed up with “rigid platforms, with a monolithic organization from top to bottom”, as well as “outdated political parties, increasingly radicalized and incapable of offering solutions”.

They demand changes in the democratic rules, such as a system of nonpartisan primaries, a preferential voting mechanism, of the kind that Alaska debuted this summer, or an distribution of electoral districts designed independently and not by Republican and Democratic officials for their own benefit ( what in the jargon is known as gerrymandering). The polls, they say, support them: According to Gallup, a record two-thirds of Americans believed last year that a third alternative would be desirable.

American history is littered with project failures like this. Why would it have to go well this time? “Because the two traditional parties have focused more on winning us over and dividing us than solving problems and uniting us,” Joel Searby, national political director of the Forwad Party, replies in an email. “This is a unique moment in our history and voters are ready. We finally have a critical mass of true talent, the money and the willingness to work hard for a third way.”

And on the part of the funds, Searby must be right: they already have five million dollars to start. “Money will not be the problem,” Yang warned. They also have a slogan: “No left. Neither right. Ahead”. On September 24 they held a first meeting of national scope, in Houston. At the moment, there are more than 75,000 volunteers throughout the country, volunteers like the young Curtis Harrison, who recently guided the monthly meeting of the Colorado division from his living room.

It was a virtual meeting of some 25 people connected from towns scattered throughout a state that voted decidedly Democrat in the last presidential elections. Harrison explained to them that in the first phase, the Forward Party will support candidates who run in the legislative elections next November (he also encouraged them to suggest names). “We will have a minimal participation in that process, but those we support will do so enthusiastically,” says Searby, who clarifies that these plans “in no case include aligning with those such as Donald Trump who deny the legitimacy of the results. of 2020″. The idea is to constitute 30 States by the end of 2023, and the rest a year later. But they are not focused on reaching the 2024 presidential elections, says Searby: “We prefer to work locally.”

The proposal has been met with skepticism in Washington. The main criticism they make of them is that giving up sides and defending irreproachable ideals is fine, but you have to get down to specific proposals, and for now, they haven’t done so. “We know that they don’t want polarization, that they don’t like extremes. But its main obstacle is the system itself,” explains historian Michael Kazin, a professor at Georgetown University, whose latest book, What it Took to Win (Farrar Strauss & Giroux), is a biography of the ups and downs of two centuries of the Democratic Party. “Becoming a national political formation is a difficult process in this country, which requires the presentation of a variable number of signatures in each state. Republicans and Democrats set it up that way to avoid competition. I see it as difficult for the Forward Party to gel, but, of course, I am a historian, not a prophet”. To this argument, Searby opposes more optimism: “Yes, everything is designed to hinder our objectives, but it is not impossible to achieve it. And our commitment to fight is long-term.

Due to the lack of definition that they attribute to them, it is also not clear who Yang and his people can do more damage to, whether to Democrats or Republicans. The history of third parties in discord in the United States, a country in which bipartisanship is almost as old as the republic —the Democrats, founded in 1828, is, recalls Kazin, “the longest-running mass party in history“, while that the Republican was born out of anti-slavery sentiment in 1854—can also be counted on that key.

To cite the most recent and notorious cases, George Wallace contributed to Nixon’s victory in 1968; Ralph Nader hurt Al Gore in 2000 and Ross Perot was there for both of Bill Clinton’s victories (although the debate over whether, as then assumed, he dashed George HW Bush’s re-election hopes is still open 30 years later). Perot is also proof that the efforts of alternative formations can lead to melancholy. In 1992, he got 18% of the popular vote. Those nearly 20 million votes “translated into exactly zero electoral votes,” Kazin recalls.

The three candidates for the 1992 US presidential election laugh during the debate: from left, Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and George Bush Sr.

The three candidates for the 1992 US presidential election laugh during the debate: from left, Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and George Bush Sr. Reuters

UC Berkeley professor Dan Schnur, who has worked as a strategist on four presidential and three California gubernatorial campaigns, always with Republican candidates, believes that the current polarization “paves the way for the construction of an alternative; but it is still early to know if this will be this alternative”. “The viability of a third party depends on how extremist the two candidates on both sides of the spectrum are,” Schnur warns. And he gives the example of Michael Bloomberg, who gave up his race for the White House in 2020 when it became clear that the Democrats would go with Biden (and not with Senators Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, further to the left). He also points out that “modern political history shows that the candidates who have had the most success against the duopoly are the most conflictive and combative.” Those who practice “middle finger politics,” adds Schnur, who ran for secretary of state in California as an independent in 2014 (“with dramatic results,” he jokes). “The more focused Republicans and Democrats are, the less of a gap there is in the middle.”

Schnur’s experience also includes having advised in his first babble — “and for a not particularly long time” — the promoters of an initiative that this summer has scratched a headline in the political confrontation. No Labels is a project that has shown a phenomenal ability to get signatures (over 100,000, in Ohio alone) and fundraising ($46 million in 10 months, out of a goal of 70). That money will only be used in the event that “two extreme candidates run for election in 2024.” For example? Trump and Sanders (who has already made it clear that he has no intention). Arriving at that dilemma, they would activate the nuclear button and allocate that financing to present the electorate, to “the middle voters”, a “more reasonable” alternative. 

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