We got back from “the the west” very early Wednesday morning. Cool, gray, drizzly Denmark was a welcome relief after our week without air conditioning in the sun’s European anvil.
The Danish media are mostly dominated by stories about Jonas Vingegaard’s Tour de France victory, and the local celebrations of that victory, and the planning of still more celebrations. There’s also a lot of metaphorical ink being spilled over this week’s release of the coming year’s university allotments, most of it focused on the huge drop in students enrolling in teaching and nursing programs. There’s coverage of a new study that’s being offered up as conclusive proof that the Wuhan virus began at the so-called wet market in Wuhan and was therefore definitely not the result of a laboratory leak.
With respect to America, there’s coverage of Joe Manchin having changed his mind and decided that half a trillion dollars in new spending won’t actually have any effect on inflation because Larry Summers said so. There’s coverage of the American fed having raised interest rates again. And of course, inevitably, a whole shit-ton of coverage of the Dread Tyrant Trump. Mikkel Danielsen in particular is all wound up because Secret Service text messages from January 6 have mysteriously disappeared—although I’m pretty sure this is fake news because we were instructed not to draw conclusions from the deletion of emails on Hillary Clinton’s illegal email server, or from the missing text messages from federal officials involved in the Russian collusion hoax.
I’m going to ignore all of that in favor of another American story that’s found its way into the Danish press today:
Former Democrats and Republicans create a new party in America
TV2 News / Ritzau, July 28
Former Democrats and Republicans create a new party in America
Berlingske.dk / Ritzau/Reuters, July 28
Both articles are obviously derived from the same wire service story, and both feature a photograph of failed 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Yang is co-chairman of the new party along with Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey.
The British Guardian is running the same Reuters version of the story, if you want to see it in untranslated English.
There’s nothing particularly interesting or important about the story. “Third parties” are a regular feature of American political life. But it gives me an opportunity to address something that all Danes seem to struggle with: the American two-party system.
I come here not to bury the two-party system, but to praise it.
Not really. I won’t praise it, but I can at least defend it.
Well, “defend” is maybe an overstatement.
I’ll explain it.
I mean, I’ll try.
But first: what exactly is this new edition of an American third party? Who’s behind it, and what do they hope to accomplish?
Here’s how they put it on their own website:
After working in parallel to strengthen our democracy, the Forward Party, the Renew America Movement, and the Serve America Movement are pleased to announce the formal merger of our three organizations.
We are uniting from across the political spectrum to create the launchpad for a transformational American political party under one name: Forward.
Got that? The Renew America Movement, known as RAM, and the Serve America Movement, known as SAM, came together. And when RAM and SAM came together in a beautiful loving relationship, which was actually a three-way, they made a baby that they named for their threesome partner: Forward.
It’s going to be transformational.
How so? Listen:
WE ARE REINVENTING WHAT A POLITICAL PARTY SHOULD BE.
We are starting from a refreshingly simple premise: Every problem has a solution most Americans can support (really). We just have to cut out the extreme partisanship, reintroduce a competition of ideas, and work together in good faith.
That’s not merely bland—it’s not even banal. It doesn’t even qualify as fluff. And the parenthetical “really” gives the statement a whiff of unbecoming desperation.
There’s a little graphic under the text cited above, which lays out their formula: “fearlessly seek diverse and new ideas, come together around sensible solutions, actually do something, and move forward together.”
That’s about as revolutionary as the idea of building a sandwich by fearlessly getting a couple of slices of bread and some meat and cheese, putting the meat and cheese on top of one slice of bread, and then putting the other slice of bread on top. Good god, man: we’ve reinvented what a sandwich should be!
They have three priorities (still quoting from their own website):
Revitalize a culture that celebrates difference and individual choice, rejects hate, and removes barriers so that each of us can rise to our full potential.
Reinvigorate a fair, flourishing economy and open society where everyone can live a good life and is safe in the places where we learn, work, and live.
Reform our republic to give Americans more choices in elections, more confidence in a government that works, and more say in our future.
It’s like a pretty toy balloon: full of air and guaranteed to burst at the first poke.
What does it mean to “revitalize a culture?” How do you intend to do that as a political party? What does it mean to “celebrate difference and individual choice?” Celebrate how? What barriers do you want to remove? I mean: which particular barriers, or at least what kind of barriers? How do you see yourselves getting rid of them?
You say you want everyone to live a good life in safe circumstances. How does that differentiate you from Democrats or Republicans? Everyone wants a flourishing economy, but definitions of “fair” have varied pretty widely over the centuries: what exactly do you mean?
According to all three articles I’ve linked to, the party defines itself as centrist and has no specific policies yet. They actually acknowledge that.
“We’ve got an exciting new party and we hope you’ll support us.”
“Sounds good! What’s your platform?”
“Our what now?”
As the Guardian puts it:
It will say at its Thursday launch: “How will we solve the big issues facing America? Not Left. Not Right. Forward.”
That’s what they all say.
I mean that literally: pretty much every third party comes out saying the same thing. “We’re not about left or right: we’re just about doing whatever it takes to make America better for everyone!”
Finally, a party that doesn’t want to end abortion, or legalize it through the third trimester, but just wants to, you know, whatever!
That isn’t going to increase the size of our military, or reduce it, but just kind of something something something so our enemies don’t mess with us but we don’t have to spend a ton of money.
A party that won’t raise tax too high, or cut them too low, but will just, you know—well, god, I mean, it’s obvious, right? They’ll just do the common sense things that everyone knows need to be done so that everyone’s paying exactly the right amount of taxes.
And so on.
Back to the Grauniad:
Historically, third parties have failed to thrive in America’s two-party system. Occasionally they can impact a presidential election. Analysts say the Green party’s Ralph Nader siphoned off enough votes from Al Gore in 2000 to help George W Bush win the White House.
That’s true. You could also say that Ross Perot gave Bill Clinton the 1992 election and that John Anderson helped Reagan thump Carter even harder in 1980 than he would have anyway. Going way back, Teddy Roosevelt’s run on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912 is often credited with giving the election to Woodrow Wilson.
Third parties don’t win American elections, but they can decide them. So the real question is never what would these people do if they won, but rather which of the two major parties are they going to hurt, and how badly?
The closer a third party clings to the center, the less of an electoral impact they’re going to have because it’s more likely they’ll draw voters from both sides, resulting in a wash. The more they lean one way or the other, the more likely they are to hurt the party toward which they have the most in common because that’s the party from whom they’ll pull the most voters. That’s why the green anti-capitalist Nader hurt Gore and why the pro-business, anti-big-government Perot hurt Bush, and why the former Republican Roosevelt clobbered the actual Republican Taft.
Now let’s poke a little at the so-called “two-party system” that Danes have such a hard time understanding.
First of all, there aren’t just two parties in America. At the national level, for example, the Libertarian and Green parties have been putting up presidential candidates for decades. At the state and local level, candidates from those parties and many others don’t merely run for office, but sometimes even win. There are Workers parties, Constitutionalist parties, Working Families parties, Reform parties, Independent parties, Socialist parties, Communist parties. Parties galore. (My personal favorite is New York’s “Rent Is Too Damn High” party.)
So when Danes ask me why we don’t have more parties in America—or, more often, tell me that the problem with America is its lack of more parties—my stock answer is that it isn’t for want of more parties, but for more Americans to vote for them.
What do you suggest we do: force Americans to vote differently?
In fact, there are huge regional and cultural differences within each of the two major parties. When I was just starting out, New Hampshire Democrats and California Republicans had more in common than did the Democrats of New York and Texas, or the Republicans of California and South Carolina.
Within today’s Republican party you’ll find libertarians, Christian evangelicals, fiscal conservatives, and military hawks, among others. On the Democratic side, you’ll find environmentalists, identitarians, Jewish progressives, old-school tax-and-spend liberals, and others. Candidates seeking national office in either party need to walk a very careful line to appease some very different constituencies—and they do, or they lose.
In practical terms, the end result isn’t very different from what we have in Denmark.
We have many, many parties in Denmark—there are ten parties represented in parliament right now, and a handful of parties without parliamentary representation. But as every Dane knows, those parties organize themselves into two blocs: the so-called red bloc of the left and the blue bloc of the right. If you vote Venstre, Nye Borgerlige, Konservative, Danske Folkeparti, or Liberal Alliance, you’re actually voting for the blue bloc: to vote for Socialdemokratiet, Radikale Venstre, Socialistiske Folkeparti, Enhedslisten, or Alternativet is effectively to vote for the red.
Of course, once the elected parliamentarians take their seats and the majority agrees on which of its party leaders will be prime minister (which is usually but not necessarily a foregone conclusion), there is still a role for party differences: the government doesn’t need a majority in parliament to approve of their policies and actions, but it can’t enact any policies that are opposed by a majority in parliament, so a given party within one of the coalitions can force the government’s hand when it feels the need to.
That’s not true in America, where a president of one party can implement whatever policies he or she likes even if Congress is in the hands of the other party. (Although obviously all legislation is essentially locked up in such scenarios, since the president can refuse to sign any bills passed by an opposition Congress, and the minority in Congress can’t get legislation through to the president’s desk for signature.)
But there’s something else to consider: America has been a “two-party” country since the 1850s. Whatever your criticisms of the two-party system, or even America in general, it’s worth noting that America won two world wars, put a man on the moon, created unprecedented global wealth, and unleashed astonishing innovation in virtually every human endeavor—all of it while burdened by that despised two-party system.
So it’s not like the two-party system is an insurmountable problem.
Now let’s circle back to this new party.
Yeah, let’s go back to Forward.
They’re a blank slate right now, offering absolutely nothing specific in terms of what they’re about. They’re holding that up as a badge of honor.
“We’ll be better than Democrats and Republicans,” they say, “because we won’t be so damn partisan! We’ll just identify problems, figure out the best way to deal with them, and then do it!”
Except that’s exactly what the Democrats and Republicans are already doing. Nancy Pelosi and Ted Cruz don’t see themselves as partisans, but as people fighting for the right solutions to the real problems. That may be the only thing they have in common.
The problem isn’t that nobody ever thought of solving problems before: it’s that people disagree very strongly on what is and isn’t a problem—and on what is and isn’t a solution.
One thing most Americans can probably agree on, however, is that platitudes aren’t a solution.
And the good people of Forward! are going to find that out very soon.