In the grand sweep of two-party electoral history, a common pattern emerges to an attentive observer. As one party finds electoral success and a message that resonates with the public, the opposition frequently goes through a process of immolation and renewal: First they tend to cling to the old ways that lost them power in the first place; then they begin to observe the party in power and begin to mimic its messaging strategies, and even adopt some of the more easily co-optable policies; finally, when the governing party begins to list into unpopular territory, the positions switch. And the cycle begins anew.
US party politics today breaks decisively from this traditional pattern. After their defeat in 2012, the Republican Party leadership began the process of soul-searching necessary when a message no longer aligns with the majority. Recognizing that the party was no longer in step with the public’s wants, and also acknowledging a growing threat from diminishing support from rapidly growing demographic constituencies, Republicans sought to begin shifting the party toward a more centrist and inclusive stance.
Then along came the Donald. When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president, he began by calling for a border wall with Mexico and has since gone on to antagonize both women and racial minorities. Whether you agree with him or not, no one can deny that he has completely derailed the GOP’s rebranding effort.
The result of Trump’s rise has been a virtual civil war in the party, with pro-trade, pro-business Establishment pitted against a Trump-fueled movement that breaks categorically from these old orthodoxies. This intra-party conflagration has led to innumerable articles and op-eds declare the death of the GOP.
Given their opponents’ apparent willingness to tear themselves apart, the Democrats ought to be sailing. They can settle on their centrist frontrunner without much fuss and move on to a crushing victory in November. That would certainly be the historical pattern. After all, why take big risks when the middle ground is so kindly left fallow by your enemies?
Yet the Democrats too are breaking the historical pattern. While the Republican civil strife has grabbed most of the headlines this election cycle, the Democratic Party has its own inner conflict brewing. After months of polite disagreement, the gloves are finally off between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. In fact, Bernie supporters have been sounding a lot like Trump supporters lately, calling the primary process rigged. Some diehards have even sworn to abandon the Democrats if Bernie is not nominated.
The result of these fratricidal fights is an extremely rare occurrence: both major parties are deeply divided and in relative disarray. This thus presents a unique opportunity for a new player to capitalize on the chaos. If Libertarians are ever going to make a breakthrough, it is now.
A credible Libertarian nominee has the potential to peel off enough support from the disaffected of both parties to get a real platform. Sure, it’s still not likely that in a three-way race that a Libertarian could win, but 15% support in national polls is all that’s needed to get on the nationally televised debate stage. Standing side-by-side with any combination of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders should provide a Libertarian with plenty of material to contrast their positions and to make a real case to the nation for the first time.
A third party in an electoral system that has essentially institutionalized the status of the two dominant parties is always going to face a serious uphill battle. But with both big players in states of ideological and operational flux, a third voice might just get enough attention to make a difference. Americans want real change and real progress. Only Libertarians can give it to them.
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