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Stuck in the Middle With You
A strong centrist Democratic faction wins the middle. Quixotic attempts at a third party could lose it all.
Viable third parties always seem to be a decade away, but third party spoilers happen almost every year.
While most spoiler third parties have been on the ideological fringes, current calls for a third party are coming from an Acela Centrist quadrant of the country (socially liberal, fiscally conservative) that is weak in numbers but strong in media and economic power centers.
Most prominent is the “Forward Party” of failed Democratic presidential and New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang (launched concurrent to Yang’s book tour on political dysfunction). Ultimately, this current attempt at third party disruption from the middle may share an end result with the Green Party efforts that cost Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Al Gore in 2000 (and Libertarian efforts that have cost GOP seats).
Yang’s project has found common cause with the far-left in both efforts’ approach of attacking and distorting a mainstream Democratic Party that has repeatedly proven an ability to win the middle.
The effect is that professional anti-partisans in the center are teaming up with the far-left to create a false narrative where moderate Democrats are too weak and compromised to win and govern.
The good news is that the moment is ripe for a resurgence in the political center. But that revitalized center won't come in the form of a maverick (and unwinnable) third party: as Paul Waldman described in 2020, “third-party candidates won’t win, they can only siphon votes away from candidates who agree with them on some things but not everything.”
A revitalized center will come in the form of a center-left faction of a big tent Democratic Party — a faction that would face a mortal threat from a failed centrist party.
More on why factions are the future below, but first a few things our team was reading and talking about this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. Matt Yglesias in Slow Boring on how Democrats have changed a lot since 2012:
“In ‘Republicans have changed a lot since 2008,’ Matt argued that the Elon Musk/Colin Wright meme depicting a leftward-moving left versus a steady-state right underrated the extent of change in the Republican Party. But contrary to many of the takes online, the Democratic Party has changed, too.
One way to see this is in the evolution of the party’s platform, which is why Milan carefully read the 2012 and 2020 Democratic platforms in their entirety. The point of this exercise isn’t that the mass electorate scrutinizes these documents in detail, but that the statements are a chance for party leaders to tell the world what the party aspires to be and do. It’s of course possible that a party could smuggle some totally obscure new policy commitment into the platform that doesn’t reflect anything other than platform-writing. But that’s really not the case here.”
2. Ruy Teixeira in The Liberal Patriot on the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party’s left flank:
“Instead, what [Democrats] need is a plan on how to win outside of deep blue areas and states (the average Congressional Progressive Caucus leader is from a Democratic +19 district). That entails compromises that, so far, the Democratic Left has not been willing to make. Cultural moderation, effective governance and smart campaigning are what is needed to win in competitive areas of the country. If democracy is in as much danger as the Democratic Left appears to believe, would not such compromises be worth making? And wouldn’t winning make a nice change of pace at this point?”
3. Micah L. Sifry in The Connector breaking down Rob Stein and the Democracy Alliance’s liberal legacy:
“Why was the Right ascendant? Stein’s answer came down to money and infrastructure. Starting in 1971 with a confidential memo laying out the case from Lewis Powell, a future Supreme Court justice, the right had constructed a $300 million message machine consisting of think tanks ($180 million a year flowing into Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute and the Hoover Institution alone), legal centers, religious groups, leadership training institutes and policy journals, all producing a constant stream of talking points, op eds, policy proposals and legislation.
Stein’s PowerPoint wasn’t an analysis of the structural roots of white Christian patriarchy in America or the ways the Constitution advantaged rural white voters as much as it was a functional description of how a nexus of business elites and religious blocs wielded power.”
Meet Andrew Yang’s hype machine
Yang’s two political campaigns shared many similarities to his pre-politics “Venture For America” initiative to relocate entrepreneurs to struggling cities in the heartland, which the New York Times found fell far, far short of stated goals while garnering significant public attention (from the White House to mainstream media).
It’s clear that Yang has a keen understanding of the media hype machine and knows how to generate buzz for himself, but that he’s not quite as effective at a strategic or operational level.
And so — following Venture For America and his presidential and mayoral campaigns — Yang’s Forward Party is well-positioned to be his fourth initiative in a decade to have basic surface-level appeal, attract gobs of attention, and then completely fail due to easily foreseeable strategic and operational obstacles.
With the Forward Party, Yang’s approach continues to require stakeholders (media people, politicians, donors, etc.) to do minimal critical thinking while he continues failing upward — an effort that will likely succeed in the narrow achievement of moving him onto the next thing.
Making sense of the third party problem
The rationality of pursuing a centrist third party is inversely related to the strength of centrist factions within the major parties in our two-party system.
Let’s run through a quick thought experiment. According to Gallup, 25% of Americans identify as liberal, 37% as moderate, and 36% conservative. If all Americans were partisans — split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans according to ideology — Democrats would be evenly split between liberals and moderates (25% each) and Republicans would be disproportionately (~72%) conservative.
In that world, Democrats would have a strong moderate faction and all that comes with it (moderate think tanks, news organizations, donor networks, etc).
Instead, our current reality includes bipartisan and anti-partisan centrist organizations, befitting a world in which people proudly identify as “independent thinkers,” tout heterodox opinions, strongly dislike the parties, etc. These bipartisan and anti-partisan organizations may share many goals with those in moderate partisan factions (most importantly, saving our democracy), but under our two-party electoral system this strength channeled electorally directly weakens moderate partisan factions. If every dollar, hour, and vote dedicated to one of these bipartisan and anti-partisan groups were instead put toward bolstering moderate factions within the parties, there would not be much for the anti-partisan centrists to bemoan.
Bipartisan or centrist groups can deploy their assets to:
Weaken the moderate factions within each party, making them more extreme and bolstering the case for abandoning the parties
Strengthening the moderate factions within each party
Growing calls for a centrist third party double as loud denunciations of bipartisan and anti-partisan organization strategy over the past two decades. Calling for a third party in the middle — instead of a world in which both parties have vibrant, powerful moderate factions driving the agenda in each party — is motivated not by the strength of the center but explicitly by claiming that too much of the strategy and tactics designed to strengthen the center over the past two decades have backfired.
Politics doesn't come with an eraser
Andrew Yang’s strategy comes from what could be termed “Whiteboard Philanthropy”. In the whiteboard worldview, a major problem (e.g. a lack of entrepreneurial investment in small midwestern cities or a weakness of the major parties to engage voters in the middle) is answered by a simple, one-dimensional solution that feels like it emerged from a late-night consultant brainstorming session.
Yang, who went from Westchester to board at Phillips Exeter before attending Brown University and Columbia Law School, has additional experience in founding a (failed) venture-backed internet startup and working at a white shoe law firm. In other words, solving a massively complicated social problem with a whiteboard session that looks good on a PowerPoint slide is certainly in his wheelhouse.
Unfortunately for Yang, while political change also requires strategy and innovation, it does not work like the for-profit investment world. In politics, it’s possible to lose way more than you put in. Efforts dedicated to launching a moderate third party have massive negative externalities and near-unlimited downside: these efforts weaken the moderate partisan factions that have the actual ability to defeat our authoritarian threat.
Think about it: Donald Trump may have the highest floor of support of any presidential candidate in generations. Is it Trump’s electoral prospects that will suffer if a moderate challenger sucks up resources ahead of the 2024 Democratic primary or a Joe Biden bid for re-election?
The bipartisan and anti-partisan center has incentives to overstate the influence of the far-left
As we’ve written before, there is a clear symbiotic relationship between the far-left and the far-right. Unfortunately, there is also symbiosis between the far-left and the bipartisan and anti-partisan center: by inflaming and exaggerating the extent to which the Democratic Party is captured by the far-left, these centrist entities gain power at the expense of the moderate faction within the Democratic Party. This isn’t to say that, when smartly constructed, bipartisan and moderate partisan partnerships can’t be effective (they certainly can). But when weaponized against the parties, bipartisan and anti-partisan efforts simply overstate the power of the far-left and hide the clearest solution to our problems: stronger moderate factions within the parties.
Look at the facts: the far-left candidate has lost every Democratic primary since 1972. Performing the Last Rites on the moderate Democratic faction amounts to willful ignorance of decades of electoral history — and not just in purple states or in the suburbs. Since Joe Biden steamrolled the presidential primary two short years ago, moderates have been beating the far-left from New York City to San Francisco, stopping in cities like Buffalo and Cleveland along the way. Anti-partisans can team up with AOC and Bernie to distort moderate Democrats’ power, but they can’t erase Eric Adams or the San Francisco school board’s recent recall.
This isn’t all to say that there aren’t legacy bipartisan and anti-partisan organizations doing important work to make Congress work better, empower moderates across the aisle, and advance important democratic reforms to improve and safeguard elections. There’s a lot of good being done in the space.
But far too much of the energy, attention, and money in today’s centrist landscape is being unproductively routed away from such pragmatic solutions (and their capacity to bolster a robust center-left faction in the Democratic Party) and toward quixotic and harmful attempts at third parties.
Bipartisan and anti-partisan initiatives emerge from incorrect analysis of moderates (and misjudgment of the path forward). And they don’t just make for a poor allocation of precious capital with high opportunity costs — they are dangerous ventures that find common cause with extremists by undermining the only faction (the center-left) that can operationally protect American democracy.