Third-Party Chimeras

Speaking of polls, there’s an annoying one out today from Gallup–well, the poll itself isn’t annoying, since all data is welcome, but the framing and analysis are.

It’s one of those periodic “do you favor having a third party?” surveys Gallup does, and it predictably shows a majority (58%) agreeing a third choice would help the parties as a whole be more representative. Framed in the abstract, it’s surprising the number isn’t higher given the grumpy “wrong-track” condition of public opinion right now; only very happy partisans are likely to say they wouldn’t like to see a “Party of Me” perfectly representing their POV. But obviously no one “third party” can represent all the people discontented with the two parties for every reason–or no reason. And Gallup really doesn’t inquire about the kind of Third Party Americans supposedly crave.

More annoying yet, when explaining the absence of any viable third party, Gallup attributes it all to structural obstacles to their success. Yes, that’s important, but again, probably not as important as the lack of a sufficiently strong and coherent minority viewpoint to sustain a third party, and the tendency of the major parties to preempt third-party challenges by adapting to public opinion.

And then there’s this incoherent graph, which combines a misunderstanding of the Tea Party Movement with a mis-diagnosis of its trajectory:

Given the U.S. political system, those whose ideology puts them to the left of the Democratic Party or the right of the Republican Party are better served trying to work within a major political party than establishing their own party. Supporters of the Tea Party movement generally took this approach, with some success, by trying to get their preferred candidates nominated as Republicans in the last few election cycles. But as with most U.S. third parties historically, the Tea Party’s influence appears to be waning as the movement did not play a pivotal role in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination and was less successful in defeating more moderate Republican candidates in the 2014 congressional primaries than in 2010.

First of all, the Tea Party was never in any sense a “third party,” composed as it was of reliable Republican voters who invariably operated within the Republican Party, protestations of “independence” notwithstanding. And its influence is only “waning” if you reject the evidence that it has largely won, and/or persist in viewing such vanquishers of the Tea Party as Thom Tillis and Joni Ernst as “more moderate Republican candidates” when by any standard they are snarling right-wing ideologues.

Ah well. Perhaps with Gallup it’s better to scan the numbers and ignore the analysis.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.