The futility of banking on "centrist" third parties

Tim DunkinRenew America

A few days ago, Ron Fournier at the National Journal wrote a trite little article about the failure of the debt "super committee" to generate any substantive solutions to the present debt and spending crisis (and let's not kid ourselves, these are two sides of the same coin). In it, he opined,


"Shame on Republicans for a stubborn unwillingness to seriously consider tax increases.

"Shame on Democrats for keeping a closed mind to significant benefit cuts.

"And shame on President Obama for standing idly by as Washington failed again to get the country's fiscal house in order.

"The political system is broken. It's only a matter of time before voters take matters in their own hands: The rise of a third party — or the dramatic overhaul of one of the existing ones — is in the offing."

So sounds forth the shrieks of the mad moderate muckraker, convinced that the problems in Washington would all be solved if politicians would just "meet in the middle," agreeing to cut entitlements a little, while raising taxes "on the rich" a lot. As Pat Toomey pointed out, the Democrats on the super committee really had no intention of producing substantive results — what they wanted was, instead, to give Obama political cover to campaign with in next year's election. So, the Democrats sought to stonewall the whole process by offering such tiny "cuts" in entitlement spending, coupled with such massive necessary increases in taxation (as National Review has noted, what the Democrats are essentially asking for by refusing to consider serious cuts in entitlement spending is an 88% increase in every single tax at the federal level — not just on "the rich," but on everybody, at every level, in every area where the government currently draws income) that there's no way that anybody who had any economic sanity at all would agree with their proposals. Can we really blame Republicans for rejecting an 88% tax increase on all Americans and all areas of economic activity? Is Mr. Fournier really so blinkered in his lack of economic sense as to actually think it's a "shame" for the Republicans to reject economic suicide?

Perhaps, or perhaps not. More likely, he was just trying to make hay with the anger that average Americans feel with Washington. Unfortunately, rather than provide any reasoned solution to the debt problem (which, as a typical member of the center-left media establishment, he doesn't really even understand to begin with), he trots out the old "third parties'll get 'em" line.

Not going to happen.

It's painfully apparent that most of the people who think that some magical, messianic third party is going to come riding into Washington, sweeping the old order aside and fixing all of the problems that "partisanship" and "petty politics" had created are sorely fooling themselves. This is especially so when the third party in question is proposed to be a "centrist" third party that will "transform politics" and "seek solutions" instead of partisan sniping and gridlock — a party full of Colin Powells, David Frums, and David Brookeses.

First of all, our system is not set up to accommodate third parties. We have a winner-takes-all, first past the post electoral system. What this sort of a system does is encourage partisan conglomeration. To win anything, you need to have at least a large plurality. Parties get this by attempting to represent the broad concerns of as many ideologically-related groups as possible. What you end up with are two major parties which generally tend to cluster around a set of core constituencies while branching out to other groups which may not share all of the concerns of the core, but which are closer, overall, to the one party than to the core of the opposite.

Now many calls for third partyism come from those on the far edges of the two differing core groups. For the Democrats, you have radical leftists who are perennially threatening to "go Green," or otherwise split up among the myriad of tiny little socialist parties that occasionally will get ballot access in one of the Northeastern states. For the Republicans, you have the people who threaten every four years that they're finally going to "punish" the Republicans by voting for the Constitution Party or whatnot. In both cases, you have folks who are unhappy with the fact that their respective parties are not as "pure" as they would like for them to be.

However, as much as the dreams of those on both the Left and Right for an ideologically pure party may be unrealized, the hopes of people like Ron Fournier — that a muscular, post-partisan party of centrists, moderates, and other disaffected David Frum types is going to suddenly weld itself together and sweep aside all the "obstructionism" of those people who keep opposing tax cuts and "reasonable protections for entitlement programs" — are even less likely to happen.

The reason we see the current partisan split in America is because America itself is pretty evenly split. Thus, the gridlock we see in Washington is not the result of political parties trying to curry favor with a tiny cadre of cronies that have nothing to do with the people at large. Instead, it has to do with the fact that the Republicans broadly represent the 40-50% or so of the population who want lower taxes, less government spending, less debt, and so forth, while the Democrats represent the 40-50% or so of the population who want more wealth redistribution, more socialism, more debt, more government spending, etc. In other words, each party represents a broad swath of the American people who hold to almost diametrically opposite positions from those held by the supporters and/or sympathizers with the other party.

Which is why Fournier's implicit moderate-middle third party solution will be a non-starter from the get-go.

Let's think about this — roughly half the country feels strongly about lower taxes and less spending. Roughly the other half feels strongly about "taxing the rich" (and anyone else remotely productive) and not cutting entitlements. So you think a party that runs on a platform of raising taxes while cutting entitlements is going to get very far? Not likely.

Now, some might argue, what about the fact that I seem somehow to have forgotten that there is this huge 35-40% (depending on any given sampling) mass of people who are called "Independents" and who don't affiliate with either party? Surely these folks can get together and put the Democrats, and especially those dirty ol' Republican obstructionists, in their places? After all, a party that can weld this 40% together could get the plurality over either of the others and win like a bus load of senior citizens in Vegas, right?

Well, no. See, the unspoken yet faulty assumption made by many in the "militant middle" is that partisan unaffiliation can be equated with ideological moderacy or political centrism. Yet, it cannot. Independents, in fact, are people who are just as divided as the American people — though if the polling on issues is reasonably correct, they appear to be leaning somewhat to the Right, especially on things like ObamaCare. Some people are unaffiliated because the GOP is too conservative, or too liberal, for them. Some because the Democrats are too conservative, or too liberal, for them. Some are independents for no other reason than that they just don't want to be "labeled." In other words, political independents are as ideologically diverse as are voters in the two major parties — and independents, naturally, tend to overwhelmingly vote for whichever of the two major parties best represents their own ideologies. There's no really good reason to think that conservative independents are suddenly going to throw in for a centrist third party that wants to raise taxes massively to cover the budget deficits, or that leftist unaffiliated voters are going to drop the Party that's "fighting for" their "right" to government goodies to vote for one that wants to pare those goodies back a little.

No, Fournier's threat of the inexorable rise of a centrist third party that's going to represent the American people venting their anger at Washington and rising up to "take matters into their own hands" completely and utterly misses the point. Just as "independents" are not a monolithic group, neither are the reasons why Americans are angry at Washington monolithic. Some Americans are angry at Washington because government has gotten too big, too intrusive, too greedy for the wealth of productive citizens and the votes of the non-productive. Other Americans are angry because they don't think government has done enough to "punish" the rich and to give them more of the "free" goodies that they want.

These are fundamentally irreconcilable differences which a party of mealy-mouthed mushy-middle compromise-that-nobody-likes-or-wants talking heads is not going to solve.

Let's face it — the "compromise" that people like Fournier want isn't even the correct solution to the debt and spending problem in Washington. The proper way of solving the problem would be the Tea Party approach — cut spending and cut taxes. You cut spending because, obviously, the less you spend over what you bring in as income, the less you go further into debt; if you can manage to start spending less than you take in, and provided you're diligent about paying down the debt already accrued, you both eliminate budget deficits and reduce debt outright.

Cutting taxes also would work to help reduce the deficits and debt, however. Many in the punditocracy who pride themselves on their "moderacy" are simply ignorant of the way economics and tax policy actually work. They assume a simple linear correlation between tax rate and tax income — i.e., the higher you raise the tax rate, the more tax revenue you make so you can close budget gaps and so forth. As Arthur Laffer demonstrated, however, it doesn't work this way. The famed "Laffer curve" serves to graph the balancing act between tax revenue generation versus depression of economic performance caused by taxation. The idea it proposes is that there is a point at which tax revenue "peaks" with increasing tax rate. Taxing higher than that point depresses economic performance and growth enough that you actually begin to see less revenue generated from the taxation of economic activity, despite the higher tax rate — there simply is less overall economic activity to tax in the first place, compared to what there would have been had you taxed at a lower rate. The further past the "peak" tax rate you go, the more you stultify economic activity and reduce actual tax receipts taken in by the government. Conversely, lowering taxes closer to the Laffer peak increases economic activity, and therefore increases the amount taken in as tax, even though a lower rate is being levied.

The dirty little secret of this basis for "supply side" economics is that it works. John F. Kennedy pushed for lower taxes during his administration, and saw both economic growth and the increased tax revenue that come with it. Ronald Reagan did the same — during his tenure in office, even though top marginal rates were slashed massively, the government ended up nearly doubling tax revenues. Of course, Ronald Reagan had Tip O'Neill and his free-spending congressional Democrats to deal with, so these surpluses were largely squandered on useless and non-productive social spending (which were increased hugely compared with spending related to Reagan's military buildup).

Hence, the "tradeoff" that centrists like Fournier tell us is "necessary" to "fix the problem" ends up being completely unnecessary. If we really want to fix the spending problem, we will stop spending on useless social programs and other government waste. If we really want to fix the debt problem, we'll cut taxes so that the economy grows, and the increased tax receipts will (hopefully) be used to balance budgets and start paying down the debt — not just interest, but the actual principal we owe as well.

Therein lies the actual solution to these problems, and the Republicans would be wise to both stick to their guns on taxes and entitlement spending, as well as actually making a sincere, concerted effort to educate the American people as to why these solutions would actually work. As I said above, we have a nearly irresolvable ideological (rather than partisan) split in this country. The way to overcome this is not to simply force through your agenda when you have the temporary ability to do so — all this does is makes the other guys more zealous to do it right back to you when they get their temporary turn. No, educating the American public is the answer — people need to be confronted with the arguments for why debt is bad, why we can't just keep spending and spending and spending, why tax cuts are good, and why economic freedom is better in the long run that the momentary fix of government-mandated theft from other people. This is what happened back during the Reagan era when white working class voters (who the Democrats have apparently decided to formally write off) were made to understand and realize why class warfare was not a winning strategy for themselves as individual voters and families.

In the end, making sound arguments and appealing to reason and wisdom are more sure ways of building your electoral coalition and seeing your agenda items implemented than are running off to form your own ephemeral third party built on unsound economic ideas that would only help to deepen the fiscal woes this country is facing. Perhaps Ron Fournier didn't get the memo.

© Tim Dunkin