Skip to Content

Political Division: Is a Third Party Possible?

Back to News Listing

Author(s)

RadioEd

Podcast  •
RadioEd

Listen and Subscribe

Transcript

Alyssa Hurst:
You're listening to RadioEd.

Lorne Fultonberg:
A University of Denver Podcast.

Nicole Militello:
We're your hosts, Nicole Militello.

Alyssa Hurst:
Alyssa Hurst.

Lorne Fultonberg:
And I'm Lorne Fultonberg.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Some Republicans are still holding tight to the disproven theory that the 2020 election was somehow stolen. Some Republicans are tired of hearing about it. More than a hundred of them have signed on to a call for American renewable. It's a group pushing a platform against division and political extremism in favor of what they call common sense. Basically they're telling their party, "Make some changes, or we're leaving." About two of every three Americans say they're ready for a third party. So is this the moment they've been waiting for? The first step toward dismantling the two party system?

Lorne Fultonberg:
We asked Seth Masket if this movement is the real deal. He's the Director of DU's Center on American Politics. So he is more than qualified to diagnose whether Donald Trump is truly to blame for the Republican divide, and whether Democrats have to worry about a split of their own. But we started by asking whether this most recent threat, is something others in the Republican party are going to take seriously?

Seth Masket:
It's a good question. I guess we never know exactly what kind of leverage a splinter group within a party will have. My impression is that this is not a part of the Republican Party that has a whole lot of leverage, that is this consists mostly of either former office holders, or just otherwise people without a lot of direct power within the party right now. They don't have a whole lot of influence over who the party nominates, or how the party votes, and what just sort of rank and file party members do.

Seth Masket:
So there are some prominent names in there and there, I would say not to be completely dismissed. I think they represent a wider range of Republicans who are just simply unhappy with the direction of their party. And haven't quite known what to do about it, but I don't know that they have a major voice within the party right now.

Lorne Fultonberg:
The big names on there that jumped out to me are like Evan McMullin, who was a third party candidate for President. Miles Taylor, who wrote that anonymous New York Times Op-Ed. There's Anthony Scaramucci from his brief fiery time with the White House. Anybody else in there that we should be taking note of?

Seth Masket:
None that jumped to mind at the moment.

Lorne Fultonberg:
I'm curious because after the January 6th storming of the Capitol, 17 members of Congress voted to impeach President Trump. Why haven't we seen any of those people jump on board here?

Seth Masket:
It's been interesting. There is a clearly very different approach by certainly Republican members of Congress, even those who are remain very critical of President Trump, and clearly want their party to move away from him, and in a different direction. What we're seeing from this outside group right now, is essentially a threat to start a new party, to kind of splinter the Republican coalition to form something else.

Seth Masket:
The approach that these members of Congress and others seem to have taken is that they still see themselves as Republicans. They seem to regard the more Trump oriented Republicans, maybe not permanently the way things are going to go in that party. There may be a temporarily dominant faction within the party, but not necessarily the way the party is going to end up. I think they still see themselves as wanting to stay in the party, and fight it out, and offer Republican voters some real choices in next year's congressional primaries. But really try and fight for what it means to be a Republican, rather than to threaten to both the party, which they're clearly uncomfortable with doing.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney lost her leadership seat earlier this month, when she opposed this continued effort to question the results of the 2020 election led by former President Trump. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, and a Republican from South Carolina said, "You can't go forward without Donald Trump. The damage done from trying to drive Trump out of the party is greater than keeping him in the party." What do you make of that rationale?

Seth Masket:
I mean, it represents a really interesting bind. Graham himself as an interesting character in that, if you listen to what he said the night of January 6th, after the insurrection. He gave a fascinating speech on the Senate floor, basically sounding like he was done with Trump. He thought the party should be to, it seemed to be like, "We had our fun with this, but we need to move on now, things are getting dangerous here."

Seth Masket:
That moment did not last that long. He is now very much back with the idea that Trump is, and should remain a very important part of the party. Not necessarily because Lindsey Graham endorses who Donald Trump is, or what he stands for. But I think because he worries about Trump being outside the Republican party, knowing that Trump has the ability to essentially break that part if he wants to. He could run for president as a third party candidate, and really split the Republican coalition. He could put together his own Freedom Party or Liberty Party, or something like that, and endorse his own slate of candidates for 2022 and 24. If he is dissatisfied with Republican leadership, he really has the power to demolish them in upcoming elections. And Lindsey Graham is determined to see that not happen, and just sort of views that as the more serious threat.

Seth Masket:
I guess you could sort of see a, I think as Graham has described it, that there is a more positive side to trumping within the party, that he turns people out to vote who wouldn't necessarily vote otherwise. He has gotten, your so-called 'working class whites' to actually show up at the polls. When he's not on the ballot, as we saw in 2018, they tend not to show up as much. When he is on the ballot the party tends to outperform its polling. He tends to turn out people who are normally pretty low propensity voters. And I think Graham wants to keep that set of voters in the fold. He wants to keep benefiting from that, and is also sort of terrified with what happens if those voters turned against him.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Before we started recording this interview, via email you told me the GOP has already had its civil war, and the Trump faction won. Why do you think the former president's side prevailed?

Seth Masket:
Yeah, that was really just a function of where the Republican Party was on January 6th. That night of the insurrection, when you saw just the bulk of the party, particularly in the Senate voting to approve the election results, and to certify the election that made Joe Biden president. And just basically saying that it is time to move on, and even 10 house members and seven senators voting to impeach, and convict Donald Trump. That was sort of the high watermark for the kind of anti-Trump faction within the Republican Party.

Seth Masket:
Since then, what's really been most fascinating is that Trump's side has really managed to reassert itself. All well, this has been probably the most silent four months of his life. He got booted off of most social media. He's given a few statements to the press, written a few posts here and there, but for the most part, hasn't said a whole lot. But the party is still treating him as though he is a prominent presence within the party who has the ability to help, or hurt the party in the next year or two as he sees fit. And as also a very likely candidate for president in 2024.

Seth Masket:
Other potential presidential candidates like Ron DeSantis, like Nikki Haley, who are trying to put together some sort of organization there, but also not being too visible about it, so they don't offend Trump. It's difficult to say what actions Trump took in particular to do this. I don't think there really were many, but the fact that he has remained a figure with some potential political future, and his base of supporters has not really abandoned him. I mean, he's lost certainly some approvals since January 6th, but he still has a very enthusiastic base of supporters within the Republican Party. You've seen the rest of the party continue to try and keep him happy. They're worried about alienating him, and those forces have really been quite impressive.

Seth Masket:
I think one of the more telling moments of the last year was the fact that last fall, the Republican Party officially declined to write a platform for its national party. They simply just endorsed Donald Trump's reelection and said, "We support whatever he supports." That was a really, that's a staggering move for a prominent party in a democracy. We almost never see that sort of thing happen where they just sort of give up with the governing agenda. So he's out of office, but he's also left behind a party that really doesn't not have a sense of what it stands for beyond supporting him. And they are very much in that. They were into that system, and really don't have a way forward without him right now.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Do you think this infighting within the Republican Party can be traced to Donald Trump and only Donald Trump? Were there any cracks in the party foundation before 2015, 2016?

Seth Masket:
There has certainly been cracks in the Republican Party. I think Trump exploited those, but he did not invent them. We have seen real splits within the party on a number of dimensions. If you think back to when George W. Bush was president, he was a good unifying candidate within the Republican Party, but he pushed for some immigration reforms, that clearly a number of the more populous than more nationalistic wing within the Republican Party was very unhappy with. The party sort of continued to move in that direction with its other nominations, with people like McCain, with people like Romney, who continued to push for a somewhat more inclusive message on immigration, to try and beat back the more populist wing of the party.

Seth Masket:
John sides and Lynn Vavreck, two political scientists wrote this book, The Gamble, about the 2012 election. And also they did the identity crisis book about the 2016 election. They show in some polling research about the positions of your average Republican primary voter, and your sort of Republican elites, Republican Party leaders. There's this over time, there's this growing divide over questions like immigration. The distance between the party voters, and the party's leadership was growing on the Republican side for many years, where Republicans basically just would nominate someone who would embrace all of that.

Seth Masket:
That all switched with Trump, where he was essentially someone who was much more in line with the party's primary voters, than he was with the party's leadership. He got in with that anti-immigration language that the base Republican voters had been pushing for many years. Now they're kind of stuck with that, and there just does not seem to be as loud a voice for things like immigration reform for accepting immigrants within the party. That's just a very small minority within the party now.

Lorne Fultonberg:
After President Biden was elected, some people on the left were protesting because they thought Biden was too moderate of a candidate to represent their interests. I feel like the right is getting a lot of the attention right now. Is there any threat of a fracture on the other side of the aisle?

Seth Masket:
It's interesting to watch the Democratic Party during this time. There are real factional divides within the party. You can see that in campaigns, the fundraising support for people like Bernie Sanders versus people like groups supporting Joe Biden. These are sort of ongoing divides within the party. For the most part throughout 2020, the party was on really good behavior. They were trying very much not to demonstrate a lot of major factional divides. They didn't want to look divided going into the election. There was I think, a widespread belief among Democrats that's part of why they lost in 2016 by looking too divided.

Seth Masket:
And at least for the most part in the early months of Biden's presidency, there has been this kind of this fairly convenient truce between Biden's more moderate wing, and the sort of progressive left under the leadership of Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others in the house. They will agitate for something they will say, whether it's defunding the police or a universal daycare. Knowing full well they're not going to get all that they asked for. And hen Biden will come back and say, "Well, I can't go that far, but here's what I can give." And he's still delivers a fair amount of what the left ones, getting the like 80% of the way to their goal, which is roughly what they were expecting anyway. So they had worked at something of a convenient, almost a theater where the left comes out looking very left. Biden comes out looking very centrist.

Seth Masket:
This seems to work for everyone and meanwhile everyone sort of gets their policy goal, where the splits seems to be coming up now just within the last week or two is over Israel policy, which is not something that necessarily that the Democrats had planned on being a major issue right now, where you suddenly have a very vocal, progressive left. That's been very critical of longstanding US policy in supporting Israel, and also specifically of Biden continuing to support Israel. That's been one of the areas where I think they haven't really figured out a truce between the two factions within the party on that. And where you really do see things breaking down among along some ideological lines right now.

Lorne Fultonberg:
You mentioned Bernie Sanders and I've always been so curious about this, he identifies as a democratic socialist, but in the Senate, he is an independent. On the other side, in the House, Representative Justin Amash calls himself a libertarian, but his official affiliation is independent. Why don't we have them going out, and declaring their party to be something other than independent? Is that just politics?

Seth Masket:
They're two situations are fairly different from each other, but to a large extent, this is just smart politics of being within a legislature. A legislature that is overwhelmingly either Democrats or Republicans.

Seth Masket:
Sanders has developed a political persona over the last 30 plus years as an independent who caucuses with Democrats. His identity is really tied up on being independent of the parties, and really sort of thinking for himself, and not really towing any party line, but also recognizing he really can't get much done without a party. This is just one of the realities of legislative life, if he wants to be influential at all on legislation, if he wants to bring stuff home to his voters in Vermont, he really needs to work with the party to do that. And he's always felt himself closer to the Democrats. So it was just over his long career it's rather interesting. He's always conveniently aligned with the Democrats, just as much as necessary to fulfill whatever goal he has at that time, whether it's sort of delivering to his voters in Vermont, or just being enough of a Democrat to run for president under its banner without fully committing to it. That's been his style.

Seth Masket:
Amash was a Republican until fairly recently. He's always been more in it's libertarian wing, but he was a fairly early Trump critic on the Republican side. And was seemed to be just very disappointed with the party, and very irate with the party really in the direction was heading under Trump, and simply felt he could no longer be a part of that organization. So he still votes in a very conservative way, but did not want to be part of the Republican coalition. It's also a matter of, he felt he couldn't survive a Republican primary. So he tried to remain an independent for those sorts of strategic reasons that the Republican voters, Republican primary voters are no longer welcoming of him, and he would not have survived in Congress as a Republican.

Lorne Fultonberg:
A Gallup poll from earlier this year showed more Americans than ever before think that a third political party is needed. Republicans are also among those who, two and three of them are in favor of a third political party. Do you feel like we've finally reached an inflection point in this country?

Seth Masket:
Yeah. Now it seems like the right time for third party, but it's also felt that way for a long time, and it doesn't seem to happen. It seems like sort of all the tumblers had aligned in 2016, when you had two unusually unpopular presidential nominees. That seemed like a good time for a third-party candidate to jump in and amass a lot of the vote. It really didn't happen. 90% of Democrats voted for the democratic nominee. 90% of Republicans voted for the Republican nominee.

Seth Masket:
There are a lot of kind of institutional pressures that support the two party system. The most being that we have this election system of first-past-the-post election, whoever wins the plurality of a vote in a district, in a congressional district, in a Senate state election wins that whole seat. And just this is a phenomenon that we call, named after a Political Scientist, Maurice Duverger. We call it Duverger's law. The simplicity of it is that voters tend to see a vote for a third party as a wasted vote at best. At worst, it could actually enable, make it easier for someone that they least like to get into office. And so there tends to be not a lot of voting for that under this type of election system that we have.

Seth Masket:
I think there's more opening for a change in our election systems right now. There's a book by a political scientist, came out last year, Lee Drutman's book, Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop. It's a good book. He's basically advocating for a multi-party system in the US, and describes basically what would be necessary to do it that would actually get around needing to actually amend the constitution. It's basically a combination of ranked-choice voting, and having multi-member congressional districts. This is possible to do, at least for one that there's a number of states are increasingly interested in ranked-choice voting. We've seen that employed in several different states, if you were trying it in their primaries, if you were doing it in their general elections.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Right. That's the system where you have a bunch of candidates and you say, "This is my first choice candidate, but this is my second choice."

Seth Masket:
Exactly. And this is my third choice. If the third choice candidate, if there's not enough votes for him, they that drops out, and then people's ballots get reoriented to their next choice. That's been demonstrated to be a pretty effective way of doing elections. It's a little more reliable at actually producing the results that most people want. It's a little more taxing on voters, they actually have to think through the ballot, and they have to think through the candidates more than just simply casting a vote for either the Democrat or the Republican. There seems to be a lot more satisfaction with it. It would also have come in really handy.

Seth Masket:
If you think back to like the democratic presidential primary here in Colorado, in March of 2020, there were somewhere between 15 and 20 candidates on the ballot. By the time that the Colorado primary came around, except most of them had already dropped out by election day. So some people had voted early for people like Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar who ended up dropping out by election day. It was a little messy in that regards. Had we had something like ranked-choice voting in that primary, that could have worked a lot differently. You could have voted for a candidate who dropped out, but then your second choice might've gotten him, and that could have made a real difference.

Seth Masket:
There is the possibility of moving more in this direction. I think people are, as you cited, people are more frustrated with the two party system than they've been in a long time. I think people are at least open to creating some changes in the way we conduct elections in this country. But that does sort of have to get through the elected officials as we have them now. State legislators and members of Congress, all of whom have done pretty well by the current system.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Right. And it's going to require actually voting for third-party candidates when they're on the ballot. I give-

Seth Masket:
Yes.

Lorne Fultonberg:
... the 2020 numbers and the third highest vote getter, and the libertarian who got 1.2% of the vote. If we want out of the two party system, why aren't we voting like we want out of it?

Seth Masket:
Yeah. And that's really a function of the style of election that we have the first-past-the-post is the winner. If you think about just voting in a congressional district, you have the Democrat, you have the Republican, and there you might have another candidate, or there might be someone from the American constitution party, or the socialist party, or something else. Most voters see their list of choices, and they quite realistically rationalized, that there's no point in voting for one of those third party candidates, because I know they really don't have a shot.

Seth Masket:
On the other hand, if we were in a system like many other, for example, many European democracies have a proportional representation, imagine voting where you're just simply casting a vote for a party. And you have a list of like 10 parties on there, and knowing that it didn't really matter who got the most votes where you lived, rather, if one party got like 30% of the vote, they would get 30% of the seats in Congress. Well then it starts making sense to actually cast your vote for someone that's not in one of the major parties, then there's actually some logic to it. Even if you're just voting for a relatively unpopular party, that's only going to get 10% of the votes. They're still going to get 10% of the seats in Congress, and they can use, they can have some leverage there, that can make a difference.

Seth Masket:
So in those kinds of election systems, that makes a lot more sense to vote that way. But right now, and in this style of elections we have, most voters just simply don't want to see themselves as wasting their votes. They're not going to throw away their votes on a candidate who they don't think has any shot of winning.

Lorne Fultonberg:
This is not scientific at all, but anecdotally for me, locally here in Denver, in November 2020, every race that had a candidate, had a libertarian on there as well. So there were usually at least three candidates, sometimes four candidates for every one of these positions. I'm wondering if things are changing on a local level, maybe more noticeably than they are on a national level?

Seth Masket:
That's certainly possible. And particularly with the libertarian candidates, that could represent sort of a former faction within the Republican party, that is dissatisfied with that party's direction under Trump. Had it not been for Trump, had it not been for the sort of shift in the Republican Party over the last five years, a lot of those libertarians would be identifying as Republicans. That has changed somewhat, there are some small set of people who are outside the Republican Party who are interested in moving in another direction, and starting something else and just don't see the Republican Party as the vehicle for that anymore. It's again, it's not a large part of the electorate. They're not about to win a lot of seats, but it does sort of suggest that there's at least, that degree of instability out there in the electorate, and in the parties.

Seth Masket:
I mean, just going back historically, we've been in a two-party system for a very long time for two centuries or more. But throughout that time, there's usually been a host of persistent third parties that they rarely win seats, but they captured some segment of the electorate. Somewhere 2% and maybe even 5% occasionally when a congressional seat here, and there occasionally when some state legislative seats. They don't end up hugely consequential in terms of policy-making, but once in a while, they can end up making, forcing the major parties to change their stances on something, or brokering some compromises, or playing a role in polarizing the system further, but they can be somewhat consequential.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Anything else you wanted to mention?

Seth Masket:
There was one angle to this that I thought it'd be worth mentioning, when we're talking about sort of the splits within the current Republican Party, to a remarkable degree, they don't look ideological. If you look at sort of the Republicans who supported ratifying the election on January 6, as opposed to those who were essentially trying to overturn the election, that's not necessarily a split between like the conservatives and the moderates within the party. But it is more about like orientation toward Donald Trump, or like a generally an attitude toward democracy, whether you believe that it's okay for your party to lose elections once in a while.

Seth Masket:
That's a dangerous area for a party to find itself in, where it's actually struggling with whether it accepts democratic outcomes. But at the same time, it's sort of striking that this increasingly important split does not seem to be about conservatism, which has been like sort of the guidepost for the Republican party for decades, if not centuries. It's increasingly just a less relevant split within the party than it used to be.

Lorne Fultonberg:
That was Seth Masket a Political Science Professor and Director of DU's Center on American Politics.

Lorne Fultonberg:
If you're looking for a rabbit hole to jump down, hop on over to our show notes, we've linked some sites that have a timeline of all of the third parties we've ever elected to Congress: the Free Soil Party, the Unionists, the Readjusters, the Know-nothings, they're all there.

Lorne Fultonberg:
And we dropped some fun videos that explain how ranked- choice voting works. Just in case you're curious.

Lorne Fultonberg:
Alyssa Hurst is our Executive Producer. Tamara Chapman is our Managing Editor, James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Lorne Fultonberg, and this is RadioEd.