The Third Party America Needs to Survive the 2020s

The truth about American democracy is that it has been utterly colonized by the two major parties.

Most Americans hate their options — nearly 2/3 in recent polling, the highest levels in decades — but don’t have any because the Democrats, Republicans, and their allied media have systematically gamed and rigged the system. This has gone on for so long that the conventional wisdom in elite circles holds that a third party is impossible in American politics.

It isn’t true. Sure, it will take hundreds of million of dollars to make a third party happen — but grassroots fundraising in the 2020 Election was in the billions of dollars, and a single billionare like Bill Gates who wants the country to have a working public health system could easily foot the bill if he wanted to.

The real reason no viable third party has risen — despite extreme public demand — is that both parties need the status quo to continue indefinitely. Fear is a cheap motivator, and over the past thirty years has come to be almost the only one capable of getting more than 60% of the population to vote.

But fear is also inherently destructive — the result of decades of fear-mongering politics is what America has now: a nascent second civil war that may dramatically escalate if action isn’t taken now.

Most Americans agree that democracy in this country works only for the wealthy and well-connected. And the two-party system is part and parcel of that dynamic. When people talk about the “swamp” in D.C. they’re venting anger about the fact that no matter what happens, what crises erupt, after all the media theater is done, the politicians and lobbyists and pundits always seem to be in a better position than they were the day before.

The whole thing comes down to profit. Individual politicians and media pundits invest in narratives that boost fear factors in everyone who listens to them. People donate money to them hoping to avoid the dangers posed by the other party. This dynamic creates an architecture huge companies and industries — who can afford the high costs of lobbying politicians — can naturally exploit to their advantage better than the average person is ever able to.

The arrangement — it never forms by conspiracy, but by each actor making choices and learning what works best for them — evolves over time into a self-reinforcing feedback loop of parasitism. It can’t go on, and the system is even now starting to fall apart, but those who are doing well under the status quo have no incentive to change anything — especially when things falling apart presents new opportunities for investment and growth for the more fortunate.

A third party is the only way to stabilize American politics, but any that tries to form must be prepared to weather an intense assault from the backers of the status quo too blind to recognize their own peril. And it must also find a way to escape the horrible left vs. right, red vs. blue narratives that have sustained the system for this long.

It is very difficult to reform a system this far gone, when every change threatens an established interest that is also deeply connected to a set of other similarly privileged groups. Democrat and Republican long ago became little more than companies, giant firms open to investment. They operate vast patronage networks that trade favorable regulations and taxes for political donations, with each firm carefully managing its brand to keep the money flowing from as many groups in American society as possible.

This is why every issue — even responding to a pandemic — quickly becomes political. It’s a grand shakedown, a softer version of what any mafia organization worth its salt tries. If you care about the environment or climate change, your only option is to work with Democrats, because Republicans have locked down the fossil fuel and mineral extraction lobbies. And this means toeing a certain line with respect to what Green gets to mean, that is defined mostly by which Green companies have an interest in keeping you fixated on their preferred options.

Participating in the two-party system only makes it worse. The 2020 Election cycle saw an unprecedented amount of money thrown into the political contest — and the level of fear-mongering led to political violence by extremists. In 2024, things are set to get a lot worse.

A third party is the only way out of this trap. But the challenge is brutal, when any attempt is doomed to come under sustained attack from all sides.

The answer lies in establishing an entirely new, alternate narrative that can speak to people’s justified anger at the establishment while also laying out a path to a better future. A viable third party must unite a broad array of interests, and absolutely has to abandon the stale idea that there is only one political spectrum that matters, left-right, liberal-conservative.

In truth the two party system forces numerous smaller clusters of people with distinct concerns and interests into the big tent of one party or the other. This is why the Democrats are broadly divided into Progressives, Liberals, and Moderates, while the Republicans now break into Conservatives/Rightists. But there are also Democrat and Republican leaning Independents whose turnout tends to swing elections, and a huge chunk of people who don’t vote because they loathe their options.

But because Liberals and Conservatives have historically been the power-brokers within their respective coalitions, the other wings have had little true power — Progressives like Bernie Sanders in particular have served as convenient stalking horses to provoke centrists into supporting non “socialist” Democrats. The Rightists coming to prominence within the Republican party in 2016, a trend that appears set to continue despite the Capitol Attack, has badly upset the old balance and led to many former Republicans joining the ranks of the disaffected Independents or the Moderate Democrats.

The Democrats appear to believe this favors them in the long run — the problem is their own deep unpopularity and the fact that Progressives and Moderate Republicans can hardly be satisfied in the same party. Attempting to keep both on board at a time of rising anti-establishment feeling will likely cause a rift in the party that will lead not to a Progressive third party, but a simple abandonment of national politics by Progressives.

These big-tent coalitions are growing unstable, and both parties appear set on a decade-long game of chicken where each hopes the other fragments first. Left unchecked, this will rip the country apart, something no one at home or abroad should want.

The solution requires offering Americans a new dimension to consider in lieu of liberal versus conservative: national versus regional.

Americans know that the country has grown apart, and papering over very real differences in how we want to be governed with unity rhetoric doesn’t help — it only pulls everyone further into the trap. Any third party that wants to distinguish itself and actually win has to root itself in this simple truth.

This third party must adopt a functional, pragmatic approach to governing built on a universal foundation: guaranteeing the basic human rights of Home, Health, Livelihood, Association, and Safety to everyone.

In complicated times, people need things to be simple. This presents a paradox that can only be resolved by appealing to true univerals. Everyone needs a place to live, access to health care, a stable source of income, the ability to interact with those they choose, and above all else, being able to live without fear.

It is the job of democratic government to guarantee these basic rights to everyone on an equal basis.

How that is best accomplished must be handled as locally as possible.

We live awash in information, and with that comes the ability to see ourselves and others with greater clarity. Local places have always struggled to get the recognition they deserve in national circles, and distant capitols always tend to pull ever more power towards themselves over time.

D.C. is a swamp controlled by two powerful organizations each dominated by a wealthy elite more concerned about its own interests than those of the average American. Everyone knows it, but each party pretends it can somehow make it not so, then fails to bring change as promised, leading to a loss of trust.

This loss of trust has eroded the foundations of America. Gone is the sense of shared sacrifice of the Second World War — now all Americans are left to manage their individual risk as best they can in the face of a plague that has killed half a million.

Yet the politicians in D.C. are ramping up rhetoric about threats foreign and domestic, despite the total erosion of civil society at home. Another classic symptom of the blindness that precedes total collapse.

A third party must unite Progressives, disaffected Republicans, and fed-up Independents under a banner of meaningful reform and a return to the roots of good government. It must promise Americans a set of basic freedoms and a new system for guaranteeing them that takes into account the deep regionalization presently underway.

It must establish new narrative standards, build out its own independent social media platform, and give people sick of the way things are a true voice in developing something that actually works. It has to create its own media channels dedicated to non-partisan analysis, honest discussions of all issues, and above all else, solutions that don’t even involve D.C. unless absolutely necessary.

This committment to alterity will give a third party the critical advantage it needs to take on the Democrat-Republican duopoly: the ability to become the opposition party in every state currently dominated by one or the other.

Democrat and Republican are now effectively derogatory terms depending on present company. It is impossible for either to grow past a certain point, because the two-party nightmare has gone on so long people rarely switch parties — they drop out and go Independent, or stop voting.

What this means is that in the vast majority of states the majority of people want an alternative — but the other party is the only viable game in town, even though it can’t possibly win. This subordination of the local to the national is the core of why things never get better for most people — neither party truly works for its supporters because it doesn’t have to: it lacks real competition.

But give people a non-stigmatized alternative with a chance of winning and watch how fast they’ll get on board.

It had better happen quickly, though. The United States of America only survives if the two-party system dies.

Take note, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet — you may think you’ll be able to ride the downswing like Soviet apparatchiks grabbing the newly privatized state industries… but do you really want America to look like Russia? Do you really want to be presiding oligarchs over the wreck that remains?

Clock’s ticking.

Author of Bringing Ragnarok. Independent Research Consultant.

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