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The Long Tail of American Politics: Are We Becoming a Four Party Country?

John on October 18, 2011 at 12:58 am

We’ve had a Democratic Party since 1828. The Republicans came along in 1854 after the breakup of the Whig Party. As you can see here, we’ve had lots of other political parties in the Unites States, most of them pretty minor. But in my lifetime it has really just been the two parties with the occasional character like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader toying (sometimes influentially) with 3rd parties that don’t have any staying power.

But maybe we’ve entered a new phase in America. The Tea Party arose in 2009 in the face of mounting debt and an unpopular takeover of health care. They were a protest movement that quickly became a force in politics and helped the GOP sweep the nation in 2010. Though they align with the GOP in many ways, they haven’t been co-opted by the party so far. They still have independence both in Congress and around the country.

And now we’ve got Occupy Wall Street. Like the Tea Party was early on, they’re in the honeymoon phase with the public, but that won’t last. (It would be fading fast if images that have appeared on this blog could make their way through the media filters to more Americans.) But there’s little doubt where their allegiance lies on the political spectrum. As Nate Silver put it in his analysis, OWS “tend to be more liberal than they are Democratic partisans.” They’re ideologues of the left in other words.

Already there are signs that OWS is starting to mature. I saw a video recently of a speaker at one event (I don’t recall where) who gave a fairly good political sermon on bondage in Egypt and freedom under Moses. It was a bit forced for my taste, but it was also fairly coherent by OWS standards. I don’t think OWS is there yet, but I think they’ll get there if they don’t self-destruct by starting a riot.

It’s possible that by election day 2012 we could be talking in terms of four parties. The two major parties which put forth Presidential candidates and control a majority of national races and the two minor but energetic (and distinct) parties which have sway in local, state and a handful of national elections.

It’s still possible OWS will be co-opted by Democrats or that the Tea Party will be co-opted by the GOP. But here’s why I don’t suspect that’ll be happening anytime soon. There are two reasons, one cultural and one technological. First, we’ve been getting more and more polarized politically since 1992. The disputed 2000 election brought this to a head, freezing our country into the red and the blue (before the colors had always alternated). But with the parties deadlocked at the polls and in Congress, people on both sides of the aisle seem open to broadening the Overton Window of political debate in the US. Whether the folks in the middle agree this is a good idea may be beside the point. It’s happening or seems to be at this moment.

The other factor is technological. Thanks to the internet and social media, the long tail has finally hit Washington DC. The Tea Party started on TV and spread via the web. OWS started on the web and still seems to live there. These people didn’t come from nowhere, they’ve been there it’s just that now they’ve found one another. You could say we’re experiencing the political equivalent of niche marketing.

I’m not sure what a country that is more left and more right looks like. You can’t be free market and anti-capitalist at the same time. In practice I think it just means there are going to be more voices around the table generating more arguments from more perspectives than we’ve had in recent memory. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? It’s too early to say though more transparency of where people actually stand sounds appealing. In any case, my sense is that in today’s world it’s an inevitable thing.

Update: From my email this morning, Ben Howe at Red State is pulling at the same thread:

Today, our two party political system is at a cross-roads.  As the base for each party demands more idealistic purity from their candidates, neither side will have the option to play the pragmatist as they roll into the generals.  Because as much as they might be able to trick everyone during the primaries, they will have trouble getting their message adequately heard if half of their grass roots support and volunteer network is out protesting against them as a result of flip flops which usually reveal themselves when the general election kicks off.  The result is, you have congressmen, senators, party leaders and even presidential candidates sticking their necks out like never before to get the blessing of groups that used to matter only for a few months every few years.

So with both sides pushing hard against their respective leadership to stand for something far more than pragmatism, our leaders may actually have to dig out positions that they can’t escape to please moderates.  And if both sides finally distinguish themselves from each other in a clear and obvious way, the moderates will finally be forced to make a real choice, based on ideas not based on the promise of having none.  Either that or do not vote, which is equally fine with me.

I welcome Occupy Wall Street into the world of protest.  Granted, I will fight your ideas and I will present my own.  I will probably mock the least among you who simply beg for it.  I will point out the flaws of your arguments and attack you when you demagogue.  But, I will never say you shouldn’t be there.  I will never say that I don’t want you to have someone to represent your point of view.

Well said.

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