John McCain thinks it is likely that unless both major parties start doing something for the people, a third party is going to emerge. In fact he thinks it would be an "inevitability." When asked whether the new party would be a right wing, left wing, or centrist party, McCain suggested that we just call it the "Fed Up" Party. McCain could be right that there is enough of a critical mass of people disaffected from the mainstream political parties, that something new could emerge, although our system of government is structured in such a way that historically, it has not been kind to third parties. The last time a third party succeeded at the presidential level was when the new Republican Party managed to elect Abraham Lincoln. But even then, the Republican Party was more of a replacement for the Whigs than a true third party.
But if we could imagine our system evolving in such a way as to permit more than two parties to obtain some real power, maybe we should think even beyond what McCain was suggesting. We probably have room for a fourth or fifth party, if we really wanted to capture all of the disaffected elements of the population. On the right, we already have the Tea Party, which is more of a movement than a true political party. But they already have a sizable caucus in Congress, and a coherent set of principles advocating dismantling of all of the functions of the federal government it has picked up in modern times. If it were a real party, it might gain the support of 20% or more of the population. Then we could add a centrist party, consisting of all those who find the Republicans too conservative and the Democrats too liberal. John McCain himself might join such a party, even though he disavowed any such intent, and it might also pick up some Blue Dog Democrats in Congress like Senators Nelson, Lieberman, Webb, Manchin, etc., and the few remaining moderate Republicans. People like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seem to be itching to join such a movement. Maybe 20 or 30% of the electorate, those who describe themselves as independents now, would flock to such a party. Finally, on the left, there could be room for a truly socialist/environmentalist/unionist party, led by people like Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich, and followed by those Democrats who already think that President Obama has sold out to the moneyed interests. There might be another 20% of the population who would fall into that camp.
If three new parties like that were to emerge, my guess is that the Republican Party would likely shrivel to almost nothing. There is not much space between the Tea Partiers, who already comprise the most energetic portion of the Republican base, and the moderate Murkowski-Snowe-McCain type Republicans who might join a more centrist party. The Democrats, who have always been more of a disorganized, quarrelsome mass of competing voices, might not fare much better under such a scenario. Which means that any such reorganization would likely lead to two even more ideologically-based right wing and left wing parties, and a less ideologically-coherent centrist party. Governing would require some sort of center-right or center-left coalition. Another possibility is that people would decide that the whole concept of political parties has outlived its usefulness, and our system would become even more personality-driven, and less ideologically understandable, than it is today.
All these are interesting scenarios to contemplate. Would any of them reduce the level of fed-up-edness? Somehow I doubt it. When you look around the world at countries that already have three or more viable parties shifting or sharing power among themselves--like the United Kingdom, like France, like Israel--their people seem just as fed up as Americans. That means we might need more fundamental changes in the way our democratic systems operate than just increasing the number of political parties.
(AP Photo from Politico)