2016 will go down as the year in which third parties died out in America. Third parties will die out because U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Donald J. Trump demonstrated that they are unnecessary.
The third party is that mythical beast that will supersede one of the two political parties in the US with an ideologically pure organization. Generations of activists, intellectuals and ideologues have worked to create one and failed.
Now Trump and Sanders have proved that it is possible to achieve radical and disruptive change by working within the two-party structure. Sanders succeeded in dragging the Democrats to the left; and raising issues like single-payer healthcare, with his noisy primary challenge to Hillary Clinton.
Outsiders on the Inside
Trump proved that is possible for an outsider to capture a party nomination and win the election with his impressive victory. Donald also managed to win the support of the party establishment, despite the vast ideological differences between him and most Republicans.
Both Trump and Sanders successfully raised issues the establishment wanted to avoid; such as immigration, trade and single-payer health care. They also changed the agenda on many issues. Trump in particular has made a hard line on immigration Republican Party dogma.
Sanders and Trump also succeeded in injecting fringe ideologies into the political mainstream. Trump brought white nationalists into the Republican Party and even to the White House, while Sanders is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist.
Why Third Parties are dead
The classic rationale for third parties is that they create a path for new or outside voices to enter the political process. The 2016 presidential election disproves that thesis and provides good reasons to ignore third parties and work within the system.
Even an impressive and well-funded third party candidate like Libertarian Gary Johnson had little influence on the election. Johnson a former governor of New Mexico, had William Weld; a former governor of Massachusetts and major political fundraiser as his running mate, yet they still got nowhere.
Jill Stein is now a Democrat
One person who seems to have learned this lesson is former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. Stein paid $3.5 million to fund a recount of presidential votes in Wisconsin to help Hillary Clinton; a candidate she had opposed, on November 29, 2016.
The only reason for Stein to do that was to impress Democrats that she is one of them. Stein would need to do that if she is planning to enter the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.
Stein is also hoping to avoid the fate of perennial third party presidential candidate and left-wing gadfly Ralph Nader. Many liberals and leftists still blame Nader for putting George W. Bush in the White House by taking votes from Al Gore in 2000.
Stein is following the strategy that Trump used to build up his base in the Republicans. Donald gained traction in the GOP by promoting the “birther movement” which questioned Presidential Obama’s place of birth and his right to be president. Even though birtherism was nonsense it allowed Trump to get a following in the party by claiming the president was illegitimate.
Stein is claiming Trump’s presidency is illegitimate to attract a following. Her case is actually a lot more credible than Trump’s; and it is not tainted with racism, which will make it all the more compelling to those on the left.
Stein is also adopting some of Sanders’ tactics; Bernie successfully raised large amounts of money via social media. Trump also attracted a large social media presence by a clever use of Twitter, Stein is using Change.org and GoFundMe to create a network of followers that can serve as the groundwork for another presidential campaign.
An Era of Ideological Chaos
All Stein needs to do now is announce that she is a Democrat and intends to run in 2020. Many other third party figures will follow; including Johnson and Weld who are likely to return to the Republican fold. They were both Republican governors before going third party.
A strong possibility is that Johnson and/or Weld will mount some sort of challenge to Trump and the Republican establishment in 2018 or 2020. Their argument will be that Trump has betrayed the true Republican values of Ronald Reagan and must be removed.
Bernie Sanders’ campaign would be the model for a libertarian challenge to Trump by someone like Johnson, or U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) in 2020. The purpose of the challenge would be to force Republicans to take libertarian positions. Much as Stein’s goal is to force Democrats to adopt her environmentalist and socialist policies.
It looks as if third parties are dead in the United States, at least for now. Instead we face an era of ideological chaos in both parties as radicals challenge the status quo from within. In this era of distrust in government and disillusionment with professional politicians they will find lots of popular support