On July 28, Andrew Yang announced his new political party, the Forward Party. It’s a merger of Democrat and Republican officials who are targeting “moderate” voters. The Forward Party platform emphasizes ranked-choice voting, non-partisan primaries, and independent redistricting commissions.
These aren’t unique positions. Both the Utah Republican Party and the New York State have adopted ranked-choice voting. Expansion of ranked-choice voting doesn’t seem to be a partisan issue. Unite America is a non-profit organization that advocates for non-partisan primaries in the hopes of reducing the impact of radical wings of both parties. The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that “reformers often mistakenly assume that commissions will be less partisan than legislatures when conducting redistricting.”
So, none of the Forward Party’s main policy proposals are unique critiques of American democracy.
However, there are three ways that these ideas could seep into mainstream political thought. A faction with these ideas could gain influence in one of the two major political parties. Members of one party with these ideas could consolidate in one of the two major parties. Finally, a major economic disaster could put the Forward Party — or another unknown party — into power.
Absorption by Major Parties
Having its ideas appropriated by one of the major parties is the most likely fate for the Forward Party’s ideas. This is common for third parties who gain traction. Parts of the Green Party’s platform have been absorbed by the Democratic Party, and the Libertarian Party is an offshoot of one of the Republican Party’s existing factions.
(Libertarianism often dances with anarchism, a historically left-wing political ideology. Voters may be surprised to find that the political spectrum is a horseshoe rather than a straight line. There are only so many ways to be detached from reality.)
Often, the best that a third party can do is put a new issue on the agenda. But even then, major party candidates can do that themselves. During both White House bids, Bernie Sanders made the debate over a single-payer healthcare system a serious issue. Donald Trump’s rhetorical blunders about pre-existing conditions made healthcare a deciding electoral issue in the 2018 midterms.
Whether by determination or mistake, major party candidates are often more powerful messengers for new issues than third parties.
Some issues are so partisan that voters and representatives will move to one party or the other. That happened among abolitionists in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Southern Democrats who were pro-slavery clashed with another Democratic faction, Free Soilers. Free Soilers opposed slavery in all the new territories while Southern Democrats supported slavery. The Free Soilers became a third party and won a few congressional seats. But after splitting from the Democratic Party in 1848, the Free Soilers ended up joining the newly formed Republican Party in the mid-1850s.
The new Republican Party was itself the result of a split from the Whig Party. Abolitionist Whigs splintered off to form a conservative party opposed to slavery’s expansion. The Republican Party of the 1850s became a refuge for abolitionists from both major parties, creating the Party of Lincoln so often invoked by modern Republicans.
No issue unites Democrats and Republicans enough for members to leave their parties and form their own. Abortion has the potential to evolve into that uniting issue. But it would have to consume the country today as much as slavery did in the 1800s. The same goes for contested elections and unchecked political violence in future presidential elections.
Voters cast their votes based on how the economy is doing. Democracy for Realists found that voters respond to the last two quarters before an election at the polls. So, a weak election year economy dooms the “in” party and ushers in the “out” party. In contrast, a strong election year economy supports the “in” party and blocks the “out” party.
That pattern held during the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1933, ousting Herbert Hoover who oversaw the beginning of the Great Depression. Americans threw the conservatives out and put the progressives in.
In Democracy for Realists, Achen and Bartels find that FDR’s four presidential terms almost perfectly track the recovery from the Great Depression and the two presidential terms’ worth of economic growth.
Achen and Bartels find similar patterns in two Canadian provinces. After the Great Depression, Alberta voted its liberal party out and elected the previously fringe Social Credit Party, which went on to rule for 35 years. Saskatchewan ousted its conservative party and voted in a left-leaning party. The voters fell on hard economic times, removed the “in” party and embraced an “out” party.
After his release from prison, Adolf Hitler’s extreme views failed to gain traction until the Great Depression created desperate economic conditions that made a strongman seem attractive to some voters.
An economic disaster could bring either an opposing party or an outside populist party to power. Leveraging economic disasters doesn’t guarantee any one party’s political power. Local electoral conditions determine which party comes into power.
But any third party should be aware of how fragile electoral support can be for elected officials.
The Forward Party is an Unpromising Protest
The Forward Party claims to target common areas of dissatisfaction among voters. Its key policy proposals list ways to improve representative democracy.
However, its policy suggestions so far haven’t touched on issues that concern everyday voters. Abortion, gun rights, healthcare, LGBTQ rights, and economic concerns have immediate effects on Americans. The Forward Party won’t gain traction if it doesn’t offer bipartisan solutions to issues like these.
It’s too early to declare the Forward Party dead. It contains some of the dissatisfaction with the two-party system that bubbles among voters. However, the Forward Party hasn’t offered a compelling platform that puts important issues on the national agenda yet. Its evolution will be more instructive than its first three policy proposals.