One of the phenomena in history of American politics that never seems to draw enough serious attention is the Third Party phenomenon. There are plenty of good reasons for this, I suppose: Third Parties never win (true for all FPTP systems, although, technically, US Presidency is not FPTP); Third Parties in US are never consistent (unlike Third Parties in all other FPTP systems, where there usually is the same persistent third party), and, most importantly, the politics of third party don’t fit neatly into the mold of how American politics is conceptualized (particularly in the spatial framework and the estimates of DW-Nominate scores and such.)
I had rather a lot of firsthand experience with this, the latest being not too long before I left academia. I was starting to undertake a fairly sizable project ostensibly about the Perot campaigns of 1992 and 1996, but really about how ossification of the two-party system was creating a large number of “alienated” voters who find an outlet in an alternative candidate, or, in other words, a theory of Third Party movements rooted in how institutions of two-party politics (and overuse of agenda setting by the political insiders) operate. This ran into exactly the three problems noted above: very few people were interested in the Perot campaign, which was a one-off strange event that was years ago; the alleged “uniqueness” of the Perot candidacy meant that there simply wasn’t enough data to generalize the theoretical underpinnings; and those who read the early versions insisted on evidence based on DW-Nominate scores and/or spatial reasoning, in spite of the central point of the theoretical argument being that spatial reasoning and DW-Nominate scores are misleading and the evidence presented focusing on errors and misclassifications being associated with the strength of Perot votes (or rather, disparity between votes for Perot and the local Democratic–almost always Democratic, at least in 1992, which is where I was paying more attention–incumbents.) To be fair, the evidence was not very strong: you’d believe it if you bought into the theoretical argument, but if you didn’t, you wouldn’t, and most people just didn’t bother. A lot of my recent thinking about both Trump and Sanders arise from thinking about Third Party movements at a conceptual level, though.
Drawing an analogy between Perot (and Wallace before him) and Trump/Sanders (or even between Trump and Sanders) is a tricky business. First, there are more than two decades separating 1992 and 2016 (and same number of years between 1968 and 1992, ironically). These are not the same voters. These are not the same geographies. Things have changed enough that it is worse than useless to try to match up the county maps between the elections. The voters may be analogous in the sense that they are alienated and devalued by the political process, but the reasons that they feel alienated and devalued are different. There are echoes that resonate between any pair of these four insurgent candidates, but there are also significant differences, especially on what they emphasized (and what the outside audiences think they heard from them.) If you will, it is too easy to get too carried away with the analogies: an elephant might be like a spear, but only at a rather limited and superficial level–not many of the properties associated with a spear carry over to an elephant (this is something I find troubling with spatial models, incidentally–“left” and “right” make for useful analogies, but to expect that something that is true within framework of Euclidean assumptions-not universally applicable even within geometry–should apply with equal validity in politics is dangerous. To think that measurements can be taken naively on the facile assumption that they are applicable is a madness) What is more, it is not obvious that it was the specifics of the messages are even all that important (we don’t know what exactly Wallace’s, Perot’s, or even Trump’s programs are, other than they were addressing the contemporary voters’ grievances–they were NEVER very clear on the specifics.)
To compound the matters even more, Trump’s success in capturing the Republican nomination means that Trump’s electorate was a mixture of Republican voters and Trump voters, of whom the former are far more numerous, even if, without the latter, he’d probably never have won the presidency (conversely, one might imagine that a 2016 version of Perot, without association with either party but with the same sort of appeal as Trump, might have done better than Trump with “Trump voters”–many Sanders voters, ironically, especially in the Midwest,although, apparently NOT the Northeast, seem to have supported for Clinton, after all. Whether Perot drew more from the Republicans or not was a hot topic then–indeed, seemingly the ONLY thing that people cared about his candidacy, not what made Perot and his voters tick.)
These suggest a rather complex array of problems inherent in studying Third Party (or Third Party type) movements, especially in United States. Since Third Parties, if they emerge in a form serious enough to be noticed, operate in a realm apart from the usual mode of politics that we normally get accustomed to, we often lack the conceptual framework to place them in and without the conceptual framework, we are either using completely mismatched yardsticks (wow, that mountain sure is high! how many kilograms is it?) or making stuff up out of thin air, often based on nothing other than our opinions. In order to try to make sense of them, we need to step back and rethink the truisms that we take for granted about “normal” politics–for example, rather than simply assume that “the party always wins,” we might wonder, why should people bother with the party if they know they always lose if they play through the parties? But this, in turn, is difficult to achieve: we KNOW that the party always wins. We can predict the outcomes better because we know the party will rig things so that they never lose–until the party hits the limit which we don’t know because we never thought about that…because that limit is only a “theoretical” that happens so rarely. But the ability to “predict” normal politics with greater accuracy comes with a high cost when the normal politics falls apart–a sort of intellectual Punctuated Equilibrium. “Normal politics” is built on a fragile foundation: enough people trust the institutions to “work”–not unlike fiat money, perhaps. As long as the trust remains sufficiently high, as long as most others can be expected to follow the rules and norms, most people find it to their advantage to respect them as well. If so, knowing the rules and norms and that they “work,” no matter why they work (and when they might stop working) helps make better sense of the politics. Better adaptation to the given institutional environment yields greater payoffs, so to speak.
When that trust undergirding the norms and rules is lost among enough people in society, it would be foolish for most people to follow the rules and norms then: many sets of institutions collapse completely when that happens. Knowing the “rules and norms” of a bygone era ensures only extinction. But has the point of mass extinction been reached, yet? When a Third Party should win, that constitutes a sign that the point of collapse has arrived (this has taken place only once, in 1860). When they merely perform well, it suggests that dangerously many people are willing to set aside the rules and norms of “normal” politics. With the strange candidacy of Donald Trump, of course, it is not at all obvious if a Third Party candidate did or did not win or if the politics of the next era will abide by the same rules and norms as before.
There are two entirely different scenarios here, whose prospects depend not only on the motives of Trump, but other political actors as well. The Republican leadership in Congress might be sufficiently emboldened that, with a nominally Republican White House, they can do whatever they like. But Trump has won the “Trump voters” (rather than Republicans who voted for Trump because he’s a Republican and all that) on the basis of promises that run completely opposite that of the usual Republican agenda–a big infrastructure program, something “wonderful and beautiful” in place of Obamacare, etc. Will they be cast aside just because Congressional Republicans demand it? That is one possibility, but it is equally, if not more, plausible that Trump should seek to maintain his own agenda rather than reduce himself to Paul Ryan’s plaything. Perhaps these programs will be achieved with big side payments to the Republicans (quite likely), but, Trump may easily seek to draw in potential allies among the Democrats as well, especially among the alleged “far left” (whose misleading DW-Nominate scores were created by their record of votes against the agenda of the Democratic Party, indicating more their outsider status within the party machinery rather than “ideology”–in other words, perfect potential allies for the Trump administration if they should seek to buck conventional agendas of both Republicans and Democrats.) Odd coalitions that defy the existing rules and norms, were that to take place, can be the norm. for example, W-Nominate scores for 2017-8, if so, will be dramatically different from DW-Nominate scores. (In attempt to create a “universal” scale, DW-Nominate scores force a set of constraints across different sessions of Congress, while W-Nominate scores can be calculated separately for separate batches of votes–usually, session by sessions. If things change dramatically between one session of Congress to another, the changes will show up in W-Nominate with much greater clarity than in DW-Nominate, even though the scores will not be directly comparable.).
When all these happen, will the “Perestroikists” (or, at least, their equivalents among the Trump fans) say “I told you so”? But they didn’t say any of these: only that the conventional wisdom, as defined by spatial modelers and others, is wrong and misleading. Perhaps they might try to explain things by invoking the “Magical Great Man” who, by sheer voodoo, can do things that others can’t? Well, maybe that’s not entirely wrong, but if so, that would only have been possible because the existing institutions of politics will have collapsed under the weight of their own internal contradictions. (Yes, I am deliberately invoking Marx, and he was right: the institutions of capitalism are internally contradictory, and if taken to logical extreme, are bound to collapse under their own weight. Marx himself recognized, though, that the internal contradictions are in fact held together by seemingly “irrational” but in fact very logical, flexible, and powerful sinews–the phrase “religion is opiate of masses” came out of the admiring recognition of how powerful religion is at holding together societies that otherwise might be too brittle. In a sense, multicultural myths might be taking the place of the religious sinews in a modern society–but moderns don’t seem to realize, as Marx actually did, incidentally, that the religion did not become the sinews of society by fiat–it took many religious wars, pogroms, and burning heretics to sustain it.)