I totally agree that Trump and Bernie were both third-party candidates in all possible respects, save one — their party affiliations. On a personal note, I have to admit that I do still respect Bernie’s ideological consistency. The man has stuck to his guns on almost every issue of significance, and I truly admire that.
His consistency notwithstanding, though, I never agreed with his decision to run as a Democrat. As I mentioned to you before, I think that if you’re not a committed Republican or Democrat, you shouldn’t run as a Republican or Democrat. I’m not generally fond of political parties, but I’m also not fond of people who try to piggyback off the success of others, which is precisely what Bernie did when he (temporarily) became a Democrat. It was a little bit of a slimy move, although I do have to openly wonder why neither party has stricter rules about that sort of thing. Why not implement a rule that says that you have to be a member of your party for a minimum number of years before you can compete to be that party’s presidential nominee? Just some food for thought (and there may already be a good answer to that question that I’m just not aware of). In any case, I hear what you’re saying about Bernie and mostly agree with it, especially his decision to run as a Democrat.
In the spirit of the devil’s advocate, one thing I will say in his defense is that he wouldn’t have ever been able to fracture the party in the manner that he did if there wasn’t a sizable chunk of Democratic voters who were already sympathetic to his message and thirsty for change at the top levels of the party. The fact that those people exist does seem to point to a problem within the party itself, a problem that existed before Bernie came along and exposed it with his candidacy. In that regard, he may have done Democrats a bit of a favor. If they can effectively deal with that problem now — and it seems to me they’ve already started on that task by addressing the superdelegate issue — they’ll potentially be in a much stronger position come 2020.
As far as your evaluation of third parties is concerned, I mostly agree with that too. The primary reasons I’m an Independent are 1) I simply have too many disagreements with each party to call myself a member of either one, and 2) I’m opposed to the corrosive partisanship that the two-party system has produced. Nevertheless, I’m not oblivious to the reality of the situation. The chances that a well-organized third party will ever develop into a legitimate national force are very remote. Could it happen? You mentioned Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party; with the right captain at the helm, someone with the same combination of charisma, experience, intelligence and influence as Roosevelt had, I think it maybe could happen. And as long as that third party wasn’t some coalition of radical Marxists or wannabe Nazis, I’d be absolutely thrilled if it did happen. But I think your prediction is almost certainly correct, namely that we’ll go back to electing more mainstream politicians for the next 4 or 5 election cycles while potential third-party insurgents wait for the next wave of national discontentment to come rolling through the political landscape.
I do think that we may have one disagreement about the role that third parties play in elections. You say that they only play three specific roles: 1) spoilers 2) absorbing protest votes and 3) temporary signals of major political shifts. I agree that they can and often do fulfill one or more of those roles in any given election, and you gave some good examples of when and how they’ve done that. But I also think they can play another very important (and beneficial) role; they can act as a moderating influence on elected leaders. I’m reminded of something that former Clinton adviser Dick Morris said about how Ross Perot’s success in the ’92 election inspired Bill Clinton to work more closely with Republicans and agree to compromise on more issues. I tried finding the original quote, but I haven’t been able to track it down. I do vividly remember reading about this, though. Morris implied that Clinton’s success and popularity could be partly attributed to Perot’s campaign and how it woke Clinton up to the reality that a lot of people really were sick and tired of the way Democrats and Republicans were doing business. Clinton apparently took that lesson to heart and tried to be more flexible in his negotiations with Republicans, which in turn led to a lot of good work getting done and, consequently, very high approval ratings for Clinton. So between that and my strong belief that competition is an important and necessary component of a healthy democracy, I very much prefer a system that permits and encourages the participation of third parties to one that doesn’t.
But on the topics of Bernie’s 2016 run, Trump’s takeover of the GOP, and the cyclical nature of third-party politics, I think you and I are mostly in agreement.
With that in mind, I should say that even if I had disagreed with most or all of your conclusions, I still would’ve been really impressed with how quickly you were able to put together such a cohesive and persuasive piece in such a short period of time, so kudos to you for that!
P.S. Thank you for pointing out that European political parties do not operate the same way as American political parties do. That’s a myth that just never seems to die.