Is there room for a third party? If some independent mounted a presidential bid in 2020, would that person have a chance?
Those are questions we won’t be able to answer for a few years. If the Democrats nominate somebody like Mitch Landrieu, the answer is no. Landrieu is a progressive former mayor of New Orleans whose personal style would play well with the white working class and whose convictions and history play well with African-Americans and other groups. A Democrat like Landrieu would occupy all the non-Trump space and make a meaningful third-party run impossible.
But suppose the Democrats nominate one of the senators who are now sprinting leftward to catch up with what they perceive to be the Democratic base.
In that case, there would be room for a third party. But that bid would not work if it were trying to present a moderate or centrist or pragmatic alternative to the two party ideologies. There is no evidence that there are enough centrists or “pragmatists” to threaten the two-party duopoly.
To have a chance, the third-party candidate would have to emerge as the most radical person in the race. That person would have to argue that the Republicans and Democrats are just two sides of a Washington-centric power structure that has ground to a halt. That person would have to promise to radically redistribute power across American society.
As Mike Hais, Doug Ross and Morley Winograd argue in their book, Healing American Democracy, the current Washington-centric power structure emerged during the New Deal. In those days and for decades after, the country was pretty homogeneous, trust in big institutions was high and the federal government worked more effectively than state and local governments to build a safety net and break up local economic oligarchies.
But today, the country is diverse, trust in big institutions is low, the federal government is immobilized by partisanship and debt. Now, state and local governments are more effective across many overlapping domains.
It’s no wonder that so many, especially millennials (the most diverse generation of voters in our history), have become disillusioned with federal action.
Only 18 percent of Americans say the federal government does the right thing most or nearly all of the time. In July 2016, as Ronald Brownstein has pointed out, only 29 percent of Donald Trump supporters and 23 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters thought that electing their candidate would actually lead to progress.
In this new context, a third-party candidate might run on what Hais, Ross and Winograd call constitutional localism. The constitutional part means preserving the civil rights safeguards enshrined in the Constitution. The localism part means a radical decentralization of other powers, to the levels of authority people have faith in.
All recent presidential candidates have run against Washington, but on the premise that they could change Washington. Today, a third-party candidate would have to run on creating different kinds of power structures at different levels.
Part of the solution is devolving power to towns and cities, but as Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write in their book, The New Localism, “New Localism is not the same as local government.” Across the country, power is being most effectively wielded by civic councils – organically formed groups of local officials, business leaders, neighborhood organizations. The members may have different racial, class and partisan identities, but they have one shared identity – love of their community.
My colleague Thomas Friedman wrote about one such council in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. If you want to see others, you probably don’t have to travel far – Winston-Salem, Indianapolis, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Denver, Grand Rapids. Power in these places is not just wielded at the ballot box; it is wielded by movements and collaboratives in a thousand ways.
According to a 2015 Heartland Monitor poll, 66 percent of Americans believe their local area is moving in the right direction.
These local efforts need a national leader, in part because while it’s easy to say, “devolve power,” actually doing it is complicated.
For example, civil rights is the area where the national government was once most clearly superior in many parts of the country. But these days, national partisan divisions overlap with our racial divisions, so it’s national demagogues like Trump who most inflame racial animosity to gain political power.
Civil rights progress still requires a forceful federal presence to, say, induce local police forces to reform and integrate. But such progress also requires energized local efforts in which people work across racial differences on common loves, like the future of their community’s children.
We also need a national leader to tell a different national story. During the 20th century, a superpower story emerged. In that story, the nation moved as one, and a ridiculous amount of attention got focused on the supposed superhero in the White House. A third-party candidate who shifted attention to local people actually getting stuff done might lose, but he or she would begin to define a new and more plausible version of American greatness.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service