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February 19, 2014 3:22 PM The Endless Third-Party Fantasy

By Ed Kilgore

Since third-party fantasies reemerge every time there is evidence Americans hold their elected officials in minimum high regard, Brendan Nyhan provides a public service with a compendium of “here comes a third party!” predictions dating back to 2005. Moreoever, only a few of them were written by Thomas Friedman.

Aside from underestimating the attachment of Americans to the two major parties, and the structural barriers to successful third parties that exist throughout our political system, the most common problem with third-party fantasies is that they stipulate some sort of common ground for widely disparate people with various grievances against the major parties. Most recently and notoriously, this has led many writers to imagine a third-party coalition focused on a deficit hawkish agenda of tax increases and entitlement “reforms” that is even more unpopular than the existing parties. And for reasons that elude me, a lot of folks impressed with the GOP’s unpopularity don’t seem to notice that about half of rank-and-file Republicans consistently think the party’s not conservative enough, a view that isn’t exactly consistent with some “centrist” third party drawing from both parties.

In any event, there’s a pretty obvious negative example of a third-party alternative that currently exists which isn’t exactly on the rise: the Libertarian Party. A rather puffy piece appeared in Politico yesterday advertising Rand Paul’s efforts to free the Republican Party from its electoral limitations more or less by making it over to more closely resemble the Libertarians (with some Christian Right mojo added by Paul’s hard-core antichoice views and “constitutional conservative” rhetoric). Paul seems to share the (to me) bizarre idea of some libertarians that vast swaths of the American public, including minority voters, would be attracted to their views if they knew about them. Personally, I can’t image African-Americans (to cite the constituency Paul keeps trying to woo) being any more thrilled with an ideology that tells them they must be liberated from dependence on government assistance as another form of slavery than the old conservative ideology that tells them they must give up government assistance because they don’t deserve it. It comes out in pretty much the same place, doesn’t it?

As for libertarianism as the great unknown Truth that will strike novices like a bolt from the blue, what’s so complicated about it? It mainly seems to exert a magnetic attraction among very successful people who like to be told they should be able to keep all their money and spend it on whatever they wish, and adolescent males who view any frustration of their wish-fulfillment as unnatural.

More generally, the idea that there is some “hidden majority” for any particular ideology that isn’t manifested in actual electoral behavior is the perpetual fool’s gold of American politics. That it is repeatedly pursued by otherwise smart and famous people doesn’t change its foolishness.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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