Sincere third-party advocates will find little real encouragement from Timothy Noah's TRB column in the December 15 New Republic (the full article is for subscribers only, but check out the comments). Noah is the latest Democratic stooge to dispute the need for a "moderate" third party, claiming that "polarization hasn't infected the two major parties." While the GOP "has been hijacked by its extreme wing," the Democrats have "struggled, unsuccessfully, to coax it back toward the center." The problem with this particular sentence is its uncertainty about "it." Does Noah mean that Democrats are struggling to coax Republicans or their own "extreme wing" back toward the center? That mystery aside, Noah is satisfied on the negative evidence that Democrats "aren't even asked to sign a ... pledge never, ever to cut entitlements," and are tepidly supportive of Obamacare, that they are not as extreme as Republicans and the two-party system, therefore, is not polarized. This could be a valid point if you accept that no Democratic primary voter plans to punish an incumbent for his or her efforts to compromise, and that the prospect of primaries or other forms of pressure creates no resistance to moderation whatsoever among congressional Democrats or inside the Obama administration. In any event, every self-described moderate is free to conclude that Democrats are insufficiently moderate, no matter what Democratic propagandists claim.
Noah isn't against third parties; he's just opposed to a "moderate" third party that might take votes from Obama. The more urgent need, he thinks, is for "an extremist conservative third party to accommodate the wingnuts who can't abide their likeliest nominee," i.e. the anti-Romney Republicans. Noah admits immediately that "my motive for saying so is of course impure," since "Obama could use all the help he can get." He predicts, however, that a conservative independent will emerge without Democratic encouragement behind the scenes. While he claims that no third-party candidate has statistically decided an election for one of the major parties since Teddy Roosevelt outpolled President Taft in 1912, he observes that a modern third-party campaign could do considerable damage to the major-party campaign it seeks to spoil. An independent "can divert organizing talent and, to some extent, the flow of campaign contributions. He can force a major candidate to devote scarce resources to shore up support in a particular state or region. And he can sow dissatisfaction."
To give his editors a funny headline for the front cover, Noah proposes that disgruntled Republicans draft Sarah Palin as an independent candidate if they can't stand Romney. With a bit of actual wit he suggests that Palin would see "the certainty of failure" as an incentive to run, "given her demonstrated scant interest in office-holding." But the proposal reconfirms the frivolity and cynicism of Noah's piece. It's not the business of an honest third-party advocate to say that "we" need an extreme-right spoiler candidate but not a "moderate, centrist third party," especially when the idea of a progressive, leftist or socialist campaign never comes up for consideration. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the argument that Democratic moderation renders a moderate third party unnecessary is actually an argument for the necessity of a leftist third party. Such a party might hurt Obama's chances, though Noah himself notes that Harry Truman survived Democratic insurgencies to his left and right in 1948. In any event, I doubt whether Noah would want to take any chances with even a partial repeat of 1948. On the other hand, he fails to consider the possibility that a stridently rightist third party might make Romney more palatable to swing voters, since he would then look like the default moderate, in the absence of any high-profile candidate to Obama's left. When you think of third parties only as pawns to advance the black or white king, you might end up checkmating yourself. And if you're going to call for a third party without calling for that party to win, or without accepting the need for a multitude of parties, you may as well shut up.