So, this floated by me on Twitter a few days back and it's worth following the link and reading the Tweetstorm (there's a more readable summary here)- go and read it, it's only 50 Tweets long, but the interesting question is asks comes at the very end: "Who needs a third party when the existing two parties have become powerless to stop insurgencies from within?"Interesting tweetstorm by Clay Shirky on the emergence of third-party candidates and the role of media. (scroll up) https://t.co/T77l0PUlsz— Mark Bao (@markbao) February 18, 2016
Well, have they? Over my shoulder right now, CNN is eagerly awaiting a Hillary Clinton victory speech after her victory in Nevada. She maintains a lead in South Carolina and has both the money and infrastructure to probably do better over the long term than Sanders. The ongoing Republican trainwreck has less to do with Trump and more to do with egos- consider New Hampshire: Trump won with 35% of the vote- but if you take Kasich, Bush, Rubio and for the sake of argument, Christie and add their vote percentages together, you get 45%. (The difference in vote totals is equally as stark: 127,320 for all the 'establishment' candidates to 100,406 for Trump.) The winnowing of the field, followed by what usually is an orderly and efficient coronation has yet to occur for the GOP because no one is dropping out. I expect that might change after tonight- rumor has it that Jeb! staffers are already sending out resumes, but then again, if Jeb! can hold onto his money, then why not keep going?
So while it may seem that the two parties have become powerless to stop insurgencies from within, the reality (I'm guessing) is that the rise of social media means that these insurgencies are more possible than they were before and it will take longer for the establishment to re-establish 'conventional wisdom' as it were. Social media isn't, then, changing a damn thing- it's merely serving as a pressure valve for discontent to be blown out early and often before both the institutional mechanisms of both parties do what they normally do and nominate people they can live with. (On the Republican side, this might go some distance to explaining why Establishment GOP Senators have made it clear they would prefer Trump to Cruz- Cruz, if Trump wasn't taking his voting block, might well represent a mortal threat to their control- plus, it does appear as if the Senator from Texas has not given one fuck about making friends with his GOP colleagues- all of whom seem to heartily detest the man. In short, Trump they can do business with. Cruz is coming with the pitchforks and burning torches.)
While I don't think I can rate the premise of the final tweet offered by the author (at least not anymore- if Bernie had won Nevada, it might be a different story), it does raise an interesting point: could insurgents who would normally be 'third parties' merely hijack an existing party structure to take power? I'm not entirely sure- while I'm convinced that the real political earthquake is going to come when a small dollar candidate like Ron Paul (or Bernie Sanders) gets a nomination and wins an election thereby rendering irrelevant an entire donor class/establishment, the odds of that happening seem increasingly long, merely because a small dollar/social media based model may get you significant amounts of votes, but it doesn't (yet) seem to be enough to overcome the institutional controls the parties themselves have in place.
Which brings us back to the question: why the hell can't we have more options? There are two large obstructions in the way: structure and power. Structurally, the first-past-the-post, single member district system we have (like most other western democracies with a few variations here and there) lends itself to lower numbers of parties. (In non poli-sci dork terms: that's 'person with the most votes wins, one representative per legislative district'.) The United States, unlike Canada and the UK hasn't evolved into a 2.5 party system or developed a regional party- all of which it could do, but that brings us around to the second obstruction- that of power.
I took the Political Compass Test about a week or so ago and was surprised when it dropped on the libertarian/center left side of the spectrum. An interesting Facebook discussion followed with my cousin (who's currently on the front lines of the refugee crisis in Greece and probably too busy to spend hours debating with me.) She believes that social democracy (a.k.a 'The Nordic Model') is the best form of government and views my strain of libertarianism with distaste. My contention then (and now) is that the difference in scale* makes a 'Nordic Model' impossible to attempt in the United States without a massive decentralization of power. So to me, libertarianism isn't the problem- it's the potential solution.
And power is really the true mechanism that keeps the business/political/media elites in place- while the rise of social media makes it possible to challenge the entrenched elites, until you attack the structures that keep them in place, I can't credibly believe that an internal insurgency/3rd Party challenge would ever work- you saw it in the reaction of the GOP to the question of Trump vs. Cruz. They know damn well Cruz would burn them to the ground if he could- Trump they can do business with. While the tension in the Democratic side of things has been less obvious, no doubt Democratic power brokers would have 'worked around' a President Sanders** rather than bent to his will. It's the same reason why 'hope and change' or the lack thereof left such a bitter taste in the mouths of many who supported President Obama. Yes, it's ridiculous to assume the system can be changed by one person 'doing things differently.' But it's not ridiculous to assume if that person attacks the very ramparts of the entrenchment that keeps Washington D.C. doing business as usual year in and year out. Rhetoric didn't do it. I doubt calls for a revolution will either.
Real change means breaking the ballot access monopoly that the two parties hold nationwide. Real change means talking about things like proportional representation, multi-member districts or even ranked choice voting. Real change means taking on those barriers to entry- not in an expectation that a hundred parties will suddenly blossom out of nothing, but rather creating the conditions where one or two could challenge the corporate parties and their hegemony. And change doesn't have to begin nationally- states were envisioned by our founders as laboratories for democracy and until we fulfill that promise and start asking ourselves if there is a better way, little if anything is going to change.
So why not a real democracy? Can we try one of those for a change?
*Roughly speaking, the population of Scandanavia as a whole is 24 million or so. California alone has 38 million- and the Untied States has 300 million. European style 'social democracy' has never been attempted on a scale this large, which is why I don't trust the Federal Government not to fuck it up. Now if a single state or groups of states want to get together and build their own versions of 'social democracy', they should be allowed to- but you can't force a country this big into one model without problems somewhere- which is why I prefer the regional model, myself. It's smaller, easier to handle and has a higher chance of success. Problem is, the last time the United States had a 'regional movement' we had a Civil War. So I don't think the notion is going to play all that well.
My personal strain of libertarianism tends to want a minimal state, but gets uncomfortable at hewing too closely to libertarian economics especially- but let's not pretend that what we have is real capitalism any more than what the Soviets had was real communism. Until we once and for all break the ties between government and business, I just can't buy in. (Democracy and an actual free market? A novel concept.)
**My doubts about the ability of a Sanders Presidency to break through the entrenched institutional power structures of the country stem precisely from what this Tweetstorm Talks about. Yes, he can craft an insurgency and challenge- but can he win? And if he wins, can he govern? If Congress is controlled by New England/Vermont Democrats- maybe- but there's a difference between a Democrat from Vermont and a Democrat from say, West Virginia. Any chance of success on his part requires bridging the gap between the two- a Bernie victory in South Carolina could signal that he's capable of that- in which case, conventional wisdom, would once again, have to wait for another day.