What Does a Viable Third Party Look Like?

I want to run a thought experiment. It’s regarding the discussion going on in the blogosphere about third parties, started by a recent New York Times column from Tom Friedman:

There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center. I know of at least two serious groups, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing “third parties” to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.

Soon after Friedman’s column came out, former George W. Bush political advisor Mark McKinnon confirmed that there were indeed such third-party machinations going on behind the scenes. He published his centrist manifesto as a bit of a preview.

This being the blogosphere, there were also plenty of debunkings of the third party concept, led by Brendan Nyhan. And David Frum makes this point:

But to create a credible alternative, alienated Democrats and Republicans will have to rally around reforms that can make a positive difference to the great American majority – beginning with realistic ideas to accelerate economic growth, generate jobs, and raise incomes. That’s the abandoned ground of American politics, the true No Man’s Land. But there’s no need to wait for a third party to claim that ground. It’s there, waiting, for a Republican party that can liberate itself from the screamers and the haters, and rediscover its tradition of affirmative governance.

All of which is fine. I’m not going to quibble about any particular policy ideas here, or whether there are structural obstacles to a viable third party. But there’s one point that I feel is missing from the debate, which is basically the same point I made in my last blog entry about marketing a statistical approach to baseball. So again, I’ll leave it to Steve Jobs, talking back in 1996 about marketing Apple, to explain:

The dairy industry tried for 20 years to convince you that milk was good for you…and the sales were going like this (downwards). Then they tried “Got Milk” and the sales have gone like this (upwards). “Got Milk” doesn’t even talk about the product. In fact, it focuses on the absence of the product.

Steve Jobs’ point is this: explaining how MacOS is better than Windows won’t sell Macs. Explaining how milk is healthier than soda won’t sell milk. That’s not how effective marketing works.

Similarly, your Third Party can have all the right policies, they can have the best manifesto ever written, explaining how its policies are clearly better than those of the Democrats and Republicans, but if it doesn’t form a deep emotional connection between the Third Party’s core values and the core values of basic, ordinary Americans, it will fall flat.

In fact, this is probably why the Tea Party movement has resonance. There are no coherent policies. It’s all about the emotional connection.

But to be truly great and successful brand in the long run, you have to have both: great products AND that emotional connection to a clear set of values.

* * *

I’m an engineer, so when I get curious about an idea, I like to start with the question, “What does it look like?” Then once we have a general idea of what we want, we build a prototype. So let’s do that.

What does a viable Third Party look like? Following Jobs’ advice, we have to approach that question by asking, what are its core emotional values? Being “radically centrist” or “restoring sanity” doesn’t really resonate emotionally with me at all. To compare, let’s look at the core values we already know work, from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This to me is the biggest problem of the viability of a third party in America. This frickin’ brilliant sentence is THE statement of American values. The sentence is divided into two basic halves: the first declaring equality as a core value, the second declaring liberty as a core value. And probably as a natural result, we have two main political parties in America, one which at its core defends and promotes equality (Democrats), and another which at its core defends and promotes liberty (Republicans). The reason a third party like the Libertarians can’t take hold is that they’re competing for a very similar core value with a much bigger competitor.

A viable third party needs to somehow promote and defend a different core value, one that’s not represented in that sentence. But what?

* * *

I’m sure there are probably several candidates for such an alternative value, but I can really only think of decent one. It is represented by this speech by General George Patton:

When you, here, every one of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players.

Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.

The weakness here is that this values statement isn’t explicitly spelled out in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. We can argue that our competitive character is implicit in the Constitution: the First Amendment basically sets up a structure where every idea–whether political, economic or religious–is forced to constantly compete in a free marketplace of ideas, without end. It is that very competitive nature which has driven America to triumph in the past, and can again.

Since we’re just prototyping, we don’t have to get it exactly right, so let’s go with it. This is something that we Americans do feel in their guts. We love to compete. We hate to lose. We want to kick ass.

OK, so we have our prototype’s core value: we’re emotionally committed to focusing on figuring out how to help our communities, our states and our country WIN in a competitive world. We believe in the virtues of fair competition. And we want the BEST everything: economy, military, schools, security, health, roads, space program, air, water, marble players — anything we can compete in we want to compete hard, and compete to win.

* * *

Now, let’s make up some sort of rationalization for this. Why do we need a party like this, and why now?

Americans don’t feel like they’re kicking ass anymore. Why not? Well, partly because we kicked ass in the past. Before, we took our free-market democracy and smashed those Fascists and Nazis in World War II, and then we wore down and wiped out those Communists and Socialists during the Cold War. And we turned all those countries we defeated into countries like us: free-market democracies.

The question for the 20th century was whether free markets and democracies are better than planned economies and totalitarian governments. That’s settled, we won, it’s no longer the issue. But our current politics, with its focus on the left-right axis, still acts like those old issues are still the new ones.

Instead, the real questions for the 21st century are ones like, what is the most effective form of democracy? What is the best way to manage a free market? And how do we set up a system which gets us to the optimal solutions faster than our competition? If we want to compete and win the 21st century like we did the 20th, then we need to be focusing on these questions. And the current two parties, by naturally focusing so much energy on their own core values of freedom and equality, often take their eyes off the ball that’s currently in play. And when we lose our focus, we let our competition catch up to us.

* * *

All right, now that we’ve got some fake reason for its fake existence, what do we call this prototype party? The old Raiders fan in me suggests the “Just Win Baby Party”, but that’s a bit presumptuous. Especially for a third party which, at the start, is more likely to lose than win. So I’m going to suggest the “Competitive Party”.

* * *

Finally, we need to figure out what an actual Competitive Party product looks like. How do we approach coming up with solutions when we begin our thought process from this core value? What kind of policies emerge when we think this way? Does the end product look different from either of the other two parties? Maybe we can debate those questions in the comments here, and then I’ll draft up some sort of prototype platform in my next post.

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  • Ken Arneson

    One thing that comes to mind when I ponder how I would want a Competitive Party to approach problems, I think of a poker player. I’d want it to have two primary skills:

    1. Be able to accurately read its competitors intentions
    2. Have a throrough understanding of the factual odds of success in any given context

    Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Playing the odds smartly is the road to success in the long run.

  • Ken Arneson

    Let me just say this, before I have to explain it over and over again:

    A “Competitive Party” platform are not necessarily MY political beliefs. This is a thought experiment, to see what happens if you follow Steve Jobs’ marketing advice. It may very well go in a direction I hate. If so, so be it.

  • rgn46

    >>We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.<<
    Truly one of the greatest sentences ever written. It resonates incredibly strongly with me, and I'm not even American.

    In which it differs from "competitiveness" as a core value. Although you do make a strong argument for it being a viable basis for a third American party.

    However, I mainly wanted to say that I am glad to see you writing again, Ken, albeit sporadically.
    Greetings from an A's fan in Germany.