Andrew Yang and Tinkerbell Politics
It's 2022. How Is the Forward Party a Thing?
Look, as a political scientist, I have an ethical obligation to make fun of terrible, vanity-centrist attempts at disrupting the two-party system. I’d rather not do this. I’d prefer to do something else. But you take an oath when you earn your doctorate in American politics. You swear that you will make fun of bad, craven ideas from the pundit class. I take that oath seriously.
Anyway, yeah, Andrew Yang is back. Reuters reports that his Forward Party (which he launched last fall as a stunt to help sell books) is merging with a couple of NeverTrump Republican groups. So Yang (the quirky techbro who could never win a Democratic primary) is now joining forces with dozens of former Republican officials from the 80s, 90s, and 00s (aka, people who can no longer win a Republican primary) to answer the broad public demand for… um… something.
As Reuters notes, “The party, which is centrist, has no specific policies yet.”
Yang also coauthored a Washington Post opinion piece with Christine Todd Whitman, and David Jolly, titled “Most Third Parties Have Failed. Here’s Why Ours Won’t.” Their column doesn’t actual explain why their party won’t fail (it will). Besides the boilerplate “American politics is broken/partisanship is tearing us apart/we need to come together around sensible centrist yada yada yada,” the best they can come up with is a recent Gallup poll showing that a majority of respondents agreed that “a third party is needed.”
What Yang and his team have here is a basic Tinkerbell Strategy. (If everyone, everywhere, would simply clap hard enough, then we can win this thing!) They aren’t building actual party infrastructure. Their (TBD) policy positions will all be aimed at grabbing a cheap news cycle. They’ll funnel cash from rich, gullible donors to a bunch of consultants who promise the right message and the right ad buys will be enough to change the world.
And the thing is… we’ve read this story before. We know all the plot points. We know how it ends. Remember Howard Schultz in 2020? Remember the “Draft Bloomberg” effort in 2016? Remember Americans Elect in 2012?
Every presidential cycle, the pundit-class and a crew of usual-suspect political consultants convince some hedge fund billionaires that a silent majority with precisely their political leanings is yearning for a centrist third party. Every cycle, we get a wave of speculative coverage from political media. Politico, Axios, and CNN love nothing more than throwing some discussion of a centrist dark horse candidate into their normal horse race political coverage. And (spoiler alert!) Tinkerbell dies every time.
There are two basic reasons why — two structural features of the American political system that just aren’t going to change based on Yang’s capacity to get onto Twitter’s trending topic list:
(1) Duverger. It’s the Law. Simply put, the number of stable parties you will have an a democratic system strongly tends to equal “District Magnitude+1.” The United States, all of our national elections have a district magnitude of 1 — each district has a single race to elect a single representative. Other democracies have districts with multiple representatives. You could imagine, for instance, a scenario where the State of Maryland’s eight representatives all run in a single, statewide multi-member district. If a party gets 51% of the votes, then it gets four seats. If a party gets 12% of the votes, it gets 1 seat.
That would be a democracy where smaller parties can flourish. They’d be able compete in elections, win power, and do something with that power to potentially attract more voters to their platform in future elections.
[side note: One of the few policy priorities that Yang’s Forward Party has articulated is support for Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Ranked Choice Voting lets supporters of third parties cast a ballot that doesn’t spoil their vote, because they get to list their second-choice candidate, and their vote transfers to the second-choice if/when their preferred candidate is eliminated.
RCV is good! We should have more of it! But… even if we implemented it everywhere, the Forward Party would still end up with zero representation in the House, Senate, and Presidency. Unless they can get 50.1% of the vote, they’re still end up with nothing.]
(2) The Field of Dreams Fallacy… There Is No Radical Center
Back in 2012, I wrote a few pieces about Americans Elect. I gave a keynote talk at Personal Democracy Forum 2012 where I just spent X minutes roasting those jokers.
The basic problem with the [Internet + centrist third party = success] formula is it assumes there is vast, untapped enthusiasm for what passes as centrism in American politics. (hint: it’s just leaving corporations untaxed and barely regulated, and being politely embarrassed and apologetic in the course of events that reveal large-scale institutional racism, misogyny, etc.)
And there is just is no radical center.
Political scientists have known this for over fifty years. Philip Converse demonstrated it in 1964. The rest of the field has been building on and refining his insights ever since.
What looks in opinion polls like a large, moderate public is better understood as a large, inattentive public. Most people don’t have strong political philosophies or policy beliefs. They just kind of wing it when a pollster asks what they think. They may say they don’t like either party, but their voting (or non-voting) patterns are pretty stable. Plenty of registered Independents are dependable Republicans or Democrats once they enter the voting booth. They aren’t thirsting for a Bloomberg or Yang to step in and save them.
Also, and I cannot stress this enough, the Forward Party is filled with people who cannot win a primary as a Democrat or a Republican. If you can’t stir the passions of enough voters to win a Mayoral race or a congressional primary, then the untapped well of public support is probably pretty shallow.
And when I say they can’t win a primary, I don’t mean CENTRISTS can’t win a Democratic Primary. Y’see, there's this fella named Joe Biden…
This same pattern was on display with Americans Elect in 2012. Tom Friedman was so excited about the radical centrists who would finally stand up to the Leftist Democrats and Tea Party Republicans that he forgot they were actually running against Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
The Republican Party has been taken over by Trumpist radicals. They’re in the process of booting Liz Cheney out of the party (she doesn’t even get to have a WinRed fundraising page). The centrists (or, to be more precise, the conservative institutionalists) all lost or retired. The Democratic Party is still run by centrists though. The progressive wing is stronger than it has been in decades, but the way you know they don’t control the party is that Joe Biden—not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren—is the President.
Why any of this matters
I’ve written before that only the Republican Party can fix the Republican Party. There is a very real chance that we’re on the cusp of becoming a post-democratic state. We may not have free and fair elections after 2024. (It has happened in other countries. The United States isn’t magic. It can happen here too.)
For our government to function, we either need two functional parties or we need to completely revamp the constitutional order to amend how we run elections and allocate power. The latter is unlikely in the near-term (and we’re more likely to emerge from a new constitutional convention as a Christian Nationalist theocracy than as a pluralist multi-party democracy). So we desperately need the non-Trumpist wing of the Republican Party to get their shit together and start winning some internal fights.
The Forward Party, even if it just turns out to just be a payola scheme for grifter consultants, is designed to let the non-Trumpist wing drop out of the Republican Party without a fight. It gives them the chance to write think-pieces and give well-paid speeches on topics like “partisanship is just ruining everything! Why can’t we be more agreeable when we disagree?” without ever actually putting in the work to take their party back.
The Tinkerbell strategy isn’t going to save anyone. It’s just going to provide a down payment on another vacation home for the same old consultant-class centrists and give some lazy opinion columnists an excuse to phone in a few columns.
Andrew Yang should go on The Masked Singer or Dancing with the Stars if he still wants to be in the public eye. He has shown that he can’t win a primary, and that he doesn’t have the work ethic to build a real party organization.
The stakes in 2012 were comparatively low. Americans Elect was a bad punchline — a silly story in an election that could use a bit more levity. The stakes in 2024 are existential.
We ought to pay attention to the grifters who are backing Yang’s vanity project. They are earning a nice paycheck, I’m sure. But they’ve also earned our disrespect.
Great writing. My only personal quibble is not enough opprobrium directed at Andrew Yang.