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Third Party Fantasies and the 2024 Election

The USA, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Third party candidacies hold a special place in the consciousness of the American political class. Every election season many fantasize about a third party candidate winning the election. Although that may sound far fetched, as recently as 1860 that is exactly what happened. And all it took was a candidate with the political skill and intellect of Abraham Lincoln at a time when the country was staring down an extraordinary crisis and finally wrestling in earnest with the crime against humanity that was integral to the founding of this country.

As 2024 approaches we are again hearing about third party candidates, but neither Joe Manchin, John Huntsman nor Cornell West are Abraham Lincoln. Manchin and Huntsman are frequently mentioned as potential candidates of the No Labels organization. No Labels is a shadily funded organization that claims to be centrist, a word that in American electoral discourse has a very vague meaning. West is running on a more ideologically cohesive progressive platform.

West is a very well known left-wing public intellectual whose views on most issues align with those of most progressives. West has no chance of winning, but if Biden loses, West will be accused of having been a spoiler.

Those accusations will be difficult to prove, but would not be not without any foundation. West will probably get about 2-3 percent of the vote as most people who share his views understand that West cannot win, and will therefore vote for Biden. However, 2-3 percent of the vote is enough to move a close state like Arizona or Wisconsin from the Democratic to Republican column. It is easy to look at those numbers and see how West could be a spoiler. However, it is also true that anybody who stays with a fringe candidate like West in a close race is probably somebody who would never vote for a Democrat anyway.

No Labels is more intriguing because while West’s campaign is going nowhere, it is clear what its ideological position is and where West stands on the issues. It is also apparent that in a different electoral system, for example one with ranked choice voting, West would get a much larger proportion of first place votes, but would still not win. No Labels, by contrast, is based on a set of assumptions that are very appealing, but deeply wrong. No Labels position is essentially that a plurality of American voters are not happy with either party and that therefore there is room for a candidate to run down the middle as a centrist and win the election.

The study of astronomy can help us understand just how foolish this idea is. Imagine you were enrolled in an astronomy class in high school or college and that the first day of class, the professor drew a diagram on the board that showed the sun rotating around the earth. No matter how hard you studied in that class, if you started with that incorrect assumption, which still might seem intuitive to some, you would never understand astronomy. 

Similarly if, as No Labels seems to do, you understand the American electorate as being distributed in a bell curve with Democrats on the left, Republicans on the right and independents in the middle, you will never accurately understand American politics.

The idea that voters are distributed on a bell curve is very appealing because it suggests a rationality and symmetry to politics that is both simple and feels like something that in an abstract sense should be true. It is also an idea that is very obviously, at least to anybody who has studied polling data or election outcomes, or simply spoken to more than a handful of Americans, wrong. 

Independent voters and people who do not like either party are not centrists who occupy the middle of an imagined bell curve. We all know people who support Republican tax policies but also are pro-choice and oppose discrimination against LGBT people. There are also lots of people who are deeply opposed to marriage equality, but want more generous social welfare policies. Similarly, there are people on the left who think the Democrats are too moderate and Republicans on the center right who are put off by the MAGA movement, but think Democrats are too liberal. These are the kinds of people who are dissatisfied with both parties, but, with the possible exception of the last category they are not centrists in any meaningful way.

This reality undermines the argument for a centrist, whatever that means, candidate like Joe Manchin or Jon Huntsman. It is hard to imagine that the people at No Labels, longtime political professionals with ample funding from politically astute wealthy and frequently conservative donors do not understand this.

No Labels is not simply a movement of centrists who want to find a middle ground between the extremes represented by the two parties. Even they were, that would not be a winning strategy. 

Given that, and the evidence that a Manchin type candidate would end up helping Donald Trump and hurt President Biden in the general election, it is difficult to see No Labels as anything other than another shadowy insider organization trying to undermine democracy in the US by facilitating the return of Donald Trump.  Platitudes and fantasies about the need to have less partisan fighting, false equivalencies between the fascist-adjacent MAGA movement and the center-left politics of Joe Biden, or deliberate misreadings of the American electorate are not going to change that.

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