The Democratic Party didn’t really get off the ground until it found a leader in Thomas Jefferson. Similarly, the Republican Party amounted to almost nothing before Abraham Lincoln put it on the political map.
Now, with both major California political parties offering little besides extremism, polls show there’s a widespread desire for a third significant political party here. Emblematic was an election-season survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, which asked the question “In your view, do the Republican and Democratic parties…do such a poor job that a third major party is needed.” By a 61-29 percent margin, those surveyed said they’d like to see another party.
How extreme are the existing parties here? The executive board of the state Democratic Party last summer opted to endorse termed-out former state Senate President Kevin de Leon for the U.S. Senate over the moderate Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who nevertheless won reelection handily. That proved the party’s nominal leaders don’t represent the majority of its registered voters. Rather, they come from the ultra-liberal Bernie Sanders wing of the party, which essentially packed party caucuses last spring in order to begin dominating the Democratic Party structure.
On the Republican side, several longtime members of Congress lost their jobs in tossup districts primarily because of their staunch support for President Trump, whose rhetorical backing of the far right is legend.
No wonder many voters in both parties are fed up and increasingly withdrawing their affiliations with any party, the number of no-party-preference voters now surpassing Republicans and gaining on the Democrats.
But will they get the new party they’d like to see?
History suggests they won’t unless some major figure arises to lead a movement toward creating a significant new organization that can appeal to disgruntled moderates in both current big parties, shown by the PPIC survey to feel they are not being properly represented.
That goes for the national level, too. The Ballot Access Newsletter and blog last month reported that the number of voters registering with either existing big party nationally has declined steadily over the last 26 years, down from 81 percent in 1992 to 74 percent in 2008 to just 69 percent last fall.
For the first time since 1940, the portion of voters registered Democratic nationally was under 40 percent in 2018, while Republicans were at just 29 percent. The latest figures in California are similar, with Democratic registration here a bit ahead of the national proportion and Republicans somewhat behind.
But so far, nothing has happened to coalesce the obvious unhappiness with both of today’s big parties into anything like a significant movement. That’s because no leader has appeared to galvanize the disgruntlement into something more than mere feelings.
The last time anything like an attempt at this occurred came in 1992, when billionaire businessman Ross Perot ran an independent campaign and siphoned enough votes away from Republican President George H.W. Bush to put Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House. Perot later founded the Reform Party and in 1996 was its first presidential candidate, but he had far less impact that time. His party had a California organization, but lacked dynamic leadership, and so it faded away.
This history makes it clear that while any new party will first need a prominent leader and a statement of principles with wide appeal, it still cannot have lasting impact and really compete with Republicans and Democrats unless it also has a solid corps of local leaders to keep voters interested and organized.
So far there are no signs of any organization like that arising in California, even though it’s plain that the majority of voters want it to happen.
Which means vast numbers of voters will likely go on making choices between the lesser of what they consider two evils for the next election cycle and well beyond.