July 19, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Third parties like No Labels never win, because they can’t

If you’re looking for a moderate middle, look to the Democrats.

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It bears repeating that the Democratic Party, as the party that represents a majority of the people of the United States, also represents the full continuum of legitimate politics. The moderate middle, for real, is somewhere between US Senator Joe Manchin (above right), a conservative from West Virginia, and US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal from New York.

The real moderate middle exists between the poles of just one party, the majority party. It does not exist between the parties, which are not poles but spectrums. This is the way things are. Indeed, things can’t be otherwise. Our system is winner-take-all, not proportional. If it were proportional, we’d have more than two parties. It’s not. So we don’t.

That we continue to talk about a moderate middle as if it existed between the Democrats and the Republicans – and that we continue to talk about the parties as if they were poles, not spectrums – is an outcome of the words we affix to things, not the things themselves. 

If No Labels actually wanted a unity ticket, as it claims to, it would spend more time – indeed, all of its time – raising hell about the need to fundamentally change a system expressly designed to limit choices. 

That brings me to No Labels.

It’s a “bipartisan” group that has lately gotten a lot of attention for advancing the fantastical notion that the majority of the people of the United States want neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump to campaign for president, and instead want a truly independent third choice. 

According to the Times, the group released a “centrist manifesto” – “what it calls a ‘common sense’ proposal for a centrist White House, in hopes of shifting the conversation from the politics of its potential presidential bid to the actual policies that it believes can unite the country and temper the partisanship of the major party nominees.”

The group says it won’t field a candidate unless victory is possible.

It’s not possible. (More on that in a moment.)

But people are making too much of No Labels.

Bruce Bartlett is indicative. “No Labels is essentially a Republican front,” he wrote Sunday. “Although some of its proposals appear to be progressive, I think on net a No Labels candidate would pull more votes from a Democrat than a Republican. Sadly, the marketing is very good.”

Josh Marshall added to Bartlett’s thinking. “Remember that ‘No Labels’ is owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Mark Penn and Nancy Jacobson, former players in the Democratic political world now working for Republicans,” he wrote Tuesday. “It’s ‘No Labels” in the same sense that a spy or undercover agent also has ‘no labels.’”

It’s not that either of them is wrong. It’s that the attention that’s being given to No Labels right now is of the same caliber as the polling numbers on which its argument is based – which is to say, trash.

ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos said Sunday that 70 percent of Americans say they don’t want Biden to run while 60 percent say they don’t want Trump to run. One of his guests was former US Senator Doug Jones. “Polls a year and a half out mean nothing,” he said. The same can be said of the attention that’s being given to No Labels. A year and a half out – midsummer, no less – means that attention is trash.

Remember, too, that longing for a third party is cyclical. Every election features polling that reflects a desire for more than two choices, and every election, as Jones said, features results from just those two choices. Why doesn’t a third party win? Because, as Jones said, “there is no way on God’s green Earth that they can get to 270 electoral votes.”

Why is longing for a third party cyclical?


I suspect that it springs from a tension between fundamental structures that can’t be resolved without fundamental change. The fundamental structures are: one, the already mentioned desire for choices, and two, a system expressly designed to limit choices. 

Nothing can be done about the desire for more choices. This is a consumer society, after all. (Choices may be the one true American creed.) So the only way to resolve this tension between fundamental structures is by changing the system, fundamentally. That means moving from a winner-take-all system to one that’s proportional.

In 2020, more than 2,473,630 people in Georgia voted for Biden. More than 2,461,850 people voted for Trump. Biden won 49.47 percent. Trump won 49.24. Trump did well, in fact, nearly tied Biden’s share. But he got nothing for his trouble. He lost all of Georgia’s 16 electoral votes.

That’s winner-take-all. 

There’s no room for third parties. 

A proportional system might make room, because the share of a candidate’s electoral vote would be proportional to the share of the total vote that each candidate won in each state. In Georgia’s case, Biden would get his share, Trump would get his and (theoretically) the Libertarian Party’s Jo Jorgensen, who won 1.24 percent, would get hers.

But third-party candidates never win, because a winner-take-all system guarantees that they can’t. Because they can’t win any power, they are impotent and meaningless and totally ignored post-election. 

All they can do, as Doug Jones again reminded us, is spoil things. “One way or another, they’ll be a spoiler. And it looks like they will be a spoiler in favor of Donald Trump.” Indeed, if it were not for Jorgensen’s 1.24 percent, Trump might have won Georgia, and with it, the election. 

A proportional system might compel acts of coalition-building, which is to say, true political compromise, because the smallest parties could force the biggest parties to bargain with them to form governments. 

If No Labels actually wanted a unity ticket, as it claims to, it would spend more time – indeed, all of its time – raising hell about the need to fundamentally change a system expressly designed to limit choices. 

But, as I said, the problem isn’t the things we have. It’s the words that we affix to them. We talk about the parties as if they were poles, rather than what they are, which is spectrums. Proportional systems produce ideologically narrow parties. (Think of the Greens in the UK.) A winner-take-all system, however, produces parties that are broad ideologically. Even the Republicans, as extreme as they are, represent a range of views. (Historically, they even represented varieties of liberalism.)

It’s because the Republicans have become so extreme that the Democrats have come to represent the majority of the people of the United States. Also it’s because the Republicans have become so extreme that somewhere in the center of the continuum of political views that makes up the Democratic Party is the real moderate middle. 

Our winner-take-all system is flawed, but most systems are. That’s not the problem. It’s how we talk about it. If we understood our system better, we might stop with these silly debates over third parties.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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