It’s been well reported that a majority of Americans say they don’t want a 2024 Presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump – but that those are the leading candidates for the major parties’ nominations.
No surprise to most, but columnist Peggy Noonan notes Americans’ fatigue, and muses that the electorate just might push back. Many Americans would certainly like to. Aside from the odd opportunist – Noonan cites Robert Kennedy Jr.’s announcement – a third party effort is the option that usually comes to mind. These rarely work and as Noonan says, today
… No hunger for a third-party effort is discernible in the polls. So the effort would have to blow people out of their comfortable trenches and make them want to go over the top to seize new ground. It would have to be something centrists, by their nature, aren’t: dramatic.
Why don’t these things work, and why are we, perhaps, tired of the efforts even to mount them?
The answer may be that few have really been all that different from the two sides of our bipolar politics. We picture public discourse as defined by two factions, akin to two points that define a line. Anyone who doesn’t embrace either pole stands between them somewhere on that line, or, in a few cases, outside one pole or another, but still on that line. So it’s brand X or brand Y, some mix of the two, or an extreme case of one of them. Any “third Party,” any centrist, only re-blends the stuff we are tired of.
We may sense this in our bones, which may account for what seems an elevated readiness to entertain wildly different approaches, as in RFK Jr. or a Marianne Williamson – or Donald Trump seven years ago. The problem is that those odd and wildly different candidates would still have to deal with concrete problems, entrenched practices, and established institutions that don’t yield to ungrounded novelty.
Still, if we are tired of the normal but skeptical of the novel or the “middle ground,” this does not mean the status quo will automatically weather one more storm. A critical review of politics and worldly developments support Noonan’s observation that “we are living in a prolonged crazy time in American politics. Anything can happen now. Really, anything.” The question becomes, can we as a people picture even an outline of something really different, that would actually help?
The request is a very tall order. Our partisan mindsets run deep. The instant that anyone suggests an idea to dilute them, we automatically ask: “which side does this person really favor?” And as we define politics by the two poles and the line running through them, no one avoids pigeonholing, as some percentage brand X and some percentage brand Y. Even an exact 50/50 assessment only leads to suspicion from “the two sides.”
We need at least the vaguest sense of some bedrock commonality, that overrides partisan constructs and provides all sides a mutually intelligible language to engage, on real issues. Such a consensus can only rest on compelling, fundamental common ground for all Americans.
Only one starting point comes to mind. The nation conceived itself in a creed, voiced in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence. In the only description voiced of the new nation’s identity, the signers asserted that “we hold” certain “Truths (as) self-evident,” that all persons are equally endowed with unalienable rights and that governments are created to secure those rights, legitimated by consent of the governed. No other expression of fundamental national identity and purpose has ever been made. The only concerted claim against those truths, and its political vessel (the “Confederate States of America”) have been rendered extinct. We all, even if only implicitly, hold the Declaration’s creedal truths. We now need to recall that partisan stances are interpretations reflecting interests; they are opinions that we contest on the field of its common ground. If we see this truth about these truths, each American has a bedrock on which to exercise independent judgement over politicians’ claims. Only this independence will loosen the polarizing partisans’ grip on public discourse.
The Declaration’s creed, then, offers a starting point – most likely the only one. It is also only a starting point. The shape of public discourse will still respond to all the diverse issues, interests, and sentiments of 330 million rights-endowed people, that must play out on our common ground. We must also acknowledge that the creed – like any abstract creed – is only partially realized in real life. In fact much of today’s political contention is over the next steps to this abstract creed’s fuller realization. Open competition among genuine contentions is healthy and necessary. But we need to pursue them in the understanding that none of our differences is as important as the creed itself. If we cannot maintain a consensus around that, very few of anyone’s needs, interests, or aspirations will ever be met. And anyone’s rights to them will devolve into prizes won in contests of power, spoils of war, just as in the state of nature that dominated most of human history.
For anyone to form a compelling third party for 2024, or for some political outsider to fashion an effective campaign, their appeal will have to deal realistically with real issues – and we need them to ensure that they truly carry the spirit of the Declaration’s creed. If they do not deal with real issues, no one will care about them. If they do not exhibit first allegiance to the founding tenets, and expressly put those ahead of the partisan dogmas, the partisans will reduce them back to percentages of brand X or Y, and retain their own grip on politics. The divisions that threaten our nation will deepen yet again.
Noonan is right. Anything can happen. Yet we know that our politics are throwing up unsatisfactory candidates to lead us; we also know there is little real hope in some magic candidate or third party.
In January 1903, in another era of upheaval, magazine publisher S.S. McClure noted how so much institutional and public conduct was “an arraignment of American character.” He saw no current institutions or interests correcting the wrongs: not capital, not labor, nor politicians, citizens, churches, colleges, anyone. For redemption, “there is no one left: none but all of us.”
Whatever happens in 2024 we need to reaffirm America’s self-conception, whether then (next year!) or as life unfolds afterward. Affirmation will depend on us, each of us in “my” votes, habits, wants, expectations, and above all goodwill to each other. The ambitious people who maneuver and compete in institutions and public spaces will eventually follow, but we all must set the tone.