The Tea Party rallies this week have prompted an obvious question from investors and public officials alike: will the Tea Partiers seek an economic third way?

Let's put on the old political science hat for a moment to see if history and research can tell us anything about third party attempts in these United States.

"When the world is running down . . ."

Back in the 1980s, the new wave rock group The Police released a single titled, "When The World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around."

That stance is not good enough for the Tea Partiers. Revulsed and/or disillusioned by fiscal or monetary policy decisions, and by increased government spending in general by elected officials in both parties, several Tea Party leaders have talked about a new decision-making process, a new coda, if you will. Some are even suggesting that the formation of a third political party may be an option. The best of what's still around in the current parties -- the Republican Party and the Democratic Party -- apparently isn't good enough for them.

Third party ahead?

So how likely is it that the Tea Partiers will both form a third political party and become an economic policymaking force on the national stage? Slim, at best.

What's more, the success or failure of their third party effort, if launched, will have little to do with their message. That's because the American electoral system makes it very hard for third parties to succeed.

Unlike Europe, the United States has winner-take-all-congressional districts: you get the most votes, you win. You get 30 percent of the vote, or 40 percent, even sometimes as much as 49 percent, as Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) will tell you, you get zip. You lost. You go home. This system encourages coalition building before an election, to get enough votes to secure a majority and "win the prize" and, by extension, discourages third party formation. Getting 10 percent of the vote doesn't get you a seat in the legislature. In many nations in Europe, it does.

Likewise with the U.S. presidential election: most states are winner-take-all for that state's electoral votes (Maine and Nebraska being the exceptions). This system, again, encourages interest groups to hitch their agenda to one of the two major political parties, so that they at least have seat at the table on some issues. Again, if a third party gets 20 percent of the popular votes in every state, it likely will walk away with very few electoral votes in the presidential election. That's not a great return for the effort and money expended.

For the above reasons, the U.S. landscape is littered with third party broken bodies and broken spirits, economic-based and otherwise: Ralph Nader, John Anderson, George Wallace, Huey Long, and so on.

Political realignments are rare

Third parties or "third economic ways" rarely succeed. The only time they do is when an issue or problem gets so large that it becomes a "cross-cutting issue" that leads to a party realignment. This has only happened a couple of times: in the 1860s (slavery/Civil War) and in 1932 (Great Depression/New Deal). It's highly unlikely that the current financial crisis and the pronounced recession will lead to a party realignment.

Given the electoral odds stacked against them, at least some of the Tea Partiers' economic planks or points will have to be assimilated by one of the two major parties, if the Tea Partiers can convince that party's leaders that it's in their electoral interest to do so. Even though the Tea Partiers assert that their rallies drew from American voters across the political and ideological spectrum -- Republicans, Independents, Democrats, Libertarians, Vegetarians, etc. -- the view from here argues they're disproportionately comprised of ideological conservatives and moderates, which indicates their likely home is in the Republican Party.

Further, if the Tea Partiers do persist and try to form a third party or a new party, that's good news for the Democrats. This third party would draw more votes away from Republican candidates than it would from Democratic ones, resulting in a net vote gain for the Democratic Party.

And the above "chipping away" at the Republican Party's coalition would only add to existing electoral strengths for the Democrats. Both short-term and long-term economic factors favor the Democratic Party. Birth rates favor the Democratic Party -- Democratic families are having more babies than Republican families. Immigration favors the Democratic Party. Societal aging favors the Democratic Party. Even the rise and increasing importance of the internet favors the Democratic Party. In sum, a Tea Party third party would only add to Republican woes.

However, there is one way the Tea Partiers could succeed, and that's to change the U.S.'s winner-take-all electoral system to a proportional-representation system like those used by many nations in Europe.

But given that Tea Partiers have made pretty clear their dislike for the ways and habits of Europe, such a change to the system doesn't seem likely either.

--

Financial Editor Joseph Lazzaro is writing a book on the U.S. presidency and the U.S. economy.


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