In 2020, Andrew Yang sought the Democratic nomination for president in his first bid for elective office, dropping out after the New Hampshire primary. In 2021, he ran for mayor of New York City and finished fourth after leading the polls. Now, he is launching a third party, an elusive dream that has disappointed a range of American figures from Teddy Roosevelt to Ralph Nader.
Last week, Yang coauthored an op-ed in The Washington Post announcing the merger of three political organizations to create the Forward Party. (Motto: “Not Left. Not Right. Forward.”) His partners are David Jolly, the former Republican representative from Florida and Never Trumper, and Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and EPA administrator under George W. Bush. The leaders of the Forward Party acknowledged the all-too-familiar difficulties of breaking the duopoly that’s dominated the political landscape since the Whigs dissolved. Still, they argued that the growing number of self-identified political independents and the nation’s deep polarization suggest that this time may be different.
It’s a truism that the two political parties are so entrenched that third parties fizzle with no impact, act as a spoiler, or both. The last third-party candidate to win a single electoral vote was Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968. Since then, Nader in 2000 and the self-styled progressive Jill Stein in 2016 arguably cost Democrats the presidential election. There’s still an academic debate about whether Ross Perot’s 19 percent of the vote in 1992 cost George H. W. Bush a second term.
But what is certain is that third-party bids are born of a belief that the two parties have left some sizable part of the electorate behind. Sometimes the candidate fits that description. Pat Buchanan ran as the Reform Party candidate in 2000, pushing a nativist tough-on-trade-and-immigration message that arguably wasn’t being heard by either party. (Sixteen years later, Donald Trump would change all that.) The problem is that there just weren’t enough voters craving Buchanan’s dour nationalism or willing to overlook his kulturkampf. The late journalist Molly Ivins quipped that Buchanan’s 1992 convention speech was “better in the original German.”
Perhaps Yang thinks he’s more compelling than T.R., whose Bull Moose Party picked up more than 27 percent of the vote in 1912, finishing behind Woodrow Wilson and garnering 88 electoral votes, including Pennsylvania, then the second-most-populous state. Despite winning the presidency in 1904 (after having assumed office in 1901 when William McKinley died), Roosevelt still could not mount a successful third-party campaign. He did have the satisfaction of trouncing his handpicked successor and incumbent President William Howard Taft, who won only eight electoral votes.
Third parties haven’t fared much better in Congress, either. The last third-party members of Congress—not independents who caucused with the Democrats or Republicans—were associated with state-specific parties like the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party or the New York–based Liberal Parties. The former merged with the mainstream Democratic Party, and the latter has been in terminal decline. The American Labor Party, which sent a few representatives to the House in the 1940s, is no more. In 2017, disaffected voters created the United Utah Party, a centrist offering meant to build on the 21 percent of the presidential vote that Evan McMullin, a former intelligence official, garnered in the state in 2016. Since then, the party hasn’t elected a member to the statehouse in Salt Lake City, let alone won a congressional seat.
You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that political parties boast massive fund-raising capabilities, have state- and county-level organizations, and are already on the ballot everywhere.
Andrew Yang knows this, as do Whitman and Jolly. Maybe they genuinely believe that a huge swath of the electorate is willing to abandon the two major parties. But Republicans did not quit the GOP en masse in the Trump years, and Democrats won’t flee either. The growth of the independent vote is a misnomer. Most self-styled independents have a Democratic or Republican lean. The truly ambidextrous independent is a rare species.
In the op-ed, Yang and his cofounders lament democratic backsliding, loss of faith in government, and those who used violence on January 6. These issues are all genuinely concerning—and there already is a party that shares those views. It starts with a D.
Yang and company cite gun control, climate change, and abortion as issues demanding fresh thinking, which apparently involves the erection of straw men. The Forward Party will courageously stake a middle ground between “repeal[ing] the Second Amendment”—a position that zero congressional Democrats hold—and eliminating gun laws, a Republican sentiment. On climate change, Yang wants to neither “upend our economy and way of life” nor deny that the problem exists. I’m not sure if upending our way of life means Joe Biden will force you at gunpoint to take the bus, but Democrats’ newly released climate package calls for energy rebates, tax credits, and loans to incentivize the development of energy-efficient technology and investments in climate-resilient agriculture. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s Republican majority just impaired the EPA from enforcing greenhouse gas standards. And finally, on abortions, Yang calls for a middle ground between “extreme views on late-term abortions” and criminalizing the right to choose. If only there were a landmark Supreme Court decision supported by Democrats that protected that exact position.
Yang has more or less just renamed the Democratic Party. If he wants to stick it to the leftists, activists, or MSNBC pundits who criticized his presidential and mayoral bids, he would be better off sticking with a party that they themselves increasingly find disappointing.
Perhaps the tech entrepreneur felt the need to create his own party because, on two straight occasions now, the very voters he seems to be courting elected a moderate candidate who happened not to be him.
Yang’s collapse in the New York mayoral race was spectacular. Armed with a substantial war chest, top staffers from Michael Bloomberg’s political operation, and name recognition that put him atop the polls, he had much going for him. He was optimistic about the city’s reopening during the pandemic. But as crime displaced the pandemic as the top issue, Yang faltered. Missteps like talking about riding out COVID-19 in his upstate New York second home didn’t help, and his lack of basic knowledge about the city’s finances hurt, too. His signature universal basic income, which attracted so much interest in his 2020 presidential bid, seemed more implausible in a municipality without the federal government’s ability to print money.
Yang seems determined not to learn from mistakes. His presidential bid was no more far-fetched than that of Pete Buttigieg, then the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. But after he dropped out, Buttigieg took a big and important job with the Biden administration that gave him a plausible springboard to higher office. Yang, the start-up guy, had no patience for that and went straight to running for mayor. But at least he did so as a Democrat.
The attempt to create a third party is a suicide mission. But there might be a better model for Yang, who has flouted traditional party structures: Mike Bloomberg. The billionaire—who hates wasting his own money—never formed a third party. Still, he ran as a Republican (in 2001 and 2005, partly to secure the Republican National Convention for the city in 2004). He ran as an independent in 2009 and as a Democrat for president in 2020.
Bloomberg was too smart to form a third party when offering Democratic centrism and a reputation for competence. Yang’s undeniable quirky charm gives him a certain appeal, and his elevation of universal basic income helpfully shifted the Overton window on financial policy. Whitman is an impressive liberal Republican from another era. Her parents were wealthy and active Republicans, Eisenhower supporters, who gave their daughter an ideal childhood on the family farm, Pontefract, in horsey western New Jersey. But an alliance with Whitman and a handful of Never Trumpers is an interesting cocktail party, not a political party.