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As I understand the US system, there is the Democratic Party & Republican Party, whose members come from two wings: the moderates (center), and the left (Democratic) or right (Republican).

This suggests that it'd be ideal for the political center to form its own "Center Party", take members from both parties, and probably win the elections. After all, if we assume that 50% of the Republican Party is right-wing and the remaining 50% is centrist, and 50% of the Democratic Party is left-wing and the remaining 50% is centrist, then not only would the "Center Party" command 50% of the vote share, it's presumably easier for left-wing voters to vote for the Center Party than for the Republican Party.

Has this happened in the past? If not, why not?

  • I was gonna point you to this question but I see it was you asked it (I couldn't remember). Basically polarization (on several but correlated issues) means that the center is 10% not 50% of the electorate. See Steven's answer, in particular the lasts link. Also relevant: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/46370/… – Fizz Mar 9 at 6:37
  • @Fizz I think that's a little oversimplified. People don't typically shift their political beliefs and allegiances just because a country has become polarized. People don't generally move from the center to the outer edges or vice-versa just because of a prevailing mood. If you had said that polarization tends to emphasize the views of those already on the extremes while de-emphasizing the views of those in the middle, I could agree with that. Moderating voices can get drowned out during polarization. But that doesn't mean they stop believing in moderation. – sanitycheck Mar 9 at 14:02
  • This answer on a very similar question is relevant: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/43233/… – Joe Mar 9 at 17:01
  • I agree that this is a duplicate of Why isn't there a serious attempt at creating a third mass-appeal party in the US?. – MJ713 Mar 9 at 17:20
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I would question the innate assumption in your question, particularly the notion that the parties in the US are split (and relatively evenly split) between centrists and stronger viewpoints. Most notably, 73% of Republicans self-identify as conservative (as of 2019), whereas just over 20% self-identify as moderate; this is in contrast to the figures 25 years ago, which were 58% conservative and 33% moderate. On the other hand, 49% of Democrats self-identify as liberal, compared to 36% who self-identify as moderate, and 14%(!) who self-identify as conservative. The percentage of liberals in the Democratic party is also much higher than it was 25 years ago, while the percentage of moderates and conservatives has declined, but even at the time the Republicans were much further to the right (in self-identification) than the Democrats were to the left; in 1994 25% of the Democratic party self-identified as liberal, an equivalent percentage(!) self-identified as conservative, and 50% self-identified as moderates. Even among independents, there's only a plurality of moderates, not a majority; and looking at the electorate as a whole, there are more people self-identifying as conservative than centrist (and more of both than liberals).

Source for this data: Gallup polling. There's also a good discussion on Five Thirty-Eight that more particularly addresses your topic.

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  • The nutshell version of the last article being that centrist moderates are only 10% in the US. (That fact is in an annoying "drop down" hidden portion of the article.) – Fizz Mar 9 at 6:32
  • Whether or not the assumption matches the current political climate is irrelevant to the question. Surely a question-raiser is permitted to define the scope of their own question! – sanitycheck Mar 9 at 14:05
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    @sanitycheck In this case I think the fact that the assumption is incorrect is (effectively) an answer to the question; part of the reason why the US doesn't have a center party is because such a party wouldn't be as viable as OP presumes it would be. – Steven Stadnicki Mar 9 at 16:26
  • I respectfully disagree. The poster's question was: "Has this happened in the past? If not, why not?" So whether or not it could happen in the present does not answer the question and is therefore irrelevant. The question's scope was in the past, not in the present. – sanitycheck Mar 9 at 17:23
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It has not happened the way you described in your question. There have been times in US history when new parties replaced old parties. For instance, the collapse of the Whig party in the mid-19th century led to the creation of the modern Republican Party. The Whig party itself emerged with the collapse of the Democratic-Republican party in the 1820s and thus replaced the old Federalist party.

Just before the Civil War broke out, there were actually four major political parties that shaped the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. But those parties didn’t exist because of a need for a centrist party. Rather, they existed because the South wanted to have different parties from the North.

About the closest we ever came to having what you described occurred when former president Teddy Roosevelt split from the Republican Party and formed the Bull Moose Party in 1912. But that party didn’t survive beyond that election.

The way that the Electoral College is structured in the Constitution basically makes it difficult or even impossible for a major third-party to coexist with the two major parties.

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This answer does not talk about history; it is only about what stops this from being a possibility now and ever since we got to the point where the only parties with any power were Democrats and Republicans.

It takes way too much support in the system of how the U.S. is set up for this to ever be possible in the foreseeable (or really any) future.

The U.S.'s electoral systems are really just a large number of very separate elections.

Legislative, presidential, etc. elections all divide votes into groups with no bearing on each other: representatives in districts, senators in states, and the president also in states due to the electoral college.

This means that, for example, if in an election for a state house district the Democrats get 50.001 percent and the Republicans get 49.999, the fact that the Democrats only got .001 points more than the Republicans does not mean anything; having even a margin of victory of only 1 vote does not get reflected in the current system. The seat is given to the Democrats, and the votes for the other party doesn't do anything.

As the two major parties are so large and this system means that even almost getting the most votes does not award you anything, structurally it is essentially impossible to become bigger than both of them in any meaningful election at this point. The systems are all winner-take-all per district/state*, making it so that even a party that gets a great third or second place in a large number of elections will have nothing to show for it.

Because the two major parties are so giant and the system is winner-take-all for all elections, it is impossible for another party to get enough votes to gain any representation.

*except for Nebraska and Maine in presidential elections; I do not know of any state legislatures with more proportional systems.

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  • See also Duverger's Law. – Steve Melnikoff Mar 9 at 13:19
  • Re "...doesn't do anything.": a half truth. In that election cycle, those votes don't do anything, but those votes nevertheless do signal to the public, the government, and the parties how voters then felt, upon which interested parties gauge future allocation strategies for the next election cycle and beyond. It is an important feature of democracy -- those who doubt this should imagine how different things would be if the vote counts were kept secret, and only the outcome was known. – agc Mar 9 at 18:35

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