The Third Party Opportunity
If one is to emerge, it must start at the local level, and Massachusetts, where the GOP has all but collapsed, presents an enticing first target.
Given the grumbling about America’s two main political parties, some want a viable third option. A former Democratic presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, has launched the Forward party, and the Serve America Movement and the Renew America Movement have joined him.
Yet trying to build a political party at the national level is a fool’s errand. Mounds of political science research have helped explain why America’s political system falls into a stable equilibrium with two political parties.
Instead, those seeking to launch a third political party are better off starting locally by targeting states where one party has effectively collapsed. By targeting these voids, they have a much higher likelihood of changing the political status quo over the long run.
Massachusetts is a poster child for a state needing a new political option. As the Republican Party in Massachusetts has moved to the fringe, it’s all but disappeared. The statistics are telling.
With the departure of America’s most popular governor, Charlie Baker, Massachusetts Republicans have no statewide elected officials; the state also has no Republican members of Congress, and Democrats have supermajorities in both the state house and senate.
This environment is ripe for a new political party to gain a foothold. The theory of disruptive innovation, which covers how upstarts uproot well-established players in markets, illustrates a way forward.
The theory holds that new organizations shouldn’t compete against the mainstream paradigm at the outset. Trying to get enough voters and donors to compete nationally, in other words, isn’t a smart idea.
Instead, new, untested organizations that transform markets do so by serving individuals who feel they have effectively run out of options. This is called competing against “nonconsumption.”
By competing against nonconsumption, all the new offering has to do is be better than nothing. From here, it can get its sea legs, improve, build momentum, and then transform a market.
Although the theory is not a perfect match for politics, its conclusion yields valuable insight. Where could a third party take root? The answer is in states where the second political party alternative is essentially nothing at all.
That describes Massachusetts, where voters like moderate governors and yet there isn’t much of a Republican party — fewer than 9 percent of voters are registered Republicans — and there is no moderate party option.
This strategy of lifting a page from disruptive innovation theory and targeting nonconsumers is not unknown in politics. Speaker Pelosi wielded the theory in recruiting Blue Dog and gun-toting Democrats to capture wins in blue states, for example.
Yet once elected to national office, these individuals didn’t stop the leftward lurch of the Democrats. That’s explained by another corollary of the disruptive innovation theory, which shows how a third party could change the nation’s politics.
That corollary states that when any organization considers a new idea that doesn’t fit its business model, the organization either rejects the idea like a foreign antibody or twists and turns the idea to make it fit its model, not the people it was designed to serve.
For an example of the first, see the rejection of a politician like the senator of Arizona who is now a former Democrat, Krysten Sinema. For an example of the second, see how relatively little impact centrist Democrats have had on the party’s prevailing liberal orthodoxies as of late.
Instead, Ms. Pelosi and the Washington machine have sucked them up and remarkably held them in line to create a solid voting bloc that doesn’t always adhere to what the voters outside of D.C. might desire.
Yet a third political party built from the ground-up in states where there is a complete void of a political party could construct something different and sustainable over time. If such a party built momentum, it could gain recognition, support, and money.
Then maybe it could have a real impact at the national level and shift the political sands in a way that hasn’t happened since the GOP replaced the Whigs some 170 years ago, leading to Lincoln’s election during another time marked by stark polarization.