Can Running as an Outsider Within the Two-Party System Change the Game?

Is the two-party system dissolving before our very eyes? Is the nation witnessing the breakdown of the political process, as we know it? We are in one of the most fervent presidential contests to take place since maybe 1992, when Ross Perot jumped in and out of the race, challenging the status quo with his quixotic run. He surprisingly garnered 19 percent of the vote.

Or, maybe we need to look back even further to 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt formed the Bull Moose Party, breaking from the Republicans to find a real challenge to the two-party system.

Today, the establishment’s two-party system is being challenged from both the left and the right, but not in the expected way.

The effects of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s campaigns are taking hold, generating political discussion on such issues as race relations, immigration, income inequality, and job creation that we rarely see in such stark terms in a presidential contest.

Despite the fact that both candidates are running within the two party system, they continue to make headlines, amass huge crowds, and keep the traditional media pundits guessing the, all while touting an outsider message.

The impact of these two candidates and their — in some cases rabid — supporters, confirms one thing: the need and desire for independent candidates, or a third party option, is real.

1796 was the first time in our country’s political history that candidates at the local, state ,and national level ran as members of a political party. The Federalist and the Democratic-Republicans despised each other, not unlike the two parties’ sentiments toward each other today.

According to one Republican-leaning New York newspaper, the Federalists were “aristocrats, endeavoring to lay the foundations of monarchical government, and Republicans [were] the real supporters of independence, friends to equal rights, and warm advocates of free elective government.”

The establishment in 1796 resisted this new political party structure and failed to understand that the parties were established to promote democracy and solidify the sovereignty of the American people following the American Revolution.

Two hundred and twenty years later, the two parties have not only failed to understand that the current system is not promoting democracy, but is consciously and deliberately hindering it.

Ballot access is costly and difficult, legislative districts are partisan, the rules set up by the CDP (Commission on Presidential Debates) allowing a third-party candidate into the debates are unfair and undemocratic, and finally, the campaign finance laws…well since Citizens United, money just pours in every which way, making the stakes even higher for those on the outside.

So, of course, the salient strategy for any candidate, such as a Trump or Sanders, is to run inside the two-party system even while they tout an outsider’s message.

This inside-outside game, while it may be a smart calculation on behalf of both Trump and Sanders, does running within the system, using it as political cover, while running essentially as independents really change anything?

The question that must be debated and seriously considered is, If the political structure stays the same, doesn’t that by default keep the status quo firmly in place? If we keep running a two-party circus, how can we expand the tent for more independent-minded, or third-party candidates to enter and win?

Nonetheless, it comes as no surprise that both Trump and Sanders — running as outsiders within the system — are resonating big-time with the American people, particularly as both candidates address the frustration and perpetual disenfranchisement of the American people from the political process.

In 1992, Gov. Jerry Brown’s insurgent presidential campaign set out to challenge the status quo. Winning early states such as Maine, Colorado, and Connecticut while amassing crowds and money, which at the time was streaming in through an 800 number, Brown spoke to the simmering anger and frustration festering among the American electorate.

The campaign’s momentum, however, was strategically and systematically shut down by those inside the political process, including the mainstream media. A torrent of attacks against Brown ensued. From there, that year, the emergence of Ross Perot picked up the mantel where Brown left off.

In 2014, we saw a couple of strident independent down-ballot races for Congress and the U.S. Senate: the spiritual speaker and author Marianne Williamson’s independent run for Congress in Californian’s 33rd district, and Greg Orman’s challenge for the United States Senate in Kansas.

Williamson’s independent campaign sought to address the crisis of democracy in the U.S. During the campaign, she hammered home the message, “We have a corrupt system, one that has lost its `ethical center’ and places economic values before human values.”

Her speeches drilled down on how our economic orientation has a paralyzing stranglehold on American politics, Democrats and Republicans alike. While she helped shift the conversation among the other candidates in the race, addressing the corruption of money on the political process and other necessary reforms, and successfully activated many of those previously not politically engaged to vote, she came in forth among a field of 16.

Orman, for his part, ran because he, in his words, believed, “we’ve elected politicians who continue this broken system that caters to special interests and the extremists in their own parties rather than solving problems of the people who elect them.”

Ultimately, Orman lost his hard-fought challenge against the incumbent Pat Roberts, but not without giving the senator the fight of his life.

If we keep running a two-party circus how can we expand the tent for more independent minded, or third party affiliated candidates to enter and win.
The yearning among the electorate for independents, or a third party alternative to the two-party system, is real. But, as we’ve seen, the chances of winning are slim. In order to improve the odds, the remedy has to involve a serious structural shift.

Forming a national third party or a robust coalition that consists of a plethora of people, communities, companies, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, organizations and the like, which can organize around the country, like the Moose Party did, is a start. This coalition would address the issues important to all Americans, acting as the necessary backbone supporting candidates to run outside the two-party system.

Only then will the nation see substantial wins. Without such a new structure, it will continue to be very difficult to beat a Democrat or Republican candidate at any level of government.

Sen. Angus King of Maine exemplifies a successful independent candidate, but he ran in a state that favors independents. The party bosses in California and Kansas, however, were having none of it.

The latest Gallup poll from 2015 determined that 42 percent of Americans identify as independent. Trump leads among independents, while Sanders garners significant support from independents and younger voters.

Still, that does not promise voter turnout. Without it, and without a political coalition organized to support candidates who challenge the system, it’s an uphill battle. After all, big crowds make little difference if those attending don’t show up at the polls.

If former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg enters the race as an independent, and then becomes the first independent president of the United States, will that create a wave that shifts the tide creating a larger movement of independent candidates to run in future elections? Betting on a fantasy is not a great strategy.

In the meantime, those 42 percent of Americans who don’t identify with either party, those political reformers, influencers, and thought leaders who are striving for a real structural change, must have the vision and energy to create the type of coalitions around the issues that are critical to the survival of the Republic as we know it.

Otherwise, it will be more of the same: large crowds, lots of enthusiasm followed by more losses for those who seek change.

Tilling the soil might not be enough.

Photo Credit: Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com