Imagine There's No Majority: What Would Politics Look Like Without a Leading Party?

A new group aims to empower moderate politicians, but it's unclear how their success would affect government.
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A new group aims to empower moderate politicians, but it's unclear how their success would affect government.
Michael Bloomberg looks on before delivering a speech to delegates on the last day of the Conservative party conference, in the International Convention Centre on October 10th, 2012, in Birmingham, England.

Michael Bloomberg looks on before delivering a speech to delegates on the last day of the Conservative party conference, in the International Convention Centre on October 10th, 2012, in Birmingham, England.

A new group called the Centrist Project is organizing and attempting to empower moderate politicians and thus make legislatures function better. However, their approach could just as easily make politics function worse.

We've seen similar efforts to broker compromises between two polarized parties by funding independent centrists in recent years, including Unity08, Americans Elect, and No Labels. The Centrist Project has a somewhat different approach though. Rather than just focusing on the presidency and Congress, they're targeting closely balanced legislatures—including several state chambers and the United States Senate—with the aim of taking a few seats and depriving those chambers of a majority party.

This "fulcrum strategy" is an interesting approach and certainly more plausible, and potentially more effective, than other organizations' "Let's nominate Joe Lieberman and Michael Bloomberg" fantasy scenarios. But it also carries some problematic possibilities. I voiced some concerns over this strategy here, and I wanted to explain a bit more in this space.

To begin with, it's not at all clear the Centrist Project would succeed in winning these elections, even if they recruited credible candidates and raised a good deal of money for them. American election systems overwhelmingly favor the two major parties, and even when a third-party candidate seems plausible early on, support for such a candidacy tends to dwindle as election day approaches. Republicans and Democrats control some 99 percent of the partisan offices across the country, and that's not because third parties aren't trying.

OK, but let's say the Centrist Project does succeed in winning a few seats. What would happen? Well, both chambers of Congress, as well as 98 of the nation's 99 state legislatures, operate under partisan systems. The party with the majority of seats gets to organize the chamber, set the agenda, and install chamber and committee leaders that run the day-to-day operations. Depending on how polarized the chamber is and how much formal and informal control the majority has over its agenda, minority party members may have some influence or very little. But the entire chamber, as well as the other legislative chamber, benefits from knowing who is in charge. The majority determines what it can and can't pass into law; the minority determines how hard to fight various bills and organizes itself in preparation for the next election.

The Centrist Project, beyond vague commitments to fiscal responsibility and environmental stewardship, doesn't really seem to have much of a platform.

This order is thrown into chaos if no one knows who the majority party is. Take Colorado's state senate, for example, where Republicans currently hold the majority by one seat, 18–17. Imagine the Centrist Project succeeds in taking over a Republican-held seat with a candidate pledged only to its mission of being the fulcrum. Who is in charge of the senate? Who is its presiding officer?

Obviously, this is something that can be worked out, but it's not clear how that would go. The centrist candidate could cut a deal with one of the two major parties after the election and join them in a governing coalition, similar to what happens in multi-party parliaments. There'd be a lot of haggling prior to such a deal, with both major parties essentially trying to buy the centrist off (with policy stances, leadership positions, spending promises, or something else) to convince her to form a coalition. This isn't inherently terrible, although it would mean that voters wouldn't really be getting what they voted for. Voters, that is, don't know much about their state legislative candidates, but they do have a good idea what the parties stand for. If they see their party trading away some of its policy stances with the centrist in order to form a governing coalition, that wouldn't be very inspiring.

This isn't without precedent. Some state legislatures have even numbers of members and occasionally have equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, and some of those are occasionally able to work out bipartisan governing solutions ahead of time. During its non-partisan era, Minnesota had liberal and conservative caucuses, and sometimes a new unaffiliated member would be heavily courted by equal-sized caucuses. But it does contain the possibility for some chaos.

It's also possible that the centrist member would never quite reach terms with the two major parties. She could break off from one party in the middle of the session and form a new coalition with the other party, forcing the chamber to recalculate its agenda for the year. This would throw a good deal of legislation already in progress into limbo. It would undermine the sort of bipartisan planning that enabled Colorado to have a productive 2017 session, despite its record polarization, and make for a much less functional government.

But whoever this person is, it's really hard to know what kind of an effect she'll have without knowing what her policy stances are, and we don't really know that from the manifesto of the organization recruiting her. The Centrist Project, beyond vague commitments to fiscal responsibility and environmental stewardship, doesn't really seem to have much of a platform. "Solving problems" and a "functioning government" aren't an ideology. A functional and collegial legislature can be used in service of very bad ideas as well as very good ones. So far, this merely looks like a commitment to bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship. It's not clear to whom that appeals, how it would succeed, or what the country would look like if it did.

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