The Wall Street Journal this week suggests that we should “Expect a Third-Party Candidate in 2012.” The authors claim the US is “in the midst of what we would both call a prerevolutionary moment, and there is widespread support for fundamental change in the system. An increasing number of Americans are now searching beyond the two parties for bold and effective leadership.”

This idea is a recurring theme in American politics especially because there is a large swath of people who do not identify perfectly with the conservative right or the liberal left. These citizens often identify themselves, or are called, unaffiliated, independent, or moderate. From observers firmly ensconced on the right or left, these citizens are sometimes considered unprincipled, confused, or muddled in their thinking!

To be sure, the political opinions of those who consider themselves moderate or independent are highly varied. A good place to explore the diversity of opinion on political issues is a 2011 Pew Research report titled, Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology. According to that report, 35% percent of voting Americans are classified as “Mostly Independent.” Among these Americans some tend to lean more Republican or conservative on some issues, some more Democratic or liberal. Thus even though there seems to be a large voting bloc in the “middle” of the political spectrum, that does not imply that all of these voters share a sufficient number of viewpoints to form a competitive 3rd party. For example, among the three groups in the survey classified as independent, 73% of the respondents in one group believe businesses make too much profit while only 13% of respondents in another group believed the same.

Nonetheless, if a 3rd party does emerge, it will have to be located in the moderate segment of the political spectrum if it is to be competitive with the prevailing parties. Only a “moderate” platform has a chance to attract enough Democrats and Republicans to one day capture a majority of votes.

But herein lies the dilemma. If moderates and independents do not share a sufficient number of viewpoints, then how can a new 3rd party unite them?

One critical feature of an effective 3rd party is that it has a simple unifying principle that will attract supporters. For example Green parties in Europe elect candidates that have strong environmental concerns. In the US, the Tea Party is effective partly because it stands on one simple principle; smaller government. However, the Tea Party is not a true political party. It has no central organization, and no convention organizing a slate of candidates at different government levels.

For a competitive 3rd party to arise it will have to stand for more than simply a position on one particular issue; instead it will have to have a unifying theme that can be used to establish positions across a range of economic and social issues. In this post, and several others to follow, I will identify what I see as some of the similar characteristics of many moderate-independents and based on this reflection suggest a few unifying principles that could possibly form the basis for a successful third party.

First, I think that most moderates-independents are located where they are on the political spectrum because they recognize that there are valid arguments made by both parties. Sometimes they are convinced by a conservative argument, sometimes by a liberal argument. There is a good reason for this. It seems unlikely to me that in the grand scheme either the conservative policies and positions are 100% correct and the liberals 100% wrong, OR liberals are 100% correct and conservatives 100% wrong. Instead there are strengths and weaknesses to every position and it is more likely that in the grand scheme both sides have some arguments that are stronger than the other side AND both sides have weaker arguments. Also, different people evaluate these strengths and weaknesses differently, which is why reasonable people can come to different conclusions.

In contrast, staunch conservatives and solid liberals (i.e., ideologues) are more inclined to believe that their opinions and positions are 100% correct and whoever disagrees is 100% wrong. Anger and hostility in political discourse arises because individuals can’t understand why others don’t see the logic of their own arguments and beliefs. To the ideologue the truth is crystal clear and any deviation from that ideology is considered unprincipled, ignorant or even traitorous. For example, many staunch conservatives are certain of their Christian principles, that the US is a Christian nation, and in their opposition to abortion and gay marriage. This is why every Republican candidate for President must declare his or her allegiance to these principles to have any chance of capturing the Republican nomination. On the other side, many solid liberals are certain in their belief in science and the ability to use human intelligence to guide the economy and society towards more just outcomes. This is why the left is so quick to discredit any viable political candidate on the basis of a presumed lack of intelligence. These unflailing beliefs also make ideologues inclined to view the opposition as an enemy that must be defeated. Victory presumably means ridding the country or the world of people who think incorrectly from their point of view.

Moderates-independents, on the other hand, are more inclined to accept that the truth is nebulous and that our ability to perceive it is limited. Consequently moderates-independents are more inclined to accept diversity of opinion on different topics. And it is also why independents themselves hold a diversity of opinion.

But a moderate position need not be an unprincipled one. It need not consist of a compromise in which principles are weakened in an attempt to appease the rigid sensibilities of the right and left. Instead a moderate position can be based on the recognition of the diversity of opinion and the search for principles and policies that allow people with different belief systems to live amongst each other. More on how to do this in later posts.

Finally it is worth noting that moderation has a long philosophical history as an ideal worthy of striving towards. Aristotle noted in the Ethics that, “ …virtue is concerned with passions and actions, in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success.” For example the mean virtue of courage lies between the deficiency of cowardice and the excess of rashness. Similarly temperance is a mean virtue between the deficiency of insensibility and the excess of self-indulgence. Today’s recommendation that several glasses of red wine per day could improve one’s long term health represents a moderate consumption ideal that lies between the deficient teetotaler and the excessive alcoholic.

I am not suggesting that conservatism is a form of deficiency and liberalism a form of excess, or vice versa, although I am sure many readers would be happy to provide examples why this is the case. Instead I merely wish to suggest that some middle position between extremes can be a virtue. A principled moderate platform that can appeal to people who lean a little left as well as those who lean a little right is possible. Stay tuned for further thoughts on this.