For a competitive 3rd party to arise it will have to have a unifying theme that can be used to establish positions across a range of economic and social issues. To be effective, that theme will have to attract supporters from the right and the left. Perhaps the best candidate for that unifying theme is the growing disdain the general populace has for special interests. Conservatives and liberals alike complain about the problems caused by special interest politics. Almost everyone can tell a tale about a policy or process that causes them to lose (screws them over) while at the same time benefiting some special interest. Anger arises in people who feel they have been ripped off.
One problem with the special interest issue though is that everyone is a part of some special interest. If you work in a specific industry, you have an industry interest. If you are part a union you have a labor interest. If you are over 65 you have a senior interest and health care interest. In you are male or female, you have a gender interest. If you have faith in a God you have a religious interest. Belong to a particular race and you have a racial interest. If you are an immigrant, a consumer, gay or lesbian, a friend of Israel, or have a child with autism, then you have characteristics that establish a special interest.
It is also natural to support policies that favor your own special interest. If you are a farmer, agricultural subsidies make sense; a worker in an import-competing industry, then protection against Chinese imports makes sense; a senior citizen, then social security and medicare in its present form is an absolute necessity; work at Goldman-Sachs, then government bailouts are needed; if you are poor and unemployed then benefit expansions are good; own your home then the mortgage interest deduction is important; …. I can go on and on.
The main problem with special interest policies is that each one is discriminatory; each special policy bestows benefits on some group of people at the expense of others. Usually supporters of a particular special interest policy will argue that their policy is good for the nation. But, usually that’s not true. Supporters of import protection will say the policy will save or create jobs, but they won’t talk about the higher prices to consumers. Supporters of bank bailouts will say the actions prevent the collapse of the financial sector, but they won’t say much about the risk to taxpayers. Social security and medicare beneficiaries will say that those benefits are only fair because they made payments into the system previously, but they won’t be willing to consider that generous future benefits will have to reduce the disposable income of future taxpayers. Unfortunately everyone considers their own special interest a necessity, or a right, and will argue that the elimination or change in their policy will surely harm the nation.
A potentially successful moderate platform could include a goal to reduce the influence and sway of all special interests. This is the kind of unifying theme that could draw bipartisan and independent support. Unfortunately an effective strategy to reach that goal is elusive. Consider the recent suggestions to simplify the tax code. This is a laudable goal since, as I’ve heard Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC say, “everyone knows the tax code is unfair!” The tax code contains all sorts of special exemptions for this or that interest group. Eliminating, or at least reducing, these exemptions are something many people can support. However, because every powerful special interest will fight to retain their handout, it will be difficult, or impossible, for politicians to actually make these changes.
The growth of the lobbying industry is a clear indication of how special interests increasingly control government. That growth makes sense once the government starts handing out more and more special favors. If you are a special interest group and you see others getting special benefits then it only makes sense to hire some representatives for yourself and have them track and attempt to influence the policy changes under discussion by government. If government is writing new rules that favor some over others, one might as well try to make sure some of those rules favor you.
One reaction to this situation has been attempts to limit the influence that lobbyists have over politicians. Campaign finance reform, rules regarding political action committees, and many other examples, are attempts to restrain special interest influence. Despite these rule changes, lobbyists and special interests continue to exert their control
A moderate candidate with a platform to tackle the special interest policies could focus national attention on the problem. Unlike a Republican or Democrat, a moderate candidate would be free to highlight that some special interest policies benefit traditional conservative interests, while others benefit traditional liberal interests. Surely one reason for the continuing growth of government influence in both Democratic and Republican administrations is because each party in power directs policies towards their own special interests. The problem is on both sides of the aisle, which may be why a candidate from either side will be unlikely to tackle the problem.
Lately there has been a lot of talk of sacrificing for the good of the nation. President Obama has said that millionaires and billionaires need to contribute more. A moderate candidate might be the only one who could explain and emphasize that the shared sacrifice all Americans should consider is a willingness to accept the elimination or adjustment of policies targeted at their own special interests. Chances are very good that the benefits each of us will reap when others’ special interest policies are revoked will more than outweigh the losses we will incur by losing our own. The goal should be a government that does not discriminate, rather than the government we now have in which special interest discrimination has become its very foundation.