Andrew Yang’s New "Forward" Party Isn't What You Think
On third parties in general, the Forward Party in particular, and why the outrage is overblown.
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There’s a new political party in America. Founded by entrepreneur, political candidate, and universal basic income activist Andrew Yang, the “Forward” Party’s platform focuses heavily on electoral reform, modernizing government, and bridging divides. The party launched in tandem with Yang’s new book, also called “Forward”, where he makes his case at length. Naturally, when news of its announcement broke, everyone freaked out, rushing to their keyboards to issue sweeping denunciations. Pontifical robes and ceremonial scepters materialized on their bodies as they proclaimed from on high that Andrew Yang, supposedly an unpopular loser who couldn’t lead his way out of a wet paper bag, was also somehow powerful enough to take down the country.
The attacks practically wrote themselves. “Third parties can’t win.” “The Forward Party is just going to be a spoiler for the Democratic Party.” “This is just a scam for Andrew Yang to get rich selling books.” “Andrew Yang is just sore that he lost twice.” The first two criticisms deserve to be seriously addressed. As for the latter, every author is chuckling at the notion of non-fiction publishing as a get rich quick scheme, and the further idea that anyone would go to the trouble of starting a political party — with all the ridicule and alienation it entails — in an attempt to boost book sales is beyond imbecilic. Likewise, the charge that this is an insolent act of pride doesn’t add up — again, this is an ego-annihilating enterprise. To create a third party in a hyper-polarized, emotionally volatile, deeply-entrenched duopoly is an act of pure self-abuse whose only conceivable motivations are a sense of civic duty or a fetish for masochism.
Most of this outrage is, as usual, ill-informed. I was sent an advance copy of Yang's book, and having finished it, it’s clear that there are some key misconceptions about the Forward Party and what it aims to do. As we’ll see, this ain’t your grandma’s third party — and the ways in which it’s different change how it should be viewed.
A Little Third Party History
It’s true that third parties are generally ineffectual in a country with a two-party system as dug-in as America’s. Within our current framework, even if the Forward Party somehow improbably merged with all other third parties — Libertarian, Green, Constitution, Reform, etc. — they would still have no prayer of victory at the presidential level, and only a very small chance of playing spoiler either.
In our nearly 250 years as a nation, no third party presidential candidate has ever won, and the results of US elections have only been swayed by third parties a handful of times — sometimes helping the Democrats, as in 1992 (and to a lesser degree ‘96), and sometimes helping the Republicans, as in 2000 (though there were many factors involved). In the past 20 years, third parties have not captured enough of the vote to function as spoilers for either side. Outside of a three-cycle blip in the 90’s, you have to go back to 1912 for the last election where a third party played spoiler, and given that Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party campaign finished in second, beating out the Republican incumbent Taft but losing to the Democrat Wilson, you could just as easily say that Taft played the spoiler for Teddy!
You may recall the controversy over the 2016 election, where Democrats partially blamed Green Party candidate Jill Stein for their loss, while Republicans blamed Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson for depriving them of a popular vote win. An important factor to keep in mind is that some portion of these voters probably wouldn’t otherwise vote at all. What drives voters to third parties is disaffection with the other choices, and a feeling of not being represented. And indeed, a new analysis of the 2016 election using “Data from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study to estimate a multinomial probit model of voting behavior... Indicates that Johnson and Stein did not deprive Clinton of an Electoral College majority, nor Trump the legitimacy of winning the national popular vote. We estimate that most Johnson and Stein voters would have abstained from voting if denied the choice to vote for their preferred candidate.”
To a larger degree than critics might want to acknowledge, third parties may be functioning as a way to engage people who would otherwise not be participating in electoral politics at all, rather than stealing votes from the duopoly and throwing them away.
A Somber Diagnosis
Andrew Yang spends the chapters in his book, when he isn’t recounting his own journey, taking a serious look at what’s broken in America. In a particularly illuminating chapter titled “Why Not Much Passes”, Yang paints an elaborate picture of a citizen inspired to run for office to make a difference. The reader is taken along for the ride with this hypothetical candidate, from their decision to run, through their campaign and all of the obstacles they face, through their early days in office, to what their day-to-day schedule realistically looks like.
We see how they must navigate the internal hierarchies of Washington and party politics, how little power they actually have, how inordinate amounts of their time are consumed fundraising, how they’re surrounded by lobbyists and special interests offering them favors. We go through the lies they tell themselves as they get little done and scheme for their futures, and how the system ultimately burdens them with obligations, incentives, loyalties, and quid pro quos that change them over time. When they are finally in a position of real power, a decade or two after their odyssey begins, they are a different person — and even the rare individual who could resist such corruption would be surrounded by colleagues who became creatures of the machine.
Yang discusses how our institutions live in a state of denial as they push onward, pretending, like that meme dog in the burning room, that things are fine, while by the numbers, they aren’t. Through a combination of ineptitude, partisanship, corruption, and obsolescence, the levers of power have become largely gummed up. Leaders and officials can do very little, and often don’t even want to. All they want to do — all they can do — is talk. And so messaging and rhetoric comes to replace action. Everything becomes performance. Politicians are judged, praised, or condemned not by what they do (or rather don’t do), but by what they say. Words become the most important aspect of politics, subjected to microscopic and melodramatic scrutiny as we war over which direction to police the language. If it seems like the culture wars have subsumed what everyone used to think of as politics a decade ago, it’s because traditional politics are now so paralyzed and bogged down that cultural issues seem comparatively more substantive and consequential.
Yang cites research indicating that politically disengaged people evaluate policies and ideas by asking “What will this do for me?” Politically engaged people, on the other hand, evaluate things through the lens of “What will supporting this policy say about me?” We are sitting at the convergence of a dozen negative feedback loops that reinforce themselves and each other, making us more tribal, identity-obsessed, punishing, and cruel. One of the Forward Party’s core principles in the effort to help de-escalate societal tensions is “Grace and tolerance” toward everyone, including those who hold different beliefs or belong to different sides. But the act of trying to bridge divides is itself seen as divisive in this deeply sick political culture. The fact is, there are people who are invested — financially, professionally, socially, or emotionally — in a mindset of scarcity, and the zero-sum battle of us versus them. In a time of runaway tribalism and universal meanness, being civil is a revolutionary act.
The Exhausted Majority
The Forward Party purports to present a vision for society that everyone can get behind. This isn’t far from claiming to be able to draw a square circle. The Forward Party will not unite the far-left and right, because although these camps are amusingly more similar to one another in certain ways than either would ever admit, they are also built on fundamentally different assumptions, values, and psychologies. No figure, movement, or set of ideas can unite these tribes, because part of their central identities is their opposition to each other. If you managed to find something the far-left and right could agree on, the moment they each realized that their agreement put them in league with the other, the alliance would be shattered.
The Forward Party’s more realistic appeal is to what the 2018 “Hidden Tribes” report calls the “Exhausted Majority.” The researchers identified seven political factions within American society. “Progressive activists” on the left, and “Traditional conservatives” and “Devoted conservatives” on the right are the “wings” of the political landscape. Between them are four other factions: “Traditional liberals”, “Passive liberals”, “Politically disengaged”, and “Moderates.” And what these four have in common is that they’re sick and tired of the wings sucking all the oxygen out of the room, and don’t like the stifling atmosphere it’s created. United by this attitude, these four groups, taken together, are referred to as the “Exhausted Majority” — and they make up 67 percent of society.
It’s true that the Republican base and the far-left are mostly unreachable. The former already have a home they like and have no reason to leave, and the latter are unable or unwilling to work with anyone (even each other). But while the wings are loud, they are dramatically outnumbered, and any party or movement that can galvanize a significant percentage of the Exhausted Majority can be a force in politics. It’s an unbelievably tall order, but the opportunity is there.
How the Forward Party is Different
The Forward Party has a platform that mostly transcends the left versus right axis to focus on reforms that would allow the system to be more effective, dynamic, and responsive. Core policies include open primaries, ranked-choice voting, democracy dollars, independent redistricting commissions, term limits, anti-corruption policies, updated economic measurements, data rights, and universal basic income.
The Forward Party is, or intends to eventually be a political party (getting officially designated as a political party is a process). But it is also a political action committee (PAC), a movement, and an idea. The party’s initial focus will be on getting electoral reforms passed directly via state ballot initiatives, supporting and endorsing candidates from existing parties who align with their goals, and growing to become a full party that can run its own candidates on ballots. Most notably, the Forward Party does not require members to unregister or un-affiliate with any existing political party. One can be a Forward Democrat or a Forward Republican. According to their site: “Due to the current electoral process, in the vast majority of races the Forward Party will be involved in, the candidate is likely to be running as a member of one of the major parties.” This effectively squashes most concerns over being a “spoiler.”
Yang has been coy about the Forward Party’s role in 2024, stating that their immediate goals are the 2022 midterms and enacting electoral reforms. But the party website makes clear that a 2024 presidential run is most certainly on the table. My warning is this: unless or until ranked-choice voting at the national level is implemented, the Forward Party would be wise to stay out of presidential elections. To do otherwise would be utter self-sabotage, and confirmation of everything critics allege. Without electoral and democracy reforms first, no third party has a chance, and the Forward Party will hemorrhage credibility and support if they make this critical mistake.
Disintegration Versus Managed Decline
Here’s what someone once wrote about third parties:
“More than 60 percent of Americans say that both political parties are out of touch, while 57 percent say there is a need for a major third party. But the structural forces make it nearly impossible. You can’t win races. You don’t have a capital structure financing you. The media will marginalize, attack, or ignore you. Partisans will say that you are empowering their opponents — whom they will characterize as a toxic threat — to win. You will lose friends who occupy every position of power in the nation.
It is nearly impossible to start a viable third party in the United States.”
That person was Andrew Yang. He goes on to describe what conditions would have to be present for a shot at success: someone with a national following who could raise big money and reach people independently, a crisis that wakes people up to the dysfunction and failures of our government, a set of ideas, principles, and policies with broad unifying appeal, and of course, a large number of people signing on to the movement.
It’s a daunting, thankless, and possibly insurmountable project. The kind that people wait to see fail, but will pretend to have always supported if it succeeds. Nobody sane is satisfied with the current state of affairs. Our choices have been between disintegration or managed decline. Those are unsustainable long-term options. Sooner or later, people will lose all remaining trust in our institutions. We don’t want to see what’s on the other side of that ridge. The answers are unclear, but I’m happy there are people out there trying.
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What we need is a party based on the tenth amendment, return nearly all government to the states, locals and the people.
I'm not against the idea of a 3rd party but I am against the idea that Andrew Yang is the one to do it. I organized for Andrew Yang in California, Washington, Nevada and Iowa. I am also a founder of Humanity FWD. Time after time Yang's inner circle showed themselves to be way above their heads and were terrible at identifying experienced people. When he put Liam in charge of Iowa my ideas of Yang started to crack. Liam wasn't even 20 years old. He had never ran a presidential campaign. He'd never even participated in one as a voter. Nevada was a huge fiasco where Snoop Dogg was on deck to interview Andrew Yang but his team just screwed that to hell and after everything was royally screwed Zach said "What's Snoop Dogg going to do to help get white voters in Iowa?" A month later they were grovelling for Dave Chappelle. Also do you remember his team not filing correctly in multiple states so he wasn't even on the primary ballot in those states? And then that tweet was dumb. That's why he lost in NYC. I wish the Yang Gang would say it, because at least then I'd know they were still in reality and not just in a cult. The point I'm trying to make is that while there is some merit to the idea of a 3rd party, this dude didn't lose twice because the establishment cheated him, Obama faced worse, it's because he sucked at organizing and his incapable of forming an effective team. He's way too loyal to subpar people that are more interested in advancing their career and pushing their unconventional ideas than learn how to win a Democratic race. Yang's platform isn't some revolutionary change, a lot of it is the Progressive agenda. If the Yang Gang actually stuck around and helped out in the Democratic party they'd realize that they have allies. Instead this cult of personality has blinded everyone to a very glaring fact that Yang sucks at delivering.