If Manchin and Murkowski can’t start a new party, no one can

Five U.S. Senators – Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – could break away from their respective parties today and form a new centrist party which would have an inconceivable amount of power in the divided senate, depriving the Republicans and Democrats of guaranteed control and forcing legislation to move through them like kingmakers, backed, presumably, by the kind of money that Romney and Collins alone are able to command from donors.

They could be joined by a collection of members of the House, including Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger – two Republicans recently censured for voting to impeach Donald Trump for trying to stage a coup d’etat – plus middle-of-the-pack Democrats like Maine Rep. Jared Golden, who is currently trying to hold back a Republican challenger in that state’s second district while also trying to assure Democrats that his opposition to Build Back Better was principled (he opposed to a property tax change that Bernie Sanders also disagrees with).

The idea of creating a new party in the center isn’t particularly radical. It’s what Emmanuel Macron did as part of his bid for the French presidency in 2017. En Marche !, which means “forward” (sort of) and also, you’ll note, starts with the same letters as “Emmanuel Macron,” is now the largest party in the National Assembly. Most European countries have a center or center-right party – the Free Democratic Party in Germany, the Social Liberal Party in Denmark, the Liberal Democrats in the U.K., etc. – and the United States is sort of weird for having two … coalitions.

We’ve made the case on Pyramid before that the U.S. has two coalitions that contain multiple smaller parties. The Republicans made this unusually clear with its censure of Cheney and Kinzinger. A censure is the closest a party can come in the U.S. to kicking someone out (well, they could also eject them from the House Republican Conference, something the far-right Freedom Caucus has been itching for since last year). The Democrats have a similar conflict with Manchin, who has little interest in the party’s molasses-paced effort to reclaim the center-left and even adopt some very very tepid social democratic policies.

Why don’t they just leave, then? Ballot access could be the issue. Whoever wins a party primary gets automatic ballot access in the U.S. if the party has ballot access, and only the Republican and Democratic parties have universal ballot access. The rules vary state-by-state, with essentially fifty different rulebooks on how you get on the ballot. On the other hand, Lisa Murkowski won her seat in 2010 with a write-in campaign. And while third parties are hampered by ballot access rules, it’s mostly because they don’t have the deep pockets to push through them. Well-connected ex-Republican and ex-Democratic sitting members of Congress are a different story.

If it isn’t ballot access, is it maybe just fear? If Joe Manchin was a novice politician about to embark on his first bid, he would probably register as a Republican. Charlie Baker, the Republican outgoing governor of Massachusetts, would probably be a Democrat if he hadn’t been a Republican for decades already. But once folks get into a party it’s very hard to get out, and contemporary voters tend to prioritize a candidate’s party over any other factor. Waves of GOP defections during the Trump administration haven’t boosted the number of Democrats or even third party members, spare a slight boost in the Libertarians, who went from making up 0.4% of voters to 0.6% of voters. In that same time, the number of independents jumped by approximately five entire Libertarian parties. There are nearly as many independents as there are Republicans.

Democratic PartyRepublican PartyNot enrolled in any partyLibertarian PartyGreen Party
Political party membership in the United States per Ballot Access News

Independents are not independent. They tend to be just as rigorously partisan as those who identify with parties. Sens. Angus King and Bernie Sanders, two of the most well-known independent politicians, are reliably Democratic votes. Often, independent voters are those who are ideologically aligned with a party but break on a key issue; a 2019 Pew Research survey found that Republican-leaning independents tended to be more likely to support marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage compared to Republican partisans. These issue-breakers can explain why Floridians stacked their state government with Republicans the same year they voted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour.

They also show how politicians like Murkowski, Collins, Manchin, Romney, Sinema, and others are able to carve out their spots, and how a third party in the dead center – one that embraces social liberalism and fiscal conservatism – could be a genuinely competitive force in the U.S., while also freeing the Democrats to slide a little further left and creating a space for conservatives who maybe don’t want to be part of the new fascist party to escape.