We Need a Toyota of American Politics

The American political system has reinvented itself in the past and now is the time to do it again via the creation of a third party.

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Editorial cartoon satirizing the government shutdown.

In 1970, the Big Three American automakers (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) controlled 86 percent of the domestic auto market.

Even so, consumers were increasingly aware back then that the products coming out of Detroit were shoddy. When I was growing up, the most exciting part of every family vacation was when the family car broke down in some interesting, out-of-the-way place. We'd get to miss school for extra days as a small-town mechanic tried to get our American station wagon running.

And then Toyota came along. The Big Three tried to argue that American consumers were not interested in small cars, or that compact cars could not be sold profitably. Many of these arguments were unconvincing at the time; in hindsight, they are ludicrous. Four decades later, the Big Three automakers control less than half of the American auto market.

Why am I trotting out this seemingly old story? Because I think it is analogous to our current political system. America has two tired, intellectually insipid political parties, each more than 100 years old. And they are producing a shoddy product. The two parties see only each other as the potential competition. Sure, voters can describe themselves as "independent," but when an election rolls around, the only real choice on the ballot is Republican or Democrat.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

We need the Toyota of American politics. There can be something better, if we have the imagination and political will to embrace it.

I'm delighted to be blogging for U.S. News & World Report. I plan to use this space to make the case for political innovation in America, and to illustrate how that innovation might work. I teach public policy at Dartmouth College. I've written about American politics in various capacities for two decades. I ran for Congress once in 2009. (I lost.) Most relevant here, I have written a book called "The Centrist Manifesto" that makes the case for a third party to represent the political middle.

To borrow a phrase from New York Times columnist David Brooks, the time has come for "an insurgency of the rational." Since the government shutdown, the murmur of public disapproval in our government has grown to a roar. In particular:

Support has never been higher for a third party: According to a Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans say that America needs a major third political party because the "Democratic and Republican parties do such a poor job of representing the American people." That is the highest level ever recorded since Gallup began asking the question a decade ago.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Most Americans (70 percent) feel the country is headed in the wrong direction: A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that Americans are unhappy with Obama, the Republicans, the Tea Party and probably even the tourists in Washington D.C. Voters are more willing than ever to blame their own elected representatives. Nearly two-thirds said it is time to "give a new person a chance" rather than re-elect their current representative.

Meanwhile, Americans are less divided and partisan than the legislators who purport to represent them: An Esquire/NBC poll found that the American political middle is alive and well. By their reckoning, half of Americans are centrists.

The authors of the poll concluded:

Everything we are told about politics in America today — that there is no middle ground between left and right, blue and red, us and them — is wrong. The data, compiled by the Benenson Strategy Group (pollster for Obama for America '08 and '12) and Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies (lead pollster for Romney for President), show us there is a large group of American voters—even a majority—who make up a New American Center that is passionate, persuadable, and very real. They are merely waiting for Washington to find them.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

What would a political version of Toyota look like? We ought to start with a set of principles that can unify American moderates who are fed up with the partisanship of the left and right:

  • Fiscal responsibility: Get the government's books in order for the long haul, so that we're not stealing from future generations.
  • Environmental responsibility: This is no different than fiscal responsibility. We shouldn't live better today by passing on the costs to future generations. Ignoring climate change is just as irresponsible as refusing to fix our unsustainable entitlement programs.
  • Social tolerance: The closest we can get to a ceasefire on social issues is to let Americans do what they choose when it doesn't affect other people. That might be marrying someone of the same sex or keeping a gun in your home. (Of course, when you take the gun outside, we need to talk.)
  • A genuine commitment to economic opportunity: There is stuff government needs to do: Build infrastructure, ensure access to education, provide a safety net for the truly disadvantaged, protect the environment, catch criminals and so on. Let's focus on doing those things.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Most important, there has to be a pragmatic effort to get stuff done and solve real problems. I'm not saying that everyone will support a third party. Hey, not everybody bought a Toyota Corolla when it hit the U.S. market. But a lot of people did. Because for them, it was much better than the alternatives.

The American political system has reinvented itself in the past. (Do you know any Federalists or Whigs?) Now is the time to do it again.

When I was young, every car my parents drove was American. That was just what people did.

Now my parents drive a Lexus. If that can change, so can American politics. Right now, both the Republicans and the Democrats are producing too many lemons.