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The Citizen

HKS fellow proposes third party

By Chrissie Long

Down with the donkeys and the elephants: It’s time for a new beast in American politics.

Disillusioned with the same old two-party system, many Americans have begun looking for alternatives.

Among them is political advisor and current fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Mark McKinnon who says that our current political system is so fractured that it is unable to address the big problems. He is proposing a new political force with a socially-liberal and fiscally-conservative platform designed to overcome special interests and confront our antithetical political system.

While he waits for the ‘third party’ concept to catch on, McKinnon has set up and organization designed to encourage bipartisan solutions called No Labels. With more than 600,000 members, No Labels is promoting various reforms such as a coalition within Congress aimed at addressing some of the intractable problems facing the government.

The Colorado-native, who worked 15 years for the Democrats and 15 years for the Republicans, sat down with the HKS Citizen to discuss the genesis of the third party, key factors to success and why the timing is right for a new player.  

What got you interested in the idea of a third party?

The notion that, in the greatest democracy in the world, there are only two choices is deeply ironic. But it is also problematic. We have a duopoly in our country of two parties that have held power forever. And there are a lot of consequences to that. What we have today is a system, run by two parties, which is completely paralyzed by hyper-partisanship. We can talk for hours on how and why it got the way it is, but certainly the two parties in power share a responsibility for the system that we have. I believe there are a lot of good people in the country who do not subscribe to either the Republican Party ideology or the Democratic Party ideology. Increasingly, more people describe themselves as independent. They would like an alternative and today they do not have any. I am quite certain that if they had that alternative at the right place and right time in the right form, they would respond in large numbers.

What is the central problem to the parties we have now?

I can summarize it in one word – paralysis. The current party system is not responding to the problems that we face. We have big-time problems that need big-time solutions whereas the current system is just incapable of responding. Now, there are lots of reasons for that.

There is the Citizens United verdict (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)), with the Supreme Court decision flooding special interest money into the system. It is driving people to polar extremes. There is one side talking about less revenue and the other side talking about more spending and nothing in the middle. I think that someone advocating that hybrid solution is exactly what the American people want and what needs to happen.

There are a lot of good people [in government]. But because of the nature of it today, [politicians] are more interested in scoring political points for their parties than they are trying to achieve any progress for the country.

Why don’t you think we can reform our current system? Why can’t we change the Republican or Democratic parties to be more of what you are looking for?

Because special interest money is rewarding what I call bad behavior, partisan behavior. The whole system is set up to reward more partisanship, not less.

Is a third party really feasible?

Yes, it is. It has to be the right time and the right place. Americans Elect tried last year unsuccessfully. But they did a lot of interesting things and paved the way for possibilities in the future. I think it is quite feasible for it to happen in 2016.

What would need to be in place for it to happen?

The key really is ballot-access, funding, and a candidate. The last time we had everything except for a candidate. We just couldn’t get a good candidate to step forward.

Who would be the ideal candidate?

Someone like Mike Bloomberg, or Jon Hunstman. Basically, people who are well-known, centrists; practical and bipartisan.

You had mentioned that to have a third party you need to have the funding for it. What is to prevent or separate the special interests from coming in to fund a third party in a campaign?

[Special interest groups] are not interested in progress. They are interested in the status quo. And they are interested in maintaining the power structure as it is because they like it. They do not want it to break up. They do not want change.

What is your research focus during the four months at HKS?

I have been doing a lot of work over the past few years looking movements to disrupt and dislodge the current power structure in American politics; to give people more voices and more choices. That is part of what I am doing here. We are looking at all the different sorts of movements and the people who are involved and trying to advocate for reforms to the current system. That includes a third party.

What has been your greatest surprise coming into HKS?

I guess what I am pleasantly surprised to see is that students have not become cynical about the system. I think this next generation has a real – what I would call – civic DNA. They are pragmatic and they are disappointed by the political system, but they are finding new ways to advocate and create change either through NGOs [or other organizations]. It is just not necessary to adopt traditional routes and avenues. I am encouraged by the resiliency of the next generation to fix a lot of what is broken.