In America, third parties are starting to seem like the wrong tool for change. This might be why.
There’s a weird phenomenon we see in tech a lot, called the inner platform effect. It takes a number of forms, but here’s the biggie: over the years, a dominant player in an existing landscape (say, Chrome for desktop browsers, or Facebook for social networks) will slowly add features to make itself resemble the entire outer system. So you used to use a web browser and some other applications, but now those other applications run in the web browser. And Chrome is an app, but now you can write Chrome apps. Facebook is a social network, but there are features to create private social networks inside it with closed groups and privacy targets. Now consider an internet forum: you might go to a politics forum to discuss politics, and a knitting forum to discuss knitting. But then the knitting forum gets big. You have friends there. You keep talking politics with your friends in the knitting forum. So you fix the problem by creating a politics section of your knitting forum.
Engineers and computer scientists complain about the inefficiency of all this. I sympathize, but I think it’s inevitable. All our systems are imperfect anyway; maybe this is just the wisdom of the crowd telling us to keep iterating, because it’s not right yet.
A political party is a thing we designed to get stuff done in a parliament. It’s an organization adapted for an outer government structure. You can make the case that our Constitution was never a good fit: George Washington did not want political parties at all, and many agreed. So maybe it’s no surprise that our system reached equilibrium with two parties revolving their platforms regularly around the “political compass” as identities and fortunes change.
Maybe our vision of many smaller parties pulling each other constructively towards various issues just doesn’t happen the way we do things. Maybe it wouldn’t fix anything and maybe it would; I just don’t want to focus on it as an end good in itself. What we really want is better representation, unheard voices heard.
We know the system changes, and we’re not myopically bound to a given political structure (except maybe the Constitution, lol). We want to make the system more just. Do we do that by creating a social network that competes with Facebook, or a browser that competes with Chrome? Many do; it feels more brave and independent to do that. But does it help more?
We have this resistance to leaping from working in the outer platform — “we’ll have our OWN political party! It’ll beat the other ones, through pluck!”…
…to working in the inner platform — “Now that this outer system seems to have stabilized, now that it has predictable cycles, it’s irrelevant to change. What can we do inside the Democratic Party?”
It feels like a defeat. But I have a secret: it’s what the right wingers did in the 60s. They took the Republican Party, found it unacceptably liberal, and then… worked within it. Their project has reached maturity now, and it caught on fire and is being destroyed by swamp monsters. But that’s not because of how they did it, it’s because of the hideous immorality of what they did and what they wanted to do, which was turn the federal government into an ATM that ran on fear and death.
The point is that those right-wingers in the 60s had the fundamental insight to jump into the inner platform. It only took them one person’s lifetime to utterly transform one of the political parties into an extreme right-wing national front. All the while, we were complaining that those same parties are totally unmovable Establishment forces. We haven’t paid attention to that lesson.
Even now, the same people who were flirting with a jump, with Bernie Sanders, have given in to the old frustration, the old nostalgia for an outer system. We want a new party and a new flag and I guess today we want Jill Stein, we say. I get it. I’ve also craved that kind of change. For years!
But the system has evolved. We’ve seen this before. The fight is on the inside.
Time to jump in.