Opinion: Debt Impasse Raises the Question: Where are All the 3rd Parties?

Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot holds up a copy of the famous front page declaring Thomas Dewey the winner over Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. (1 Nov 1992)

The debt ceiling debate has been sucking almost all of the oxygen out of the room for weeks now, and it should be - there is nothing more important right now. It should come as no surprise that, in the face of an entirely politically created crisis - where the two major parties will neither live within their means nor pay for the debts they have voted to create - the chatter among those who aren't deeply connected to one party or the other for a centrist to moderate third party is at a high we haven't seen since the early 1990s.

This isn't just a gut feeling, or a relatively small of wonks' groupthink. Polling shows that we are seeing levels of anger and disappointment that we haven't seen in the public since the heady early days of Ross Perot's Reform Party, historic lows for major party approval ratings and interest in third party alternatives.

Fareed Zakaria had a great segment on CNN a few days ago on how we have gotten to such extreme political polarization. Laurence Kotlikoff's piece on Bloomberg View last week predicts "A Third-Party Candidate is Coming". Thomas Friedman's latest column says we need to "Make Way for the Radical Center". At Roll Call, Stuart Rothenberg laments that the center of the electorate "Can't Hold if There Isn't One Left.

Public discontent is growing, a groundswell for centrist alternatives is snowballing, and groups like No Labels are getting more attention. That tinderbox of discontent could just need the right spark to alight into a popular, centrist to moderate Tea Party type movement, sans the wingnut hyperbole, to unite the country and toss some of the corrupt and disconnected people out of office who have so poorly represented the views of the American people for so long.

Jeff Greenfield wrote a post that got a lot of buzz last week, talking about how one potential silver lining of the economic calamity that could come from a government default could be an "I'm MAD AS HELL, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" moment. This explosion of patriotic expression, in his fictional future report, leads to a centrist third party rising up and a bipartisan ticket taking the White House.

As much as there is almost nothing I'd rather see happen than this rising up, nothing is worth the loss of jobs and economic activity that a double dip recession would bring. But this scenario isn't as far fetched as one might think. In fact, a deep pocketed organization by the name of Americans Elect is aiming to do just that... get a bipartisan ticket of moderates on the ballot in all 50 states.

Unlike what some have said, Americans Elect is not a new political party. They are an organization that is just getting a bipartisan ticket where each candidate cannot be of the same party of the other, and holding an online primary where a member of one party will have to share the presidential ticket with a member of another, or an independent. They have no network of local chapters, and are organized as a 501(c)4, so called "Super PAC."

Just like any other candidate campaign, whoever ends up winning this online primary will have to put together a national campaign, and raise tens of millions of dollars, to have any chance of a good showing, much less a victory. If an economic collapse does happen, following a default, then something like this might be winnable.

But the more likely scenario is that of what most people who run for president are actually doing -  most people who technically run for president aren't running to win, they're running to raise their profile nationally. Sometimes this is so they can be seen as more of a contender next time, and sometimes they use the new fame in other ways. Barring that game changing event that drives the sleeping giant in the center into the streets, this is what I see the real promise of Americans Elect is this year - building the foundation for something bigger to come.

Regardless of the success of this one effort, it's clear that groups, campaigns, organizations and parties are springing up all over the country, in response to two major parties that continue to not listen. How long until that breaking point comes along is almost entirely up to the two major parties. The only question is whether it will happen slowly, growing from the ground up, or in a burst of centrist populist rage that follows a political disaster.

Solomon Kleinsmith is a nonprofit worker, serial social entrepreneur and strident centrist independent blogger from Omaha, Nebraska. His website, Rise of the Center, is the fastest growing blog targeting centrist independents and moderates.