The Rule of Three

Several times during our drought summer in New York, severe thunderstorms were predicted and the atmosphere complied—ashen clouds, intense humidity, barometric pressure sucking the curtains to the screen. But then nothing happened: no deluge from the heavens, not a single drop. And before you know it: sun again, that insidious free agent.

This has been my metaphor for our democracy in peril. Something threatening happens, and we think: “At last they’ll come round.” But the heavens never open; not a single drop. It turns into just another line crossed (He declassified everything that day while riding in a golf cart; all good!).

As America slouches toward November 8 and the anticipated next ring of hell, the appetite for new ways to save ourselves is pretty low. But people still have ideas—people like David Jolly, Christine Todd Whitman, and Andrew Yang, who at the end of July announced their new Forward Party.

There is certainly logic in a moderate party emerging to make the Republicans go the way of the Whigs. It’s like a recalibration of your oven or car idler when something skews the reading high or low. A once “normal” (in terms of following the rules of order) party shifts to radicalism and violence, and a moderate party pops up to sideline the extremists.

But while we need something to save us from Republicans, you don’t start a party with leaders in search of foot soldiers to assemble underneath. A party comes out of a movement confronting historical tides. The Republicans emerged because new territories were forcing decisions on extending slavery. With the Progressives it was antitrust, with the Populists the gold standard. The Grangers emerged to protect farmers, the Socialists to protect industrial workers, the Prohibition Party to protect families from drunken husbands and fathers, the Green Party to protect everyone from environmental threats.

A legitimate third party does not spring from an individual. Teddy Roosevelt benefited from the Teddy Roosevelt brand, but a lot of Americans wanted trusts busted. As a potential presidential candidate, Liz Cheney doesn’t stand for any movement, just the preservation of the rule of law. Candidates like Ross Perot and Ralph Nader basically wrecked things for one of the two parties.

That said, however, it is nonetheless odd that the Founders set up a government premised on just two parties given the degree to which Western Civilization favors the Rule of Three.

The separation of realms into three (animal, mineral, vegetable) dates to prehistory, but as a rhetorical technique, the Rule of Three can be traced to ancient Greece and Rome, suggesting that a trio of events, characters, or words (“Veni, vidi, vici”) is more effective and satisfying than any other number. It’s spelled out clearly in the Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end.

By the time of Jesus, three was the headliner—the holy trinity; the members of the Holy Family; Three Wise Men; three crucifixions; rising from the dead on the third day; dying at age 33; the concept of heaven, hell, and purgatory.

Although our Founders couldn’t see more than two parties, they picked up on the power of three—three branches of government; “of the people, by the people, for the people”; “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And lest we forget: we only won our independence with the help of third-party France (which followed our lead with Liberté, égalité, fraternité).

It seems that in history (though not in marriages), the Rule of Three is positive while the rule of two can only mean opposition—Loyalist or Patriot, Blue or Gray, Axis or Allied. The “Big 3” at Yalta was a model for everything from automakers to credit rating agencies to all of professional sports. We’ve divided the sectors of our economy in three—corporate, government, and nonprofit—and academics study history in terms of political, economic, and social influences.

Humans respond to patterns, and the optimal number of things that are required to create a pattern is three: “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”; “blood, sweat, and tears.” Most people can remember three things at the same time without taking time to study them. That’s why area codes are three digits and the first three numbers of phone numbers are set off with a hyphen. Even the names of companies are perceived more favorably if there are three surnames (Dewey, Cheatham & Howe) rather than two (Click & Clack).

To draw the viewer’s attention to particular elements of a composition, still-life painters rely on the Rule of Thirds to divide their work into thirds, vertically and horizontally, and then place the key elements along these lines or at the junctions thereof.

The Rule of Three shapes our childhoods—The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Rumpelstiltskin giving the queen three days to learn his name. 1-2-3, ABC, do-re-mi. We grow from small to medium to large as we move from primary to middle to high school. We stop, look, and listen; in the old days we would “Stop, Drop, and Roll.” Ready Steady Go.

The millennial obsession with threesomes has made that a household word. We have moved on from the idea of just two genders. And when we have a new third party, it is led by three people (David Jolly, Christine Todd Whitman, Andrew Yang).

In many ways, three seems a more prudent approach to governing. As Lee Drutman explained in a Foreign Policy article on possible fixes for our democracy: “A two-party system that by definition splits a country in half will reinforce and deepen identity polarization, pushing national politics even further into trench warfare.” He holds up proportional systems for avoiding “the binary winner-take-all conflict that so easily lets politics slip into an irresolvable zero-sum contest of us against them.”

The Founders could only think of two parties because they allowed their philosophical divisions to dictate how a government could work. What a truly viable third party could do is force us to look at our Constitution anew. But that original divide has remained with us for two and a half centuries. We can’t pass single-payer healthcare like advanced countries, we can’t get rid of the Electoral College that denies the popular vote, so how could we possibly launch a third party that was viable rather than just a spoiler?

As much as MAGA Republicans are fired up at the prospect of ad hoc Anchorman rumbles, the most probable culmination of our irreconcilable differences is a passive splitting in two, like an amoeba. A 2021 poll from the University of Virginia showed that 52% of Trump voters and 41% of Biden voters strongly or somewhat agreed that they would favor red and blue states seceding from the union to form their own countries.

Maybe what the Rule of Three can do to preserve American democracy is act like a rot scrubber. We need a party that actually governs to displace the Republicans in their current devolutionary state. Whether you count that as adding a third party to initiate the sun-setting of the debased GOP or as a line-item swap-out, that’s completely your call. §