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Is Now the Time for a Third Party?
Building a viable third party will require work, perseverance—and time
As we approach a presidential election year, it’s appearing increasingly likely that 2024 will be a rematch of the 2020 candidates. For many Americans, this is a disheartening turn of events.
All national public opinion polls show former President Donald Trump dominating the Republican field, with his lead over his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, reaching over 40 points in some surveys. Trump’s legal problems—he’s been indicted four times—have only enhanced support among the party faithful. On the Democratic side, President Biden also has no formidable challengers at this point, though there are rumblings among some in his own party that he should step aside for a younger candidate.
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But polls show that both Biden and Trump are unpopular nationwide, and many are wary of having the same two candidates again: A recent Quinnipiac poll found that nearly half of all Americans would consider voting for a third-party presidential candidate next year. Thus, there does appear to be fertile ground for a political alternative to the major parties and their probable candidates. But is now truly the right time for a third party? Could a third party actually mount a formidable campaign against the major parties?
Two or More?
It’s common for Americans to dislike—even hate—political parties. Our distaste for parties goes back to the very foundation of the republic. George Washington warned against parties in his Farewell Address, and Thomas Jefferson is supposed to have said that if there were parties in heaven, he would rather not go.
But the story is much different among political scientists, who see parties as essential to the health of democracy. Parties, they say, are a needed mechanism for elected officials to get things done, and they serve to unify an opposition team as a counterweight to what government is doing. Furthermore, parties help create clear choice for voters so that they can hold the elected accountable. But even though political scientists tend to appreciate what parties do, there are still disagreements about these institutions. Probably the central one is how many parties a country ought to have: Is a two-party or a multi-party system best?
But first, let’s take a step back: Why are parties essential for democracy? Parties simplify a chaotic world for average citizens. People are occupied with jobs, family, hobbies and church. While politics may touch their lives, it is not the center of their existence. Thus, parties offer a way to be connected to the world of politics with relatively minor effort. For voters, parties can create a kind of default position—they offer a label that immediately signifies which “team” a candidate is on and whether the candidate’s values and positions match a voter’s own. For people less attached to an individual party, parties can still signal whom to credit for the good times or whom to blame for the bad times. Thus, parties make the political world manageable for many people.
Still, why does America have just two major parties—and why has this been essentially true since the founding of the constitutional order?
First of all, most U.S. elections are decided via “first past the post”—the candidate who gets a plurality of votes wins. According to Duverger’s Law (named after political scientist Maurice Duverger), having single-member districts with plurality winners results in a two-party system, while having multi-member districts, in which proportional representation decides the outcome, leads to multi-party systems. Political history largely bears this out.
The logic is that there is no value in coming in second, which encourages two large parties to compete for electoral offices. In multi-party systems, proportional representation tends to give weaker parties some seats and some level of influence over governing. In the U.S., however, coming in second gets a party nothing.
Second, the authority within the purview of the presidency cannot be shared. In countries where the executive arises from the legislature—as in most parliamentary systems—many parties can divvy up cabinet seats as they form a governing coalition. And, although Americans tend to see prime ministers as somehow equivalent to our president, that’s not really the case. Prime ministers are like captains of a team. In the U.S., the president is the head of the executive branch. Cabinet members serve at his or her pleasure.
These two factors foster conditions that promote a two-party system. But the two major parties themselves have also contrived to maintain the two-party system. Automatic ballot access for the winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries is written into state laws. Therefore, the two major parties don’t need to devote resources to getting on the ballot. Yet third parties must devote a great deal of effort to this burdensome task.
We also shouldn’t discount the simple fact that American history has long been dominated by the two parties. Both Republicans and Democrats can trace a direct institutional continuity back to pre-Civil War times—and indeed, a more capacious understanding of what constitutes party history would allow the Democrats to trace their founding back to the Washington administration. There is a great deal of historical weight that provides a strong foundation to the two major parties we have today. In some ways, our politics is unimaginable without Democrats and Republicans.
As a political scientist myself, I have long argued for the benefits of a two-party system, at least for the U.S. First, even taking into account its failings, the two-party system has served the U.S. well. While I personally tend to have more liberal sensibilities, I do have conservative inclinations, and one of those is “don’t fix what isn’t obviously broken.” Second, and related, the two parties provide a needed stability to our political system. The U.S. is a large, highly diverse nation, and the two parties have done a good job at assimilating and aggregating political groups and views.
Third, the two parties as “large tent” parties have always shown themselves to be willing to accommodate new groups and open to “capture.” Why create a third party when you can simply take over an existing one? Finally, democracy is built on the notion of compromise. We accept others as equal members of a broader group. The internal fights of the two large parties reinforce the notion that members are part of a team and that you must engage in some compromise in order to succeed. In this sense, the two parties have schooled us in how democracy works.
That said, given the state of American politics today and the disillusionment many Americans feel about the two major parties, I am open to revisiting this question. It’s certainly a natural time to reflect on the system we have today and ask whether it is working. Many people are deeply worried about America’s political future, and often that worry is bound up in the parties we have.
So are parties really a big part of the problem? It’s undoubtedly true that many Americans feel detached from the major parties. More and more Americans identify as independents. Of course, one of the tricky things about this “detachment” is just how detached people really are. Political scientists have been discussing this for decades: Are Americans really independents or are they closeted partisans? Some interpret the rise in independent identification as a sign that the two parties are weak—and that a strong third option would attract a great deal of support. Others believe that while people say they are independent, they are in reality consistent and loyal supporters of one of the major parties.
Another problem is that these days, the two parties are too partisan—too tribal—for many Americans. For them, neither party feels quite right, ideologically speaking. Take, for example, people who consider themselves socially liberal and fiscally conservative—those whom we might call libertarian. Which party should such people call home? While Democrats tend to be better at espousing a classical liberal view of personal freedom on social issues, they also embrace a more robust federal government in protecting groups, righting historical wrongs and exercising the government’s tax-and-spend function.
A smaller, though intellectually robust group, is the exact opposite—many of whom might fall into the so-called “national conservative” camp today. These people are socially conservative but embrace big government for economic and moral reasons. Such people might oppose gay marriage and abortion rights, but they also believe the federal government should provide jobs for citizens, a healthy economic safety net, and robust regulation of the economy to make it fairer in their eyes.
But the problem isn’t just that the two-party system simply doesn’t fit certain groups well. Additionally, many of the major parties’ leaders and activists have grown more extreme in recent years. Long gone are the days when there were liberal Republicans or conservative Democrats. Without those kind of countervailing members, each party has moved farther away from the center—farther away from positions that make compromise easier.
Paving the Way for Third Parties
There do seem to be good reasons to shake up the current party system. But however eager we may be to make an immediate change, I don’t think now is the time. However, now could be the time to start laying important groundwork for the future.
The next election will be hugely consequential. The emergence of new parties now would threaten what should be a clear choice between two starkly opposing views of the current situation. A second Trump term would likely bring efforts to end the independent civil service, to take the U.S. out of NATO, and to shift the American approach to the war in Ukraine. A second Biden term would be a continuation of things as they are.
But a third party would muddy the waters, when 2024 should be a referendum on the policies and ideas just mentioned. 2024 will offer us a clear choice about the state of our democracy. Trump proposes a radical transformation of our political system, while Biden emphatically believes that Trump is a danger to our democratic institutions and heritage. Put simply, this is not just an election about raising or lowering taxes a few percentage points: Bigger things are at stake.
Having said that, there are steps the U.S. can take if a robust multi-party system is the ultimate goal. Of course, to really weaken some of the foundation stones of a two-party system, we would need to transform our presidential system into something more like a parliamentary system. That would require major constitutional surgery—never an easy task.
But there are some things that, while still difficult, could be done. The most important would be making it easier for third parties to get on the ballot. As I mentioned earlier, the major parties have automatic ballot access. Lowering the hurdles for other parties to gain ballot access could make it more likely that a third party could actually mount a viable challenge. I can imagine voters approving statewide ballot initiatives that give third parties automatic ballot access. Americans love to champion choice (just look at our restaurant menus!), and so framing lower barriers to ballot access as a way to give people options while upholding the democratic ideal of choice might be a winning strategy.
Another option would be the establishment of proportional representation for all legislative bodies in the U.S., with the exception of the U.S. Senate (given that all states are constitutionally guaranteed two senators). This could be accomplished via the creation of at large, proportional districts for state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives, and it would likely mean a dramatic increase at least in the size of the House. If we increased the size of the House by three or even four times, most states would have many more representatives, and elections with proportional representation could foster competitive third parties.
And certainly, third parties can’t expect to be instantly successful, particularly on the federal level. It’s important that third parties work on the state and local level to build their reputations and experience. Building up even a local competitive market—one in which the Green and Libertarian parties can run and potentially win against Democrats and Republicans—would be extremely valuable. If people with local experience in city government, school boards and the like then start to run for state office they would not only have governing, but electoral, experience.
All of this would, of course, take time. But I see that as a virtue. Too often, people hope for a quick political fix. Third parties look for a candidate with a “name” to run. People also look to wealthy, self-funded candidates—think of Ross Perot. But while that may have an instant appeal, taking on the two major parties is not going to be easy. Each has had well over a hundred years to entrench themselves in the system. To seriously take that on will require work, and if that groundwork is started locally or at the state level, it is more likely to create a firmer foundation.
After all, we’re talking here about creating a third party—not simply a vehicle for a single candidate who’s a third option in a given election. To truly create and foster a third party would require people to get in the habit of thinking of themselves as members of that third party. They must consider not only voting for a third-party candidate for president, but also for third-party candidates for House, state legislature or even city council races. Over time, this might create a real institutional force equal to the two major parties we have. Even if it were not to reach that level of power, it could be a significant factor that forces Republicans and Democrats to seek accommodations and compromises with that party.
It’s clear why so many Americans are frustrated with the current situation: The two-party system and the increased polarization makes many of us feel like we lack a political home. Yet building a third party (or additional parties) shouldn’t be viewed as a quick fix, but as a serious and long-term endeavor. This process offers us an important opportunity to rethink American political institutions, and that requires work and perseverance. All important things do.
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