The Third-Party Conundrum

Is the American Government Doomed to a Two-Party Political System?


Jason Garshfield

American politics must look so boring to outsiders.

With few exceptions, in every election for the past 150 years — at local, state and federal levels — the Democratic and Republican parties have dominated. There are a few Independents in Congress (like this one guy Bernie Sanders — you might have heard of him) but not a single third-party member.

Most other countries’ political systems tell a very different story. For instance, the British House of Commons contains Members of Parliament from thirteen parties, including Scottish, Irish and Welsh interest parties, democratic socialist groups, the United Kingdom’s Green Party and even the radical right-wing UK Independence Party.

Why don’t any parties this crazy exist in America? Well, actually, they do, you just don’t hear about them. Lesser-known American political parties include the Alaskan Independence Party (which advocates for Alaska to secede from the union), the Reform Party, the Prohibition Party, about a dozen small socialist and communist factions and the United States Pirate Party. And then there are a few you’ve probably heard of, including the Green Party and the Libertarian Party.

The Green Party is an offshoot of the global green movement, which advocates a progressive, socially democratic left-wing agenda that is in many ways more ideologically pure than that of the Democratic Party. Typically, the Green Party’s base consists of left wing voters who are disillusioned with the Democratic Party’s slow pace of progress. The Libertarian Party, which advocates for broad, across-the-board cuts in the size and scope of government, caters to an even more unorthodox constituency: socially liberal and fiscally conservative voters who have no place on the traditional left/right spectrum.

So, why do the political outliers of Europe get so much more of a say in government than ours do? The answer has to do with the structure of government. In a parliamentary system, the composition of the legislature is typically based on proportional representation: if a party gets enough votes above a certain threshold, it will receive representation in the legislature proportional to its share of the vote. In a “first-past-the-post” system like ours, however, when candidates run for a single seat in each district and the executive is separate from the legislature, Duverger’s Law applies. In such a system, voters naturally coalesce around two fairly centrist parties, because the more radical voters on both sides will tend to vote for the candidate slightly more like them — the “lesser evil” — to prevent the less-preferred candidate from winning.

Remember Ralph Nader? He ran for president with the Green Party in 2000. Although Nader only got a small fraction of the votes, he probably took enough votes away from Democratic candidate Al Gore in key battleground states, and thus George W. Bush was elected president. Although Nader supporters might have preferred him over either mainstream candidate, they would probably have still preferred Gore to Bush, and for the next eight years many of them likely regretted voting for Nader.

Will third parties ever start winning national elections? The short answer is no, unless there was a radical overhaul of the American political system. But the current system is not as limited as you might think. In America, there is more ideological diversity within the parties than there would be in a nation with many small parties. This, combined with another quirk of the American political system — the Electoral College — could potentially provide third parties with a chance to break into the mainstream.

You see, in “swing states,” every vote in a presidential election counts, but in states like California, where the electoral votes are pretty much determined, people are free to vote for whichever presidential candidate they want without the risk of allowing the “greater evil” to get elected. Third party candidates still won’t win, but if sizable percentages of voters start to jump ship and vote for third parties, the major party bosses will take notice, and this knowledge will factor into their decisions about which candidates they should run.

Third parties have changed the dialogue before. The Socialist Party, which was a major alternative force in American politics in the early twentieth century, won very few elections and eventually faded into oblivion, but may have threatened the status quo enough to inspire many of the New Deal and Great Society reforms. Third parties can make a difference, they just rarely get credit for it.

So, this election, if you are voting in California, vote your conscience. Read up on the lesser-known candidates and their platforms, particularly the Libertarian Party, and make your choice. Your candidate might not win, but it might help to shift the dialogue enough, so that, in a few decades, the Democratic and Republican parties might be Green and Libertarian in all but name.