Gio posed an excellent question in his “Wednesday’s Open Thread”: Given the sorry state of the Republican Party, should conservatives form a third party? But…what is the likelihood that a third party can win in the next election?
Here’s a good summary of the intransigence of the American two-party system and the chances for third parties.
THE AMERICAN TWO PARTY SYSTEM
For more than two centuries the two-party system has endured in the United States. It has had varying degrees of influence on American government. Why, when most other democratic countries have numerous political parties whose candidates are elected to public office, does the United States still have only two parties? Minor parties have formed, and they sometimes have received a significant number of votes. However, none of them has lasted. There must be some good reasons, and indeed there are at least three.
The force of historical tradition is a major reason the United States continues to have a two-party system. Since the nation began with two parties-the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists-people have grown used to the system. The longer it has persisted, the more unthinkable it has become to have it any other way.
AMERICAN POLITICAL BELIEFS AND VALUES
Another factor that has influenced America’s two-party system is the shared principles and ideals of the American people. In many other countries, the range of beliefs is greater, and disagreements run deeper. For example, France has a communist party that, though weaker than it once was, still gets a significant amount of support. It also has a strong right-wing nationalist party whose members have almost the opposite political views from the communists.
Likewise, Nigeria has for many years been locked in a serious dispute over who should control policy: the military or the proponents of democracy. The broad ideological consensus in the United States encourages just two large parties-with overlapping points of view-whose main focus is to win elections, not to represent vastly different sets of beliefs.
WINNER- TAKE-ALL SYSTEM
Probably the single most important reason that the United States has a two-party system is the winner-take-all electoral system, instead of proportional representation. In nearly all elections, from the race for the presidency to contests at the local level, the winner is the one who receives the largest number of votes. The winner does not need to have more than 50 percent of the vote, only one vote more than his or her opponents. Because a party does not gain anything by finishing second, minor parties can rarely overcome the assumption that a vote for them is “wasted.” Elections for national and most state representatives are based on single-member districts. One person represents the people within a small area, or district, of a state. No matter how many people run, the person with the largest number of votes wins. This encourages parties to become larger, spreading their “umbrellas” to embrace more voters. Parties without big groups of voters supporting them have little hope of winning, and often even have a hard time getting their candidates listed on the ballot.
Even though the two-party system is deeply entrenched in United States politics, minor third parties have popped up consistently through American history. They don’t last, largely because the winner-take-all electoral system gives them almost no chance of winning elections. The names of most of them are forgotten: the Free Soil party, the Know Nothings, the Liberty party, the Poor Man’s party, and the Greenback party. Others, like the Populists, Progressives, and States’ Rights Democrats (Dixiecrats) have certainly influenced the course of political history.
TYPES OF MINOR PARTIES
The minor parties that have won electoral votes tend to be economic protest parties, often based in a particular region. Minor parties are sometimes splinter parties, which split from a major party. The Populists were an influential economic protest party that gathered support from Midwestern and southern farmers who felt taken advantage of by big banks and companies. The Progressive party of 1912 and the Progressive party of 1924 splintered from the Republicans, gaining 88 electoral votes in 1912 and 13 votes in 1924. Often these parties form around charismatic figures- Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 (Bull Moose) or George Wallace in 1968 (American Independent). Like all third parties, they faded as issues changed, sometimes because the major parties eventually broadened their goals and addressed their concerns. Other minor parties do not always take on the goal of winning elections and electoral votes. Ideological parties often profess broad political beliefs and values that are radically different from the mainstream. For example, the Communist party (1920s to the present) wants to replace capitalism with socialism, a point of view that has never won electoral votes. Although members know they will not win, they persist in running candidates for office, hoping that they can eventually bring about a revolutionary change. Single-issue parties have as their main goal to influence one major social, economic, or moral issue; too narrowly focused to win large groups of voters, they often have no real desire to continue after the issue is resolved. For example, the Free Soil party formed in 1848 to prevent the spread of slavery and faded away in 1852.
THE INFLUENCE OF MINOR PARTIES
Besides attracting new groups of voters, minor parties have shaped American politics in two major ways:
Influencing the Outcomes of Elections – Even though minor parties have never won the presidency, and few have elected candidates to Congress, they sometimes get enough votes to determine which candidate from the major parties wins. For example, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party siphoned votes from Republican William Howard Taft, so that Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election of 1912. In 1968, George Wallace’s American Independent party undermined Democratic support in the South, helping Republican Richard Nixon to win. Some observers believe that in 1992 and 1996 Ross Perot’s campaigns hurt the Republicans more than the Democrats, ensuring victory for Democrat Bill Clinton.Encouraging the Major Parties to Face Important Issues – The “umbrella” nature of the two major parties causes them to look for ways to attract more voters. They pay attention to votes lost to a minor party that addresses a significant or appealing issue. Often the Democrats or Republicans will adopt the policies of the minor parties in order to attract voters back. In fact, the actions of minor parties have helped bring many significant issues to the public’s attention-from women’s voting rights and the income tax to the Social Security program and voter referendums. For example, the Progressive party championed eight-hour workdays and better working and living conditions for the urban poor, and both major parties eventually adopted this point of view.
Wood, Ethel, and Sansone, Stephen C. American Government – A Complete Coursebook. Wilmington, MA: Great Source Education Group, 2000.