Civics 200: The Talk Of A Third Party Versus The Reality

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the two major political parties, and then start saying that there should be a third party, which would be more in line with their beliefs.  I’ve been hearing it a lot recently on the national side from both die-hard liberals and die-hard conservatives, both groups absolutely convinced that “their” party has gone badly astray.  In the case of the Republican Party in this year, they have a point.  What all of these complainers fail to recognize is that this country already has a number of third parties.  There are currently a number which are on the ballot in almost all states, and three of them are fairly large.

I started thinking about this when I was in a discussion with a Sanders supporter, who, in the course of the discussion said that he “was more in line with Jill Stein than Bernie.”  Which led me to wonder if that were the case, why wasn’t he a member of the Green Party?  In looking at the gripes about the Democratic Party that characterize the frustrati and their followers, the Green Party seems to fit more with their purported beliefs.  They might be happier there, although whether the Green Party would be happy to have them is a subject for speculation.  If the Green Party isn’t quite a fit for them, it turns out there are quite a number of political parties to the left.  I see the same thing on the Right, that there are quite a number of parties that might be better fits for the people unhappy with the Republican Party.

If there are all those parties, and a lot of complaints about both major parties, why aren’t they serious players?  There are a several reasons for that.  The first, and really the biggest, is due to the system of government we have.  The wiki article I linked to at the beginning covers that, but the way our government is set up, it’s a “winner take all” system at each level.  In other words, if you’re running for the House, you’re running in a district, and the one who gets the most votes is the winner.  There’s no “statewide” or “national” voting for House members, and no “proportional representation.”   In a proportional representation system, if the Green Party were to get 10% of the vote in California, they’d have 5 House seats.  But since each of the 53 districts there is separately contested in our system, they would have to win in 5 districts to get that.   The only way to change that is to change the Constitution, and that is purposely a very difficult task.

The second big reason is that it’s a lot harder to set up a national party than people think.  Anyone remember the Reform Party?  Started off well, had some successes, and then … fell apart.  It’s just one of numerous parties to do so, and for most of the same reasons.  Purity wars, battles over the direction of the party, who should be doing what, and of course, the differences between the states.  The problem for the people who talk the most about “the need” for a third party is that they are thinking “top down,” and political parties of all stripes aren’t.  There are local parties who make up the  state parties, who make up the national party.  None of them march in lockstep to what the national party decrees, so what the national party’s platform is, is what they can agree on.

That there are 50 states also creates another problem:  Getting on the ballot.  Each state, and even each state party, has different rules for getting on the ballot.   The number of nominating petition signatures and how they’re gathered will vary, the deadlines for filing will vary, and even how many votes you need to remain on the ballot varies by state.   National parties have been around for a while, and they’ve got that down pat.  New parties frequently struggle with that, to the extent that a budding state party will fall apart or fail to get on the ballot.

That’s why third parties tend to remain minor parties.  It’s difficult to put together a national party, and in the system of government we have, it means you have win at the local, regional, and state level to get representatives.  But even if we were to manage to change the Constitution to allow proportional representation, there’s still the issue that minor parties face in all countries that have it, they may get a voice but they still have to form a coalition with a bigger party to do so.   A great many of the parliamentary systems which the Left seem so enamored of end up having two major parties, and a satellite of minor parties who form coalitions with them when a major party can’t get an outright majority.   Which is what we see even in our current government, that “independent” representatives and Senators will caucus with one of the major parties.

This doesn’t mean that third parties can’t become players in this country. It has been done, and there have been successes in the past.  In fact, the Republican Party was once a third party, that moved up because the Whig Party fell apart. But in order to succeed, it takes a lot of work,  organization, and grassroots effort to locate candidates and get them elected.  Amazingly, it’s just what you would do the change the current national parties, but it’s easier to attack them rather than getting to work.

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9 responses to “Civics 200: The Talk Of A Third Party Versus The Reality

  1. Minnesota elected Gov. Jesse Ventura as a third party candidate. He’d been a local mayor and a pro-wrestler so he started with both some idea of government and lots of name recognition. After his term as governor the party gradually shrank in the state. His status as “head” of the party was as much his personality and fame as it was trying to institutionalize a set of values and positions.

    • He was one of the successes of the Reform Party, but as you note, it didn’t last. As a national party, they had so much factional fighting, it ended up fading into irrelevance.

  2. dbtheonly

    I think you’ve got the time line a bit mucked, the Whigs fractured over slavery and the Northern Whigs became the prime component of the new Republican Party. The fracture came first.

    The other problem with third parties is that the issue that drives them can be co-opted by one of the majors. Progressives became Democrats. Tea Partiers became Republicans. Dixiecrats and American Partiers became Republicans. If you’ve got a “personality” Col. Roosevelt, Gov. Wallace, the party has a chance, but even then the majors will adopt the platform.

    Finally American elections are “winner-take-all”, one seat districts. Third parties do better with proportional returns, multi-seat districts. The Congressional rather than a parliamentary system also helps. The American Executive is elected independently from the Legislature.

    • The fracture did come first, but the Republican Party wasn’t even a major party until after 1856, the party that looked to replace the Whigs (and had a lot of electoral success) was the American Party, also known as the “Know Nothings.” Which had a remarkably similar outlook to today’s Republican Party. The Tea Party groups were already Republicans for the most part, and well entrenched in the Republican Party’s infrastructure, they weren’t really a third party, more of an interest bloc. As to the others, the “personality” driven third parties like the Dixiecrats, Progressives, and 60’s American Party were fragile to begin with, like the Reform Party in the 90’s. They’re generally splits within one of existing parties, but the problem they all have is they’re top down parties. Once the charismatic leader steps aside, they fall apart, and merge back – with some of their platform – into one of the existing major parties.

      I did point out that the American system is a winner take all. 😉

      • dbtheonly

        Indeed, you pointed out the winner-take-all districts, and I’m not trying to quibble.

        The American/Know Nothings were another major part of the original Republican Party, but by 1856 they’d established themselves as the second major, albeit northern party, carrying 13 states. I remember the Republicans forming in 1854. The Know Nothings achieved some successes on the state level, but timing never got them to a national stage.

        Did the Tea Party ever anticipate replacing the Republicans? Well, that’s the question, once one gets past being or not. They got their own time to answer President Obama’s State of the Union Address. They held their own convention.

        Which is not to say that I pretty much agree down the line.

        • The Tea Party never really made it to the formal political party stage, they were more of a large splinter group within the Republican Party. Most of their efforts to make it a reality ended up falling apart as numerous “officials” (or wannabes) were more interested in lining their pockets than in actual political organizing. What made them a success, for at least the 2010 to 2012 era, was that they were already a big part of the party’s infrastructure. A lot of them were on local, state, and even the national party committees, and most of their candidates were current or existing officeholders. There was a big belief in Republican circles that the reason they’d lost in 2008 was they weren’t “pure enough,” so they went for purity in a big way, and due to their control in many areas of local parties – along with a big helping of external money – they were able to leverage that into successful primaries of “unpure” candidates.

          • dbtheonly

            Agreed, but I can’t get past the convention and independent reply to the SOU speech. They were, at least assumed to be, independent for a while.

            But I’m not at all sure I agree with, “was that they were already a big part of the party’s infrastructure. A lot of them were on local, state, and even the national party committees, and most of their candidates were current or existing officeholders.” As I recall it, many of the Tea Party triumphs came at the expense of the Republicans, with several sitting Senators and Representatives being successfully challenged, albeit in primaries. And I’m sure Eric Cantor will be surprised to learn that David Brat was part of the Republican infrastructure.

          • You’re thinking of them as a separate party, and they weren’t. They were more correctly “a movement” within the Republican Party. Although they had a lot of push from Fox and various conservative media, they never really formed a separate party. Their successes were because they were primarying incumbents with more conservative candidates, in Republican primarys, and they were running under the Republican Party line on the ballot.

        • Just as an aside, many countries, even parliamentary ones, split “head of government” and “head of state,” and where the head of state is an elective position, it’s also a separate election.