Third Parties: The Third Wheels of U.S. Politics

By John C. Davis

Given the frustration expressed by so many with the status quo, it is reasonable to wonder if things would be improved with one or a few viable parties in addition to the Democratic and Republican parties.

In this context, the term “third party” refers to a political party organization that is an alternative to the two major parties in the United States. You are probably familiar with a few “third parties”: the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Constitution Party. While they rarely see their candidates win public office, each of these three alternative parties has some level of organizational presence in several states across the U.S.

Given how blindingly mad we can become at the two major parties, why do we not see more third party candidates successfully attain public office?

First, the rules governing elections and ballot access are decided by the states’ partisan elected officials. In many states, it is quite difficult for a fledgling third party to gain access on a statewide ballot every election cycle. Therefore, these parties are, more often than not, unable to compete for many statewide offices, minimizing their visibility with the public, and perpetuating the perception that they are a “wasted vote” when they do appear on a ballot.

In addition to ballot access, our means of representation further impede third-party successes. In most elections in the U.S., the top vote earner is the only one in the field of candidates who gets to represent that particular ward, district, or state. This is because we have long employed single-member districts for representation. In other words, even if a third party earns 25% of the overall vote for, say, the 4th U.S. Congressional District of Arkansas, that party will not be represented in D.C.

Reforms, I suppose, are possible, but would require significant changes to how we distribute seats based on votes earned. Some proportional system—in which a party garnering 25% of the vote is then rewarded 1/4th of the state legislative seats allocated to that particular jurisdiction—might produce an environment more conducive to third party viability. However, again, it seems unlikely that Democrats and Republicans would favor such reform—leaving third parties disadvantaged.

It is no accident that the Democratic and Republican parties have dominated electoral politics since the 1850s. They are good at what they do—winning. Both parties are adept at evolving to grow and maintain coalitions to win elections. Democrats and Republicans often co-opt popular issues from third parties—leaving these groups little else to promote. Unlike most third parties, the Republican and Democratic parties are broadly-focused “big tent” parties and tend to block out third parties’ policy space. Many third parties focus on only a few issues or exist on the far left or far right of American ideological space.

Finally, even though we express disapproval of both major parties in public opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of us are ‘closet partisans’ who regularly vote for one of the two major parties. While at least a plurality of us claim to be “independent” voters, we remain—often secretly—attached to our major parties. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that we are becoming more strongly aligned with our two major parties. Split-ticket voting (a voter voting for Democrats and Republicans for different races on the same ballot) is on the decline.

WAPO split

Source: Washington Post

Would our political climate be better with another party or two? It is hard to say. On the one hand, there is little evidence to suggest governments with multiple parties are more stable than ours or that multiple parties create an environment conducive to better representation. In other words, adding more parties would not likely address the frustrations expressed by many, on both sides of the political aisle, this election cycle. On the other hand, additional parties might encourage more voter participation–enticing some of the thousands in Arkansas qualified to vote, but who fail to do so. Finally, “third” parties in Arkansas have shown signs of growth. Recent elections have a growing number of candidates on state and local ballots representing the Green and Libertarian parties. Might we one day see a time with a viable three (or four) party system in the U.S.?

Note: An earlier version of this post has appeared in southeast Arkansas media outlets

In Defense of Political Parties

By John C. Davis

Being a professor of political science, I am often asked to offer my opinion on political events. I like to talk about politics, but I am even more interested in listening to the opinions of others. I often encounter people who express disgust for one or several aspects of our political system. One of the most common targets for their scorn is related, one way or another, to political parties. In this post, I offer my defense for that often loathsome yet necessary U.S. political institution we love to hate: the political party. More specifically, in this piece, I will explain the important roles parties play in our system of government.

A political party is an organization comprised of people seeking the ability to govern. To govern, parties win elections by recruiting, nominating, and campaigning on the behalf of candidates who stand a chance at winning and are thought to share the same views of the party. While political parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, they have long been at the center of our politics. Political scientists typically agree the first political party system in the United States emerged in the early 1790s with the Federalists (think Alexander Hamilton and President John Adams) and the Democratic-Republicans (think Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison). And while it is hard to imagine the U.S. without them, Americans have never liked political parties. George Washington himself spent more than a couple lines of his famous Farewell Address warning against political parties. This tradition of disapproving of parties continues today as Gallup Polls regularly report approval ratings of both major parties below 50%.

Please tell me whether you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of each of the following parties.

Source: Gallup

Despite our disapproval of political parties, they are a fundamental component of democracy. Governments such as our own require an active and informed electorate. We are asked to vote often to make decisions on policies and, more commonly, to elect individuals who represent us and make decisions on our behalf. Parties educate the electorate on issues and candidates—providing us with useful cues that allow us to better evaluate the actions of incumbents—those already in office—seeking re-election. Party identification provides a voter with a significant amount of information as she can better determine whether or not a candidate on her ballot holds similar views as her own.

Parties also help us organize and stabilize the government. I know, given the current state of Congress, this is where I may lose you, but the mere existence of parties are not to blame for the polarization and seeming dysfunction in D.C. (a topic for another day). Parties are needed to organize the politics of a diverse country, and they build and maintain the fragile coalitions needed in government to get stuff done. It is important to remember that a political institution, such as the U.S. Congress or our state General Assembly, is—at any one time—addressing several complex and distinctly different issues. Parties provide those in government, just like voters at the ballot, cues about who they might be able to work with, moving forward, to address issues.

Political parties inform and engage the electorate and organize our government. My goal here was not to convince you to like political parties. I am often frustrated with the name calling, obstruction, and narrow-mindedness often attributed to partisan politics. However, I hope you can appreciate political parties’ roles in our form of government. I will close with a quote from E.E. Schattschneider, who wrote nearly 80 years ago, “Political parties created democracy, and democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties.”

Note: An earlier version of this post has appeared in southeast Arkansas media outlets

What to Expect

cropped-img_23942.jpgBy John C. Davis

In the future, I will use this space to discuss political news and events concerning our state and nation. First, however, I want to take a moment to introduce myself, explain my reason for writing and share what to expect—and not expect—from this blog moving forward. I am an assistant professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

My work allows me to spend a significant amount of time teaching and researching topics related to American and state politics. Part of my job as a political scientist is to communicate to my students the importance of civic participation and the need to be knowledgeable of our state and country’s political institutions. I want to expand this dialogue beyond the classroom.

While a representative democracy requires an active citizenry, we, as citizens, too often suffer from low interest in and knowledge of politics and government. As a result, too few of us consider the impact of government in our lives and even fewer people vote.  However, when you stop and think about some of the most common sources of political information, can you blame someone for avoiding them? Those among us who do seek out political information are too often overwhelmed with pundits who, with their hyperbolic speech and combative tones, seem all too willing to pit us against one another. These people seek to create the perception that all political issues fit into tidy boxes labeled “us” and “them” or that entire states can be easily and accurately described as “red” or “blue.” Many of us find this divisive environment exhausting. We can get so disgusted with the lack of civility and objectivity in political discourse, that we just give up and tune it out.

We deserve better. For quite some time now, I have heard students, friends, relatives, and acquaintances express frustration and disgust for our polarized politics. Furthermore, there has been a recent push for political scientists to weigh in on public policy debates and political discussions. Even before Nicholas Kristof’s 2014 New York Times op-ed titled, “Professors, We Need You,” some political scientists were already engaging the broader public and sharing what they learned to provide evidence-based analyses of political events. To that end, I would like to play a small part in improving political discourse.

Here’s the deal—you can expect me to use this space to discuss current political events and topics related to our state and nation in a civil, objective manner. I am going to take relevant political issues concerning Arkansas or the U.S. more broadly and explain them objectively and to the best of my ability—no strings attached. Let’s be honest, you don’t care what my views are anyway. I want to provide an informative and (I hope) interesting blog that will encourage a more thoughtful political dialogue in our region. 

Note: An earlier version of this post has appeared in southeast Arkansas media outlets