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

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