Saturday, May 05, 2007

Third Party in America? Not Likely

From time to time over the history of America, there has been a significant third party or independent candidate that shakes up the political establishment and leads many to yearn for a third party. However, not since the Republican Party replaced the Whigs in the mid 1800’s has there been a significant third force in the political discourse, one that has been able to dislodge the predominant two-party system.[1] However, there has continued to be a strain through the American psyche that yearns for more choice in the political system.
There are a number of ways that the thirst for a third party can be illustrated. The increasing number of voters who would rather be registered/identified as independents as opposed to Republican or Democrat.[2] This trend can also be identified through polling, which has consistently show the electorate as supportive of the idea of a third party: “[polls] underscore the public’s interest, in particular, in having more candidates to choose from during election time…they may be asking for more alternatives across the board.”[3] Finally, the electoral success of independent/ third – party candidates over the past thirty years. From 1964 – 1996, there were five occasions where a third candidate received more than five percent of the popular vote in the presidential election.[4] Only five candidates had achieved the same fit in the hundred years preceding the 1960’s.[5] The past thirty years have shown an increase – through polling, voter identification and electoral results – in the voters’ thirst for more electoral choice.
A third party would help slake this thirst, by proving more choice and possibly reducing non-voting and strategic voting, both major problems with the current system: “But what are voters to do if they have concluded that both major candidates are worst? Vote for the least worst [strategic voting]? Such voters, recognizing the absurdity, tend to become non-voters.”[6] Moreover, a multi party system would lead to more focused party agendas, agendas focused on specific voters, this would remedy the motley conglomeration and unfocused agendas that are typically produced by the two parties, where they try to satisfy numerous party interests and fail to provide clear policy alternatives: “Parties could present real choice, especially once everyone recognizes that compromises would take place after the election in the legislature.”[7] Finally, by providing for policy specialization, a multi-party system would allow for a better understanding of and functioning of the federal bureaucracy. If governing coalitions are formed (as is likely the case in a multi-party system), the various constituent parties would focus on their comparative advantages (environment, energy, transportation, and so on), this would provide greater focus on a multitude of issues, enabling the government to better serve the people: “A two-party system simply cannot grapple with the complex alternatives facing big, programmatic governments in a manner that is meaningful to large electorates.”[8] A multi-part system would, therefore, provide for a more representative system, as well as, a better governed polity.
However, the prospects for the development of a multi-party system in America are bleak. There exist structural and psychological barriers to a multi-party system that are virtually insurmountable. To begin with, the mode of electing presidents – electoral college – would seem to be rigged in favor of a two-party system. It is virtually impossible for a third party to gain the requisite 271 electoral votes needed to win an election: “The majority – win election rule, then appears to have promoted stability in presidential elections by encouraging the formation of two major parties to prevent the potentially harmful consequences arising from the election of a president unable to claim a mandate from the majority of the electorate.”[9] It is possible to receive a share of the popular vote (as did Wallace, Anderson and Perot), but it is very difficult to receive any electoral votes, let alone the majority.[10] Moreover, the rules that most states use to pick electors, are also a simple – majority, winner take all. This combined with the difficulty of getting on to state ballots, without an established party, further compounds the difficulty faced by third party candidates who wish to challenge the prevailing system.[11] It is also very difficult and expensive to develop from scratch the necessary top to bottom organization that is needed for a party to be mount challenges in all the states.[12] This compounds the difficulty third parties would have in trying to attract attractive candidates who have a legitimate chance of winning: “It seems likely that most candidates actually attractive enough to win the presidency will seek the office by attempting to capture a major-party presidential nomination.”[13]
From the voters’ point of view, it would be very difficult to convince them that a third party would have a realistic chance of not only winning, but being able to govern effectively in a system dominated by the two-parties: “The public is skeptical about a new party’s ability to solve the problems that afflict Washington and to govern a country dominated by the major parties and make a lasting difference.”[14] There is also the overwhelming “myth” to overcome. According to Lowi, the “two-party mythology” has dominated the political discourse in America, and is taken as a given, some would even argue that it is an essential and necessary part of American democracy, without it, the argument goes, the American system would not survive.[15] Overcoming this belief in the two-party system would be very difficult.
In spite of Americans desire for more choice and increasing popularity for independent/third party candidates.[16] There is little chance that a new third party shall emerge in the near future, unless, one of the dominant party’s fails to effectively address a significant public policy issue – much like the Republicans replaced the Whigs over the slavery issue[17] – but even then, there is not guarantee that a multi-party system shall be forthcoming.

[1] Lowi, Theordore: “Toward a More Responsible Three-Party System: The Mythology of the Two-Party System and the Prospects for Reform” PS, Vol. 16, No. 4, (Autumn, 1983), p 700. It should be noted that Republicans replaced the Whigs, no multi-party system developed. Lowi, also points out those third-party platforms have typically absorbed by the predominant parties e.g. The populist agenda being co-opted by the Democrats. (703)
[2] Abramson, Paul; Aldrich, John; Paolino, Philip; Rohde, David: “Challenges to the American Two-Party System: Evidence from the 1968, 1980, 1992, and 1996 Presidential Elections” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3, (Sep., 2000), p 516.
[3] Collet, Christian: “Trends: Third Parties and the Two-Party System” Political Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 3, (Autumn, 1996), p. 435
[4] George Wallace, 1968; John Anderson, 1980; Ross Perot, 1992 & 1996.
[5] Abramson, Paul; Aldrich, John; Paolino, Phil; Rohde, David: “Third-Party and Independent Candidates in America Politics: Wallace, Anderson and Perot” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 110, No. 30, (Autumn, 1995), p. 496
[6] Lowi, 703
[7] Lowi, 705
[8] Lowi, 705
[9] Abramson et al (fn5), 352
[10] Note, out of Wallace, Anderson and Perot, only Wallace received any electoral votes, and an insignificant number at that. Ibid.
[11] Ibid, 353
[12] Collet, 435
[13] Abramson et al. (fn2), 519
[14] Collet, 436-437
[15] Lowi, 701. Lowi identifies nine myths about the two-party system, myths that are not only accepted in the populace, but academia as well.
[16] Abramson et al, (Fn2). Come to a very interesting conclusion about the occasional emergence of third party candidates: “The results presented in this article show that voters’ evaluations of independent candidates are affected more by defective candidates than defective candidates.” 518. This may partially explain why there has never been any sustained third party surge, only election dependent surges, when the voters are not impressed by the two-major party candidates.
[17] Abramson et al. (fn2) 351


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