It’s been a tough year for American politics, enough that talk of third parties has been revived recently. But our system just isn’t conducive to supporting more than two parties.
To understand why, we can look to Duverger’s law. Named for the French sociologist who first described the phenomenon, Duverger noted that first-past-the-post elections combined with single-member electoral districts inevitably favor a binary party system. Third parties cannot make inroads because they can never garner enough support to act as anything other than spoilers–which makes them an unrealistic option for effecting real change.
Indeed, this has held true in the US for almost our entire history. We’ve been a two-party country virtually from day one. Our first set of parties were the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. George Washington is our only President who never belonged to a party–he didn’t believe in them, and in fact distrusted their power and influence. While I don’t agree with Washington’s blanket dismissal of political parties, our system does leave much to be desired.
Our parties have shifted around somewhat over time: after Washington came John Adams, who was a Federalist. After that, we got four Democratic-Republicans back to back, when that party had a virtual stranglehold on American politics. Federalists simply couldn’t match the popularity of the Democratic-Republicans. Around the mid-1800s, however, there was a massive realignment. The Democratic-Republicans split into four different parties, while the Federalist party faded into obscurity. The system quickly resettled into two major parties: the Democrats and the Whigs.
Obviously, the Whigs aren’t around anymore, but not because they were beaten by a third party. Instead, internal conflicts diminished the party’s influence, leading to its demise. Many Whigs retired from politics entirely; most of those who remained joined the nascent Republican Party. Since then, there have been many other parties: Know Nothings, Progressives, Constitutional Unionists, and so on. Today, our alternative parties are primarily the Greens and the Libertarians, though the Reform Party gained some notoriety in the ‘90s after Ross Perot’s surprisingly strong Presidential performance and Jesse Ventura becoming governor of Minnesota on the Reform ticket.
What’s important to notice, however, is that not a single one of those alternative parties has managed to secure the Presidency–indeed, not a single one has even come close. Worse than that, third party candidates have earned at least one vote in the Electoral College only a handful of times. Suffice it to say, third parties don’t have a chance at the national level.
A common complaint raised during this election season is that the system must be rigged, or somehow fundamentally unfair. Is it really designed to support only two parties? It would be accurate to say that two party dominance was originally an unintended side effect of our electoral process design, which has now become deeply entrenched. Should someone besides a Democrat or Republican take the Presidency in the future, it will almost certainly be because one of the two parties has collapsed and been replaced by an ideologically similar party.
Even that is unlikely, however, due to the limited amount of central control each party has at this point. Instead of fighting the currents of political change, both parties remain open to virtually anyone who wants to join them. The bar for getting onto the ballot in a primary race for either party is generally not high in terms of money or legwork. Winning, of course, is another matter. But these low barriers are why the Republican Party saw the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and was unable to stop it. Likewise, the GOP could not stop Donald Trump’s ascendancy in 2016 because the party simply does not control the nomination process to that degree.
The same is true of the Democratic Party, as evidenced by Bernie Sanders’ strong performance, even though he didn’t win. It’s fair to say that both Sanders and Trump are out of the mainstream in terms of their respective parties’ norms and values, and yet both were able to garner a considerable amount of support. This is important because it means that the parties themselves don’t represent specific ideologies, though obviously they don’t represent the same beliefs, either. By and large, Democrats favor a strong government and liberal social policies. Republicans favor smaller government and conservative social policies. It’s difficult to draw more precise distinctions without looking at individual politicians, who run the gamut.
I think it’s this amorphous quality that leads many Americans to suggest that the two parties are the same–it’s not always easy to draw a clear line between them, even though when it comes down to Presidential candidates articulating their policies, there can be stark differences. Certainly, nobody would confuse Hillary Clinton’s platform with Donald Trump’s. But take any random Republican and Democrats and you might find a lot of similarities, too. This is not a sign of corruption or a rigged system, but a consequence of our parties being big tents that are united more by party affiliation than ideological solidarity.
It has significant downsides, too. Getting bills through Congress can be hard when one must fight with their own party to reach a compromise, given the diverse beliefs and priorities within. This has happened to both Democrats and Republicans in recent memory. It’s not ideal–I doubt anyone likes that that’s the status quo–but it’s the system we have.
The question then emerges of how to change this system, or why we can’t easily do so. It’s not to say that changing the system is impossible, but it’s certainly very difficult, because radical change in general is very difficult in a country with well-established electoral institutions like ours. Short of a systemic failure that undermines those institutions in a catastrophic way, a massive overhaul is extremely unlikely anytime soon. There’s simply not enough reason to do it. Our two major parties are obviously fine with it, and almost all voters will cast their ballots for one party or the other. Likewise, the two parties have well-developed organizations all over the country, and other parties do not. You could say the same for donor and activist networks, too. The bottom line is that our two major parties have an edge that even a dramatic shakeup in our electoral system couldn’t easily address. Unraveling the Citizens United decision and taking most of the money out of elections might help, but our two-party system was strong long before that and would likely survive such a reversal without difficulty.
Given the system we have, then, the options before us speak for themselves. Participating in a major party to build support and pull its priorities in a specific direction can be highly effective–much more so than attempting to build up a third party from scratch, a party that will have none of the infrastructure or networks of an established party. With enough support, it may be possible to someday change how our elections function, but that will likely require Constitutional amendments, new federal laws, and state-by-state movements to intentionally disadvantage the two-party regime. Realistic? Not very. It doesn’t rank as a national priority at all.
By no means does this suggest change is impossible, only that our means for achieving it may not be the means we’d prefer. But this is why we must rely on the tools we have, rather than the tools we wish we had.
All that said, I don’t begrudge people who’d prefer to side with or support third parties. Those alternatives will need to be around if and when we do decide to reform our binary system, and they serve as useful repositories of and filters for new ideas that, in time, become palatable to one or both of the major parties. Almost every radical political change in our history was, at one time, limited to the fringe–until it went mainstream. We will always need that dialogue to continue, too.