Third Party Politics in America

People are clamoring for a third party to “save” the American political system.  But it seems to me that the third party moment has come and maybe gone and no one was impressed.

Both major political parties had non-party candidates running for President.  One actually received the nomination and the other pushed the eventual nominee right up until the convention.  “Third” party candidates have been extraordinarily influential this election cycle.

Our political parties are actually private entities.  They can choose their nominees any way they darn well please.  This is why we have the mishmash of various caucuses, primaries and such.

Bernie Sanders has always run as an independent in his elections.  While he does caucus with the Democrats in the Senate, he has not run as a Democrat, except for President.  It would have been quite possible for the Democratic party to have said to him, “Sorry Bernie, you can’t run for President as a Democrat, you are simply not one of us.”  The Republicans could have said the same thing to Donald Trump.  “You are not really a Republican, you are not welcome in our nominating process.”

Either stance may have caused problems either in the short term politically or in the long term, but both parties could have done this.

So, it certainly seems to me that if Donald Trump could just hold a press conference, announce he is running for president as a Republican and they put him on the ballot, there is nothing to stop Gary Johnson from doing the same thing.  Jill Stein could do the same thing on the Democratic side.  If Bernie Sanders can, why can’t she?

Now, before you say, “Johnson and Stein don’t agree with those parties on many issues,” I say, “So what?”  Sanders has a different view of things than the Democratic party and Trump has a different view of things from pretty much every thinking human being on the planet.  Sanders has certainly helped shape the Democratic message during the general election.  Trump IS the Republican message.

So, you might say, “Surely the party regulars and officials would work hard to scuttle a third party candidate.”  And they did.  Some people say the effort worked in denying Sanders the nomination.  Of course the Republican “establishment” failed miserably in stopping Donald Trump.

So, if you are thinking that the Ds and Rs could use a shot of third partyism, the answer now is clear, put on your party hat and run.

If Jill Stein can run the country, surely she could figure out how to get herself in the Democratic primaries.  Bernie did.  And let’s face it, Bernie’s news coverage in the primaries was a million times more effective at getting his message out than Stein has running for president as a Green.

I can think of a few people here in the Midwest who might have been Greens, but put on their party hats instead.  Russ Feingold, Tammy Baldwin and Al Franken would probably fit in very well in the Green Party.  But instead they ran as Democrats and actually won their elections (Russ soon to do so again) so they can actually make policy, not just talk about it.

While I agree that third parties have a harder time in the US, I am not at all sympathetic to the idea that there is a conspiracy against third parties or that they would in any way “save” us.

The problem that third parties have is that there is no “minor leagues” for them.  Because they are not well organized at the grassroots (there are more people on the Democratic party committee in my county there is for the state Green Party) those parties don’t have battle tested people to run for office.

Which shows in the “other two” candidates this year.  Gary Johnson is an amiable doofus and Jill Stein is only a boutique protester.  The only reason that people are thinking of voting for them is that they nothing about them.  Had they run in the major party primaries they wouldn’t have lasted very long.  Sanders would have eaten Stein for lunch.  He has many of the same policy ideas, but can actually articulate how they might be accomplished.  Johnson would have been shouted (and laughed) off the stage by Trump like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie were.  If Johnson and Stein had been in the primary process, no one would think they were going to “save” our political system.

We seem to be not very tolerant of people’s faults lately and the more we get to know them, the less we like them.  Joe Biden gets high marks now, but I am pretty sure had he gone through the primary process (along with a few Republican congressional investigations) people would think no more of him than they now think of Hillary Clinton.

Even if, say, Elon Musk were to run, after getting Foxified, investigated and found to have (most likely) gotten some preferential treatment from some government agencies somewhere, his positive poll numbers would go down as well.

But aside from personalities, if third party candidates want to make a splash and possibly take over American politics the way to do it is to run as either a Democrat or Republican.  If they lose, they get lots of publicity for their positions and perhaps push the party in their direction.  If they win, they can start to carry out their program — with the support of one of the major political parties!

So, if that is you wanting a third party revolution, sign up to run for office — any office — as a whatever party you think you can get the most votes in.




  1. brucegee1962 says

    Here’s the way I see third parties. While you can always use some nuance, for the most part, most issues have just two sides. You’re either for something or you’re against it — everything else is just quibbling over details.

    Therefore, logically, for any given issue, either the two parties are going to be on opposite sides (education, gay marriage up until recently, global warming, a host of other issues), or they’re going to be on the same side (bombing other countries, government-assisted capitalism, etc.) So the only realistic way for a third party to get started is if both major parties are on the SAME side of an issue, AND a large proportion of the people are on the OPPOSITE side. Having a green party saying, “Sure, Democrats favor the environment more than Republicans, but we favor it even more than the Democrats” just isn’t going to cut it.

    In fact, the last time that happened in American politics was over the issue of slavery before the Civil War, and a new political party was the result. But that didn’t lead to a three-party system, for the reasons outlined above. Our system really only makes sense for two.

  2. says

    I know that I’m probably becoming tedious, but I feel compelled to add: if you want to change the system, you must *change the system.* Which, in the US, means amending state constitutions. I’d like to see this become the litmus test for “being serious” about changing the system. If you’re working on creating a multi-party system in some state somewhere, you may be worth taking seriously. If you’re just running for office within the existing system…well, at best you don’t understand what “system” means and why it matters.

    That said, if what you want to do is change *a party* (a perfectly reasonable goal), the OP is 100% correct. Lamentably, so-called Movement Conservatives have provided a pretty good playbook for doing this, although (thankfully) some of the key elements don’t translate well to the left.

    On the creation of the Republican Party, it’s important to bear in mind that its stance on slavery was more *moderate* than that of its Whig predecessor. Abolitionist fervor led the Whig Party into political irrelevance, clearing the way for the Free-Soil + Know-Nothing coalition that became the GOP.

  3. Jake Harban says

    It’s true that a winner-take-all first past the post system will inevitably congregate around two major parties. However, there’s no guarantee that it’ll always be the same two parties and it certainly doesn’t mean that third parties can exert an influence on the major ones.

    In particular, third parties play the valuable role of, essentially, outflow pipes to keep major parties in check. If the two major parties are conservative and liberal, then third parties will only receive a negligible percent of the vote since there’s no reason to give them a vote better spent on the major party whose position is closer to yours. However, if the two major parties are conservative and fascist, then liberal voters may start to drain off to a liberal third party, which will either force one of the major parties to move to the left or will transform the third party into the new liberal major party while one of the old major parties dissolves or is relegated to third party status.

    So with that in mind, talking about how Jill Stein could be more effective by joining up with the Democratic Party a la Sanders is true but sort of irrelevant; as the Democratic establishment moves further to the right we need people like Sanders and Franken to run as Democrats to try and pull the party back to the left from the inside, but we also need people like Stein on the outside to serve as the outflow pipe— to give liberal voters somewhere else to go if a particular Democratic candidate is too much of a warmonger or an anti-choicer or a Wall Street toady, and thus to create outside incentives for the Democrats to not be those things.

  4. khms says

    It’s true that a winner-take-all first past the post system will inevitably congregate around two major parties.

    And yet, the Brits seem to have managed to get more.

    Here in Germany, our system is rather different, but for a long time, it was essentially a three-party system, with the liberals (classical liberals or libertarians or some such thing – civil rights and capitalism) the small third party who made the tail wagging the dog.

    And yet, the Greens managed to change that system, opening it up (permanently, it looks like) for more newcomers, without changing the written rules.


    Well, they started out as a growing number of local grass-roots movements (not even parties in any sense of the word). Environment was the main, but far from the only motivator. Then they decided they should have some larger structure above those movements, to enable them to cooperate better, and that were the first state-level Green parties (some of which weren’t even named that). And it snowballed from there, with one of the bigger coups being absorbing the East German freedom movement.

    I still remember the establishment indignation when the first Green minister (for environment, duh!) started his job (thereafter known as the “athletic shoe minister” for refusing to wear the traditional male parliamentarian uniform) … he later went on to be the first Green German minister for foreign affairs and vice chancellor, who would have thought? And then later some sort of university job in the US, if I recall correctly. Strange career for someone who, in his student days, was filmed throwing cobblestones at the police.

    In any case, I think this shows two things: you can change how the system works even without changing the legal framework; and one of the best ways is starting from grass-roots movements. (Splitting an existing party can be another way, but more often one half of the split just disappears into insignificance.)

    Just as an aside, the Greens seem to also have pioneered the concept of a party split into one side called the fundies, and another called the realos (the latter more open to compromise in order to actually do stuff), which some other newcomers seem to have copied. Turns out it works best when those two sides are both fairly strong, so each can keep the other in line, with the realos slightly stronger because otherwise they couldn’t actually do anything.

  5. alkaloid says

    It really speaks volumes about the massive volume of ossified dogmatism that you possess that you could write a sneering, obnoxiously arrogant post like this, realize on some level that there are in fact very good reasons why both candidates from major parties are actually less popular than some infectious diseases, and then have your previous post ask why people are so pessimistic.

    I thought a lot about your last response when you asked why people seem to be so particularly depressed now and when you wrote this it really prompted me to answer why:

    Because people who want to change things for the better have to deal with fossilized people like you now-who don’t understand how bad things are for the people after you, furthermore don’t want to, and will do everything you possibly can until your last dying breath to make sure things stay this bad just as long as it mostly happens to someone worse off than you.

    Go ahead and kick me out for this. Prove me right.

  6. says

    And yet, the Greens managed to change that system, opening it up (permanently, it looks like) for more newcomers, without changing the written rules.

    But Germany already had a (de facto) proportional representation system. (The actual mechanics are convoluted, but the bottom line is that seats in the Bundestag are allocated based on voters’ party preferences, not the local first-past-the-post results.) So maybe the lesson is: you don’t need to change the written rules if somebody else has already changed them for you?

    I do sometimes suspect that people living in more-or-less functioning multi-party parliamentary systems really don’t understand what it’s like to be locked into a rigid and intentionally self-defeating system like America’s.

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