Why Third Parties Fail in America

May 17, 2012 § 5 Comments

This post has nothing to do with Israel or Turkey but everything to do with political science, so if you are here for the regional analysis only, feel free to skip this one. As a trained political scientist, I feel like I simply must cut through the wrongheaded nonsense being put forth by much of the political commentariat on why Americans Elect, the latest group to attempt to mount a third party challenge to the Republicans and Democrats, failed so miserably, and why third parties in the U.S. do not exist. For those who are unfamiliar, Americans Elect planned on nominating a third party candidate for president to be selected through an online primary, but none of the nominated candidates were able to reach the vote threshold set by the organization to actually qualify to appear on the Americans Elect line. This is hugely embarrassing for Americans Elect itself, but equally as embarrassing for the high profile pundits who predicted that the group would shake up the political system forever. Leading the charge was the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, who touted the group in his column on numerous occasions but never more devastatingly to his reputation as when he concluded a column last July with this:

Write it down: Americans Elect. What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life — remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out.

Why exactly did Friedman think that Americans Elect was going to destroy the two party system? Because “an impressive group of frustrated Democrats, Republicans and independents, called Americans Elect, is really serious, and they have thought out this process well.” The insinuation here is that Americans are frustrated with the options available to them, and a party that is well funded and well organized can break through the morass and actually challenge the monopoly that the Republicans and Democrats have on elections. When Americans Elect announced its failure on Monday, various post-mortems focused on the fact that there is an incumbent president running for reelection, or argued that successful third parties need to appeal to demagogic populism rather than technocratic elitism. This led the Atlantic’s Max Fisher to ask why nobody writes articles explaining that third parties fail due to the electoral system we have in place. Fisher was 100% correct to hone in on the fact that third parties do not work here because of our first-past-the-post system, and for the uninitiated, here’s the reason why.

The French political scientist Maurice Duverger posited an idea that has since become known as Duverger’s Law, which is that plurality electoral systems – namely those in which the winner is the person who simply gets the most number of votes – tend to produce two-party systems. The reason is that weaker parties will join together in an effort to present a united front against a stronger opponent while simultaneously voters will in turn abandon parties that have no real chance of winning elections. In a system in which candidates run in districts in a winner-takes-all elections, voters quickly realize that, unlike in a proportional representation system, a vote for a weak candidate or party is a wasted vote, and voters generally do not like to waste their votes. As Gary Cox argues, when voters have the short term motivation of electing someone they are happy with – as opposed to being motivated to vote for a new party in consecutive elections irrespective of its chances in order to build up its support long term – they are going to vote strategically rather than sincerely. What this means is that voters would rather pull the lever for the candidate that they prefer among those that have the best chance of winning than pull the lever for their dream candidate who is destined to lose. While there are some exceptions such as Britain, which is a two and a half party system, the general rule holds most of the time, and it has certainly held in the United States.

Americans Elect may have some specific flaws that doomed it to failure, whether those be the seriousness factor eliminated by an internet nominating system or the dearth of good candidates or the fact that it was not set up for fire breathing populism. That these things are true does not mean that Americans Elect would have succeeded had these problems been reversed. Third parties do not work in our electoral system, period. The perfect candidate endorsed by all the right people with a bottomless source of financing would not have changed that, whatever the Tom Friedmans of the world may think. The world is shaped by structural forces, and our two party monopoly is beholden to the structure of our electoral system. That’s a fact, and the vast numbers of fiscally conservative socially moderate backers of Americans Elect would do well to remember that the next time a muckraking third party movement comes knocking on their door making promises of a new and better political utopia.

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