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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§ 5 Responses to Why Third Parties Fail in America

  • Richard says:

    As the Supreme Leader of the Arizona Americans Elect Party, I should point out that whatever the people who created this “party” had in mind, they got enough signatures on petitions to create actual political parties in some states. At last count, there were about 150 voters in Arizona who, like myself, are registered members of the Americans Elect Party. We are recognized as one of the five current parties entitled to a ballot line this year (along with the Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and Greens).

    And thanks to a quirk in Arizona election law, a write-in candidate of a new party like Americans Elect can win the primary and be listed on the November ballot for federal, state or local office if she wins a plurality of the votes cast in the primary — as little as one vote. (In 2010, I won the Green Party primary for Congress in my district with six write-in votes, and a challenge to my appearing on the general election ballot failed in federal court.)

    One of our Americans Elect voters is running for the Corporation Commission, trying to get enough petition signatures to get on the ballot, and others may be running for other offices. I am encouraging any Arizonan who wants to run for office in November to register with our new party and become a write-in candidate for the state legislature, Congress, Corporation Commission or other offices. Essentially we will be a collection of independents of various views with our own party.

    Michael, we invite you to move to Arizona and use our secret headquarters in Mesa to establish a voting residence, register as an Americans Elect Party member, and run as our candidate for U.S. Senator. We need people with brains and rachmones! Just say, “Your Excellency, I will do it,” and book your flight now, and by the time you get to Phoenix, you can return to D.C. as a member of the Senate!


  • kitchenmudge says:

    Thank you for pointing out what’s pretty obvious to those of us who’ve been working in “third” parties for any length of time. We cling to the occasional bit of hope, such as the adoption of IRV at the local level in more places, which might raise awareness of other voting systems, and eventually lead to some reforms. Meanwhile, we do what we can in “non-partisan” offices.

  • BJ Lank says:

    Your view is limited by inside the box thinking – you can’t see past the way things are now. The Rs and Ds are solely responsible for their political monopoly, and for the destruction of our country that is the direct result of their monopoly.

    If there was supposed to be only 2 parties, the founding fathers would not have provided that the House would decide a presidential election when no candidate got a majority in the electoral college. If there are only 2 candidates one of them will always get a majority (just 1 more vote than exactly half).

    Every part of government, except the legislative branch, is set up on threes. 3 provides essential checks and balances, so no one part of the whole can dominate or dictate. The ONLY way to correct things is to have 3 parties at the legislative table(s).

    All the narrow-minded pundits that perpetuate the myth of a two-party system are personally responsible for continuing our country’s problems, and preventing the essential corrections that must be made.

    Federal law mandating ballot access for every party that achieves national committee status would provide the means by which the essential corrections could be made. As long as only 2 parties have automatic access to the ballot we will continue to get what we’ve been getting – and the extreme partisanship will continue to get worse just like it has been doing for decades.

    Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    • Rolando Arango says:

      Thank you for your incisive comment. Finally someone has come out and stated what is really wrong with our political system of twos. Yes, we need a bona fide third party.

  • walter hammond says:

    Late as this comment is being penned ! I emphtically support the Comment of July 6 2012 offerred by B J Lank. All this bosh of “Winner takes all” etc is nothing but a spurious device manufactured by those that continue to profit by the shameful model of political gridlock set up by this nefarious 2 party so -called ‘system’. This un-productive strangling monopoly of ‘ideology’ must be broken by formulating a ‘de-regulation’ process that radically opens up the present absurd choice of delegating power to one of just 2 ‘ideologies’. Otherwise we’ll continue to suffer the trampling of democracy, under cover of “Why 3rd Parties Fail in America”.The choice reqired for political alignment to be effective needs far far greater breadth than the present 50 / 50 where the 51-er is seen to be ever stampeded by the 49-er on the factual claim that the 49-er possesses as much moral mandate as the one that is the 51-er. Hence has been arising – as one example – the recently witnessed sort of dictum that publicly announces nonsensical im-mature stuff such as, “We will do any and every thing to ensure that Obama does not get a 2nd term”. And when Obama did get a 2nd term this very same dictum was paraphrased to be shouting , “We will do any and every thing to oppose whatever Obama proposes to do!”
    The ‘opposing of tyranny’ spirit embodying the First Amendment aside, I’m of the opinion that these dicta in themselves constitute such a blatant negativity of retardation that needs well be seen by most Americans as treasonous in nature. I’m also of the opinion that our first 3rd party should comprise a membership Exclusively of the Middle Class. It should be led by none other than Middle Class leadership And it should be financed Exclusively by the working members themslves. As an example 70 million working members donating one dollar a day for 300 days a year will provide over 20 billion dollars annually !
    I’d like to congratulate Tom Friedman over his support for setting up at least one more strong national political party in America, that would simply arithmetically provide the solution to a 50 / 50 absurdity by a 33 1/3 : 33 1/3 : 33 1/3 demographic envronment where 2 parties will have to first of all COMPROMISE with each others’ ‘philosophy’ before they could even hope to exercise power.
    Lastly I’m also of the opinion that future Presidents of America should be given just one SINGLE term, be it 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 years, so that they perform truly as the president of the people of America, rather than as presidents of a political party – manoeuvering right from day 1 of their present 1st term – and constantly there-after – to sneak the carrot of a 2nd term.

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