A Third Party Won't Save Us

The deck is stacked against a third political party. We should stop fantasizing and accept that.

Political pundits enjoy covering the turmoil within the Republican Party in apocalyptic terms. The narrative goes something like this: While most GOP leaders continue to kowtow to former President Trump, a principled phalanx of Republicans insists that the 2020 White House loss is legitimate and that the party must fight to regain its soul. Commentators speculate that a party split is imminent and leverage public opinion polling to argue that a third party makes sense. Cherry-picked events support this narrative, such as 100 (mostly retired) GOP lawmakers threatening to create a new party or former Representative Paul Ryan’s recent speech about conservative values. 

It’s an appealing fantasy. Liberals see a chance to make long-promised gains in purple regions and statehouses; Trump supporters imagine a purge of so-called Republicans In Name Only (RINOs), and old-guard Republicans envision an alternative to Trumpism.

But no matter how dramatic, interesting, or important the emergence of a third party might be, it is incredibly unlikely to happen. In much the same way that Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney stay with the GOP while defying Trump, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez remain under the big tent of Democratic politics rather than strike out on their own. There are very good reasons for this. The dynamics of the American political system are stacked against the emergence of viable third parties, and no such party would have any real power.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the political scientist Maurice Duverger posited that the winner-take-all system used in Congressional elections and in the vast majority of gubernatorial and state legislative races would favor the emergence of two—and only two—viable candidates. This is the bedrock of the two-party system.

Duverger provides two explanatory mechanisms. First, voters think strategically and will vote for a less-preferred candidate if their sincere preference cannot win. Imagine the dilemma of Kanye West supporters voting in 2020: They prefer West to Trump, and Trump to Biden, but they know that West doesn’t have a shot, and so they vote for Trump.

Duverger’s second mechanism focuses on how the elites—the wealthy and powerful—allocate resources to candidates. They recognize that it is important to back the right horse and they don’t wish to invest in a candidate who won’t win. They know that voters behave strategically. Thus, elites concentrate their resources on likely winners.

These winners hail from the major parties because getting candidates elected is the parties’ raison d’être. There is little reason for aspiring politicians to create a new movement when they can benefit from major party support. Both parties provide a vehicle for advancement, a national brand, a historical legacy, and access to a universe of campaign advisers, political specialists, pollsters, media consultants—and, of course, money.

It’s true that some third parties have historically broken the mold, notably in the pre-Civil War era. The Republican Party itself began as an insurgent, anti-slavery third party. But the rules have changed. The Republican and Democratic parties have been in power so long that they have consciously designed a system that protects their dominance and discourages the organization of new third parties.

For instance, the barriers to third parties appearing on ballots are steep and often different from those that apply to the dominant parties. To run for the U.S. Senate in Texas, a Democrat need only pay $5,000. A third-party candidate must collect 87,717 signatures from people who did not participate in either major party primary. In Alabama and Georgia, a candidate from a new party needs a petition containing signatures equal to 3% of the gubernatorial vote. In Georgia, that bar is 5% of all registered voters.

The national system of campaign finance law also overwhelmingly favors Democrats and Republicans. Politician-affiliated Super PACs such as the Senate Leadership Fund allow party mainstays to incentivize adherence to the party line: It literally pays to listen to party leaders. The Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court allows corporations, unions, and the incredibly wealthy to spend unlimited amounts of money in politics, and elites in the United States generally do not want transformative change or a total upending of our political system. Unpredictability is seldom good for profits.

And should a third party somehow manage to earn significant representation in Congress, it would enter a system of governance that is predicated on the existence of only two parties. Parliamentary procedure, committee appointments and leadership, and bipartisan agreements about the composition of institutions like the Federal Election Commission simply do not take third parties into account. 

Reforms that benefit third parties are difficult to envision. The two main parties would have to sign their own death warrants by overhauling electoral procedure at the state level, amending the Constitution, capping campaign expenditures and donations, and possibly prescribing the full public funding of elections. The Supreme Court would likely reject many of these laws as assaults on free speech. While change might be possible, it’s reasonable to assume that the major parties would fight back tenaciously, forcing third-party politicians to exit the arena or join their ranks.

There is a hopeful fascination, on both the left and the right, with the birth of a third party. 

But it isn’t going to happen. Parties may evolve, but they will not splinter. No party has been displaced since the Civil War, and since that time the institutions and economic environment that protect the major parties have hardened to stone.

If this nation is to have an intelligent and informed discussion about its political future, we must understand the game that is actually being played. Fantasizing about impossibilities will not get us anywhere.

Alexander H Cohen is an assistant professor of political science at Clarkson University. His latest book is Gaming the System: Nine Games to Teach American Government Through Active Learning.