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Does America Need a Third Party?

I still haven't gotten over Ralph Nader.

For our Millennial readers, Ralph Nader ran as an independent during the Bush v Gore Presidential election and syphoned enough votes away from Gore (by splitting the liberal vote) to cause Bush to win a very close election. Leading to our ill fated invasion of Iraq.

Oh well!

Does America Need a Third Party?

Students debate whether Republicans and Democrats are hopelessly polarized.

Sept. 13, 2022 6:42 pm ET

The Party System Comes Down to Math

While a third party seems like a good idea in theory, proponents seem to ignore that our electoral system inherently encourages a two-party structure. This phenomenon (known as Duverger’s law) helps explain why third parties throughout American history always fail.

In an election, the only thing a candidate needs to win is the largest number of votes, and since only the winner receives any seats, a party that consistently comes in second or third place gets nothing. Knowing this, parties tend to form as large a group as possible to maximize their chances of winning, and most voters tend to avoid third parties as they believe their vote will be wasted. Any third parties would have to gain a voter base by dividing either one or both of the existing parties, dooming both to electoral failure.

History has shown us several examples of Duverger’s law in action. Theodore Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party in 1912, for example, which split the existing Republican base. The divided parties then handily lost to a unified Democratic Party under Woodrow Wilson. In 2000 Ralph Nader was blamed for causing Al Gore’s loss in Florida by siphoning off potential Democratic votes.

While third parties such as the Forward Party state their centrism, one would have to comprise almost exactly 50% Republicans and 50% Democrats to confound Duverger’s law, which is essentially impossible. Until our electoral systems are changed, our two-party system is here to stay.

—John Chapman, Columbia University, political science

We Have a Polarization Problem

The two-party system hasn’t outlived its usefulness. It possess a unique ability to rally politicians quickly around issues that are important to the majority of Americans, present a unified stance and push for government action. The problem is that partisanship and the calcification of the parties’ ideologies have cut off opportunities for the equally useful politicians who break party lines. When a politician takes an action that is seen as deviating from the party, he is immediately held up as a hero by the opposition and as a traitor by his declared allies.

As values espoused at the national party level trickle down to state and local elections, there’s even less room for politicians to offer solutions tailored to their unique constituencies. It eventually culminates in unpopular policies finding their way into national party platforms, whether it’s Democratic activists pushing to defund police departments or Republican activists pushing for punitive restrictions on abortion, both of which are unsupported by public opinion. The only reason those policy proposals became standard was because nobody in the party was willing to challenge them, and anyone who did was branded as a turncoat. Americans wishing for a third party are less interested in voting for Greens or Libertarians or any other party—they are driven more by a desire to see the two parties they have now exhibit the intellectual diversity and nuance American voters deserve.

—James Davis, University of Iowa, English and creative writing

We All Want a 330-Million-Party System

The idea that we don’t have enough political parties in this country is another excuse to deflect responsibility for Americans’ poor record of participation in our democracy. The urge to form a new party really represents our shortfalls as a voter base. We’re unwilling to accept the basic tenets of democracy: participation and compromise.

What voters who complain about the two-party system seem to really want is a 330-million-party system, one for each of us. They think that adding new parties will allow us to leave behind the partisan, dysfunctional mess we have made and escape in our own more individualized lifeboats. But all voters insisting on their own way won’t solve the problem. The point of a democracy—and our two-party system—is that it forces our chaotic individualism into something far more rational.

We don’t like it because we feel it mushes us all together, taking the government away from what each of us would prefer, but that is exactly the point.

—Leo Davidson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, computer science

George Washington Called It

The two-party system in America was dead on arrival. George Washington espoused the dangers of the two-party system. While it’s natural for people to organize into factions, he said, political parties are power hungry. Once they’ve consolidated power, they inevitably turn to exacting revenge on their opponents.

Today, the 24-hour news cycle and media-induced hysteria have exacerbated this problem of polarization. Voters are bombarded with sensationalized issues that may increase viewership, but also further divide the public. The polarization Washington described wasn’t nearly so bad before streaming and Twitter.

Instituting ranked-choice voting and varied factions that can’t become powerful enough to dominate could go a long way toward helping Americans to understand other views. Shoehorning everyone into one camp or the other, even if they don’t agree with everything their party of choice states, is a plague on American politics and Americans’ consciences. To have a chance of your views being represented, you have to compromise on your own ideals, but not in any sort of way that creates empathy for the other side.

—Michael Coudert, Quinnipiac University, law

Single-Issue Voting Has Only Two Sides

Despite attempts to create viable third parties, U.S. politics has largely remained divided in two: Tory vs. Whig, Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist, Democrat vs. Republican. The reason for this is single-issue voting. Should the colonies be independent? Should abortion be legal? Should the border be open? The modern Republican and Democratic parties have more nuance than previous parties, but if people only care about one issue, they naturally sort themselves into two groups: people who agree with them and everyone else.

Increased polarization has shut down compromise and productive discourse. In this regard, the two party system has ceased to function properly. But a third party would likely fall prey to the same divisive groupthink as its counterparts.

—Charlotte Waldron, Miami University, English

Before You Move to Toronto . . .

Clamoring for a third party is like threatening to emigrate to Canada—we’ll leave if we must, but what we really want is reform from within. Before Americans abandon the two-party system, we should consider why our nation is so polarized and whether creating more political parties would help.

A historically low 20% of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing at least “most of the time,” according to Pew Research. This frustration pushes Americans away from the middle, creating a rift between the moderates and the radicals within each party and contributing to political polarization.

Breaking these factions into their own parties wouldn’t bolster our trust in the federal government. In a multiparty system, each group would have to debase its own platform to build a majority. This structure would allow fewer (and weaker) policies to become laws and condemn principled parties to complete irrelevance. Only the two-party system can consistently produce tolerable outcomes for the greatest number of people, which is why it survived the collapse of the Federalists and the Whigs.

Adding more parties would also fail to cure our partisan hostility. If we are determined to view our political rivals as personal enemies, the number of opposing flags in the fight makes no difference. Politicians cannot erase that antagonism, but they can work to heal divisions within their party and restore our faith in their leadership. Without this faith, both groups will splinter.

—Andrew Davidson, Hillsdale College, philosophy

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