The Urgent Need For A Viable Third Party

Over 220 years have passed since the Constitution was drafted and we’re still holding elections in the United States, though they are the most bitter and divisive in history. President George Washington warned us way back in 1796 to avoid forming political parties. Of course, the Congress of his day was also divided into two opposing sides, but things were a lot more fluid back then without official political party structure. Almost immediately after he left office, the two-party system formed, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.

In the past few election cycles, Democrats and Republicans have taken turns holding the presidency and Congress, sometimes governing at the same time, other times splitting the branches, but in no case has there been a satisfactory result. Divided government has been the norm since the 1970s, and the partisan bickering and gridlock has only gotten worse. Each side blames the other for the state of affairs, and when either one is in the minority it does everything possible to undermine and disrupt the progress of the other.

Perhaps the solution is to bring in a viable third party. History has shown that the most volatile and interesting races are those with three candidates, and such elections are usually what break the expected party-line votes found in most states and districts. The odds are against these third-party candidates, and they usually just end up spoiling the race for one of the parties. Some states make it all but impossible for third parties to even get on the ballot, and as long as we have a winner-take-all system, these insurgent candidates won’t stand a chance.

If Americans are really serious about mixing things up and possibly actually start changing things around here, the first step is electoral reform. Many European countries employ far more democratic elections than the United States, such as proportional representation, which divides available seats in government according to how much of the population voted for a given party. These elections allow more candidates a shot at public office and allow multiple parties to take part in government. More parties mean more ideas, the more variety of opinion available and the more approaches there are to solving the problems government is expected to fix.

If you think bipartisanship is appealing, the electoral politics in these European countries force the various parties to work together to form a majority government. This is common in parliamentary systems (and was seen recently in the UK’s latest election), and the results force parties to accept more moderate positions so they can keep the coalition together – if they break off and do their own thing, or try to marginalize one or more parts of their coalition, the spurned parties can join with the minority to form a new coalition. Bargaining means a lot more in these systems; the way elections are structured, parties have to work together unless they manage to win a large majority (in which case you would expect that people want that party to get things done).

Such a system could do wonders in the United States. Considering every combination of divided and united government has been tried in the past few decades, the only thing left to try is having completely new parties. There are many third parties out there that, in spite of the odds against them, manage to pull several thousand votes election after election. Imagine a Congress that, in addition to having a large number of Democrats and Republicans, had Libertarians and Green Party members as well. Independents (who make up a third of the national electorate) would finally have viable choices and could shift politics considerably toward the center. Moderates, who have been pushed out of both parties in recent years, would finally have a firm place at the table.

People tend to be turned off to politicians who are seen as being their polar opposite, and with only two choices, they tend to stand behind the lesser of two evils. With other parties finally standing a chance, voters can support candidates they are enthusiastic about, and turnout could improve as every voter increasingly feels represented by the choices available. Our elected representatives could actually represent us more appropriately by bringing in other views too often ignored and considered unrealistic. I can’t think of something more unrealistic than expecting the same two parties switching places every two to four years to somehow yield a different result than what has been seen before.

Of course, the sad truth of all of this is that no matter what is said about partisan politics, no matter how often people complain and lament the gridlock and clamor for bipartisanship and post-partisanship, the American people continue to buy into and support the two-party system. After all, we’re all opinionated, whether or not we choose to play into politics at all. Many of us believe our opinions are black and white, so the notion that there are two sides to every issue continues to define politics. As long as we see things through a polarized lens, the two-party system will continue to be the norm. Only if we stop being lazy and see things for how they really are will we begin to turn things around.


Kerry M. Wakely is a third-year political science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.