Finding the candidates and positions from both of the major political parties unacceptable, many are tempted to turn to a third party, or even the formation of a third party. But in the United States, it is nearly impossible for third parties to achieve any electoral success, and this is not simply due to stubbornness on the part of the electorate. A thought experiment will demonstrate why this is the case.
Suppose that there are twenty political parties, each of roughly equal influence. Each of these parties represents a particular interest. There is a pro-business party and a pro-labor party. There is an environmental party and one that wants to maintain the legality of abortion. And so on.
An election is held for the House of Representatives. Now since our scenario takes place in the United States, there will be one representative elected, and the candidate who gets the most votes, even if not a majority, will win the election. So let’s imagine that each of the twenty parties runs a candidate, and all but two receive five-percent of the votes. One of the parties receives six-percent, and another receives four. The candidate who receives six-percent of the vote wins the election.
After this outcome, representatives from three of the parties, parties that each received five percent of the vote, get together and discuss the fact that had they joined forces into one party they would have received fifteen-percent of the vote, and thereby have won the election. So they do exactly that, and, in the next election, do in fact win with their fifteen percent.
Four other parties, alarmed at this development, realize that if they don’t form a coalition the party that just received fifteen percent of the vote will be positioned to win every election for years to come. So they form a coalition, run one candidate in the next election, and win the election with twenty percent of the vote.
In the United States, it is nearly impossible for third parties to achieve any electoral success, and this is not simply due to stubbornness on the part of the electorate.
It is easy to see how the process continues, ultimately resulting in two parties facing off against each other. And this is precisely why we have a two-party system in the United States: the fact that there is one person to be elected for each district, plus the fact that only a plurality is needed to win the election, practically mandates that there will be two major parties, and only two major parties. Those parties that shun joining with the major parties (which are actually coalitions) are doomed to be marginalized.
Note that not every one of the twenty parties in the depicted scenario can join in a coalition with every other party. If the pro-business party determines that labor unions are inimical to the interests it represents, there is no way that it can join with the pro-labor party. Similarly, the party that seeks to maintain the legal status of abortion can’t join with a pro-life party.
These inherent conflicts of interest keep the parties from merging into one, that and the fact that the most marginalized interests in a single-party scenario would be motivated to disembark and form their own party. The pressure that develops from all directions, then, results in there being two parties, and it is, therefore, not surprising that a two-party system is what we have always had.
It is evident, then, that a third-party attempting to represent one interest is unlikely to have any electoral success. The major parties are, in essence, coalitions of interest groups, which are bound to outnumber any party simply representing one or two. This is particularly the case if the third party is ideologically based, since total allegiance to an ideology will not be characteristic of a sufficient number of voters.
Now, it might be suggested that a group that is poorly represented by the party it is a member of would be better served by forming its own party. Organized labor, for example, would be represented with more enthusiasm by a labor party than it currently receives from the Democrats.
But there is really no good reason for labor to leave the Democrats for a third party. While it is true that labor issues would be more front and center in a third labor party, the ultimate leverage it would have in governmental affairs would be reduced to nothing due to the lack of electoral success third parties are bound to experience. Zero multiplied by any number equals zero, and it is better to have a small amount of influence than none at all.
Does this mean the situation is hopeless? Not at all. There is a possible solution, though it would take a bit of work to accomplish, and that is to rid the American electoral system of having political parties at all. Now, clearly, there is no way to remove freedom of association from the Constitution, nor should there be. There is nothing in the Constitution or any coherent notion of justice that requires that the nominees of political parties get automatic placement on the ballot, or that their political affiliations be listed on it. And there is certainly no reason to think political parties are owed public funds and infrastructure for conducting their primaries.
Let us acknowledge at the outset that the foxes currently guarding this henhouse will not volunteer to disempower themselves. So what is going to be proposed here will probably only happen first in those states that allow some form of initiative process.
On the other hand, a groundswell of support might even get the politicians, who want to be re-elected, on board with the idea. There is presently, in the United States, a sufficient level of disgust with the major political parties that this possibility is greater than it has been in the past. This is how it would work:
- To get on the ballot, every candidate will be required to get a certain number of signatures. A party nomination will not afford any ballot access, and no political party will be referenced on the ballot.
- The primary election will be a unified election with all candidates on one ballot. There will be no closed primaries, because parties won’t have anything to do with them.
- The two candidates with the most votes will run in the subsequent general election. This means that the winner will have necessarily won a majority of the votes, as opposed to the present system where only a plurality is required.
- Presidential elections will be conducted in a similar manner, only electoral votes will come into play. There will first be a nationwide primary, with all candidates on a single ballot. Again, there will be no reference to party affiliation, and ballot access will be acquired the requisite number of signatures. Electoral votes will be awarded in a proportional manner, rather than according to the winner-take-all method currently used in all but two states, so as to better reflect the will of the electorate. The two candidates with the most electoral votes nationwide will run in the general election in November.
- The general election will be conducted much as it is presently, except that the only candidates will be the two who received the most votes in the primary. Electoral votes should be awarded proportionately at this stage as well, though the candidate who receives the majority vote in a given state could be awarded the two electoral votes representing the senatorial representation. Since there will only be two candidates at this stage, the House of Representatives will have to be called in to settle the election only if there is a tie.
- Party divisions within legislatures, and ultimately Congress, will be prohibited. There will be no party-based majorities and minorities. Senators, representatives, and their state corollaries, should represent their states and districts, not their political parties.
The Founding Fathers, George Washington in particular, opposed political parties, and subsequent history has proven their concern in this regard as well-founded. The result has been that Americans are left with two sets of ideas only, which ignores the variations in thinking that actually exist on the one hand, and foment a kind of tribal group-think on the other.
For some, the situation is particularly problematic in that each of the two major parties support positions that they find abhorrent. Substantially reducing political party influence over the process will afford a wider array of ideas from political candidates, which can only result in a better reflection of American attitudes and opinions in the operations of government.
It is an idea. It is one that could very well garner substantial support, and certainly cannot be said to have less chance of success than the development of an electorally successful third party.