The Inevitable “Third Party” Debate Returns

Like clockwork, the arguments for creation of a third party are popping up again.

With all the headlines recently about public dissatisfaction with government, and evidence coming every day from Capitol Hill of the seeming inability of the two political parties to get anything done, it was inevitable that we’d once again hear from someone calling for creation of a new political party that represents the “real desires” of the American people. Usually, it’s New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who, as James Joyner has frequently noted here at OTB, is in favor of the creation of a political party that agrees completely with Thomas Friedman. Today, though, it’s Matt Miller, host of a radio show that I can’t say I’ve ever heard of before, who makes the argument in yesterday’s Washington Post. As with many of these arguments, Miller points out that one of the main reasons that Congress is unable to act on many important issues is because both parties are beholden to special interests and ideological cores that make it impossible for candidates to suggest otherwise reasonable reforms:

This goes well beyond the jobs crisis or the budget. Take education. Democrats can’t say we need to fire bad teachers who are blighting the lives of countless kids, because teachers unions are the party’s most powerful interest group. But Republicans can’t say we need to raise salaries for new teachers substantially if we’re going to lure a new generation of talent to the classroom, because that’s admitting that money is part of the answer. Trouble is, we’ll never solve what ails education without getting bad teachers out and paying up for new talent to come in. That means Democrats and Republicans can’t solve the problem.

Or take health care. Republicans say the answer is to repeal President Obama’s reforms — but they won’t offer plans to insure more than 3 million of the 50 million Americans who lack coverage. Yet Democrats want to micromanage providers, protect the trial lawyers who bankroll their campaigns, and fully insulate people from the costs of their own care, assuring that there’s no consumer brake on runaway costs. Again, Democrats and Republicans can’t solve the problem.

Multiply this dynamic across every major issue and you’ll see there’s a staggering void in the debate. The parties act this way because their core constituencies have a stake in a failed status quo. But where does that leave the majority of us who are not in the Republican or Democratic base? Where does it leave the country?

The solution, Miller asserts, lies in groups like Americans Elect and No Labels and building “the infrastructure for a new politics of problem-solving,” whatever that means. Miller even took the time to right a Stump Speech that might be delivered by a hypothetical third party candidate for President that hits on many of the same themes that those two groups have been talking about for the past year. Of course, the reality is that neither one of these groups gets very much attention outside of the talking head shows on MSNBC and and CNN, where Mark McKinnon is frequently trotted out to give the “independent” perspective on the problems that ail us. There’s nothing explicitly wrong about the policies these groups advocate, or what’s in Miller’s hypothetical speech. It might even make a great campaign platform for the right candidate (although not any of the ones who will be running for President in 2012). The problem is that all this talk about third party’s is, as usual, sheer fantasy.

Talk about a third party pops up in American politics from time to time, usually when the nation is heavily divided politically to begin with or when one party or the other has suffered a major electoral defeat. Not surprisingly, it usually seems to correlate with polls that show public confidence in government institutions on a decline. The two major political parties, these arguments always say, no longer adequately represent the views of the vast middle of the American electorate because they are too beholden to special interests or ideological zealots. It’s an argument that has been made about both political parties many times over the past 30 years or so, and each time it has come to nothing.

The other argument that one hears from third party advocates is that one party or another is about to fall apart because the coalition that held it together was falling apart. Some asserted this would happen to the Republican Party after the Cold War ended and their was no Soviet menace to unite the social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians that made up the activist base of the party in the Reagan Era. Similar arguments have been made about the Democratic Party over the years as the power of its labor union base has declined and population shifts have reduced the electoral power of its traditional power bases in the Northeast and Midwest. It never happened.

More importantly, despite the numerous critiques exactly like Miller’s over the years the two party system that has existed in this country since the Presidential Election of 1856 remains intact, and there is no sign at all that it is going to be seriously challenged at any point in the near future. Several reasons account for this.

First of all, there have only been two other occasions in American history when a major political party collapsed. The Federalist Party essentially faded out of existence not long after the conclusion of the War Of 1812 due in no small part to their opposition to the war and their participation in the Hartford Convention, where the possibility of New England seceding from the Union was discussed. The Whig Party took the Federalist’s place during the Jacksonian Era but collapsed in the mid-1850s over the issue of slavery. Since then, no major political party has collapsed in the United States. The Democratic Party managed to survive the Civil War and its association with secession, although it took from 1856 until 1884 for a Democrat to again regain the Presidency. Republicans took it on the chin in the Congressional Elections of 1974 thanks to Watergate, but they had the White House back in their hands a mere six years later. Say what you will about our current political problems, but they don’t nearly amount to the problems faced in the 181o’s and 1850’s. Moreover, our two major parties today are far stronger than the Federalists or the Whigs ever were at the height of their power.

Second, there’s no room in our political system for a viable third party that serves as anything other than the home of a core of highly ideological activists. Especially at the national level, each part of the government is biased in some way in favor of the creation of two political parties that represent broad coalitions, both in the manner in which candidates are elected and in the manner in which the institutions are governed. A House or Senate made up of significant numbers of members from more than two political parties would be unrecognizable in many respects and possibly unmanageable. When such members have been elected, the inevitable outcome is that they end up caucusing with one party or the other in exchange for committee assignments, and support for the bills that they’d like to introduce.

Finally, there’s just something really odd about the kind of third party that Miller seems to be calling for. To say the least, it would be unlike any third party we’ve ever seen before. Traditionally, third parties have tended to be highly ideological and appeal to people committed to a particular set of ideas, you can see that in Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party, or to use more contemporary examples, the Libertarian Party or the Greens. Parties like this tend to have influence not by winning elections but by influencing the debate in ways that may not become apparent for many years. For example, many of the policy ideas that Eugene Debs advocated when he ran for President were later picked up by the Progressives and some were even implemented in what came to be known as The New Deal. The Libertarian Party has, arguably, been part of an ideological movement that has helped push the Republican Party away from its big government Rockefeller Republican tendencies. A party that appeals to the broad middle isn’t going to accomplish either one of these things unless one of the two major party collapses, which, as I noted above, is unlikely to happen.

More than five years ago, our own James Joyner wrote about this topic at TCS Daily and made this observation:

Is it possible that the Democrats will be overtaken by the excitable “netroots” and veer so far to the left that they miss their golden opportunity to take back the Congress in November? Absolutely.

Conversely, could the Republicans interpret narrowly holding onto both Houses of Congress as a mandate to continue spending money like drunken sailors and grandstanding on issues like flag burning, gay marriage, and Terri Schiavo? You bet.

Neither trend, should it materialize, however, will continue for long. Catch-all parties exist for one thing only: To win elections. Historically, it hasn’t taken take too many lost elections to cause a major course correction. In the modern information age, it doesn’t take too many consecutive polls to cause strategy changes.

Modern political parties change identities as fast as Al Gore changes personalities. That fact simultaneously frustrates hard core partisans and yet ensures their long-term survival.

Precisely. If the Democrats survived the Civil War and the Republicans survived Watergate, there doesn’t seem to be very much chance that our current troubles are going to shake them so far to the core that some new political movement will be able to rise up and take their place. Like them or not, they’ve been contesting elections together for the past 155 years and they’re unlikely to disappear any time soon.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Racehorse says:

    As I have said before, the major “players” (media, networks, government, Repub. and Democrats, CFR, Trilateral Commission, and other organizations) control this situation. Few debates allowed third party involvement. Third parties are ignored for a reason; they are not controlled like the other two parties: “tweedledee and tweedledum”, “not a dime’s worth of difference”)

  2. The difference is parties used to be more concerned with winning, but are now more concerned with ideology. The more power Tea Party and Netroots types get in their respective parties, the less those parties care about going after the votes, and the more they enable the other to go farther extreme without losing too many votes because their opponent is also ideologically extreme and at best a lesser evil to moderates.

    Neither party is going to tear itself apart from it’s own base, and that is precisely what is necessary to make the course correction you suggest. The gap between the parties continues to widen, and shows no sign at all of stopping.

    Solomon Kleinsmith
    Rise of the Center

  3. Hey Norm says:

    Palin will run as a third party candidate.
    You heard it here first.

  4. WR says:

    @Racehorse: Trilateral commission? What about the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons and the Knights Templar?

  5. tyndon clusters says:

    I have what I believe to be a genius idea that no pundit or academic has mentioned or promulgated and I would be delighted to read your feed back.

    I will share it with you now.

    The soft underbelly of our electoral system is the Senate.

    Third parties historically have little chance in the House because of the sheer volume of members and the winner take all, non proportional representation of the electoral process.

    3rd parties may gain a few seats in the House, but lets face it, a few members out of 435 will not manifest any power.

    Presidential elections have been commented on ad nauseum….3rd parties have to get registered in every state, etc. raise huge sums of money…a very hard row to hoe.

    That leaves the Senate. And herein lies the true genius of my scenario.

    Why the Senate? Simple 5 or 6 members in an evenly divided Senate can hold up EVERYTHING.

    This is where the 3rd party movement can really take hold and have instant legitimacy and power in one fell swoop.

    States which have a track record of leaning /considering/being sympathetic to 3rd parties may include: Vermont, Minnesota, New York, California, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon….

    My point is a third party can run on a uniform platform, attract charismatic leaders out of the typical political mainstream and drum up support that they are not bought and need the voters help in destroying the two party hegemony responsible for our current malaise.

    3rd parties cannot be “kooky” (Libertarian) or a cult of personality (Reform Party/Perot) party.

    I believe that voters who feel disenfranchised by the Ds and Rs will flock to a legitimate alternative.

    Voters won’t waste votes on a President or congressman who will have the full force of the establishment against them come election time.

    But, lets say they realize that in the Senate, 5 or 6 members can have real power in moderating the insanity of both parties since neither party will have the votes to do ANYTHING without appealing to this block.

    Again, you better have your $hit together to make a serious run, but I think the political climate can’t get much better than the next few years to pull this off Today’s instant social media and technology can short circuit the old hurdles of exposure, organization and money.

    A charismatic candidate who is willing to make the case that this country needs a broad overhaul and realistic look at our future as a culture and nation, in the context of a fresh new party could certainly win in Minnesota or California.

    A party who believes the middle class is broken. would tax the rich and cut government spending, end the wars, overhaul education, seal the borders and grant “amnesty”, look seriously at globalization and the destruction of the blue collar worker and also close loopholes and simplify the tax code would have a lot of appeal no matter what the pundits say.

    The party I have started is called the United States Party and the slogan is simple:

    “Join US because its US against them and we all know who them is.”

    BTW, this party will be heavily tilted to those unregistered voters or those registered who never vote.

    This is 50% of the electorate and those are the folks I am targeting.

    “I don’t want the same voters who vote for the same Tweedledee and Tweedledum. I want you who feel your voices aren’t heard and that your vote doesn’t count . In the comfort of your home, take 5 minutes every 2 years, fill out a ballot, send it in and thank the god lord you are not in a rice paddy, hedgerow or tropical island fighting for the right to be free and to vote your beliefs. Honor and venerate those that have died by getting up off your lazy a$$es and create change, not by firing bullets, but by filling ballots.”

    I could go on and on…..”the United States Party…Our party, our country, our future. Join US.”

    Thank you and good night.

  6. superdestroyer says:

    All a third party movement would do is split the white voters across three parties while all of the non-white voters stay home in the Democratic Party. A third, centrist party would just give control to the Democrats.

    Anyone who talks about third parties needs to learn how to count and add. The demographic groups that voter Democratic Party are growing, the demographic groups that are swing voters or possible Republican voters are shrinking.

    The real political change in the U.S. will occur when the Republican party completes is collapse and the U.S only has one relevant political party. Of course, such a situation will do nothing to fix education, health care, or the economy but at least people will be able to stop believing that politics will solve anything.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    All a third party movement would do is split the white voters across three parties while all of the non-white voters stay home in the Democratic Party.

    Johnny One-Note strikes again…

  8. superdestroyer says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Then please explain who a party other than the Democratic Party appeals to blacks or Hispanics? Do you really think a party that fires incompetent teachers but pays college kids more to be teachers is going to appeal to the blacks of Detroit or the Hispanics of El Paso?

    If pundits refuse to ever face the questions of ethnic cultures, demographics, and race, then all of the government programs that are tried will fail.

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    @Solomon Kleinsmith: The Republican Party may not be willing to tear itself from it’s base but it’s base is becoming a smaller and smaller minority. Unless the Republicans can change the demographics of the party it will go the way of Whigs as the base dies.

  10. @Solomon Kleinsmith: This is because they know they no longer have to cater to what the people want. Before the 24/7 news cycle and everything it brought, politicians still had to play even passing attention to the desires of their electorate. Now, with both sides spinning through their own partisan news networks (moreso on the right via Fox/Rush), the people can effectively be told what they want, and they play along because they don’t know any better. The news we used to trust has become toxic.

  11. @tyndon clusters: I talk to people with ideas like this all the time. You’re not alone.

  12. @Christopher Bowen: The media certainly plays a major part. Not the only part though.

    @Ron Beasley: It’s a big enough base to get elected in many places across the country, and ideologically passionate enough to not go away, unless a third party sprung up that was decidedly center-right. If Obama happens to lose next year, I’d bet the farm that we’ll see a left wing tea party rise up and pull the dems farther to the left than they’ve ever been and make a run at equaling the polarization of the right.

  13. casimir says:

    @Hey Norm: you might be right. she might do something like a “reality campaign,” with the audience allowed to televote on major decision points. it would certainly bring in big bucks which is all she is really after anyway.

  14. James H says:

    Actually, I think we’re quite ripe for a third party. Not for a third party to win, mind you. They never do. But I think a third party would be an excellent way to galvanize a certain part of the electorate … and perhaps to motivate the two parties to pay attention to the issues that motivate that third party.

  15. Eric Florack says:

    One word:

  16. NickNot says:

    It’s an interesting debate. While I can’t see a third party evolving fast enough to factor into the next 4-8 years, I can certainly see an evolving situation that might include several parties. Maybe over the next 50-100 years.

    The way I see it, there are 4 parties now:

    Independent (or NO party)

    It is certainly a stretch to call Independents a party, but why do people register this way? There has to be a reason, and therefore I include them.

    The Libertarians are maturing, but a long way to go. It seems that the general consensus is, if you want to win an election (or there might actually be a possibility), you run as a Republican. I suppose the future of the Libertarian Party might depend on any (or no) success a libertarian republican has after being elected. Certainly, there are many libertarians (Republicans) in office now, including the senate. If the ideals prevail, I could see the Party eventually evolving into a top level party.

    The parties currently break down something like:

    Tea Party/Fiscal Cons
    Social Cons
    Neo Cons
    Converted Blue Dogs

    Social liberals
    Education Industry
    Blue Dogs

    While there is more symmetry in the Democrat party, you can see where there might be a moderate/progressive split – as evidenced by some within the party dissenting on the President’s re-election.

    Much easier to see a division in the Republican party – because of the large/small government divide. Quite frankly, the Republican party doesn’t seem to have any qualification to it. At this point, you can find differing/opposing views on virtually every issue within the same party – and that more than anything means it is ripe to be split.

  17. gVOR08 says:

    The “Main Street” establishment, more or less the white middle class, felt themselves to be represented by the Republican Party. They are now being forced to recognize that their party no longer represents them and has become the party of ignorance and irrationality. The policy they want is essentially the policy offered by Obama and the Democrats. Friedman and Miller have to get pretty nit picky to claim otherwise. But they can’t bring themselves to recognize this. I don’t know if this flows from identity politics or is because the Republican messaging machine has done a very effective job of demonizing the Democrats. Likely both.