Third Parties Aren't Happening

There has been talk of formation of a viable third party in American politics for years now and simply put, it isn’t happening.  These are merely pie-in-the-sky dreams of people upset with the status quo which, in 2016, delivered up two equally unpalatable candidates.  It was like going to a restaurant and finding your only choices were sea urchin and soft-boiled fetal duck.  Yet for all the hand-wringing and bitching, Clinton and Trump accounted for about 94% of all ballots cast in 2016.

The two-party system has been a fact of life since the 1820’s.  And it is not going away anytime soon.  Part of it is history and psychology, and part of it is our unique constitutional system which has done a remarkably good job for over 200 years despite occasional missteps.  It was only in the 1850’s when a third party- the Republican Party- displaced another major party- the Whigs.  But despite the apparent factionalism today, it in no way compares to that of the 1850’s.  We are not on the verge of a civil war.

The next flexing of third party muscle was Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Progressive Party that came in second and handed the Presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  In 1948, Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat candidacy matched the votes of Henry Wallace as he garnered 39 electoral votes yet had no effect on the eventual outcome.  Ditto for George Wallace in 1968- the last third party candidate to win any electoral votes- as his performance would not have changed the outcome.  Third party candidates have the potential to play spoiler, but even there the record is spotty.

And the reasons are simple.  The only way a third party candidate will ever be viable in the United States is if we amend the Constitution.  Built into that document is the basic premise that our Founders wanted legislation to be difficult to enact and equally difficult to undo once enacted.  It is why there are two houses in Congress each with different rules, requirements and terms.

Viable third parties exist mainly in a parliamentary system of government.  There are very few exceptions with perhaps France being the best.  However, our Founders did not want a parliament answerable to an executive.  In fact, they unanimously rejected a parliamentary system of government after one day of debate.  An executive in such a system can only hold power as long as they hold a majority in the parliament.

Second, our Founders rejected the parliamentary practice of proportional representation where whatever percent of the vote a party received would be reflected in the make-up of the parliament/legislature.  It is true that in such systems, third parties are more viable and can gain power from the ground up.  But that is not what our Founders decided upon and ratified, so it is a moot point unless you change the Constitution.  Fat chance!

Third, the Electoral College places a huge obstacle in the way of a third party as the historical examples prove.  The chances would increase, of course, if we abolished the Electoral College and elected the President by popular vote, or even if we elected someone by a plurality of the electoral vote thus retaining the Electoral College.  However, either option would require a Constitutional amendment.  Again, fat chance!

Ballot access rules- established at the state level- also inhibit third parties unless you establish national access rules.  Here again, this would require a Constitutional amendment to override Article I, Section 4, Clause 1 which places this task in the hands of the individual states.  Today, restrictive registration fees or petition signature requirements make it difficult to get a third party on a ballot.  Some states provide for automatic qualification of third parties if they gain a certain percentage amount of the vote in a previous election.  But, this is an after-the-fact rule that does not guarantee that in the next round of elections at whatever level that third party will reach that threshold for future automatic ballot access.

Some have suggested that the way to go is not necessarily top-down, but from the ground up.  That was, in fact, the norm in the 19th century where third parties were more successful at the state and local level.  For the change in that dynamic, you can thank Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.  The expansion of the federal government under these two Presidents essentially snuffed out third party success at the state and local level despite the occasional, but extremely rare third party or independent candidates (such as Jesse Ventura in Minnesota).  Instead, the two major parties basically co-opted third parties as their membership folded into a major party.

There are three areas where, perhaps, third parties can be helped.  The first is in reform of the campaign finance laws.  The major parties can hire the best legal and accounting advice to steer them through the complexities.  Third parties, moreover, are eligible for federal funds only if they appear on the ballots in ten states and achieve 5% of the national vote in a previous election.  Since 1948, only George Wallace (American Independent Party) and Ross Perot (Reform Party) would have qualified if FECA was in effect at the time.

The second area is media exposure.  Current rules keep third party candidates off a debate stage, the best chance at media exposure to the voters.  Other than that, they simply get little voice in the mainstream or even non-mainstream media unless they resort to some publicity stunt like spraying graffiti on construction equipment in North Dakota or being the candidate of your average pothead in Colorado.

The best chance for a third party, however, is the concept of fusion voting such that exists in New York and was recently adopted in Oregon.  New York has had for years a vibrant Conservative Party and a vibrant Liberal Party.  Fusion voting forces the major parties to seek the endorsement of third parties and accommodate their interests.  In New York, the failure of the GOP to secure the endorsement of the Conservative Party all but ensures defeat.  Conversely, a Republican with the endorsement of the Liberal Party increases their chances of winning in a Democratic area or state.  Without fusion voting, most voters believe their vote for a third party candidate is wasted.

However, as is so often heard, “Now the time is ripe for a third party,” is fusion voting truly what is meant?  To have the voter “feel” their vote for a third party is not wasted?  And is not fusion voting simply absorption by the major party of the third party without actual absorption?  In the end, it may cause some interesting alliances here and there, but it is nothing but a gimmick and not what is meant when people advocate for a third party.

The chances of formation of a lasting, viable, vibrant and electable third party either on a top-down or ground-up basis is extremely low.  The legal and Constitutional cards are stacked against success.  While some of the legal obstacles can be overcome, the Constitution is the major roadblock and those roadblocks cannot be overcome without a Constitutional amendment.  Again and finally- fat chance!  The best chance to change the Republican Party is from within, not chasing a pipe dream doomed to failure.

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