In the words of Richard Hofstadter, “Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.”
What Hofstadter, a towering public intellectual who died in 1970, meant was that in American politics, third parties succeed not by winning elections, but by pushing the major parties to reform, to adopt or to co-opt ideas circulating on the margins and bring them into the mainstream.
A more pessimistic view of third parties is that they serve as spoilers in presidential elections, helping elect a candidate furthest from their point of view. This criticism was directed at Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election and again at the Green Party’s Jill Stein in 2016 (and the Liberty Party in 1844).
Whether third parties are a help or a hindrance, there is a reason why they have struggled to maintain relevance in the U.S. The Constitution and electoral rules have produced a winner-take-all, two-party system in which voting for a fringe candidate appears to be a waste of time. The United States does not hold congressional elections, for instance, with candidate lists or ranked-choice voting to establish proportional representation.
Moreover, both major political parties have become monolithic in a hyper-partisan, polarized time in America. Long gone are the sizable factions of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans who once made splinter parties, such as the Dixiecrats of 1948, more possible.
Into this landscape come more than 100 prominent Republicans who are threatening to form a third party to rescue the GOP from former President Donald Trump. Yet, for the aforementioned reasons as well as the fact that a large majority of Republican voters remain loyal to the former president, the effort seems doomed to failure.
On this episode of History As It Happens, political scientist Norm Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Mr. Trump “is still the dominant force with Republicans in Congress and with Republicans in the rank and file around the country.”
“The hold that he has on Republicans in Congress has a lot to do with the fact that 80% of their constituents still think Trump is terrific and 70% believe that Trump won the election, that it was stolen from him,” Mr. Ornstein added.
Although some public opinion polls indicate Americans would be willing to get behind a third party — not merely a third-party presidential candidate who comes and goes with the next election cycle — a new party or parties would not gain traction without structural changes to the election system, said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America.
“When you have single-winner elections, it is very hard for third parties to compete because they are treated as spoilers,” Mr. Drutman said. The Green Party is a telling example: There are only about 120 elected officials associated with the party at all levels of government in the entire U.S.
“There is certainly demand [among voters] for more options. However, there is no agreement on what that third party should look like,” Mr. Drutman added.
Mr. Drutman, the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, has called for major changes to national elections where ranked-choice voting and proportional representation would replace the “antiquated ‘first-past-the-post (single-winner plurality) voting system.”
Under such a system, an enlarged congressional district would send a group of candidates to Washington, with each party (Democrat, Republican, Socialist, whoever) represented proportional to the votes. Imagine a House of Representatives with members from four or five or six different parties.
Is this the answer to America’s “calamitous zero-sum toxic partisanship,” as Mr. Drutman described it? For more of Mr. Ornstein’s and Mr. Drutman’s observations on third parties, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.