Third Party Torment

Don't be seduced by third-party dreams.

The Washington Independent brings us this startling news:

For the first time since Gallup began polling the public on the issue, a majority of Republicans back the establishment of a third political party...

Gallup has the breakdown on its website, which includes the little-acknowledged fact that independents overwhelmingly want a third party and always have.

Is it finally time to give up on the Republicans and start over?

Playing a Rigged Game...

The problem is that, for two hundred years, our political institutions have been designed for two and only two parties.  Our elections have a winner, a loser, and also-rans; there simply is no mechanism for a new entrant to get serious traction.

Not that it hasn't been tried; a review of American third parties could and does fill volumes.  It isn't only kooks and extremists: sitting Presidents like Teddy Roosevelt have run on third-party platforms, to no avail.  If established professionals with such wide name recognition couldn't make it work, who can?

Yet every now and again, we do change parties.  America wasn't always Democrat and Republican; at one time, there were Democrats and Whigs.  Before that, Democratic-Republicans and Federalists.

How did the changes take place?  The Federalist party opposed the extremely popular War of 1812 and was so hammered at the polls that it ceased to be a national party.  The Democratic-Republicans ruled alone briefly, but soon split into the Democrat and the Whig parties, thus giving us two again.

When the Civil War was about to take place, the Whigs couldn't decide whether they were pro- or anti-slavery.  The party fragmented and was replaced by the vehemently anti-slavery Republican party that put Lincoln into office.  The Democrats more or less supported slavery and then segregation for the next hundred years.

It's been those same two parties ever since.  Every few decades, some wealthy or famous person decides to have a go as a third party candidate, Teddy Roosevelt and Ross Perot being merely the most notorious.  All have had, on the surface, a plausible chance - yet all have suffered the same fate of ignominious defeat, usually dragging their preferred side down with them by splitting the vote.

...But A Dangerous One

There are two lessons we can learn from this brief tour of American partisan history:

1. It is possible to create a new American national political party and have it be successful.

2. To do that, you have to kill off one of the existing parties.  Otherwise, you hand total power to your worst enemies.

The Tea Partiers are furious at the weakness of Republicans, and with good cause.  There's also no shortage of leftists upset with Mr. Obama's failure to turn us into a Eurosclerotic aristocracy at the wave of his hand.  Are either of these groups, though, in a position to actually destroy and replace the target of their frustration?

Consider what happened to the rump Federalists and rump Whigs: they had no national clout for several election rounds.  The "Era of Good Feelings" after the end of the Federalists came about because there was only one national party, the Democratic-Republicans; ex-Federalists were disenfranchised entirely.  This gave the ruling power a total monopoly on power - of course they'd feel good, and they also got to write the history books glorifying their accomplishments.

The same thing happened to the Whigs, with far worse consequences.  The Democrats were having their own trouble with the slavery question, but managed to cooperate in electing James Buchanan as a compromise.  It turned out Buchanan was such a compromiser by nature that he couldn't actually decide on anything; he fiddled while the country burned, and is generally considered one of our worst presidents.  His strong leadership is best illustrated by his definitive view on slavery:

Buchanan's view of record was that secession was illegal, but that going to war to stop it was also illegal.

How's that for being decisive!  Leading from behind is apparently an old tradition in American politics, but it doesn't get any better with age.

Abraham Lincoln actually had an opinion on the subject of slavery, and an even stronger one on the subject of the Union.  His strongly-held principles saved the national bacon, but at an astronomically high cost.

As more and more observers are noting with fright, we are once again heading in the direction of a civil war.  This is not a time for pusillanimous Republicans, but even more is it not a time for another Democrat.

Yes, the Republican Party urgently needs to find its long-missing principles, guts, and cojones.  Conservatives need to push and shove on their leaders, demanding immediate action from those in power - not tomorrow, not next year, but now.

The Tea Party has had some success with this: for the first time in living memory, our Republican Congress is not merely talking about spending cuts but actually enacting them, albeit teensy ones.  Hey, it's a start!

There is a time and a place for third parties: when you can win.  In our system, it's simply not possible to win national office that way.

Instead, conservatives and Tea Partiers need to form a party within a party: organize, pressure, and agitate within the "big tent" of the Republican party, to push the Party and its officials all in the required conservative direction.  Only that way is there a chance of stopping America's headlong dash off the cliff of bankruptcy, socialism, and in all probability, eventual totalitarianism of one form or another.

Replacing a rotten party is all well and good.  It's much easier simply to commandeer the decaying shell, get it turned in the direction it must go, and make repairs from inside en route.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments

I'm not sure that the failures of previous third party attempts are analogous to today. With the internet, fund raising and marketing are much more of a level playing field than before. You don't really have to a leading party behind you to gather tons of support. The past 10 years has been crazy with respect to the candidates that have come out of nowhere, the money they've raised and how well they've done. I'm not saying we should try for a third party, but I'm also not sure that I would reject the concept as immediately and thoroughly as Scragged has done here.

May 24, 2011 9:01 AM

I agree with your basic point, that the Internet has greatly levelled the fundraising playing field.

What it hasn't done is levelled the LEGAL playing field. All the laws in all 50 states and the Feds, are designed for two and only two parties. So are our political structures.

That argues that the best way forward is to create a "party-within-a-party", whose members fly under the flag of the Republicans but are primarily loyal to a tighter, more conservative entity. That is what the Tea Party seems to be becoming, and it offers the best potential for success.

Over time, the Tea Party can capture and replace the Republican Party, not necessarily in name but certainly in principles and ideas. And that way we might actually get somewhere.

May 24, 2011 9:12 AM

"Ho ho ho he he he ha ha ha" ~Beatles

This article is perfect for academiacs.

Petrarch, you have learned the script so well. The playback is flawless.

My sincere congratulations, ww

May 24, 2011 12:28 PM


The places on earth that hold elections as we do but routinely find much more than only two serious contending parties on the ballot are all parliamentary democracies, are they not? In other words, nine parties can all field candidates, and the greatest among them hardly ever nets more than, say, 25-30% of the parliament or body in question; but then it forms a government and chooses a prime minister from its ranks. My point: What would the difference be in a republic such as this, with this many parties in play every time around, but with the executive chosen separately? The president could be from Party A, the house with 40% of party B, the senate with only 21 seats from Party C, seven other parties splitting the remainder. Perhaps the government would become properly sclerotic and would be something to try if spending could first be returned to proper levels.

In the meanwhile, it's important to remember that old-line Republicans (Lott, Bushes, others) would co-opt the "tea party" types as soon as they arrive in Washington. Assign them career staffers, paralyze them with busywork, and render them impotent. The reverse should actually be done: the "tea party" types should seize the husk of the Republican party and send those who know not of the constitution packing.

May 24, 2011 12:56 PM

"..render them impotent"~Bro John

Good term.
I have pointed out before {as a pox on this site} that in reality the Corporatist Public Relations Regime, has rendered the so-called "government" impotent.

This "government" is now simply a Punch and Judy show. Any review of this type of entertainment is best left in the perview of Entertainment News.

The mythology may be fascinating in a sense, but has absolutely no bearing on the war theater of Full Spectrum Dominance.


May 24, 2011 1:39 PM

What usually happens in parliamentary countries is that the system becomes almost entirely unresponsive to the opinions of the people, because no single party bears full authority or responsibility. If you want to be Prime Minister, you have to cobble together a coalition, meaning that the smallest and most marginal allied party has every bit as much power as all your voters put together, since they can walk out in a huff and bring down your government without paying any significant political price.

The usual result is that, regardless of party, the government is run according to the principles of elite opinion. Thus you see "ever closer European union" despite the actual European people hating the elimination of borders, and the residents of the wealthier countries hating the Euro because they know it simply means the transfer of their wealth to the poorer EU states - but there's nothing they can do to stop it.

Probably the ultimate example is any restrictions on immigration: all "mainstream" parties automatically align with each other to block out any party that wants to limit, much less stop, Muslim or African immigration, despite large majorities of voters wanting an end. Only very recently with some anti-immigrant parties winning absolute majorities (or close to), has the elitist wall broken down somewhat.

We have the same problem here, but it's more because of the bureaucracy and civil-service rules that prevent elected executives from actually getting their policies put into action. And it's more readily fixable.

May 24, 2011 1:56 PM

The other problem with multiple parties is that it presupposes all points of view are equally valid. I take exception to the idea that all ideas have equal validity and should be equally considered. Many ideas are inherently bad. Multiple parties require that their ideas, no matter how kooky, are to be seriously considered.

May 24, 2011 2:28 PM

1912 Woodrow Wilson elected; enabled by Teddy Roosevelt's running of a third party.

Roosevelt, a family of the old money ruling elite. Wilson, a chump being run by Bernard Burach through his agent "Col." House. And promoted by a champaign of Public Relations by the "Father of Spin" himself Edward Bernays.

And this is all presented as "happenstance" by the paradigm followed on this site.

A certain lack of sophistication is called, "jejune."

As a relative of Teddy, Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, "In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way."
Franklin D. Roosevelt


May 24, 2011 3:17 PM


Quite so. However, another maxim more readily applies: "Never attribute to malice what can just as easily be explained by stupidity." Teddy Roosevelt ran in 1912 chiefly because of his own ego, and less importantly, to screw his former friend Wm Howard Taft who, he believed, was not doing as TR thought he should.

Stupidity reigned in 1992 as well. An unprincipled yet still leftist and his evil harpie of a wife were elected (and I choose my words deliberately) because Ross Perot was careless in getting anyone to take him seriously and the incumbent was careless with his delicate inheritance from his old boss.

With regard to "happenstance," however, Petrarch hasn't suggested any such thing. The simple truth about third parties under current circumstances is a simple problem of mathematics and there's no way around that. The candidates who are closest to one another will each lose because their votes will split. There will be those who vote third party to cast a protest vote, shake things up, honestly hope the third guy will win, whatever. The others who vote for the second party do so largely because they believe that to vote third is throwing away their vote. The remaining party will thus win.

May 24, 2011 11:52 PM

"Never attribute to malice what can just as easily be explained by stupidity."~Bro John

Yes I have read that in the rules of the game here. This is dogmatic jabberwacky that tends against every lesson of history.

I understand the theory of folly. It is a close relative to the theory of coincidence.

But beyond theory there are the facts of history themselves showing intent and planning.
To assume that the elite have gained so much and have remained a status quo for centuries because they are 'stupid', is one of the most absurd propositions I have ever heard.

The elite are also excellent at math being dedicated bean counters.

May 25, 2011 1:42 AM

"The places on earth that hold elections as we do but routinely find much more than only two serious contending parties on the ballot are all parliamentary democracies, are they not? In other words, nine parties can all field candidates, and the greatest among them hardly ever nets more than, say, 25-30% of the parliament or body in question..."

Never more than 30%? Which parliamentary democracies are you talking about?

Australia? No, Labor has 48%.
The UK? No, the Conservatives have 47%.
India? No, the INC has 38%.
Germany? Close, but no, the CDU has 31%.
Ireland? Sweden? Japan? Canada? No, no, no, no.

Of the 76 nations w/ parliamentary systems (that I just looked up on Wikipedia), only 10 (Denmark, Finland, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Paupa New Guinea, Vanuatu, Belgium, Czech Republic, Netherlands) have their largest party taking less than 30% of the vote.

Sure, that's a long sight more diverse than what the US sees with its presidential democracy, where the number of times we've seen <50% can be counted on one hand.

Why those 10 meet your "30%" target is another story, but I'll note that 8 of them use proportional representation, and the other two are either seriously fractured religiously, to the point that the constitution specifies how many members of each religion must be in parliament (Lebanon) or serve at the whim of an Emir who regularly dissolves and suspends the parliament (Kuwait).

May 27, 2011 3:35 PM
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