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Why Third Parties Don’t Succeed

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Joe Tauke at The Melting Pot Project thinks he knows why third party candidates, regardless of their ideological stripe, don’t succeed in American politics:

Did you know that other democracies in the world choose their legislatures and executives in many, many different ways? If you’ve heard of other countries having six, or nine, or eleven parties in their Parliaments, but never bothered to figure out why, the answer lies in how they assign their seats. In America, each seat in the House is linked to a single district. To win any given seat, a party’s candidate must win the most votes in its respective district. Senate seats are the same, at a statewide level. So, if 51% of the country was made up of loyal Republicans, and 49% of the country was made up of loyal Democrats, and the population was spread out perfectly evenly, the result would be that the Republicans would win every single seat in Congress, and the Democrats would win no seats. In each district, the Republican candidate would get 51% of the vote, thereby winning the seat. Same with Senate races.

In many other countries, a system called “proportional representation” is used. As you might guess from the name, this means that the seats in the legislature are assigned, well, proportionally. (Captain Obvious sends his regards.) Let’s go back to that previous scenario. Using proportional representation, a nationwide vote for Congress would be held, rather than dividing the country into districts. If the Republicans received 51% of the vote and the Democrats received 49%, the Republicans would receive 51% of the seats, and the Democrats would receive 49% of the seats. Seems more fair, don’t you think?

Well, it sort of depends on what you’re definition of “fair” is.

If you believe that fairness means that the national legislature should mirror the ideological divide in the country as a whole, then proportional representation is fair, which would mean you’d be more at home in a country with a parliamentary form of government.

If, however, you believe, as the Founding Fathers did, that representatives should represent not a particular ideology or party, but the people who put them in office, then it’s an entirely different story.

Tauke is right that the American political system is biased in favor of two large political parties that represent not just two different political extremes, but also the broad middle of American politics. He’s wrong, however, in his argument that this is a flaw in the system that victimizes supporters of third-party candidates. In fact, I think it’s exactly what the Founding Fathers intended, albeit not in the form they anticipated.

Consider James Madison’s words from Federalist No. 10:

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add that it is the great desideratum by which this form of government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.

In other words, the two-party system helps to sustain liberty because it minimizes the ability of people on the ideological extremes to implement their views without tempering them to the will of the majority.

There is, I would submit, nothing wrong with the fact that the United States, unlike most European countries with a parliamentary form of government never had a politically powerful Communist or Socialist Party, or that we’ve never had a situation where a far-right political party attained serious political, as has happened in countries like Austria recently.

That doesn’t mean that third-parties don’t have a role in American politics, because history demonstrates otherwise. Before the Republican Party came into being and achieved power in the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, it was preceded by any number of anti-slavery parties, many of them far more radical in their views than even the Radical Republicans ever were. The Progressive Party was the birthplace of much of the social legislation of the early 19th Century. Even the Socialist Party saw many of it’s proposals enacted as part of FDR’s New Deal. None of these minor parties achieved political power in the sense of winning office, but they they did influence the debate in one or both of the major parties and, in doing so, changed the course of American history.

There’s no reason to completely scrap a system that’s worked just fine for more than 200 years just to get a few Libertarian and Green Party members elected to Congress. The risks, I think, would far outweigh any possible benefits.