Back in the 1960s, a third party candidate named George Wallace, former Alabama governor, was famous for saying “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two political parties.” Well, for the most part he was right.
And that’s a factor of the American political structure.
Did you ever wonder why there are really only two effective political parties? Sure, today you have the Green Party, the Libertarians, and in New York State, the Conservatives. But in terms of national real impact, these parties are non-factors.* Why is that? Do all Americans overwhelmingly support the platforms of the two major parties? If that was the case, why would so many Americans (more than one-third in most polls) identify as “independents?”
The answer lies partly in the Constitution and partly in the “second American party system” set up by Martin Van Buren in the 1820s. Hang on, because I’ll bet you’ve never heard some of this before.
The Founders strongly believed in representation by the people. They were simultaneously afraid of mob rule, but also of rule by a tyrant (think King George!) Because of that, they adopted a “winner take all/single member district” system for representation in the House of Representatives. “Winner take all” means exactly what it says: the winner of a legislative district, even if by a plurality (more votes than anyone else, but not over 50% of the total vote), wins the entire district. There is no “proportional representation” as there is in Israel or Germany. There, extreme or strange parties can get seats in the parliament and affect policy by forcing some of the larger parties to make deals with them. This was precisely how the Nazis came to power in Weimar Germany in the late 1920s (they never won more than 44% of the total vote, but forced another party to align with them). The “Whales are People Too Party” could get an actual seat in a legislature if it got enough votes in such a system. But in addition to the “Winner Take All” structure, America’s Founders built in the “single member district” system, whereby only one legislator represents a district. This ended proportional representation.
So you ask, “Well, why do we have third parties at the national level?” First, such parties never, ever win. They count on their presence to suck votes away from one of the major parties and by doing so force that party (usually the loser) to accept some of the third party’s positions next time around. In 1992, Ross Perot’s “Reform Party” managed to get a whopping 17% of the popular vote, largely because voters were fed up with the antics of both parties failing to address the national debt, deficits, and poor trade deals. But Perot didn’t win a single electoral vote, and Bill Clinton, the Democrat, won with just 43% of the total vote. (There’s that “winner take all” again).
We have had many third parties in our history, including the Socialists—who got one million votes in a national election in the early 1900s—and the Populists. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln led a new party—not really a “third party”—called the Republicans that won the election with just 39.8% of the popular vote. That year, there were four major presidential candidates, and the four-way split meant that the runner up, Stephen Douglas, only got 29.5%. Interestingly, Douglas did not come in second in the electoral college to Lincoln—he came behind John Breckinridge of the Southern Democratic Party and a true third party candidate, John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party!
Another development that was not ensconced in the Constitution was the political party system. Most of the Founders, especially George Washington, decried parties. He saw them as divisive and hostile to national unity. But the author of the Constitution, James Madison, had a much different view of political parties. (Keep in mind that in Madison and Washington’s time, there were no political parties in the way we know them today—or even as they would exist after the 1820s). In Federalist #10, Madison wrote “ By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” How did Madison propose Americans deal with factions? There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”
Madison concluded that parties (“factions”) were inherent in the human condition:
“The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” He even said that human nature was such that when there were no real issues to disagree over, “the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions” would create them. The only solution as Madison saw it was to permit factions and establish structures within the government to allow them to check each other.
Human nature could not be ignored, and trying to control people’s opinions would result in the diminution of liberty. So Madison reluctantly broke with Washington and allied with Thomas Jefferson in his new “faction,” the Jeffersonian Republicans. Again, this was not a party in the modern sense. There were no conventions, hats, buttons, campaigning among ordinary people. Everything was done in “caucuses,” or small groups of influential men. (The common phrase later would be men who gathered in “smoke filled rooms.”) But because Madison and Jefferson’s “party” did not have any common element to it, these were little more than highly influential and powerful men’s clubs. The same was true of the “Federalists” of George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. Yet keep in mind that in the 1780s Madison was a “Federalist” who later became a “Republican” when elected to the presidency in 1808. Same guy!
So where did modern parties come from? They emerged from the brain of a little-known congressman, Martin Van Buren, in the 1820s as a reaction to the Missouri Compromise. This compromise shook many major political observers, including the elderly Jefferson, who said it woke him like a “firebell in the night.” (Any of you ever awakened by a tornado siren would know what this is like!). What was so upsetting about the Missouri Compromise? After all, the Union was relatively equally divided among free and slave states both in the House and in the Senate. The Missouri Compromise admitted Maine as a free state (two senators, one congressman) and Missouri as a slave state (two senators, one congressman). No problem so far.
The issue arose with the other elements of the Compromise pertaining to all the other territory of the Louisiana Purchase. An imaginary line was drawn at the 36 degree 30 minute parallel (the bottom of the state of Missouri). From that point on, it was agreed, any new state coming into the Union from the Louisiana territory that was below the line could choose to be a slave state or a free state. (In reality, this was pretty much Arkansas and art of Oklahoma). Any state coming in above the line had to be a free state. This meant that Kanasa, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas (eventually) would all be free states—a development that would drastically upset the balance of power in both the House and the Senate. Once that happened, Van Buren thought, those states would act to end slavery in the South, and civil war would ensue.
Van Buren came up with a brilliant and ultimately disastrous solution: a new political party called the “Democrat” party that would protect and preserve slavery by buying off supporters who might have anti-slave inclinations. He would secure their loyalty by giving away party and even government jobs. This was called the “spoils system” or “patronage,” and seemed workable at first as the U.S. government (and state governments) were extremely small. After all, as late as the early 1800s President Jefferson answered the White House door himself in his housecoat and slippers. Van Buren’s plan was to give party jobs (county chairman, state chairman, etc.) to those who got Democrats elected. But all elected Democrats had to agree in principle that slavery must be protected, and that as legislators/senators they would not discuss any legislation that would negatively impact the presence of slavery in the South. Of course, this was utterly impossible. People sooner or later would talk about what they wanted to talk about, and it was impossible to keep slavery out of the political discussion.
Regardless, Van Buren’s plan of rewarding party supporters with jobs was key to explaining why it is impossible today for a third party to win in any substantial way. When a second party—the Whigs—came along to oppose the Democrats, it adopted the same tactic of rewarding people with jobs. In other words, the new political party accepted Van Buren’s premise on how a party had to operate. Later, the replacement for the Whigs, the Republicans, likewise did not bat an eyelash at the structure of the election process.
The implications for this were profound. It meant that after the creation of the Democratic Party in 1826, all parties had to give away jobs to compete. And to give away jobs, you had to win the election. That meant that at all times, parties had to be close to appealing to 50% of the electorate. No party could possibly survive for long if it never had a chance at winning, because it would have no jobs to give away; no effect on legislation; and no impact on policy. Supporters simply wouldn’t hang around for a decade or more if they had no personal rewards and no policies implemented. Thus, both parties moved toward “the middle” to appeal to the majority. To do that, for the most part, they had to endorse somewhat similar policies.
Third parties, which for the most part are created purely out of ideological reasons, namely the founders of those parties are deeply committed to one principle or another (“free silver” for the Populists, very small government for Libertarians). Such a commitment usually means they will not compromise on those key principles. So they begin small (usually 1-2%). If, after 2-3 election cycles, they have not elected anyone, their supporters grow disillusioned. After all, say, after 8-12 years they have not elected anyone to Congress, have not had the ability to give away a single job, and have not directly been responsible for passing a single law. Supporters desert at that point.
Let’s go back to Ross Perot. His Reform Party had an astonishing 17% of the popular vote . . . but didn’t have a majority in a single state. He didn’t win one electoral vote. After the election, the Reform Party did not give away a single job to a supporter, or affect a single law. But Perot ran again in 1996, again with the Reform Party. That time, he got only half of what he had in 2012. At the congressional level, however, the Reform Party had not won a single seat in four years nor did it have an impact on policy. Had Perot run again in 2000, my suspicion is that his total would have been halved yet again.
Or take the Libertarians. They routinely get about 1% in elections. Because their principle is small government, by their very nature they do not advocate giving away government jobs! So it’s difficult for Libertarian candidates to appeal to less ideological people on the grounds of what they will “do for them.” So their vote total continues to hover at the 1% level . . . with one big exception.
In 2016, the Libertarian candidate for president, Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, drew strongly from Republican candidate Donald Trump, especially in the states of New Mexico (where he got 74,000 votes, or 9% in an election where Trump lost by 8%), Maine (where Johnson got 5% and Trump lost by 3%), or Colorado (where Johnson won 5.1% and Trump lost by 4.9%). In 1912, “third party” candidate Theodore Roosevelt took 88 electoral votes and 27% of the vote while Republican William Howard Taft took only 8 electoral votes but had 23% of the vote. Roosevelt was previously a Republican, and had he not been in the race, it’s entirely likely Taft would have defeated Woodrow Wilson, who only one 41.8% of the vote. By the way, in that election the Socialist candidate, Eugene Debs, had almost a million votes (6%).
The necessity of getting 50% of the vote has forced both parties over time—with a very recent modern exception in the Democratic Party—to move toward the “middle” of the political spectrum. Whether modern Democrats, who have moved very sharply left (Debs would be proud!) face electoral disaster or not remains to be seen, but history is not on their side.