Does America Need a Third Party?

John Aldrich (Duke University) and Spencer Reynolds (The Forward Party) discuss the need for a third party in American politics.
Image by Halfpoint via Shutterstock

Would a Multi-Party System or Third Party Improve Governance in Congress?

By John Aldrich, Spencer Reynolds, and Laura Del Savio. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.


Will a Multi-Party System Save American Democracy? Very Unlikely. But Can a Centrist Party? 

By John Aldrich – Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science, Duke University

American democracy is in crisis. From our government to our citizenry, partisan polarization is one of the central causes and has reached unprecedented heights. Members of Congress are more divided by party and polarized on policy than ever before, even more than the Gilded Age. We don’t know about the public then, but we know that the two partisan camps are more deeply divided now by policy, ideology, and the emotional bonds of identity than at any time since World War II. Increasingly, the problem is negative partisanship, in which partisan loyalties are based on the distaste of the opposition’s party rather than the approval of their own.

Campaigns tie these polarized elites and electorates together. The massive increases in campaign funding force more candidates to the extreme to be able to get their message across; campaigns’ spiraling costs have aligned the parties with sources of uncontrollable dark money; and the nationalization of politics means that national concerns increasingly drive state and local politics–and fundraising–as well. 

Reforms to America’s Two-Party System

Two commonly proposed reforms seek to strengthen our democracy by attacking partisan polarization directly. One seeks to create an American multi-party system. The other hopes to craft a specific three-party system that adds a strong centrist party to our current two parties. Both face long odds of succeeding, but there is a chance that a centrist party could reshape democratic politics and reduce elite polarization.

A genuine multi-party system is unreachable in the U.S. Our system has evolved over the last two centuries around the existence of exactly two parties. Many other major democracies are truly multi-party systems, in which post-election coalitions of legislators select a prime minister and form a governing cabinet. Their political systems are so very different from ours that we would need many reforms to create a viable multi-party political system.

Most true multi-party systems are unitary, with one chamber dominating the government, enacting laws, and choosing that nation’s leaders. One possibly helpful exception is France, which separately elects its president and legislature. On occasion, France must deal with a president of one party and governing coalition of different parties in the National Assembly.

But to replicate that system, we would have to relegate the Senate to an inferior position to the House (or vice versa) and thus render our frequently divided–and stalemated–government moot. Many other reforms, such as proportional voting, would be necessary, combined with a long adjustment period. How to achieve that in the face of so many of America’s separated but intermingled powers is not at all obvious. If it were to be achieved, it would likely have two effects. One is to represent in Congress the full range of American public opinion, extremism, and moderation. The other is to make it more difficult for extremist parties to be pivotal in coalition formation in government and thus reduce their influence on policy.

Would a Centrist Party Help Offset the Increasing Extremism in Congress?

The prospect of a three-party system of Republicans, Democrats, and Centrists seems particularly intriguing. Such a result is likely only a stepping-stone toward a new, and hopefully less extreme, two-party system. The increasing extremism of the two parties has left the center wide open in Congress. While there are few centrists in Congress today, that is still where the bulk of the electorate resides. Centrist candidates, therefore, could succeed in current, plurality-based general elections. Ranked voting systems (already used in Alaska, Maine, and elsewhere) tend to favor centrist and moderate candidates and can be implemented by state or federal law. This reform would increase the chances of Centrists holding enough seats to be pivotal in Congress. Indeed, only a small number of Centrists in office in between the two more extreme Democrat and Republican blocs might just give the center the balance of law-making power, given the small majorities in recent congresses.

There are problems with this reform. High-quality candidates—typically experienced officeholders—need to abandon the party with which they won elections and defect to this new party with no assurance of victory. They also need the resources to effectively campaign. The increased role of social media in generating the electoral equivalence of “GoFundMe” campaigns is a possible path to resources. This is by no means an easy recipe. A Centrist Party would eventually have to develop success at many levels to become a durable option. But if it were to happen, Centrists might well hold the balance of law-making power, much like southern Democrats did in mid-twentieth-century America. And in the long run, one of two things would happen. One of the current parties might absorb the centrists but to do so would require them to be more moderate than now. Alternatively, the centrists might squeeze one of the current parties sufficiently to replace them, perhaps being less moderate than their original stance but almost certainly more moderate than the party they would be replacing.

Without the many reforms to create a congenial multi-party setting, we should expect a long-term withering of these three parties back into a two-party system. Most obvious in this regard is that the Centrists would squeeze one of the two current parties such that only the very most extreme members of that party were still electorally viable, only in the most extremely skewed district. Perpetuation of a three-party system is difficult to see because Centrists, like all other ambitious politicians, would like to climb the informal ladder of offices to ever higher positions, and it would be very difficult for this three-party balancing act to hold across many offices at state and national levels over any long period. Still, short-term opportunism might well lead to this critical if transitional step for reducing polarization in America.


Why America Needs a Third Party

By Spencer Reynolds – Director of Political Partnerships, The Forward Party, in collaboration with Laura Del Savio – Senior Communications Strategist, The Forward Party

Modern American politics is marked by political division, partisan vitriol, and vilification of opposing party supporters. Over the past fifty years, American politics has seen an increasing partisan divide grow between the two major parties. At the same time, elected officials from these two parties determine the rules for their own elections. Left to their own devices, they have built a system that protects those in office rather than governing by the will of the people.  

Our current situation is the inevitable result of a two-party system. Such a system will always result in the increasing consolidation of power over the objections of voters. The only solution is to equip new parties with a path to election so that they may stabilize the country.

How Divided Are We?

To understand the depth of our nation’s polarization and the true need for a third party, one must look at how such partisanship manifests both in Congress and in the electorate.

In the last sixty years, the number of representatives who reach across the aisle has diminished drastically, with comparatively little cooperation happening between the parties today. Researchers have found that cross-party cooperation started decreasing in Congress around 1982. This began in the House and flowed to the Senate as representatives won statewide elections and transitioned to the Senate, bringing their polarization with them. Polarization in the electorate increased about 10 years after it did in Congress, demonstrating that voters take their cues from their political leaders.  

With diminishing agreement between opposing sides, the country is headed down a dark path. The question before the nation today is: Will we fix it, or will we let our democratic representation slip through our fingers?

Congress’s Constant Campaign

One of the major changes in American politics in the last half-century is the transition to the constant campaign for our elected officials. Our legislators are continuously running their next campaign for office, officially or otherwise, from their seats in Washington.  

For the majority of the modern era of American politics (post-World War II) until the turn of the century, there was little power shifting happening in the House and the Senate. For the most part, the House remained in Democratic hands and the Senate remained in Republican hands. However, in the 90s, the Congressional math changed. After 40 years of no changes in control of the House (1954–1994), the House has now changed hands four times since 1994. During that same earlier 40-year period, the Senate changed parties just twice, but since 1994 has changed party control eight times. 

This change in House and Senate control has resulted in a shift in how legislators run their offices. The minority started to realize that they didn’t need to work with the majority at all. If they obstructed as much as possible and then used the lack of progress the majority was making as a central campaign message, the minority could become the majority. Data on the breakdown of Congressional staff positions bear out this observation—before 1975, not one member of the Senate leadership had communications staff members. That number sits at 44% of Senate leadership staff as of 2016. House leadership communications staff went from 7% of the offices to just over 30% during the same timeframe. Congressional leadership realized that messaging around the failures of their opposition was the best way to secure a victory in the next election and shifted their staffing accordingly.  

The House and Senate have become political battlegrounds where instead of finding common-ground legislative solutions to the problems of the day, legislators are obstructing the other side as much as possible in order to win the majority and force through whatever legislation they can before they lose the majority in an election or two. Given that voters take their polarization cues from elected officials, it’s no wonder that this partisan war in Congress has bled out into the nation as a whole. If we want to solve the deepening divide in our country, we must fix the polarization in Congress. This cannot be accomplished with two parties perpetually vying for control.  

So, What Do We Do About It?

The good news is that there is a solution! We must force congressional math to favor less partisanship instead of more. We can do this through what’s known as the Fulcrum Theory. In order for a third party to affect the voting and incentives in Congress, it must act as a fulcrum to the other two parties, occupying just enough seats to deny either major party a true majority. Ensuring that no single party has enough votes internally to pass legislation would force members to reach across the aisle and work with politicians from other parties in order to wrangle a majority of the votes.  

When a third party is successful at denying either of the other parties a majority in Congress, the electoral math changes. It no longer makes sense for the minority to obstruct entirely and blame the majority because now there is no majority—just a group of leaders who have to reach a consensus to pass laws. If no consensus is reached, all parties feel the pressure from voters rather than just the majority taking the heat.  

The Fulcrum Theory, once implemented, will change the incentives in place for legislators. No longer will it encourage obstructionism and partisanship, but instead, it will emphasize working together to solve problems because otherwise, none of the parties will have the power to pass anything alone.  

Putting It All Together: Why We Need a Third Party

The steady climb of polarization both in Congress and the electorate since the 1980s, combined with the hyper-partisanship in the day-to-day operation of the government, is bolstering partisan hatred. And history is not on our side. Since 1950, of the 52 democracies that have become as polarized as we have, only 16 of them have managed to curtail that polarization before it resulted in a degradation of their democracy. And we have become polarized more quickly than nearly any other western democracy in the modern era… 

To diminish the deleterious impact of the two-party system and pave the way for collaboration and problem-solving, third parties must intervene. We must implement the Fulcrum Theory to keep deepening partisan hatred at bay. We must create a healthy multi-party democracy to increase the genuine representation of the American people. A third party is necessary for the survival of the country. It’s time to move not left, not right, but forward.  



If you liked this post, you can read more of our Encouraging Bipartisanship series here.

John Aldrich
Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science, Duke University | Website | + posts

John Aldrich specializes in American and comparative politics and behavior, formal theory, and methodology. Books he has authored or co-authored include "Why Parties," "Why Parties Matter," "Before the Convention," and "Change and Continuity in the 2020 Elections."  He is past president of the Southern Political Science Association, the Midwest Political Science Association, and the American Political Science Association. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

 

Spencer Reynolds
Director of Political Partnerships – The Forward Party | + posts

Spencer Reynolds is director of political partnerships at the Forward Party. He is a graduate of Georgetown University School of Government and holds an M.A. in American Government with a focus on independent and third parties. Formerly, Spencer served as the campaign manager for Thomas Chittenden For State Senate and as a senior digital strategist at Break Something.

Laura Del Savio
Senior Communications Strategist – The Forward Party | + posts

Laura Del Savio is the senior communications strategist for the Forward Party. Formerly she was deputy campaign manager and communications director for a U.S. congressional campaign. Additionally, Laura is a public school educator with an M.A. in Secondary school education from Columbia University and an M.S. in School Administration.

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