So often in American politics, we talk about the need for a third party. Many activists have spent their careers trying to break the two party system, and get other parties, such as the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, into prominence, and it’s understandable why.
Many voters are disillusioned with the status quo, and they feel like we’re squeezed by having only two choices, Republicans and Democrats. The idea is that, if were able to pick from a wide variety of parties, it would break gridlock in government and would strengthen our democracy.
However, there are quite a few problems with that idea, both practically and theoretically.
The first of those is how we’re going to get a third party in government to begin with. In the US, we use a first past the post system for electing representatives. When you vote for your mayor, congressman, or even the President, you get one and only one vote. You pick the candidate you like the most, they get your vote, and the candidate with the most votes wins.
This seems like a fair system, but it only works with two candidates. When there are more than two candidates, it can result in what’s known as the spoiler effect.
If a third party candidate runs, they are rarely able to get enough of the vote to win, so instead they just serve as a spoiler in the election. All they do is draw voters away from one of the two major candidates who would’ve gotten the votes had they not been there.
Let’s look at an example. We have an election for mayor in a small town, and there are two candidates running: Mr. Yellow and Mrs. Purple. Mr. Yellow is supported by 58% of the town’s residents, and Mrs. Purple is supported by 42%.
In a normal election, Mr. Yellow would win, as he has the majority and would get the most votes.
However, this time, there’s a third candidate running. His name is Mr. Orange, and in terms of his policies, he’s very similar to Mr. Yellow.
While a lot of people like Mr. Yellow, some of his supporters like Mr. Orange even more, so Mr. Orange takes some votes from Mr. Yellow. In this election, Mr. Orange gets 23% of the vote, leaving Mr. Yellow with 35% of the vote, and Mrs. Purple still with 42%.
As a result, Mrs. Purple now has the most votes, and thanks to Mr. Orange taking votes from Mr. Yellow, Mrs. Purple wins the election despite not having a majority.
This is the spoiler effect, and it’s a major barrier keeping third parties from getting elected. Each person only has one vote, and because a third party has a low chance of winning, spending your vote on them doesn’t make sense.
Many people are afraid that if they support a third party, their vote will in essence get thrown away, as it will be taken away from the major party candidate they do like.
This has drawn people to the two major parties, and is what keeps the system going. We know that, in a given election, getting a critical mass of voters to switch and support a third party is nearly impossible, meaning supporting them guarantees wasting your vote, as your candidate won’t win.
So just electorally speaking, getting a third party candidate elected will be nearly impossible, as enough people can’t get on board at the same time. That means that third parties becoming major will be very difficult.
However, alternative voting systems are always an option. Many systems have been devised to eliminate the spoiler effect by letting voters vote for more than a single candidate, or by introducing rank voting, or something else similar. In fact, there are many organizations, such as FairVote, who push to change the US’s election system to make it easier for third parties to get elected.
Unfortunately, the problems with third parties extend beyond just our electoral system.
Another problem is that the two major parties won’t be super friendly to new parties taking votes from them. Even if, for the sake of argument, we assumed that the Libertarian Party or Green Party managed to elect a President or get a substantial number of seats in Congress, their chances of continued success would be limited.
The current major parties would be completely unwilling to cooperate with them, for one. More parties means more competition, and especially for the parties that are ideologically similar to them, the major parties would want to eliminate them so they could get those votes back and boost their own power.
The risk of losing power and votes would lead the major parties to entirely stonewall third parties and keep them from getting anything done, and a lack of success would likely come to haunt those third parties at the polls later.
But, putting aside the practical difficulties with electing third parties, we have to ask, do we really even need them? This may seem like a ridiculous question, but when you think about it, we already have third parties in the US. They’re just not official.
Both of the major parties have factions within them — the Democrats have progressives and moderates, Republicans have the Tea Party, the alt-right and the establishment — which essentially act as third parties. They bring ideological diversity to their respective major parties, and every election, there’s a war between the various factions within each party to determine its face and its policies.
This is very similar to the coalition building we see in multi-party countries.
Just looking across the pond in the UK, you can see a very similar principle to these warring factions. Just like the US, the UK is dominated by a center-left and center-right, but instead of being represented by one party collectively, instead it’s an assortment of parties.
On the center-right, there’s the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). They currently control the UK’s Parliament (sort of), and collectively would be like the Republican Party, with the Conservatives being the moderate Mitt Romney type, and the DUP would be the far-right Trump type.
On the center-left, there’s the Opposition, which means every party not making a majority in Parliament. The main parties making this up are the center-left Labour Party, social democratic Scottish National Party and the centrist Liberal Democrats.
Again, these third parties make up factions within their side, with the Scottish National Party roughly aligning with progressives, while Labour and Liberal Democrats roughly align with the moderate Democrat establishment.
Just like the US, the UK is two sides, but they’re just split up into multiple parties. There really aren’t that many more options than the US, as while you technically can vote for more than two parties, the government that gets formed will be led by Labour or the Conservatives, so you’re essentially choosing between one of the two.
This trend repeats itself everywhere. Every country is divided into a center-left and center-right, lead by a major party with some other third parties riding on the coattails. While people in the US talk about how much more ideologically diverse these countries are, and they certainly seem to be on paper, in reality they’re practically the same as the US.
The third parties of Europe are the same as the factions in the US — we’re not missing out on anything. In fact, the system the US has may be better.
Thanks to the aforementioned spoiler effect, elections in the UK are way less fair. Unlike in the US, where only two parties are running in each congressional election and you can be promised that likely the winner will get the majority of the vote, that isn’t the case in the UK.
In the UK, for parliamentary elections, multiple parties run in every constituency (electoral district), and people vote for them, making the spoiler effect far more common. In the most recent 2015 election, the results were incredibly unfair thanks to this.
In more than half of the constituencies, candidates won their elections with less than half of the vote, and in one constituency, Belfast South, the candidate won with 24.5% of the vote. That means that less than a quarter of the voters in that constituency voted for their representative.
While the US has a dicey election system, at least we can say that has never happened to us.
This distortion got worse on the national level. Thanks to the spoiler effect and how tiny minorities could win elections in constituencies, the Conservative Party managed to win the election and get a majority in Parliament with only 37% of the vote.
This was all thanks to the presence of third parties. Had the UK only had two parties like the US, it would have been a contest between the Conservative Party and Labour, and the results would’ve much more accurately reflected the opinions of the public.
Also, in multi-party countries like the UK, once all of the candidates are elected, things are far more chaotic than in the US.
Because we only have two parties, we know on election night that either the Republicans or the Democrats will control each chamber of Congress. There’s no uncertainty because the limited choice means there’s a guaranteed winner.
In the UK, that’s not how it works. After the election, the parties have to get together and try to form coalitions with each other to make a government. While the Conservative Party got an outright majority in the 2015 election, that is quite rare, and typically they have to find allies so that they can get a majority and get to work governing.
This means a lot of back door dealing and demand making and negotiations to try and find enough people to pull together for a government. It might seem like this would be straightforward, as the same parties are coming together and the past shows who’s ideologically aligned, but there are always splits due to specific circumstances in each Parliament that make this more difficult.
This means there’s a lot of confusion for the first few weeks, and in some cases, there’s no government at all. In Israel, for example, they may have to call a third election this year because no government could be formed following the first two elections due to parliamentary disputes.
Also, there are frequently minority governments, where no coalition is able to get an exact majority, but is able to cobble together loose agreements so they have a sort-of majority in the legislature. This is the case in Spain as well as Italy.
This is problematic, as it means there isn’t anyone properly running the government. While there is a Prime Minister or some kind of legislative leader who’s controlling the agenda, they don’t have true control of the government, and not much is able to be done.
In the US, however, our two party system has helped to create some stability. All of the ideological squabbles occur during the primaries — take the current 2020 Democratic primary, where the left and the center of the party are fighting for domination and to determine the path forward.
Whoever wins in that primary will go on to be the face of the party, and if the Democrats regain the presidency and the Senate, they will all fall together under the shared identity of the party that they agreed to through the primary. There won’t be any backdoor craziness to try and get a coalition going to run a government, as the majority will already be held under one party.
When you look at the bigger picture, it really doesn’t make sense to have third parties at all. We always complain about how stagnant and ineffective our government is, and we think that third parties can swoop in and fix our problems, but around the world that’s proven to not be the case.
In most ways, third parties have introduced more problems than they fixed, and while we’re jealous of other countries for their seeming ideological diversity and abundance of choice, maybe they don’t have it so good after all. Maybe we’re the ones with the party system other countries should be jealous of.