How To Succeed as a Third Party

In a two-party system, third parties must adhere to two separate agendas.

May 20, 2020 · 9 min read
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

A successful third party in a two-party system is rare. The political game is centered around the win, and the two mainstream parties take up much of the political oxygen with their fights for the center. Yet understanding the reasons why third parties do not do well in two-party systems can help write the steps needed for achieving success.

There are actually few reasons why third parties do succeed in winner-take-all nations. The most successful ones are those that represent a distinct geographical area. Quebec and Scotland provide well-known examples why the usual two parties are not successful there. The regional culture is different enough from the national culture to the point that these voters reject the mainstream candidates and go with what is best known from close to home.

That’s it. There are no other successful third parties.

Actually, there are very few two-party nations left in the world. Many district-elected nations have an adjusted voting system nowadays and some form of proportionality is often incorporated. It is therefore not uncommon to find a minor third party in what appears to be a strict winner-take-all system. The US and the UK can be seen as the last successful two-party nation strongholds.

As quick example, Australia is a nation with a substantial third party — the Greens — even though all seats in the House of Representatives are voted in through districts. The fact that the Senate has multi-seat elections allows third parties to gain importance. The Senate system is not purely proportional, but it isn’t as restricted as voting in single-seat districts. Once established as a solidified party in the Senate, third parties end up winning districts for the House, too, because voters recognize that they will remain in play.

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There are indeed not many two-party nations left in the world. Still, lessons can be learned from the rare occasion a third party played an important role in a two-party nation. Not as a spoiler, such as with Ralph Nader and Ross Perot, but as an actual coalition partner in government. Case in point are the Liberal Democrats in the UK (its name translates in proper American English as Libertarian Democrats; abbreviated further as LD).

Third parties gain votes with voting reform on their agenda.

A rare occasion of having a coalition government took place in 2010 in the UK. Without going into the specific political details (the heat of the UK political game does not translate well to other settings), it may suffice to sketch the larger picture and discuss the lesson one can learn.

In 2010, none of the two usual parties got enough seats to form a majority. The LD joined the conservatives to form a coalition government.

The reason the LD was able to gain seats was partially based on the promise of reforming the political system.

Not only did the inexperienced party not succeed, with the next elections they were obliterated. The voters left them in droves because the LD did not deliver on their promises. Their (in)experience provides a major lesson for third parties in two-party nations, discussed more later on.

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First a little bit more about the system itself. Two-party nations play political basketball. The structure is such that only specific players end up winning the seats, and both dominant parties make sure to grab any such players for themselves.

Imagine being five feet tall in basketball.

The more important the game, particularly at the national level, the taller the players will be. The qualities of the players must be trained toward playing the game well of course, but the general set up of the game expresses itself with the promotion of particularly tall players. The rare player of average height is considered a short person. Meanwhile, the actual short people are simply absent; they are not found playing this game at the highest levels. The system contains a large empty spot of specific folks simply not represented.

This system discriminates systematically.

Let’s translate the rise and fall of the LD party in the UK as if it were a basketball team. Voters in geographical districts ended up voting for the LD in large numbers (the UK uses a first-past-the-post system with the plurality winning the seat). These voters were disenchanted with the two dominant parties and were attracted by the call for political reform by the LD.

Not uncommon in district voting, strategic voting can influence voter behavior. Voting for the LD can, for instance, be interpreted as sending a clear signal to one or both of the other parties with as strategic goal that they should adjust their political agendas to win the seat in the future.

Long story short: Successful as the two teams with the tallest players should have been, together they caused dissatisfaction for a segment of the population large enough to vote for the LD, a party of basketball players of average height.

Tall players are not dumber than other people, so naturally they had flocked to the two parties that always win. To be fair, there were a few players that were somewhat taller with the LD, but that team as a whole did not reach the same height as the two main basketball teams. The LD would lose.

The LD did not stand a chance for two other reasons:

  • no experience playing the tall team in a coalition government

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Two distinct parts are partially hidden for third parties in two-party nations; they are much like two completely separate agendas.

The painful truth is that the two dominant parties only need their one agenda with on it their many political agenda points clearly marked to communicate well with and stand up for what the voters want. Third parties simply are not that lucky.

On the one hand, there is the political color that makes folks gather around a third party. Naturally, its political ideals attract hopefully scores of voters. Yet on the other hand, there is the one promise that the two other parties would never make: changing the voting system. That will work like a magnet for dissatisfied voters.

Particularly the combination can lead to success. But, as seen with the LD, this contains the promise of the fall as well. One trump card is available in the USA.

A complicated setup exists for third parties to succeed. It is much like a politically-motivated party that merged with the American Civil Liberties Union. Where the party ideals can be used in negotiations with a coalition partner if that opportunity were to occur, the ‘ACLU’ is based on solid principles that cannot (and should not) be negotiated.

In plain basketball English: where a team of average-height players has an excellent chance playing another team of average-height players, it won’t succeed if the much taller team says from the onset Forget it, mates!

The controls are in the hands of the other team, unless….

A two-headed monster exists therefore for third parties in two-party nations. The obstacles are almost impossible to overcome, unless this is recognized and dealt with appropriately.

Third parties have two agendas to content with, so they must have two groups that negotiate with the once-in-a-lifetime coalition partner.

One group is formed around the agenda with the political ideals. The other group is formed around the reform agenda.

The first group can negotiate, make compromises. The second group cannot compromise and must have the power to pull the plug on the negotiations. Both must be given full control, but only one should compromise.

It is better to say No than to disappear.

History tells us that third parties that are eager to play and therefore please will end up disappearing. Remember that the stronger and larger a third party becomes, the greater the chance there will be a coalition government. Holding out is therefore good.

Saying No is seen as a strength in politics and should be used often and without hesitation in winner-take-all. Voters will and do reward this position. The first No should be about negotiating voting reform. This is not negotiable; the reforms pass as decided by the third party, or they don’t pass.

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This is the moment in this article to quickly discuss collaboration with other third parties. As soon as other third parties split themselves into two groups — one ideological group, one reform minded — then talks can begin to collaborate with other third parties on political reform.

Once ‘the ACLU’ is separated from the specific party ideals, all third parties can gather around this one issue and collectively game the discriminating system toward extinction. Success is possible when third parties recognize they have no other way of winning.

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Securing success during the negotiations

The future success of third parties depends on the chosen electoral system. When proposed reforms do not contain a component of equality, the proposal should be rejected. Without a component of equality, third parties remain subjected to the system and it amounts to shooting in one’s own foot.

  • District voting is an example of a system lacking equality. There are winners, which means there are losers. Inequality is distributed across the voting population with many represented for two or four years and many not-represented by their own choice.

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Third parties in two-party nations owe it to themselves to look in the mirror and recognize that the game is rigged fully against them. No matter how strong the political convictions, the system will punish at every possible turn, including the very first turn.

To succeed, the strength of the ideologues must be made the strength of the reformists. The reason is simple: Ideology can never create the win and establish enduring success in two-party nations. There is the chance to come tantalizingly close based on ideology alone, but it is written in the stars they will never succeed.

In the USA, third parties can play a trump card.

The center is hogged by the two dominant parties and winning the center can only be done when everyone and their mother is upset and decides to vote for a third party. But that successful third party will have eliminated then one of the two dominant parties and in the end the system stays the same. Over time, the new party will start to resemble the defeated party. The snake bites its own tail in winner-takes-all.

As last note therefore the basketball setup once more to explain how the center can get won for good. One cannot demand tall people to become shorter. One cannot saw off parts of a person to diminish their height. Adding blocks to the feet of average-height players will also not lead to a well performing team. The center court is therefore only reachable by addressing the system as a whole and pointing to the basket ten feet high as the culprit.

In plain English: No political system should ever fully function like a game and ideologues should look into that mirror long and hard, recognizing that No is a strength and much better than oblivion. It is the system, stupid! Reform must include a reasonably strong component of equality to have lasting results.

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Foot note: The Libertarian Party in the US is not considered a successful third party in this article. While the Green Party embraced proportional voting in 2020, it has not become a clear platform of reform (they are still unfamiliar with the various voting systems and their effects). Both parties attract votes from ideologues in small numbers, and not many from reform-minded voters. As such, both third parties are not playing the role of educators about political systems and their effects. This may change in the future.

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