Why a Third Party Won’t Solve Anything

by Benjamin Studebaker

Whenever there is widespread disaffection with American politics, a recurrent idea pops up–why don’t we have a third party, one that isn’t like the two we presently have? Why is there no third party for the large majority of Americans who are to some degree hostile toward both the democrats and the republicans? This solution is not all that different from “throw the bums out”. It relies on the premise that our problem is the parties and the individuals that make them up. Today I set out to argue against this. It’s not that our parties are bad, it’s that our system is. The American political system is flush with perverse incentives that guarantee that any major party significant enough to have a chance of winning elections must inevitably become like the two we already have.

There are generally two different varieties of third party for which people advocate:

  1. Radical Third Parties–parties that are intended to prioritize different issues or different solutions to existing issues than the current major parties.
  2. Centrist Third Parties–parties that are intended to split the difference between the two political parties, which are perceived as being too partisan.

These third party proposals are defective for two primary reasons:

  1. They are electorally infeasible–they will not succeed at reaching a comparable level of dominance to the two major parties.
  2. They will be assimilated into the borg—even if the conditions necessary for #1 are met, meeting them entails turning the third party into a party similar to the two major parties in all relevant ways.

Each variety of potential third party is flawed along these lines. Let’s have a look at how.

Radical Third Parties:

In order to see why a radical third party is not viable, we need to examine how it came to pass that the republican and democratic parties have come to hold the positions they presently hold. To do this, I ask the reader to join with me in making a necessary simplifying assumption–the two parties’ primary objective is to win elections. Strategies and platforms that make winning elections more difficult or impossible will eventually be discarded, if the parties are acting in a collectively rational way. We can see several examples of this kind of rational adjustment in the recent history of the democratic party. McGovern’s campaign in 1972 was too hippy to be nationally successful, and so he was thoroughly trounced by Nixon. In 1976, the democrats ran Carter, who was much more centrist and mainline. Yet even Carter proved too left wing to be successful against Reagan in 1980, as did Mondale in 1984 and Dukakis in 1988 (against the first Bush). While it took the democrats quite a while to see that their strategy of offering a relatively radical alternative to the policies of Reagan/Bush was not going to succeed, they eventually made a dramatic move to the center with Bill Clinton in 1992, a proponent of the third way who supported welfare reform, a policy which would have been unthinkable to previous democratic candidates.

In order to win elections, parties must maximize the portion of the population willing to vote for them. If we take American politics to be a roughly left/right contest with the democrats and republicans representing the respective sides (a gross but necessary simplification), we can imagine voters to exist on a bell curve, with most holding a consensus, centrist view while smaller minorities hold distinctly left or right positions:

Political Bell Curve


Parties that pursue the most efficient means toward continuous control of government will attempt to be “king of the hill”, taking and holding the center while pushing the enemy party down one of the slopes of the hill. In this way, they can secure the largest portion of votes for themselves and the smallest portion for their foe. For the purpose of visualization, here’s what I imagine the current political situation to be, with the Republican Party increasingly dominated by Tea Party elements and consequently too far to the right to win national elections without the aid of Gerrymandered districts (hence it controls the house, where the state legislatures have Gerrymandered, but not the senate or the presidency):

Political Bell Curve 2013


The dividing line shows where voters split, assuming those who are in between the positions of the two parties divide evenly between them. This gives us a small but stable national advantage for the democrats. So what happens if we introduce a radical third party? Say for example we want a really progressive third party. What does that do? Well, this:

Political Bell Curve 2013 with Radicals


Here the radicals split off some democratic voters causing the republicans to have a clear and stable national advantage. The introduction of a radical third party serves only to guarantee that a view that is worse (from the perspective of a radical voter) prevails. In order to avoid one’s side being divided and conquered, the long-term goal of the radical third party would have to be to kill off and assimilate the vanquished party. So what happens if the radicals were to succeed in doing that and the Democratic Party dissolved? Well, this:

Political Bell Curve Radicals beat Democrats


The demise of the democrats gives the radicals more votes, but it leaves many more centrists voting republican than before, so that the republicans still maintain a small, stable national majority. We should also keep in mind that this is under the assumption that the Republican Party remains dominated by the Tea Party and consequently quite a ways down the hill. We can expect the republicans to eventually attempt to once again become kings of the hill so as to perpetuate their rule and make it more difficult for others to rise and challenge them. A radical party is by definition committed to not taking the hill, and as a result it will by definition fail electorally. It would also increase the size of the gap between the two parties and result in further polarization. In order for it to succeed, it would have to move up the hill, at which point it would become exactly like the democrats are already. Indeed, pressure on the party to achieve something for donors and voters would inevitably cause it move to the center, just as Clinton did in 1992 when the Democratic Party was, for all intents and purposes, this hypothetical radical party about which we have been theorizing.

Centrist Third Parties:

The idea of a centrist third party has arisen lately via the notion that the republicans should jettison the Tea Party and move to the middle. It has been with us for some time, however, as a means of splitting the difference. Let’s model the recent suggestion first. What happens if the republicans dump the Tea Party? This:

Political Bell Curve Republicans Split


Here we have what is essentially a mirror situation of what happens if leftists create a radical party, except it’s even worse for republicans than it was for democrats because the Democratic Party is presently further up the hill than the Republican Party is right now. Either the Republicans would die and the Tea Party would become the minority radical party until it eventually opted to move up the hill, or the Tea Party would die and we would be left with a stalemate, albeit a much less polarized one than we currently have. Ditching the Tea Party is, in the long run, a smart move for republicans, but only if they plan to kill the Tea Party rather than coexist with it. However, by bringing the two parties so close together, it destroys any real semblance of choice–at this point, we would have more or less one very large party whose sides went under different names, and our political system would roughly resemble that of the Soviet Union.

What if we were to immaculately conceive a third party that sat at the very center, holding whatever views were most common? Well, then we’d get this:

Political Bell Curve with Centrists


There are two big problems here for any party of centrists:

  1. At present, a centrist party would be more or less unable to differentiate itself from the democrats.
  2. The centrists would not only lose, but they would change the game and make it advantageous for the other parties to become more extreme.

How do I figure #2? Well, with a centrist party, there is no longer any hope of taking the hill, because a centrist party is, by definition, king of the hill. This means that neither party has anything to gain by attempting to take the hill or to take ground on the other side of the hill–in so doing, it would only make itself impossible to differentiate from the centrists. So in the above example, the democrats really don’t lose anything by moving slightly down their own side of the hill. As long as they are further up their side of the hill than the republicans are on their own side, the democrats would still win the election. As a result, the introduction of a centrist party actually polarizes politics further and guarantees that Americans in the center have diminished influence. Whereas the two parties presently fight over control of the middle, the creation of a centrist party makes middle voters irrelevant and causes each party to play to its respective base.

As we can see from all of this, the third party solution is no solution at all. If we want different politics and different policies, either voters must themselves come to hold new and different positions so that the current bell curve becomes outmoded, the vote must be in some way restricted such that portions of the bell curve are excluded, or the system of voting would have to entirely abolished. The first is highly unlikely to happen in any short span of time, and the latter two are at present politically unfeasible. Creating new parties cannot fix our mess, either we must change our own views or we must change the system that determines which of our views prevail.