The Formation and Role of Third Parties (Version A)

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The Formation and Role of Third Parties (Version A)

Although it is challenging for third parties to survive and thrive in the American political system, these parties continue to make important contributions to the political process, revealing sectional and political divides and bringing light to new issues.

The decision to form a political party can be a difficult one. Most parties are rooted in social movements formed of activists and groups whose primary goal is to influence public policy. Parties aim to accomplish the same goal, but they also run candidates for elected office. Making this transition requires a substantial amount of financial and human resources, as well as a broad base of political support to compete in elections. Throughout history, therefore, very few social movements have evolved into parties. Those that have succeeded in this mission have had the support of the political elites and uninhibited access to the ballot.

For example, during the 1840’s and 1850’s, the Liberty and Free Soil Parties formed around the abolition issue. The parties’ leaders were well-educated northerners who comprised a significant proportion of the electorate at that time. But, when civil rights issues emerged on the agenda again in the early twentieth century, it was through a social movement by social activists in groups such as the NAACP. One reason why this social movement did not become a party was the fact that black voters in areas where segregation had the most significant impact were largely denied the vote and could not have voted for potential party candidates. The ability of the current tea party movements to develop into full-fledged third party will hinge on many of these same variables.

Minor parties based on causes often neglected by the major parties have significantly affected American politics. Third parties find their roots in sectionalism (as did the Southern states’ rights Dixiecrats, who broke away from the Democrats in 1948), in economic protest (such as the agrarian revolt that fueled the Populists, an 1892 prairie-states party), in specific issues (such as the Green Party’s support of the environment), in ideology (the Socialist, Communist, and Libertarian Parties are examples), and in appealing, charismatic personalities (Theodore Roosevelt’s affiliation with the Bull Moose Party in 1912 is perhaps the best case).

Third parties achieve their greatest successes when they incorporate new ideas or alienated groups or nominate attractive candidates as their standard-bearers. Third parties do best when declining trusts in the two major political parties plagues the electorate. Usually, though, the parties’ ideas are eventually co-opted by one of the two major parties, each of them eager to take the politically popular issue that gave rise to the third party and make it theirs in order to secure the allegiance of the third party’s supporters. For example, The Republicans of the 1970’s absorbed many of the states’ rights planks of George Wallace’s 1968 presidential bid. Both major parties have also more recently attempted to attract independent voters by sponsoring reforms of the governmental process, such as the ongoing attempts to reform the nation’s campaign finance laws.

What are some of America’s major third parties?

Third Party

Year Founded

Primary Purpose

Liberty/Free Soil


Abolition of slavery



Prohibition of alcohol sale and consumption

Progressive/Bull Moose


Factionalism in the Republican party; gave Theodore Roosevelt the platform to run for the presidency

American Independent


States’ rights, opposed to desegregation



Opposition to government intervention in economic and social policy



Economic issues; tax reform, national debt, federal deficit



Environmental and social justice

Unlike many European countries that use proportional representation (a voting system that apportions legislative seats according to the percentage of votes a political party receives), the United States has a single-member, plurality electoral system, often referred to as the winner-take-all-system, or a system in which the party that receives at least one more vote than any other party wins the election. To paraphrase the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, finishing first is not everything, it is the only thing in U.S. politics; placing second, even by one vote doesn’t count. The winner-take-all-system encourages the grouping of interests into as few parties as possible (the democratic minimum being two).

The Electoral College system and the rules of public financing for American presidential elections also make it difficult for third parties to seriously compete. Not only must a candidates win a majority of the public vote, but he or she must do it in states that allow them to win a total of 270 electoral votes.

Are Third Parties Good for the American Political System?

Arguments for:

  • Third parties allow for a greater diversity of opinions.

  • Third parties can provide useful solutions to political problems on the local and regional level.

  • Third parties encourage greater participation in the American political system.

Arguments against:

  • Third parties act as spoilers rather than as issue definers.

  • Third parties are often composed of political extremists who seek to undermine real politics.

  • Third parties undermine the stability of the American Political system.

Questions to consider:

The US is the only major Western nation that does not have at least one significant and enduring national third party.

  • Why is this?

  • Does it matter?

Should we change our electoral process to include more third party participation? Why or why not?

How do third parties influence politics in the United States? Is this a good or bad thing?


O’Connor, Karen & Sabato, Larry J. American Government: Roots and Reform. Longman: Boston: 2011.pp 409-12.

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