Third-party challengers important

Last month Bloomberg View columnist Clive Crook penned an article which appeared in most news services and was seen on various TV channels.

The main theme of his commentary focused on the political divide separating not only members of Congress but also the public at large. Much has also been made of this growing divide, including a recent polling survey of 10,000 Americans by the respected Pew Research Center which confirmed the same conclusion.

This is a well-recognized phenomenon of American society, and the influential rise of the Tea Party movement, along with 2011-12’s Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, are manifestations of the ongoing political turbulence characterizing recent times.

The widespread discontent with U.S. politics accompanying this divide is further underscored by the sub-basement public-opinion ratings of Congress and the almost equally dismal voter opinion of President Obama.

Sporadic success by the Tea Partiers, in particular, has occasionally generated considerable interest in the idea of an organized and bona fide third-party challenge to the traditional two-party duopoly.

Although most U.S. voters shy away from affiliating with a third party because of the country’s strong cultural and traditional attachment to a two-party system, such alternative choices, as an expression of political preference, are not uncommon throughout most of Europe.

Perhaps of even greater importance is a pronounced unawareness by the average citizen of the role played by third-party challenges in our history.

Third parties have frequently proven to be a dynamic force in the American political process and have often significantly influenced the major parties. Certain types of third-party movements, in fact, have functioned as an integral part of our democracy and made American politics a viable instrument of the public will.

There is more than a germ of truth in the assertion of Norman Thomas that Franklin Delano Roosevelt pre-empted some basic programs of his American Socialist Party during the 1930s. Aside from brief flirtations with moderate socialist ideas, however, the major parties have been only slightly receptive to the appeals of Marxist parties of any ideological hue.

On the other hand, there are a number of prominent historians who maintain that several non-doctrinal parties of social and economic protest have made a permanent imprint on our society. Who can deny the importance of the Free Soil Party and its anti-slavery fervor which was assimilated by the Republican Party during the latter’s birth in 1854?

The Democrats are not to be outdone either, for, according to historian Henry Steele Commager, that party can trace the embryonic origins of the New Deal back through the strains of progressivism that characterized the first decades of the 20th century to the zenith reached by the Populist movement in the election of 1896.

After that landmark election, the Democratic Party underwent a momentous realignment when it adopted much of the Populist Party campaign platform – at the time a list of radical reforms which included a graduated income tax, an eight-hour day for labor, direct election of senators, and the secret ballot.

Usually, American third parties impress the casual observer of politics as mere gadflies, but even in this capacity they contribute to the health of the system by injecting principle rather than empty rhetoric into the dialogue of mainstream politics.

Because of their multi-group composition, the major parties too often find it politically inexpedient to deal with social and economic issues having sensitive or controversial overtones.

Increasingly during the 21st century, the two dominant parties also have studiously avoided offending any and all supporters from the ranks of their large campaign contribution donor class, fearing any such criticism might cut off the mother’s milk of American politics.

Under such circumstances, third parties perform the invaluable function of focusing attention on such hot-button issues and exposing the public to the initial shock which ordinarily accompanies needed reforms or sometimes radical new proposals.

Subsequently, when one of the major parties finally absorbs the minor party and/or its program, the implementation of the borrowed new ideas by the major party is accomplished with a minimum of stress placed on the structure of society.

Thus, by its very nature a major party, which normally finds it difficult to accommodate a discordant departure from political orthodoxy, frequently assimilates the originating outlier party along with its basic tenets and, more significantly, is itself permanently reshaped in the process.

So, considering our political history, what are the chances of anything like this happening in contemporary America? A long shot at best, would be a consensus view of the political science community.

Ralph Nader, the famous consumer advocate and no stranger to spearheading third-party challenges, cogently points out the formidable obstacles which obstruct the chance of an outside political movement gaining ballot access and effectively challenging the status-quo Washington establishment: “The two-party system has successfully excluded third parties, which have tried to challenge the two major parties over these issues. Through a growing variety of ballot access obstacles’ harassment of petitioners; baseless, exhausting litigation during election years; “top two” primary laws; and exclusion from televised debates – all propped up by a winner-take-all-system cum the atavistic electoral college – the electoral doors are closed to basic challenges.”

One fact seems irrefutable about the appearance of an actively shrill third-party movement within the body politic: Such an occurrence is usually symptomatic of disruptive strife both within and between the major parties over important issues, and also signifies serious unresolved social or economic problems confronting the nation.

Bruce Dudley lives in Paul Smiths and Camden, Delaware.


Binkley, Wilfred E., “American Political Parties: Their Natural History”

Commager, Henry Steele, “The Growth of the American Republic,” Vol. 2

Gillespie, David J., “Challenges to Duopoly: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two-Party Politics”

Kazin, Michael, “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation”

Nader, Ralph, “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State”

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., “The Politics of Hope”