Parties in American Politics: Rich History, Many Roles
The Republican and Democratic parties have long dominated the American political landscape. Since 1856, every president elected by U.S. voters has belonged to one of those two parties. Almost every state's governor, members of Congress, and state legislators are also members of these two political groups. But they are not the only political parties active in the United States. There are more than 30 others, which are referred to as third parties.
J. David Gillespie, professor of political science at Presbyterian College and author of "Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two-Party America," notes that third parties have always been a part of America's political process and although a third-party candidate has never won the presidency, the organizations play several important roles -- from educating voters on specific issues to affecting real change in government policy.
Third parties actually strengthen the government, Gillespie says, by providing a legitimate outlet for those unhappy with the status quo. They give "dissidents a chance to air their grievances within the confines of the electoral process," he explains. "And that, then, probably reduces the prospect of more violent or more aggressive kinds of approaches to political action in this country."
According to Gillespie, however, third-party candidates find the chances of actually getting elected very slim. Factors like ballot-access rules, campaign-finance laws, debate-participation policies, and media focus on the Republican and Democratic candidates all combine to keep other parties out of the White House.
In a recent interview with
the Washington File, Gillespie talked about dualism in American politics
and provided his views on the important roles of third parties.
United States Department
QUESTION: The general perception around the world is that the U.S. is a twoparty system. But, recently, I saw a website listing of 37 independent American political parties. So, clearly, third parties play a role in American politics. Could you explain a little about their role?
MR. GILLESPIE: I would say that the American twoparty system is probably the most stable twoparty system on Earth, and there are a number of reasons for that. But third parties have been around since the AntiMasonic Party [which campaigned against secretive, privileged societies] back in the 1820s at the national level, and local third parties existed even before the 1820s. They have been part and parcel of our electoral process throughout most of American history.
The roles that they play in some ways overlap with the roles of the major U.S. parties, the Republicans and Democrats. They help to organize the electoral system by educating voters, and, thereby, organizing voter choices. They play some, usually, rather transitory or peripheral roles, in helping organize the government.
QUESTION: How do they accomplish that?
MR. GILLESPIE: They do some very specific things -- one of which, and it's an ironic role that they probably don't aspire to play, is that they can be sources of release of steam, so to speak. In this way, they can actually strengthen not just the twoparty system, but also the government itself by giving dissidents a chance to air their grievances within the confines of the electoral process. And that, then, probably reduces the prospect of more violent or more aggressive kinds of approaches to political action in this country.
Third parties also do a number of other things. I think they serve certain psychological needs: the big fish in the little pond syndrome. When you create a third party, it may be a very limited-interest party that doesn't have much access to many people. But if you're the candidate, the big celebrity in that party, there can be considerable psychological gratification.
There is also an individual's need to feel a part of a select community, to belong to a certain group of like-minded people, and that is also served by participation in a third party.
QUESTION: Aside from looking at third parties as fulfillment of individual needs, whether of candidates or party members, is there another way to classify them?
MR. GILLESPIE: I think there
are three kinds of third parties in the United States.
These might, for example, include what's left of the Prohibition Party, the oldest living third party in the country [founded in 1869 to oppose the manufacturing and sale of alcohol as a beverage]. The various Marxist parties and some rightwing parties would also qualify for that designation.
These are parties where faithfulness to principle, whatever those are for that particular party, and loyalty to their vision take priority over electoral success.
There is another kind of third party that is associated with what I believe are the most important political functions of third parties, and that would be the contribution to policy making and the potential for actually transforming the twoparty system.
These are what I would call the "shortlived party eruption." The Reform Party, which was founded by Ross Perot, an independent presidential candidate in the 1990s, was an example of that, as was the American Independent Party founded by the George Wallace for President movement in the 1960s and the early 1970s.
There was, also, the Progressive Party in the second decade of the 20th century and the Populist Party in the last decade of the 19th century, and one can go back to the AntiMasons and the KnowNothings and all of that back even earlier in the 19th century.
These are parties that made the greatest contribution to what we usually think of as the most important role of third parties: the contribution to policy making.
Such change in policy usually happens because of fear that a third party is going to become either a viable alternative to a major party candidate, or will contribute negatively to the outcome of an election in a way that will most probably hurt a major party candidate by siphoning off votes from the candidate who is closer to the beliefs of that third party. Right now, for example, the Democrats fear that the third party candidacy of Ralph Nader will take away votes from their candidate in the upcoming presidential election.
What happens then is that the major party that feels threatened will appropriate certain policy positions of the third party.
As to the ability of third parties to affect the transformation of the party system, I think the most important third party of the second half of the 20th century, whatever you think about it ideologically, was George Wallace's American Independent Party movement because it forced the Republican Party to develop a Southern strategy to reorient itself from being a Northern party to being a national party with a strong base in the South, and by taking on the Wallace issue positions like state's rights regarding law and order, and a strong national defense.
I would say the Republicans' Southern strategy in 1968 was a direct result of Richard Nixon responding to those people the George Wallace movement appealed to.
The third kind of third party is what I would call the "nonnational significant other." These are third parties organized either locally or statewide but not nationally. The prime example now, I think, is the Progressive Party of Vermont, which has 15 elected officeholders -- including four members of the state legislature, is a true major party in the largest city of Burlington, Vermont, and can claim long affiliation with Bernie Sanders, the only real Socialist in Congress. There have been many of these effective, non-national parties the FarmerLabor Party of Minnesota and the Progressive Party of Wisconsin, for example.
QUESTION: Does the American political system make it difficult for third parties to compete? Are there disincentives in the system?
MR. GILLESPIE: Absolutely.
I would say that there are, basically, three kinds of constraints on third parties.
One of those is what I would call cultural constraints. There has been a lot written in the political science literature about the sort of natural dualism in American politics: that we divide on many issues, that on any one particular issue, we tend to divide into two camps -- unlike the French, who divide on any given issue into many different gradations. You know, we are prolife or prochoice; we're prolabor or promanagement; we're globalist or antiglobalist, we're feminist or antifeminist, et cetera.
Our cultural divide tends to support a two party system -- according to that theory, at least. My own feeling about that is that it oversimplifies the complex society of the United States, a heterogeneous society in which things are a lot more complicated than that model would seem. But there are some things that could be said by way of cultural dualism that are disincentives to third parties. If we, in the United States, are naturally dualistic, then it is not undemocratic for that cultural dualism, and the twoparty system that represents it, to prevail.
Beyond that, however, there are structural barriers to third parties.
QUESTION: Such as?
MR. GILLESPIE: The number one structural barrier is state ballot access requirements. It is still very difficult to get on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It's improved in recent years, because of third-party candidates like George Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, John Anderson, and Ross Perot who brought court cases against the ballot access system. They got a lot of the most restrictive access laws overturned in federal courts. But it still takes somewhere between twothirds of a million and a million signatures collected nationwide to get a candidate's name on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
There are all kinds of rules and they vary in each state -- if you're a third party or independent candidate, you have to have a lawyer who's an expert on ballot access, and you've got to have a lot of money. Third party campaigns, which tend not to be well financed anyway, spent a good portion of their money just getting on the ballot in each state.
The major party candidates, on the other hand, are able to use their money for advertising and for getting the percentage of popular support that entitles them to federal matching funds.
QUESTION: What about the ability of third party candidates to present their principles, their ideas, to the general public?
MR. GILLESPIE: Well, debate access is another constraint. You know, we've very rarely had a thirdparty candidate on the debate stage with major party candidates. Ross Perot and John Anderson are the only ones that have ever been on a presidential debate stage because, generally, it takes 15 percent of popular support as registered in the various polls to qualify for being part of the presidential debates. Since a candidate cannot gain popular support if he cannot get his views heard, this is a classic example of "themthathave is themthatgets."
So the fact that third parties are excluded from the debate stage is a real disincentive to thirdparty participants.
Still another constraint, probably not intended, is the primary system, an ingenious part of our twoparty structure. The United States has the most open nominating system in the world, and it encourages dissidents who might otherwise go to third parties to try their hand at winning the major party nomination. But, in many states, by the time a candidate does not finish successfully as a major party candidate in the primary election, it's usually too late to go the thirdparty route.
QUESTION: So the two major parties absorb a lot of dissention that might otherwise turn into third party challenges?
MR. GILLESPIE: That's right. Anyone unhappy with how the government is being run can, if he has enough supporters to sign the necessary petitions, put himself on the ballot to change specific things within the system. Even if he doesn't get elected, if he gets a large enough percentage of votes demonstrating popular public support for his party's appeals, at least one the major parties will adopt some of that third party's agenda to stave off defections and gain those votes.
QUESTION: How does a third party get its message out to the general public?
MR. GILLESPIE: There is a lack of media coverage of third party candidates. But, you know, the broadcast media, except for CSPAN, no longer provide gaveltogavel coverage of even the Democratic and Republican National Conventions -- they, certainly, don't give any coverage at all to the party conventions of the Greens or the Libertarians.
Generally speaking, however, there's not much third party activity this year, but you can remember four years ago how much attention was given to Ralph Nader's Green Party candidacy and to Pat Buchanan's Reform Party campaign. There's just not much going on this year with regard to third parties, other than the Nader independent presidential campaign.
So I don't have a lot of reason to indict the media this year. I think the media tend to look at the horse race, and they tend -- even when they're covering presidential primaries -- they tend to want to get it down to two horses in the race. They think that Americans can follow two candidates better than they can follow a larger number of entries in the race.
So I would give them that and, in addition, say that the media do better now than they used to do in regard to covering third party candidates.
MR. GILLESPIE: I have thought, throughout the 1990s and into this century, that the most likely successful candidate for a major third party campaign -- and the American people have consistently said in surveys that they would like a third major party -- would be a candidate at the militant center. That is, a third party candidate who was not really ideologically left or right, but could pick up on a single, emotional issue and would, then, pose a real third party challenge.
I think, right now, the issue that the two major parties most leave out is an antiglobalist perspective, and I think you see Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan representing the left and rightwing of the antiglobalism issue.
But if anti-globalists came together from both sides of the political spectrum, it would result in a party, basically, that is not separate from the major parties on ideological grounds so much as on antiinsider grounds. If successful, it would be the sort of Jeffersonianshakeup of the people in power that the United States has every 20 years or so.
I think that's what the Reform Party under Ross Perot offered, but it got off track and is now, to a large extent, dead. That's where to watch, though -- not so much on the left or the right -- but at the militant center.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.
Created: 30 Aug 2004 Updated: 07 Sep 2004
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