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Thomas Knapp: Third Party? America Doesn’t Even Have a Second Party.

A June 29 Associated Press/NORC finds that 85% of Americans — including 92% of self-identified Republicans and 78% of self-identified Democrats — say “things in this country are headed in the wrong direction.”

Meanwhile, national support for a “third” political party remains high — 62% as of last year’s Gallup Survey — yet no actually existing party outside the Democratic and Republican establishments seems able to get much traction.

The Libertarian, Green, Constitution, and numerous smaller third parties have labored in the vineyard of politics for decades (the Prohibition Party since 1869!) without ever coming close to shattering the “major party” duopoly.

Recent startups, also seemingly going nowhere, include Andrew Yang’s Forward Party and the New Jersey Moderate Party, both of which seem more inclined to endorse simpatico “major party” candidates than field their own.

Why can’t a third party breakthrough? There are plenty of reasons, but they all come back to the fact that the “major party” duopoly is actually a monopoly.

The Republicans and Democrats aren’t really two separate parties. They’re a single ruling party comprised of two large feuding factions which continually re-balance power and divvy up the spoils between themselves through a burlesque of “representative democracy” rigged, by force of law to preclude meaningful competition.

From gerrymandering to preserve “safe” districts for each of the two factions, to a death grip on candidate access to ballots (which, until the late 19th century, were printed by actual parties/candidates, or hand-written by voters), to the natural inclination of big campaign money to go to the party in power rather than to upstarts and rebels, The Republican/Democratic uniparty guards its prerogatives as jealously as any banana republic or communist dictatorship.

For all the talk of “polarization” in American politics, the uniparty monopoly occupies the broad and massive center, dividing the largest and most powerful constituencies between its two factions and doling out largess to those constituencies.

“Third” parties have difficulty making inroads into those large constituencies. The “major party” benefits may be unsatisfactory, but they’re birds in hand. “Third” parties are limited to the birds in the bush, the smaller constituencies the uniparty doesn’t consider worth catering to.

The last really major American political realignment took place in the 1850s when the Whigs disintegrated due to their inability to unite on slavery (and Democrats split along north/south lines on the same issue), making room for the ascent of the Republicans.  And within a few decades, the Democrats and Republicans had coalesced as described above to make sure no such thing ever happened again.

Absent an issue of overwhelming concern to Americans which neither uniparty faction can co-opt for its own use, we’re never likely to vote our way out of this monopoly. It will end when the United States ends.

But that doesn’t make third parties useless. As we’ve seen with issues like marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, third parties bring forward those issues the uniparty has to co-opt to remain in power.

Which is better than nothing, I guess.  But not much. And fortunately not sustainable forever.


  1. Robert W Milnes July 11, 2022

    Imo in 1992 the argument could be made that Ross Perot came close.

  2. Thomas L. Knapp July 10, 2022


    Well, that’s the thing. Even if x% of people agree that they’d like dessert, it doesn’t follow that a majority, or even plurality, will be able to settle on tiramisu versus cheesecake versus apple pie.

    The majority uni-party does a good job of covering, and splitting between its factions, all the “centrist squish” demographics, and what’s left are non-centrist single-issue or ideological groups, none of which are going to get that whole x% to agree with them that their single issue is the, and the only overriding, thing, or that their ideology offers all the answers.

    There was a point in history at which the expansion of slavery, and slavery itself, provided an opening for a new party. Maybe another issue could come along that’s that big and persuasive, but even if it did it seems like the structure of things has been changed to stop it from creating such an opening.

    I’m not optimistic about the prospect of electoral politics delivering change. It’s evolved to promote stasis. Change will come, but will likely do so via explosion/disintegration.

  3. Robert W Milnes July 8, 2022

    I personally am far more interested in what Maurice Duverger said about this than what Matthew or even Jesus said about this.

  4. SocraticGadfly July 8, 2022

    Matthew 7:16: “By their fruit (deeds) you will recognize them.” Year after year, we hear this clamor of more and more people allegedly wanting a third party.

    And, their voting doesn’t show that.

    Besides, they’re actually wanting, if they do want a third party, “Americans Elect” or some other centrist squish between the Rethuglicans and the Democraps.

  5. Robert W Milnes July 8, 2022

    Agreed. The democratic and republican partied could arguably be called or thought of as one party.
    However Duverger’s Law postulates that it is two parties.
    And strongly precludes a third “major” party.
    We need a remedy to Duverger’s Law.

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