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Is the Two-Party Political System Doomed? A Look at Third-Party Movements

Updated on December 23, 2014
Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy writes about American life, holidays, politics and other topics. She has written hundreds of articles for online & print publications.

Democrat? Republican? Or a New Political Party?

Although we're not talking about screwing in lightbulbs, many have asked just how many political parties it takes to run the country.

During each election cycle, the two currently powerful parties regularly sling punches in the political ring, yet it is increasingly difficult to get a handle on the core values of either party. Which raises the question of whether the two-party system in United States might be outdated.

With the Republican Party unable to decide how conservative a Conservative should be, and the Democrats similarly striving to out-liberalize each other, it’s no longer clear whether we have two distinct parties. However, what would our country look like if we had more than one political party with national clout?

Alexis de Tocqueville:

Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the venerable book, Democracy in America, makes a distinction between "small parties," and "great political parties." He says, ". . . great political parties are those attached more to principles than to their consequences; to generalities and not to particular cases, more to ideas and not to men." Small parties, he says, "are generally without political faith."

Although written during the relative infancy of this country, Tocqueville's definition of what raises a political party to a level of national awareness seems prescient rather than preterit, given the emergence of value-driven political parties in recent years. The growth and penetration of the left-wing but value-based Green Party (originally the Association of State Green Parties, and not to be confused with The Greens/Green Party USA) was sufficient to make a negative dent in the national campaigns of the two major political candidates during the 2000 presidential election.

Do we have too many political parties?

How many political parties do we have?

The answer it appears, is there are too many to count.

Wikipedia, not an authority on any topic but none the less somewhat informative lists dozens of ‘third parties’ currently active in the United States. When one examines the list, Tocqueville's yardstick for measuring great verses small, "Great parties overturn society, small ones agitate against it . . ." is indeed defining.

Had Tocqueville known what the 21st Century American culture would include, he might have listed 'the absurd' as an extreme example of the reasons for which small parties rail against the establishment. Some parties on Wikipedia’s list (which the site admits is incomplete) are almost comical in nature, such as the Anti-Nebraska Party (excuse me?) and the Opposition Party (what do they oppose?). It’s one thing to be against something, but how about letting people know what you’re for, too?

Not too many years ago, the Pot Party (which, not surprisingly, exists to further the cause for legalizing marijuana) created a stir with its stand on things. Apparently having as much tongue in cheek as it did joint in mouth, party 'leaders' themselves took a humorous view of even their own platform. An old Web site of Fred Inthehills (the Pot Party's lukewarm and unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2000) gives the following as his campaign pledge (original spelling, grammar and punctuation remains intact):

"If I am elected I would first take a long vacation. That's a promise. Then I would call off the War on Drugs. I promise to take time out from my busy golf schedule to issue from the White House, daily movie reviews. Also, as the Pot Party standard bearer, it is my goal to bring back the $10 ounce. I am also offerring for sale, copies of my book, film, hats, t-shirts and bumper stickers. You may also be interested in my religious philosophy." According to one source, the biography of one former Pot Party leader listed, as a key accomplishment, that he won the "Bong of the Month Award" from High Times magazine.

Various political parties

By far, the myriad of tiny political factions (of Tocqueville's small-party mentality) have not created substantive national waves nor captured political offices of any note. Among those parties that have made national news, those with 'liberal' values and viewpoints seem to have more cohesiveness and staying power than conservative groups that focus on making noise. This is not, by the way, meant to suggest I embrace one approach over the other; it's just an observation of recent decades in American politics.

The American Independent Party, which formed in 1967 and backed George Wallace as its presidential candidate in 1968, got nearly 10 million national votes during that campaign. Although its Web site has boasted in the past that "California's American Independent Party has been a ballot qualified political party since 1968, and is California's fastest growing political party," some say the AIP has lost its national profile and claim the state-level organizations are now affiliates of the national Constitution Party

As with the “Anti-Nebraska Party” and the “Opposition Party, it’s interesting to observe that historically, many of the AIP’s platforms address what it opposes rather than what it supports, which is consistent with Tocqueville's definition of small parties as 'agitating' society rather than overturning it. Third parties might raise their stock with voters if they offer less information what is wrong with the country and more ideas on how to correct its problems.

The Libertarian Party was founded in 1971 and boasts of being "America's third largest party." While its members have indeed held a number of local elected offices, some critics have claimed that many of these are obscure in nature, such as, “Town Recycling Committee Member” and further claim the party is waning in strength.

With the Libertarian Party presumably losing its political foothold, it's competitors (the Reform Party, the Independence Party, the American Independent Party and even the Pot Party) seem to reflect what Tocqueville calls 'small party' mentality. The Green Party, however, might offer the vision and values Tocqueville sees as a requirement for a party to have a permanent impact on society.

What does the future hold for American Politics?

A great party, according to Tocqueville, has the opportunity to " . . .sometimes save it (society) by shaking it up . . ." Of the 'great ones,' he says, "These parties generally have noble features, more generous passions, more real convictions, a franker and bolder aspect than the others."

In contrast to the oppositionist stance of the parties just discussed, the Green Party, while considered liberal, defines itself through values and uses positive language as it explains them. It has embraced such core values as "Social Justice and Equal Opportunity;" "Ecological Wisdom;" "Decentralization;" "Community-Based Economics and Economic Justice;" Feminism and Gender Equity;" "Respect for Diversity;" and "Personal and Global Responsibility."

The Green Party's Web site says it was formed in 2001, as a spin-off of the Association of State Green Parties (which existed from 1996 to 2001), but as it moves forward, it will continue to get criticism from those who oppose its core values as well as Democrats, who soured on the party when Ralph Nader’s campaign siphoned off a damaging percentage of votes from Al Gore.

In the online public interest journal, www.tompaine.com, a March 7, 2002 commentary by Sifry blames the Enron scandal on America's two-party system (a duopoly, he calls it). He alleges that the country’s two-party political system created an environment that fostered impunity. Sifry’s points are well taken; it can be argued that the two-party system creates barriers for alternative political viewpoints to be heard, and does not provide adequate checks and balances.

This would suggest that a strong showing in coming years by a third party with values that voters can identify with might not only redirect the, but could actually be successful in effecting change. While it remains to be seen whether the Green Party, or any other party, can make significant inroads in the current two-party system, the infighting we see in the two parties now in power certainly leaves the door open for that type of event.

Tell us what you think!

Is it time for a third party in the United States?

See results

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  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 2 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Brad - thanks for this thoughtful comment! It seems there's even more of a divide in the two parties than in the past, and sadly, decisions are made on alliances rather than the good of the whole. So glad you dropped by to share your thoughts!

  • bradmasterOCcal profile image

    bradmasterOCcal 2 years ago from Orange County California

    Marcy

    As you can see two years later, there is no difference in political party voting. The Democrats and the Republicans still control the bulk of voters through loyalty to the party.

    The problem with that loyalty is that the voter has given their proxy to the party, and the party is not loyal to the voter. The party is loyal to their money and power backers.

    The real problem in the US is that these two parties are opposite in the goals. So when one party is control a political road is taken, until the other party gets control, then a different political road is followed. And the process continues every time party control changes.

    The US voter shows no signs of abandoning their party now, or in the future. To break this insanity, the voters need to become disloyal to their party, and choose the best candidate regardless of party.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    That's a really interesting point, Toni - it would be great for you to write a hub about it, if you're interested? I think the more people understand the issues and process related to more parties, the healthier the country would be.

    Thanks for sharing that!

  • Toni_Roman profile image

    Toni_Roman 5 years ago

    For those who want more than two parties, you should know that to make it work, it takes a parliamentary system which we do not have in the USA.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    These are really interesting points, Thomas! Our system is definitely different than it started out, and the dynamics of our current culture and technology have created a vastly different landscape. Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful comments!

  • Thomas Swan profile image

    Thomas Swan 5 years ago from New Zealand

    Great hub, and something I am interested in. The way I see it, a two party system is one step away from a dictatorship; a three party system is two steps away. The two parties are so alike that Americans don't really have a choice anymore. The two parties have grandiloquent disagreements on irrelevant topics while collectively condoning wars, big business, and the exploitation of other countries. One has to wonder if the disagreements are all for show. The greatest barrier to this changing is the media. The media cater for the desires of the majority, and as the majority are interested in the two major parties, the system becomes a self-reinforcing one.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Excellent points, Perspycacious. Many things are being written lately about the types of overhauls we need in government. I hope we see some of them come about.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    LOL! Maybe George Washington should have chopped down the apple tree rather than the cherry tree, Jon!

  • JON EWALL profile image

    JON EWALL 5 years ago from usa

    Marcy Goodfleisch

    They say that 1 rotten apple in the basket can destroy many good ones. Washington has a lot more than one.

  • Perspycacious profile image

    Demas W Jasper 5 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

    Amendments to the present life-long tenure on the Supreme Court, and to place term limits on representatives and senators (we already have an eight years limit on the presidency) as well as to make an equal and universal income tax, would perhaps solve more problems than they would create.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    It's sad that things are in such a state to create that feeling in people, isn't it, Jon? I worry that politics is now an industry all its own.

  • JON EWALL profile image

    JON EWALL 5 years ago from usa

    Marcy Goodfleisch

    Today's world is a lot different, public servants were thrown under the horse and buggy some time ago . Today it's all about power and money.We the people are the FOOLS.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    That's a good idea, Jon. What would you think about eliminating pension plans and excessive benefits (that go way beyond those of government employees) for politicians?

  • JON EWALL profile image

    JON EWALL 5 years ago from usa

    Marcy Goodfleisch

    Besides term limits maybe forced age retirement also would break up the ''ole buddy system''.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Jon - I think that's a very good point, and I appreciate your comments here. Thank you for stopping by!

  • JON EWALL profile image

    JON EWALL 5 years ago from usa

    Marcy Goodfleisch

    TERM LIMITS would maybe stop the buying of our politicians.It would also give more people a chance to serve the country.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Very good point, Perspycacious. There are too many enticements to becoming career politicians, and term limits are a good starting point to address them.

  • Perspycacious profile image

    Demas W Jasper 5 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

    Term limits, term limits, term limits...and make them short terms. Fresh blood and new ideas vs. tired blood and failed ideas. Is that really such a hard choice to see clearly and to make?

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for sharing the tip, Jon!

  • JON EWALL profile image

    JON EWALL 5 years ago from usa

    Marcy Goodfleisch

    SUNDAY MORNING '' MEET THE PRESS ''

    VAN HOLLEN /RYAN DEBATE see both sides of the coin!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Dahoglund - you are so right that TV debates have changed our election behaviors. People back then (women, at least), decided to vote for Kennedy because he was good looking! Thanks for your comments.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
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    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    LOL! Thank you, Thomas! Do you ever wonder what could happen if the Occupy movement really gains traction? They've slowed recently, but they're fueled by anger. Just look at Proposition 13 in California decades ago. I'd love you opinion on grassroots movements now that we're in the Internet era.

  • dahoglund profile image

    Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

    There is nothing sacred about political parties. There is always reference to the "two party system" but I don't see it as a system. I don't believe there is anything in the constitution about it. And you note there are several parties. Hardly seems like a system. In fact, I think it just sort of evolved. As a professor I had in 1960 said the practical function of third parties is to influence the other parties.s The Libetarian and party,for example, may get a lot of votes for Ron Paul.That would influence the other parties to adopt some of his ideas.

    Technology, such as TV, has a definite influence on it, as well. Note the "presidential debates" which started with Kennedy and Nixon.

  • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

    ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada

    Marcy...

    This was a most enjoyable read! I particularly like your inclusion of Alexis de Tocqueville as his observations certainly proved the adage that an outsider looking into a family (the young United States) can be far more telling than the family looking at itself.

    I believe Tocqueville missed a salient point as regards the forces working against third party formation(s) in the young Republic, however. Those forces are structural.

    Although we tend to think of election days as a unifying act in which Americans walk in mass towards a national referendum. This is not the case.

    In the case of races for the House of Representatives, every two years, for instance, we are actually marching towards 435 (separate...winner take all) elections in which the winner takes all nature, effectively, freezes out third party efforts.

    This was not happenstance...James Madison wrote of the dangers of ‘factions’ ...and the Father of the Constitution helped to build in safeguards against it.

    The ‘winner take all’ results is further exasperated by the decades long trend towards the domination of money in elections...who’s writing a check for the Anti-Nebraska party, right? (Well maybe Iowa...?)

    Between the Federalist-Whig-Republican continuum and the Jeffersonian Democrats coalescing into the Andrew Jackson Democrats of 1824...we have been backing the same two horses for quite some time. Indeed, the role of third parties in our nation seems to be the source of ideas available for being co-opted by the two major parties.

    Although...when Americans get riled up...they will vote their minds...my favorite example is Eugene V. Debs who garnered 1,000,000 votes from a prison cell in the 1920 election.

    Now...let’s get serious...I LOVE the pot-guy’s platform! Also...I WOULD write them a check...but checks are usually not accepted in those types of transactions...you know...so I’ve heard...rumor...that sort...

    Great Job! I will Vote Up (as an Independent)...and share like a Democrat!

    Thomas

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, Tammy - I guess it's at least food for thought. It seems like we argue parties rather than what's good for the country at times, doesn't it? I'm not proposing a third party so much as pointing out there have been efforts to create one.

  • tammyswallow profile image

    Tammy 5 years ago from North Carolina

    Great hub Marcy! Congrats on being one of the best hubs of the week. I am not political, but your idea of adding another party sounds credible. Something needs to be done in these uncertain times! Great hub!

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, pmccray - I think your words reflect the thoughts of many people. So sad, isn't it, that our country is so 'fed up.'

  • pmccray profile image

    pmccray 5 years ago from Utah

    Yep, we need something totally different, like a party that is really for the people and works for the people.

    I'm sick and tired of the lip service we receive from both parties, neither one seem to remember they work for us not even the Tea party nitwits that were voted into office in November have made any difference.

    I'm going to take a leap and say that most who enter public office are bowled over by the power and greed their constituents are an after thought saved for election time. Excellent hub, interesting subject matter. Thank you for sharing, voted up, marked useful, awesome and interesting.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for sharing this info, Jon. I think it's important to have diverse views in our comments here

  • JON EWALL profile image

    JON EWALL 5 years ago from usa

    Marcy Goodfleisch

    ''What does the future hold?''

    ''contradictory massaging of issues''

    THERE IS A SOLUTION,IT'S NOT ANOTHER CANDIDATE

    Check this out.

    The Senator Coburn report '' WASTE IN GOVERNMENT'' http://coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/rightnow...

    WASTE IN GOVERNMENT ALL IN THE RED

    ‘’ Back In Black’’ The obama’s stash, do not touch

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tVJ2gqqKWs

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks, Jakd - I agree there's been a lot of confusing and even contradictory massaging of issues. If things don't change, could see some major third-party efforts in the next ten years or so.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Very good points, Jon - it will be interesting to see where we are a year from now, won't it?

  • JON EWALL profile image

    JON EWALL 5 years ago from usa

    Marcy Goodfleisch

    My latest post on the healthcare fiasco.

    Try to understand the difference between the government and the liberties of the people that we have under our Constitution. A law, when passed by Congress covers all of the people. For the President to select who the law covers is not his prerogative after the law is passed. It’s Congress’s power to amend the law if Congress so chooses. The President in our country is not a king or a dictator as yet to command the insurance companies to pay for the cost of the service at no co-pay. The private sector is capable of managing healthcare without government intrusion into the private market.

    The Affordable Care Act ( Obamacare ) was passed using unconventional tactics, reconciliation. The act was passed by a super majority political party even when 64% of the people polled were not in favor. The bill is flawed and the public are not being told what is in the bill. Remember when Speaker Pelosi said, ‘’ we must pass the bill so that we can find out what’s in it ‘’. Congressional members voted on the bill without reading the bill, were not allowed to debate the bill or allow the bill to go to committees. That’s what Obama calls transparency in his administration. The private sector needs to find out more about how their government is being run!

  • Jakd profile image

    Jakd 5 years ago

    Not into politics at all, but, I liked this. When I vote I vote third party every time to emphasize that there are people out there that really want a change. Not just the constant flipping back and forth that we've been doing.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Thanks for your thought-provoking comment, Jon Ewall. I agree that our government leaders need to vote with a conscience rather than a party affiliation in mind.

  • JON EWALL profile image

    JON EWALL 5 years ago from usa

    Marcy Goodfleisch

    ''Is it time for a third party in the United States''

    The two predominate parties today are the Democrat and Republican parties .All of the other parties blend into the two because of each parties ideology. In both parties there are candidates of character, meaning honest and dis- honest, public servant or politician equally having a responsibility to serve the people who they represent. When the make up of government is where the majority is maybe but a few , one would believe that government can work for the common good of the people. Surely, one would believe that members of either party could vote ( cross over ) to arrive at a decision to attain a majority vote.

    Sad to say that today, that our government officials lack a backbone to buck the party leaders and vote their conscious as to what is best for their constituency

    We have heard the word compromise, civility and fairness from our elected officials. They have promised the people transparency in their administration and their dealings. Would term limits be an answer to rectifying the problems of government? The people have the power of the vote, once that is made, they give the power to the electorate. The people too, must decide as to who are the honest candidates.

    We are a DEMOCRACY based on the US CONSTITUTION and THE Bill of Rights.

  • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image
    Author

    Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

    Hi, Jackie - thanks for your comments. I like your point about many people inheriting their political views from their parents; I think you're right.

  • Jackie Lynnley profile image

    Jackie Lynnley 5 years ago from The Beautiful South

    I think we need something so maybe a third party. It seems now the two we have just keep passing the buck and one is no better than the other and I really think maybe 50% or more simply vote for the party their parents did. They don't seem to look at the individual. It is really dispiriting to see neither party has no more to offer us than they do.