Introduction

You’ve probably heard of Democrats and Republicans, the two major political parties in the United States. Ever since the early 1800s, every American president has come from one of these two parties. You may be surprised to hear that, according to PBS, there have actually been 52 other political parties established since the founding of our nation. So why don’t we ever hear about them? 

Background

Minor parties, often referred to as “third” parties, are rare topics of public discourse. Although we may often see candidates from the Green Party or the Libertarian Party on our ballots, these candidates almost never win against their Democratic or Republican counterparts. The truth is, our electoral system inherently discourages the formation and success of groups outside of the political mainstream. 

Third Parties

The term “third parties” is used to refer to any party that operates outside of the dominant two-party system of electoral politics. Sometimes called “minor” or “fringe” parties, these political agents face great barriers to success.

How It Works

In the United States, we have a plurality voting system. Simply put, this means that the candidate with the most votes wins a given seat in government. The candidate does not need to have a majority of all votes cast; they simply need to have a plurality of votes cast – which means more votes than any other single candidate. A famous example of this distinction is the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Lincoln, now regarded as one of the country’s greatest leaders of all time, only received about 40% of the popular vote. However, the second-place candidate, Stephen Douglas, received only 30% of votes cast, and the remaining candidates split the rest of the votes between themselves. Thus, even though more people voted against Lincoln than for him, he was awarded the sole seat of the presidency. 

The U.S. electoral system is also characterized by single-member legislative districts. This means that each district of voters elects one candidate to serve as part of a larger group of members, generally the state legislature or the federal Congress. In the winner-takes-all structure resulting from single-member plurality voting districts, candidates who win second place get nothing, even if a substantial number of people supported them. It is difficult for smaller parties to build the coalition necessary to get a plurality of votes, especially because voters don’t want to “waste” their votes on parties they view as unlikely to garner enough support from the general public. 

The Green Party and the Libertarian Party, two of the largest third parties operating in the U.S. today, are good examples of this phenomenon. The Green Party promotes sustainable, eco-friendly policies founded on environmentalism and nonviolence. Although a voter may strongly believe in such “green” politics, they may worry that supporting this party takes votes away from the more prominent Democratic Party, which is somewhat similar in ideology. If votes are taken away from the Democrats, Republicans are more likely to win – and Republicans are even less likely than Democrats to enforce a green agenda. Thus, voters may be more inclined to vote for Democrats, since they are seen as a more viable option and the lesser of two evils. The same is true for the Libertarian Party, a group founded to oppose government intervention in individual liberties. A person inclined to support this party may decide instead to vote for Republicans, who also support principles such as personal freedom and small government to some extent, to prevent Democrats from winning. Votes cast for the Green Party or the Libertarian Party will likely be seen as wasted, and people are consequently alienated from these smaller groups. This in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and third parties see little to no success in American politics.

So What? 

Increasingly, individual voters are identifying as “independents,” or voters who don’t necessarily support either major political party and decide who to support based on the people and policies that are important to them. Not everyone is served by a two-party system, which can become highly polarizing and lead to governmental gridlock. In addition, having only two parties leads to wide variations in ideology within the same party, so that it can be hard to build a consensus even on one side. Although Democrats are usually considered “liberal,” and Republicans “conservative,” these labels encompass a range of ideas and beliefs that are forced to coexist under the same party title. 

But in order to encourage the success of third parties, we must make changes to our electoral system. One popular policy that has been suggested is ranked choice voting, wherein voters have the option to rank candidates in order of preference. So, using our earlier example, a voter could list the Green Party first, and the Democratic Party second. If the Green Party does not win a requisite percentage of the vote, its votes will be re-apportioned to the second-choice candidates, so no ballot is “wasted.” Public funding sources that give necessary resources to third-party candidates are also valuable for expanding the participation of these groups in politics. Finally, it’s important to recognize that we ourselves have power in the electoral process to cast our vote for the candidates who best represent our views, even if we don’t know if they’ll win. This is an individual decision we might all consider making.

    Learn More

    1. Nwazota, Kristina. “Third Parties in the U.S. Political Process.” PBS News Hour, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/politics-july-dec04-third_parties. 
    2. “List of political parties in the United States.” Ballotpedia, https://ballotpedia.org/List_of_political_parties_in_the_United_States. 
    3. Gillespie, J. David. Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two-Party America. University of South Carolina Press, 1993. 

    Think Further

    1. Would you consider voting for a third party? Why or why not? 
    2. Think about the motivations of elected politicians in our current system. Why might it be difficult to create policy change that encourages the participation of more parties? 
    3. Should the U.S. switch to a system of proportional representation, where parties win the proportion of seats corresponding to the percentage of votes cast for them?

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