Why third parties fail


I’ve been frustrated with both major parties for many years. Most of the time, I’m voting against someone more than for the guy or gal who got my vote. So, like a lot of Americans, I’ve been attracted to third parties.

Inevitably, the response to third party options is “you’re throwing your vote away.” I’ve never believed that. Even if you’re in the minority — especially if you’re in a minority — you should express your opinions. Otherwise the majority thinks everyone agrees with them. Or, to be fatalistic about it: Just because you’re going to lose doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last month on third parties, why some people think they’re needed, and why some people think they don’t work, but I only recently read something that explained it in rational terms, rather than dismissive anecdotes.

Third parties fail in America because the system is rigged — but not in the way I originally thought.

Yes, the Commission on Presidential Debates keeps out anyone polling under 15%. Yes, that threshold was bumped up after Ross Perot mixed things up in 1992. That’s not what I’m talking about.

The system was rigged in 1788.

The founding fathers created our electoral college system not only to thwart British interference with our elections, but to ensure third parties don’t have a chance.

First, the how. You have to get more than half of the 538 electoral college votes, or 270, to win. If you had three parties with roughly equal power, no one would win. You’d have to have a run off with the top two, which eliminates the third party. In other words, if Gary Johnson won, it wouldn’t mean a third party won — it would mean the Republican Party was dead. The two party system would remain, with Libertarians and Democrats, instead of Republicans and Democrats.

This applies to Lincoln, who some promote as our first third party president. He wasn’t. The Whigs died, and the Republicans took over. Lincoln was simply the first Republican president, in the updated two party system.

Second, the why. Why not let three or four or five people run for president, and let whoever gets the most votes win? Well, that’s how the Philippines got Duterte. He had four opponents, none of whom would bow out to help support the most popular of them. The vote got split, and Duterte won, with only 38% of the vote. Now many in the Philippines are regretting it.

We have angry, irrational voting blocs in every country. Their anger is understandable, both in the Philippines, where drug-related crime and poverty is rampant, and in America, where our social and physical infrastructure is half broken and we’re locked in endless, costly wars. But righteous anger doesn’t necessarily lead to good national leadership decisions.

The real problem with the American presidential election system is not that there are only two parties — which, I’ll admit, was what I thought for a long time. It’s that the primary process favors candidates who are not appealing at a national level.

Imagine if the race were between Martin O’Malley and John Kasich, instead of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Yes, it’d be boring. Yes, there’d be less distinction between the parties. Yes, many liberals and conservatives would be unhappy. But also yes, the election would be a lot less troubling.

I’m not telling anyone whom to vote for. I try to stick to the maxim, “Only talk politics with people you’ve seen naked.” I’m simply explaining why third parties don’t work here — the founders didn’t want them, because they feared what a minority* voting bloc could do to national leadership.

Could that be changed? Sure. We can amend the Constitution. It’s a hard process, and it should be.

Should we make that change? When I think of Duterte — and I plan to retire in the Philippines, assuming things are saner in 20 years — I think not. There is a wisdom in the middle that helps avoid the insanity of the far left and far right. And no, Gary Johnson is no Duterte. I like Gary. He’s the most genuine human being the race. I’m just talking about the system, and what can happen with it in a three-or-more candidate system.

And, to give props where they’re due, I like how the Philippines has only a single term for six years for each president. I think that would help our own presidents actually lead, rather than spending half of their terms running for re-election. I just wish the Philippines didn’t have another 5 1/2 years with a leader who is alienating their allies and encouraging police murder squads.


*Minority as opposed to majority, not minority as in non-dominant ethnic group.


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