We've all heard the refrain - that the two parties in American politics are just the two faces of the same coin, and that the only reason that we don't have third parties is because there's a huge conspiracy keeping them down. That the two main parties have written the rules so that a third party can't get a break.

Sorry, but I'm not buying it. Instead, I have a more likely explaination - the people behind third parties aren't willing to actually DO the things that will make them relevant, and the people who ARE willing tend to see that there are easier ways of accomplishing their goals.

Too many people mistakenly think that the major parties derive their power from their exposure - that they flood the media channels and keep other voices silenced. No, the real source of their political power is their underlying structure that allows them to get out the vote in their favor, and that their structure is oriented at ALL levels of American society - local, state, and federal. The fact that both Democrats and Republicans have high exposure is an effect of the fact that they can mobilize voters in sufficiently large numbers at all levels of society. In comparison, even the most organized of the extant third parties are primarily focused on the federal level, with perhaps scattered support at the state and local levels, and a ground game that is pretty much non-existant. (Seriously, when's the last time you ever heard of the Libertarian Party running a phone bank, or the Green Party canvassing neighborhoods en masse?)

And to say that third parties can't exist in the US is to be ignorant of US history itself. We've had third parties come and go, and several even managed to supplant one of the major parties of their time (i.e. Republicans), or be absorbed into a major party to the point that the major party is transformed by their platform (i.e. Democrats and the Populists). The thing that modern third parties tend to miss is that all those successful parties were broad-based and had substantial support at all levels, and focused on state legistatures and local leadership as much as the White House, reaching for the brass ring only after cementing a solid base of support.

It would be nice to see a third party become truly relevant in American politics today. But for that to happen, that third party needs to acknowledge that:

  • the path to relavance will not be a short one, as developing the underlying party structure is a task that takes years, if not decades;
  • think globally, act locally isn't just a catchphrase - developing said party infrastucture is best done from the bottom up, not the top down;
  • cute catchphrases sound nice, but just like in war, nothing beats having boots on the ground; and
  • the endgame may result in one of the major parties absorbing your platform, which is a worthy goal in of itself.

Unfortunately, with the whole atmosphere of instant gratification in American society these days, I don't put much hope in anyone founding a third party realizing exactly what a monumental undertaking they're entering into. And so, I expect people to continue bemoaning the politcial landscape while not understanding that which they complain about.


In response to comments:

  • Oolong - Sure, there's a case to be made regarding the difficulties that third parties face - I just don't see it as a particularly strong one. The simple fact is that in politics, the end result is based on being able to motivate people to turn out for you. And while using the national media helps somewhat, the simple reason that phone banking and canvassing are still used today, even though they are both time-consuming and require massive outlays of labor and capital, is because they work. And while I would agree that ballot access laws could use some revising, to argue that you'd win if only you were let on the ballot while ignoring the ground game is, to me, folly of the highest order.
  • Lucy-S - I think Napoleon noted this the best - people aren't going to give their all for money (well, at least not just a little money), they need to have a cause to believe in. That said, belief only gets you so far - you need to channel that energy in a way that achieves your goals.
  • wertperch - Cash is good, but it's not the be all end all one might think - political history is filled with stories of where cash ended up being a lot less important than actual support - hell, just look at what happened in CT with Ned Lamont this summer.
  • kthejoker - Care to tell me where the Reform Party is now? Sure, you can get the ball rolling with marketing, but unless you build an infrastructure to capitalize on that momentum, you're going to be pumping more and more money into that campaign JUST to keep steady.

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