Why America Needs More Than Two Political Parties

This week, a Gallup poll came out showing that 50 percent of U.S. adults consider themselves to be “independent” of either the Republican or Democratic parties. This is the highest percentage since Gallup began asking the question in 2004. The polling also showed that 62 percent of Americans say that the Democratic and Republican parties have done “such a poor job that a new third party is needed.” This is also a record high, but starting a third party is not a new idea. The number of people that think the major parties have done such a poor job that a new party is needed has hovered around 60 percent since 2013, and before that the figure hadn’t dipped below 40 percent since 2003 when Gallup began asking the question. There are two obvious questions that this data implies: why do Americans think so poorly of the major parties, and why hasn’t a major third party emerged in recent years?

There are a number of reasons why Americans have such a negative view of the Republican and Democratic parties. One is that the parties are not really that different from each other, and people are starting to realize it more and more. Both parties cater overwhelmingly to what Trump affectionately called “the swamp,” which is really the class of elite lobbyists and corporate interests that invest millions of dollars into the American political system, effectively bribing our politicians. 

Yes, it was bad when Trump hired his kids to work at the White House, and when the Saudi monarchy greatly overpaid for visits at Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C. while he was president. It was also bad, however, when the Clinton Foundation accepted millions of dollars in donations from politicians around the world while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. It turns out that a majority of people she personally met with in her official capacity as secretary who weren’t U.S. government employees themselves were major donors to the Foundation. It’s wrong when fossil fuel companies and Wall Street executives throw money at the Republicans, and it’s also wrong when fossil fuel companies and Wall Street executives throw money at the Democrats. Despite the political theatre that the two parties like to engage in, many of the same “special interests” that both sides love to bash are backing each side to some degree. This is because these interests know that if they can curry favor with and have at least some influence over both major parties, they can control them; each side will fear losing their major financial backers, to the benefit of their rivals. As our country expands and grows in population, and as a result of laws and court decisions allowing money to more freely flow into the political system, the cost of running a national election continues to rise. This heightens the imperative for the parties to attract donations from any available source. Instead of focusing on grassroots fundraising and building genuine bases of support, most Democrats and Republicans raise these funds by making friends with the economic elite and fellow partisans already in positions of power.

Corruption has consequences, however. In America’s case, we now have a situation where, despite the media and most politicians constantly preening about the value of ‘bipartisanship,’ the areas where the elected Republicans and Democrats actually agree the most are the issues where they’re most out of step with public opinion. Any time there’s a vote on military spending, it’s passed almost unanimously. In fact, new spending is almost always allocated with little to no debate. President Biden recently signalled he favored keeping defense spending the same, a notion that was considered radical by Congressional Republicans, who are pressuring him to raise it by as much as five percent. The idea of cutting military spending, which a poll from July 2020 found 57 percent of Americans support, never seriously enters the conversation. Any time there’s a vote on survival checks, support for small businesses or healthcare for the poor, however, all both sides can talk about is how dangerous such reckless spending would be, and nitpick over the exact amounts and to who exactly such support should go. Any time there’s a vote on interfering in other countries’ political processes, or throwing more money at the Middle East, or cutting the very Wall Street regulations which were designed to prevent another recession, ‘bipartisanship’ is the word of the day. But any time the question is called on something designed to help powerless people survive, the word of the day suddenly becomes ‘deficit,’ and both sides close ranks against the public. There’s legislative gridlock when something people actually want and need is being discussed, and immediate cooperation whenever it’s something their corporate donors want. It’s no wonder Americans are feverish for a major change to the political system.

So, it turns out when you actually ask people how they feel, most will tell you that it’s clear neither party really represents them, and that both major parties are corrupted by the same sort of powerful interests. Another reason I think people are fed up with the Republican and Democratic parties is that they’re starting to realize just how destructive the sort of tribalism that the two-party system created can be. They’re tired of being told every single election that “this is the most important election of our lives,” only to see that nothing fundamentally changes when their team wins the victory that they were hoping for. Our politics have become like a professional sporting league, with the parties representing rival teams that slug it out until the buzzer sounds—until the election is over—without really accomplishing anything of lasting substance, hugging and shaking hands as they walk off the field. Of course, in reality, it’s when the election is over that the real work is supposed to begin for them. This is especially troubling considering that political parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, and George Washington even warned against the creation of such “party spirit” which, despite having no official function in the political system, could nonetheless come to wield significant power over the outcomes of elections and lead to enhanced social divisions. His predictions have basically come true. Today, hyper-partisanship and the almost cult-like devotion many people have to their party of choice or their favorite politicians prevents civil discussion, replacing reasoned conversation with tribal anger. People are getting tired of it all, and for good reason.

So, if the major parties are so bad, why are there still only two? The reality is that the two parties have written and rewritten the rules of the political process to ensure that no real competition to them could ever emerge. There are other parties in the U.S., like the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Working Families Party, that have been around for a long time, but none of them have really gained national support. Teddy Roosevelt, Ralph Nader and Ross Perot got close to creating viable third-party movements, but they all ultimately failed. This is due in large part to how our system is structured. Third-party and independent candidates need a certain number of signatures to get on a general election ballot, whereas Democrats and Republicans basically have automatic ballot access; independent candidates usually start with no name recognition or base of support, while at this point many people vote for a major party candidate reflexively without giving other candidates consideration. In addition, independent candidates are typically shut out of campaign events like debates or candidate forums, depriving them of key opportunities to increase their name recognition. It’s not just stuff like that, however. The very way that we vote means that a two-party system is almost inevitable. This is because both of the major parties insist that, by voting for an independent candidate, a voter is essentially voting for the other major party. This stifles any potential support for independent candidates in terms of real votes. 

Fortunately for us, there are some relatively simple reforms we could make to our system which would make it more democratic, and allow for any number of parties to be competitive. Firstly, we could transition to ranked choice voting, which is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of picking one candidate in each election, voters could rank up to three in order of their preference. Basically, the idea is that it takes away the cost of voting for an independent candidate that exists now, because voters who want to vote for an independent can simply rank their preferred major party candidate as their second choice. For example, in an election if you ranked an independent who only got 10 percent of the vote as your first choice, but neither the Democrat or the Republican got a majority of first-ranks, then your vote would then count for whoever you ranked as your second choice. This would totally remove the “spoiler effect” which major-party supporters use to browbeat third-party voters. This sort of voting system has already been enacted in the state of Maine and cities across the country.

Second, we could implement a national nonpartisan primary system. Currently, the parties basically have full control over their respective primary processes, and legally don’t even have to hold democratic primaries if they choose not to, as the DNC has argued in court. The rules for primaries vary widely across the two parties and all the states, and most primaries struggle with low voter turnout. Not to mention that, in some states, registered independents aren’t allowed to vote in primaries at all, shutting millions of voters out of the primary process altogether. If we were to implement a formal nonpartisan primary system at the national level similar to California’s system, where all candidates run in the same primary with the two most popular candidates regardless of party affiliation going to the general election, I think it would give the public much greater control over how primaries are conducted and ultimately lead to a fairer process. It would also break the one-party nature of many state and local governments. Since the current system is designed to prevent independents and third-party candidates from being elected, Republicans and Democrats essentially have one-party control over many state and local governments across the country, as well as congressional districts drawn to favor one side or another. Having nonpartisan primaries would allow whatever the real opposition to the establishment in a district or city is to emerge, and compete with the major parties on a level playing field.

Of course, there’s a mountain of work that needs to be done to get the money out of politics in the first place. But I believe these ideas of ranked choice voting and nonpartisan primaries would significantly improve the discourse in our political system, as well as lead to policy outcomes that are more in line with public opinion. I think it’s long past time that we begin to critically assess our political process and decide what to keep, and what to get rid of. We also need to be more willing to see the major political parties as institutions with immense power and to criticize them whenever they misuse their power, or refuse to act in order to fulfill the public will and advance the public good. I think we should all try to find and support grassroots movements and organizations that are working to build power and elect representatives outside of the two major political parties. Personally, I’ve been looking into the newly formed People’s Party, which bills itself as a progressive, populist party that will stand up for all working people in this country, and against the two-party system. Politics is supposed to be about policy, not about tribal signaling and corruption. Until we’re willing to confront the institutions and systems that are at fault for the way our politics have become, and withhold the one piece of leverage we ultimately have over them, our votes, we won’t be able to really change anything about our politics.