Everyone hates the two party system. How come there’s never been a viable third party system is either a tragedy or a the result of a massive malicious conspiracy. I’m here to say the two party system with all of its flaws is closest ideal to a government that democracy has. Let me be the first to admit that the two party system has it’s flaws. I’m well aware of this. More than most. However the reason a third party has never risen to national prominence isn’t conspiratorial or a tragedy, it’s just not very efficient.
Let’s start with there are dozens if not hundreds of “third parties” out there. The green party was pretty big at one point. The bull moose comes to mind if only humorously so. The Libertarians are probably the most viable third party out there. The trouble with most third party is that they’re single issue parties. Take the Green Party. Their single issue is is good. We need people to advocate and agitate for the environment, but what is their stance on education, science funding, national infrastructure, taxes, job creation, transparency, national security, foreign relations etc? There are huge numbers of issues that need voter attention. We need a party that isn’t so focused on a single issue. Environmental causes are near and dear to my heart, but they aren’t the only issues I’m worried about if for no other reason than because environmental issues are interrelated to everything else in the country.
One suggestion is that business want two parties for their own reasons and thus support only two. Not really true. Any number of third parties have been able to get corporate financing, and there’s enough private donation to support a cause even on the national level. The Tea Party, a defacto third party, and Libertarians have both gotten enormous amounts of corporate financing in addition to large amounts of individual donations. Small parties won’t be as well funded and as organized as large parties obviously, but that doesn’t mean that with a compelling message they can’t rise to national attention. I give you the Occupy movement. Huge participation, great media coverage. They really had potential to become a viable third party or at least become a recognizable wing of the Democratic party. But they lacked a coherent objective, platform, leadership, spokespeople. The whole thing had tremendous energy but they were pretty vague on what they wanted to accomplish. So it is possible for third parties to achieve national attention but without a means for accomplishment it’ll die off eventually. The tea party did much better since it wasn’t truly a grassroots movement. Their corporate sponsors did much better at organizing them, but their failings are very much the same failings as the Occupy Wallstreet movement. No clear agenda or leadership. What leaders they do have are woefully unprepared and laughably ignorant, they also picked the wrong battles, refused to negotiate, and as a result they’re starting to die off in interparty purges. Eventually they’ll just be reabsorbed into the GOP party.
Of course that brings us to the downside of a third party. Gridlock. The gridlock in the US can be traced directly to the Libertarian and Tea Party wing of the Republican party. By “standing on principle”, they are allowing party purists to dictate policies that Democrats won’t tolerate. Taxes as an example. Democrats are willing to cut spending on any number of their priorities provided that we can institute a fairer tax code. There are a number of ways to do this, but any taxes at all are an anathema to Norquist acolytes. Since the margin of success will be narrow given the potential controversy a large enough voting block can destroy the negotiations which has happened so often that this congress will be the least productive congress in modern history. Before you say, “aha, but if we had a multiparty system this wouldn’t happen”. You might have a point if multiparty systems didn’t already exist to plague Europe. IF you think our system is prone to gridlock you should see theirs. If your third party is viable and obstinate enough it can bring down the government. Multiparty democracies are even more prone to this.
The other advantages are the nature of the debate. Admittedly in recent election cycle the debate has gotten pretty unhealthy, but that’s another issue. Typically advocates of third party systems go around with signs saying “Hey! My ideas are being ignored”. Typically their ideas are being ignored for really good reasons. You want to go back to the gold standard and abolish the EPA? ooookay then. Moving along. Same goes for nationalizing the banks, raising the minimum wage to 50$/hr or abolishing it completely and yes these are all ideas I’ve heard from third party candidates. I like to imagine the two party system as a courtroom with the dominant party acting as prosecutor and the minority party acting as defense. Voters in the Jury box. The majority party wants to advance an idea. The Minority having a different ideology will try to poke as many holes in the idea as it can. Some of those holes will get patched up, other ideas will have to take their place. If the idea is too bad then it’ll fail. In theory and so long as the majority party isn’t homogeneous (Which would be disastrous for long term policy implications.) You want a minority party to aggressively challenge the majority party’s ideas in order to make them better. Typically you don’t have that with a multiparty system. You have too many people clamoring for their ideas. It can work provided everyone’s being collegial, but if collegiality fails you need a large enough voting bloc to push through an agenda or nothing gets done. There’s no guarantee you get it in a two party system but I think your chances are better in a more adversarial environment.
The other problem with third parties, and this not a general criticism of third parties, just the ones in existence. Is the sophistication of their politics. They’re typically very bad at formulating a clear agenda and then working across party lines and compromising their goals for the sake of small progress. Individual lobbying groups like the NRA and the Sierra Club tend to be far more effective at pushing through an agenda than third parties. People who feel a desperate need for a third party might instead consider joining one of the lobbies. your odds of success might be better at accomplishing whatever it is you want.