Every few election cycles, specifically Presidential elections, one party or the other has a contentious battle between internal factions that threaten to break up the party and questions whether they can unite behind the winning candidate. Party members and pundits excitedly ponder the possibility of the party splitting, establishing a real third party. With three or more actual political parties, each holding at least some seats in Congress and offering viable candidates for President, the landscape of American politics would change as we know it. Although the Constitution was not written with the idea that two political parties would control 100% of the government, the parties have operated to maintain their control. The American electorate has thus been effectively limited to a binary choice of the candidate for either major party in all federal elections. Those choices are not always good…
I submit that the original intent behind the Electoral College, which officially elects the President, not the popular vote, envisioned multiple viable candidates. The more viable candidates in a race, the less possible it becomes for any candidate to win a majority (over 50%) of the popular vote, thus leaving the ultimate decision to the Electoral College. Electors throughout history, especially in the early days of the Republic when there were in fact multiple candidates and no popular vote, would meet and debate the candidates, eventually resulting in one remaining candidate reaching to required majority of electoral votes. For example, in 1800, there were four major candidates and electors apparently had to vote approximately 30 times before finally electing Thomas Jefferson over incumbent John Adams. That system arguably makes more sense and serves a valid purpose in a multi-candidate race, but much less so in a two-candidate race. The framers did not intend for there to be only two major parties or two major candidates vying for office.
The framers created a legislative system that anticipated and encouraged debate and compromise. They did not intend for there to be one party with total fiat power over another party. They understood there would be divisive issues and strong opinions. Governing was not meant to be easy, nor was it meant to be absolute with winner take all. Legislation that requires super majorities is a great example. To obtain the necessary votes, sponsors must get support from outside their own party. Grand bargains should be the norm, not zero-sum games where one side demands total victory and the other side gets nothing. What we have seen in the recent decline of Congress is the outright refusal of the parties to work together. Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell, as the current power holders, steadfastly refuse to allow compromise legislation to come for a vote. For example, there was bi-partisan comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate by a wide margin and would have passed the House by a significant margin with votes from both parties. Speaker Ryan refused to allow the House to vote on the bill because the Freedom Caucus opposed the bill and Ryan does not allow any bill to come to a vote that does not have majority Republican and Freedom Caucus support even if it would pass in bi-partisan fashion. The Democrats were not perfect themselves when they exercised control of Congress, although they did not deal in such absolutes. The point is this improper practice will continue so long as there is a two-party absolute hold on Congress and the majority party exercises absolute control.
Despite the Constitution and the multi-candidate elections of our first Presidents, there nonetheless emerged our two-party system. In the early days of the Republic, we had the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. As the country progressed and the Democratic-Republicans won a series of elections, the Federalists waned and were eventually replaced by the Whigs. The Democratic-Republicans became the Democrats. The Whigs also waned and were replaced by the Republicans with Abraham Lincoln winning their first Presidential election. It has remained this way ever since 1860 with the Democrats and Republicans wielding 100 percent of power. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had served as a Republican, ran again later unsuccessfully as a “Bull Moose” outside of his former party. Ross Perot’s Reform Party allowed him to play a role in 1992 and 1996, but did not produce a third major party (all due respect to Jesse Ventura in Minnesota…).
Currently, there are many candidates from many political parties on the ballot. Most people have at least heard of the Libertarian and Green Parties, but there are too many parties to list and the truth is they have never been a factor. In Congress, there are currently two independent senators, but they caucus with the Democrats and are basically Democrats without the official label. Previously, there was an independent senator who caucused with the Republicans. However, while there is this precedent, there has never been any actual third-party presence in Congress. Congressional leaders over hundreds of years have carved out operating rules, not found in the Constitution or intended by the framers, designed to preserve two-party rule. The majority and minority leaders in both houses wield absolute power including committee assignments, legislative agendas, floor time, etc. A member of a third party who did not join the Republicans or Democrats could be effectively denied meaningful participation except in the case where their vote could make the difference in an evenly split chamber. Therefore, the electorate has been effectively limited to Democrats and Republicans swapping control of Congress and the White House without exception.
After hundreds of years of entrenched two-party rule, what about 2018 makes it more possible for a third major party? For at least twenty years we have seen a sharp decline in our politics, a completely dysfunctional Congress, weak choices for President (often, not always) in both parties, and a lack of confidence by the American people. Both parties went through battles of factionalism that challenged their identities, narrowed their appeal, and solidified the power of the more extreme base of support. Most American voters do not feel entirely comfortable in either party and official party membership is overall down or at least reluctant.
In many Presidential elections, voters lament the choice is the “lesser of two evils.” Turnout and enthusiasm are low, but one of the two major party candidates always wins. Voters know this and realistically consider voting for someone other than a Democrat or Republican as a wasted vote. While Congressional ineptitude and weak Presidential choices have not traditionally resulted in the rise of a third party, we are at an interesting crossroads in our political history. As much as we live in a culture of complaining, we truly did see two incredibly flawed candidates for President in 2016. The binary choice is clearly not working. The best opportunity to see a third, if not also a fourth, political party stems from the factionalization, demands for ideological purity, and intransigence of the party membership that prevents legislative compromise and progress.
With the Obama elections, the Democratic party completed its transformation from a party based on a common ideology to party that was a coalition of demographic groups, often with disparate interests and little unity of priority. This worked in the short-term, helping to win the White House in 2008 and 2012, but was detrimental to long term success, as seen in 2016 and the decade of state and Congressional losses leading up to it. The lack of a core ideology, especially concerning the significant economic concerns of working families, was a huge factor in these loses. The aftermath of the 2016 Democratic fiasco that cost them the White House and the Senate is a difficult schism between the Progressives and the Moderate establishment of the party. The 2018 shutdown debate highlighted this divide as the more moderate, pragmatic Democratic Senators worked for a compromise deal and the more hardcore liberal Senators wanted to maintain the shutdown for a more comprehensive victory, unlikely as it would have been. It is unclear whether or how the Democrats will resolve this very deeply felt divide. The point is they are in trouble.
While Democrats went through occasional purges of their more conservative elected officials, Republicans have all but eliminated any vestige of the once liberal Republican wing. After the 2008 election, the rise of the TEA Party (now the Freedom Caucus) created an extreme bloc in the party that governed more by a scorched earth approach rather than negotiating deals and seeking pragmatic solutions to the nations challenges. The party has remained deeply divided in the Congressional ranks wherein the House Republicans are not always able to coordinate with the Senate Republicans. This has truly inhibited their ability to govern while in the majority and even led to the early departure of Speaker John Boehner. After the 2016 election, the Republicans now have a white nationalist influence working closely with the Freedom Caucus and further complicating the leadership efforts of the establishment wing of the party.
In 2018, even before the temporary government shutdown, the country has seen an incredible decline in Congressional function and Presidential leadership. Partisan extremism is at an all-time high and raises questions as to whether Congress can ever pass major legislation without comprehensive improvement to its functionality. The bigger challenge may be a similar obstacle within both parties that prevents the party leaders from even speaking with one voice for any two-party negotiations. This is the reason the time may be right to look at the rise of a third major party. The challenge is where this new party would come from and who would lead it.
Prior to the Democratic Party infighting of 2016, it seemed the Republicans could be the best chance of splitting. The Freedom Caucus has exerted great control over the Republican agenda and insists on a more extreme, unyielding legislative focus. If the party establishment, the pragmatic moderates, and even a potential reemergent liberal wing want power and control, they must split away. There are a few ways this could occur. First, the Freedom Caucus could effectively transform into the Conservative Party. Technically, there is already a Freedom Party and a Conservative Party, at least in some states, but perhaps they could take the name “Conservative Party” as they would assuredly attract those voters. Some establishment members would go with the conservative members, but most would likely remain with the moderates and redefine the Republican party as less extreme, more tolerant, and looking to address the nation’s problems. This new Republican party could attract centrist Democrats as well, thus having the size and power to compete as a major political party.
Unless the Democrats solve their own internal struggle, they could split into two parties as well. Although they have not had the equivalent of the TEA Party or Freedom Caucus officially divide the party, the Bernie Sanders “revolution” movement plays much that same role. We have already seen Democrats pulling to the left in response to President Trump’s agenda. In this scenario, the radical left or progressive wing of the party could easily morph into the Social Democratic Party with very little adjustment necessary. That leaves the remaining centrist members to redefine the Democratic Party. Such a new moderate party could attract centrist Republicans frustrated with the Freedom Caucus and right-wing intransigence.
What if both parties split in scenarios like that above? Could four major political parties survive in today’s landscape? There are two big challenges that would likely prevent four parties. First, while I argue a centrist bloc could be at least a plurality of voters, there is not likely enough support in the electorate for two such parties. If we had just the existing Democrats and Republicans, they could both be centrist with a left wing and right wing, respectively. However, with a left and right party on either end, it is hard to imagine enough voters left for two centrists parties. Second is fundraising. Would there be enough financial support for four major parties? I believe there is for three, but four could be too much. This is especially true considering the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates to political spending requiring the parties and candidates to raise significantly more money every year.
A new three major party system is far more viable. There are several necessary conditions for this to work. First, either the Democrats or Republicans need to split. As we have seen before with the Reform Party, there would not be sufficient movement of members away from both parties to form a third party from scratch. Three parties born from the existing two would instantly gain traction and credibility with experienced, known leaders. Second, each of the three parties would have to define (or redefine) its core values and priorities. The platforms of each party should be noticeably different. However, there should be areas of possible cooperation and agreement. Third, and this would be the incredible thing to see, especially for political scientists and politics junkies, is how the Congressional procedural rules change concerning committee assignments, legislative agendas, etc.
The Constitution did not establish the powers and positions of majority leader, minority leader, etc., nor did the framers intend for this system to evolve. Therefore, the argument that we could not have more than two major parties because of this power system is flawed. In the Senate, with three major parties, there would no longer be a Majority Leader with absolute control over the agenda. Each party would continue to elect a leader and whip to perform similar functions involving drafting and prioritizing legislation, pushing their legislative agenda, whipping votes, and assigning members to fill committee seats proportionately allotted to that party. However, the President Pro Temp of the Senate (the Vice President or senior member presiding) would wield control over that body much like John Adams did as the nation’s first Vice President. Instead of the Majority Leader, the President Pro Temp would set the agenda and control the floor, albeit after input by the respective party leaders. As this would be a member of one of the parties, potentially even the party with fewer seats than the other two, the Senate will need to amend its rules to account for this possibility and determine how the two other parties can influence these decisions. Wouldn’t it be great if this required the leaders of the three parties to consult and coordinate to reach either a consensus or negotiated agreement? In the House, the Speaker would continue to hold this power. However, the Speaker will have to be chosen by majority vote and that may often require support from two parties over a candidate from the third. If so, this could also result in better consensus building, negotiation, and coordination.
This modified system could prevent the party with 51% of the Senate or House from exercising 100% control of the floor agenda. The interests of the country would be far better served in this manner than under the current system of absolute control of the chamber by one party. Committee assignments would be challenging. Each party could have proportional representation on the committee to that of their membership in the chamber. Committee and Sub-Committee Chair assignments could pose more of a dilemma. For example, would it be fair that the party with the largest plurality in the chamber control all Committee Chair assignments? Same with Sub-Committees? Perhaps once each party assigns its committee members, the members of each committee would vote on their Chair and other positions. This could promote better coordination as well.
Procedurally this can work and likely even better for the American people. The incredible ineffectiveness, hyper partisanship, and dereliction of duty by Congress make this the best possible timing to explore and implement three-party rule, or at least participation in Congress. The increasing factionalization and extremism in the two major parties, which if course causes the problems in Congress, creates the conditions for one or both parties to split to reform as three major parties. With three parties, it is far less likely one party could assert absolute rule over either chamber, thus forcing through one agenda and denying the other. With three parties, elements of at least two of the parties would likely be necessary to pass legislation, especially major legislation, or to confirm judicial appointments. The result would be at least two parties coordinating and negotiating to produce at least some compromise. We certainly have nothing to lose, as Congress could not become less functional than right now. The time is right, and the country needs some major change.