In two previous posts, I’ve made the case that a viable third (or fourth … or fifth) political party could really benefit the American political system. I’ve also outlined examples of how some other countries function when it comes to political parties.
But is it possible for the two-party system in American politics to ever really end at the national level?
Yes, it’s certainly possible for Congress and the White House to see third-party and independent representation. Is it likely? That depends on three main things:
It always comes down to money.
There’s always the chance that a specific third-party or independent candidate in a specific location could raise more money than a Democrat or Republican. But the deck is stacked against them.
The Republican and Democratic parties raise tens of millions of dollars annually to assist their candidates in campaigns. So even if a third-party or independent candidate raised more themselves than their GOP or Democratic opponents, the national parties can pour in money to give their candidate(s) an advantage.
Party-line contributions are a hard nut to crack, as major donors have long histories in donating to specific parties rather than individual candidates. And until a viable third party actually exists, it would be hard for these major donors to feel they’re getting their bang for the buck as it relates to influence by donating to a candidate of a party that has never governed nor has a track record of winning much of anything. That pretty much eliminates anyone who isn’t a Democrat or a Republican.
It’s more likely for third-party or independent candidates to succeed at the grassroots level. But the amount of publicity and awareness it would take to draw in enough grassroots support would itself cost millions of dollars those candidates don’t have.
So how can this shift?
Legitimate campaign finance reform would help. Proposals such as matching funds or clean money elections would make grassroots fundraising more effective and lucrative. Other ideas like limiting the spending of Political Action Committees (PACs) would be targeted to minimize the ability of major donors to influence elections.
In general, campaign contributions can be argued to represent a form of free speech, so it’s tough to restrict what people do with their money in elections. That’s why it’s probably more important for some third-party candidates to start winning to create momentum for fundraising.
Money is important, but having quality candidates is critical.
A quality candidate with the right team can overcome the financial advantages that Republicans and Democrats receive from national organizations. It would be incredibly difficult, but it is possible. The key would be for that candidate to have enough appeal for the grassroots and enough connections with major donors or businesses to circumvent the leading parties.
The ideal profile for this type of candidate would likely include a mix of the following:
Business owner or entrepreneur
Successful politician who changes from Democrat/Republican to independent/third-party
Enough personal wealth to kick off a campaign and fund it while building grassroots fundraising momentum
Excellent communicator who focuses on positive messaging
Strong personal relationships and wide network with potential wealthy donors
The challenge is most people who fit that description tend to have very little incentive to run for office. They’re successful in their current situation. Why would they run the risk of either leaving the established parties and feeling their wrath, or of launching a new political career without the infrastructure support of one of those parties.
We’ve all seen how dirty political campaigning is. Good people don’t exactly get excited about subjecting themselves to that process. But the political process isn’t going to change overnight, and probably won’t change until the two-party system is shaken up. So we need good people who fit the description above to be willing to make that sacrifice in order for things to get better.
If enough quality candidates begin to go the independent or third-party route and win, then we will really start to see some change.
And how do they win? By getting the most votes.
This will be the hardest shift. Americans are now by habit used to choosing between two opposing sides. Getting us to break out of that cycle won’t be easy. It’s going to probably take some things getting worse before they get better.
Liberals and progressives have to become so fed up with the decisions of Democratic leadership to support a different platform. The demographic/identity groups that make up the party will have to start splintering – feminists vs. transgender activists, African-Americans vs. Hispanics, religious followers vs. atheists.
Conservatives are already fractured between the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus, establishment leaders, never-Trumpers, etc. But they’ve not taken their divisions to the brink of seeking representation outside the party.
Ideally, third-party candidates or platforms that represent the interests of these smaller groups within the existing parties would succeed based on positive messages and drawing in support from voters based on the quality of their ideas. Some candidates who fit the description above will win this way.
But for the tide to completely shift, it’s more likely that it will take a negative reaction away from Republicans and Democrats rather than a positive reaction toward new parties and platforms.
In short, there likely will have to be civil wars within both existing parties that literally tear them apart. That wouldn’t be fun, but it might necessary.
Whatever the specific events that trigger the rise of legitimate and competitive third parties, their rise and establishment would be good for the country. We need more diverse voices and more ideas in Washington than we have now, and we need those voices to work together toward compromise.