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Most people in the US do not identify themselves as either Republican or Democrat (see Gallup data).

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There seems to be four possible explanations.

  1. These independent-leaning Americans prefer more far-right policies. But this seems unlikely, since the Constitution Party gets a microscopic amount of votes compared to the GOP.
  2. These independent-leaning Americans prefer more far-left policies. This too seems unlikely, given the amount of votes won by the Green Party.
  3. Most Americans are not fond of the current left/right political spectrum. Rather they'd prefer a completely radical approach to the economical and political system of the land. This seems more likely than the others, but still dubious, given that most Americans probably have little clue of the feasibility of the proposed solutions. Either way, the Libertarian Party and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (capitalists and communists, respectively) don't get all that many votes.
  4. Most Americans are somewhere in the middle of the left/right political spectrum and do not feel represented by either of the two major parties as the Republicans can tend to be far too right and the Democrats can tend to be far too left. This seems like the most likely explanation, or at least the most simple.

Given that, why are there so few serious attempts at creating a third mass-appeal party that is more central on the political spectrum? The other 3 explanations above already have their dedicated parties: Constitution Party, Green Party, Libertarian Party, etc... but there doesn't seem to be any serious attempts at creating a central party?

Decades ago, perhaps, such a party would have been unnecessary, since it would have overlapped with the GOP and the Democratic Party. But now that those parties seem to have become more extreme and the public seems to have become more independent-leaning than ever, surely such a new party would have a lot of potential?

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    What makes you think all those other third parties weren't serious attempts? I'm quite sure a number of their members are very serious. Failure to be significant does not imply a lack of seriousness. – zibadawa timmy Jul 26 at 14:01
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    The electoral system favors the two biggest parties. – Trilarion Jul 26 at 20:20
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    I think your "four possible explanations" theory is missing a possibility wherein there are a lot of Americans who are politically disengaged and uninformed. They're simply more concerned with their own problems and shallow trivial matters like American Idol. – John Jul 27 at 0:47
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    Your 4 explanations are given as if "independent Americans" is one person, whose political interests must therefore be one of the 4 options you see. In fact they are millions of individuals with millions of different preferences. It's perfectly possible for most Americans to not identify with either major party and also for there not to be any one possible party platform that could gather support from most of this group. – Ben Jul 27 at 6:04

10 Answers 10

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Because the two main parties absorb emergent third parties

Any time any third party starts to get serious traction in the United States, it eventually will find one of the major parties shifting its platform to absorb those voters into its coalition.

Unlike most of the other parties in America, the Democrats and the Republicans are both in the business of winning elections. Allowing a third party to just show up someplace would be political malpractice of the highest order. The smart thing to do is to go straight to those voters and say "I know the New Center Party is offering you X, we can give you X also, and we have the additional benefit of being a real governing party that can actually make that happen." So, that's typically what happens.

Ever heard of the Reform Party? It was founded by Ross Perot, who got 18.6% of the popular vote for President in 1992, and 8.1% of the popular vote in 1996. It tried to be a centrist alternative to the two other parties, and it may have cost George H. W. Bush re-election (who, it should be noted, committed political malpractice of the highest order by promising no new taxes, and then passing new taxes, thereby making a lot of his voters angry). You may have heard of some of their more famous Presidential candidates: Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump.

Those two guys are Republicans now, and at the same time, what the Republican Party is about changed quite a bit, and is still in the process of changing. The Reform Party was in favor of reducing immigration; before Donald Trump, many Republican politicians wanted to increase legal immigration through comprehensive immigration reform. The Reform Party was opposed to this thing called the North American Free Trade Agreement; before Trump, many Republican politicians were in favor of free trade agreements as part of a commitment to free market economics.

The GOP saw in 1992 that there was 18.6% of the voters in the country who wanted an alternative to the other parties that they could pick up, so they expanded their tent to try to pick them up; 24 years later all of those voters who still think that way are Republican voters for Donald Trump.

This is just one worked example; other historical examples are the Progressive Party at the turn of the century, and anything that could have become a successful US Communist party.

Why didn't this happen with the Libertarian Party or the Green Party or any of those other parties you mentioned? Simple; they are not very popular, in part because most of the people who might find them ideologically pleasing are probably already voting for Republicans or Democrats just to get their achievable policy goals accomplished. So, they continue as vanity projects for rich donors and that stubborn guy who just can't let anyone be wrong on the Internet.

Also, not "identifying with" a party doesn't mean people will not vote for it

Just because most people don't want to identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats, doesn't mean that they actually aren't willing to vote for them. It is a well known social science phenomena that most people who call themselves independents are actually moderate partisans. That is, they may say they're independent, but that doesn't mean they're as ready to jump ship for a center third party.

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    I don't think Perot voters are even predominantly Republicans now. I've seen claims that he took votes pretty evenly from both sides and may have had no actual effect on the election. Of course it's difficult to say either way, but the general phenomenon you describe of the parties shifting to absorb attempted new parties is right on. You could see it in action with Bernie Sanders in 2016, as Hillary was forced to move further to the left in an attempt to incorporate the Sanders supporters. And you might say much the same happened with Trump forcibly shifting Republicans. – zibadawa timmy Jul 26 at 20:01
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    It should be noted that a third party isn't automatically the go-to party even for true independent voters. – knallfrosch Jul 26 at 23:13
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    @user1605665 It's sort of implicit in how the two major parties are geared towards winning, rather than advancing a fixed set of policies. Winning is de-emphasized in systems that lack the first-past-the-post + powerful elected executive combination the US has, as pluralities/coalitions rather than majorities suffice and/or the ruling party selects their leader/executive by their own standards rather than by popular whims (and there's no case where one party controls the legislature but not the executive). This allows more rigid party policy objectives without major sacrifices in control. – zibadawa timmy Jul 27 at 8:35
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    @zibadawatimmy All successful parties are geared towards winning, in all systems. What's different is what exactly constitutes winning. (In systems with coalitions, being part of the coalition usually constitutes winning, and guess just what parties have to sacrifice in order to have a coalition with a party with other sets of policies.) – sgf Jul 27 at 19:32
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    @Joe And I think you missed a critical part of my point. I agree with you that simply moving away from FPTP doesn't create another strong party. I agree with you that simply converting to something like ranked choice and representative parliament is likely to result in a number of smaller parties. But sticking with FPTP strongly incentivizes two parties and no more. If we propose that getting to a stable state with three "large mass-appeal" parties is even possible, shifting from FPTP is almost certainly one of the steps on the road to that state. – GrandOpener Jul 29 at 15:54
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I'll address part of the issue with something of a frame challenge.

It is a common misunderstanding, which you seem to be falling prey to, to think of the Democratic and Republican parties as largely homogeneous monoliths. In fact they are more like coalitions of parties, which can vary widely (especially across geography).

For examples: The Democrats have the Socialist Democrats as one of their sub-parties, and they have a number of significantly different policy goals over a more "generic" Democrat. The Republicans have Tea Party Republicans and Fiscal Conservatives, and these groups have often been a thorn in the side of what might be called the greater Republican objectives. Even though from 2016-2018 the Republican party controlled both Congressional houses and the Presidency, they were still often stymied in their ability to pass legislation in large part because of internal difficulties in uniting the disparate factions behind the given legislation. And the Democratic party is currently showing similar difficulties in keeping the more Progressive factions united with the more moderate members.

The end result of this being that you don't see third parties, centrist or otherwise, arising and surviving for very long because the existing parties already have lots of centrist and non-centrist subparties to accommodate them. And as indicated in Joe's answer, these parties are geared to retain power moreso than they are geared to advance a fixed set of policy objectives, and as such they tend to rapidly adapt to absorb any emergent political wings under their banners. In 2016 alone we saw the Democratic party (and Hillary in particular) move noticeably further to the left as a result of integrating the progressive supporters of Sanders; and we also saw the Republican party move noticeably to integrate the Trump supporters.

Now there is a curious phenomenon where this process has actually not been drawing these two parties inexorably towards an overall centrist theme. We have actually seen them become more disparate, as Democrats have moved further to the left and Republicans further to the right on the whole. This might seem surprising, but in fact suggests that "centrist" is in fact not a stable political ground state, at least within the US system. A simple explanation is that if both parties trend towards "centrist", then actual centrist voters are split between them and—unless the people as a whole are overwhelmingly centrist—that means the centrist voters won't be the dominant electoral force within either one of them, forcing their overall composition away from the center. And that this is the only arrangement to really consider is a consequence of how the first-past-the-post system strongly encourages a two-party system, and the powerful and independently elected Executive strongly encourages a nationally integrated party. That's the one-sentence reason for why the US has precisely two (significant) parties across the entirety of its expanse, rather than two parties in California that might be completely different and distinct from two parties in Texas, etc.* In fact that is the case, but the Californian and Texan branches both get integrated under the national parties.

Party leadership of these nationally integrated parties then controls where funds go, and which bills and amendments thereof to bother with. These pressures tend to pull (the voting behavior of) more centrist or extremist members towards somewhere in between. The modern political climate also helps push this further, as centrist members who might be seen as "crossing the fence" on certain issues may get publicly lambasted and find it difficult to survive politically; those that do are almost all from swing states/districts where more centrist positions are essentially mandated, and most of the party knows that to undercut them is to compromise their power in those areas.


*India and Canada are usually presented as countries which seem at first blush to have similar governmental structure to the US, but nevertheless tend to have more than two strong parties and/or a lack of national party unity. India in particular has frequently had a strong centrist party, which can establish essentially single-party rule for long periods of time. Needless to say this results from different cultures and histories, and some important differences in the government structures—some of India's government is elected via a Single Transferable Vote system, rather than a straight first-past-the-post for everything, for example—and going into them in detail is beyond the scope of this Q&A, and is the topic of many books. The short of the matter for India appears to be that the country's populace is, as a whole, overwhelmingly centrist, allowing multiple parties to fight over a centrist position while still both remaining centrist.

  • So basically there are no parties, just two giant coalition blobs that appeal to as many people as possible in order to win. Sounds about right. I feel very represented and cared for as a citizen that gets to decide between two different kinds of mob rule. – Andrew Jul 29 at 15:20
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@Joe's answer gives excellent concrete examples of how a party moves toward 'the center'. For a theoretical explanation, see The Median Voter Theorem and Hotelling's Game.

If a platform or policy becomes popular, then it is picked up by one of the two major parties. An example is the Democratic party adoption of cannabis reform.

The two major parties also fight to keep third parties out of debates.

Some people believe that first past the post is the problem which leads to two party systems, but I believe it is the median voter theorem which is more applicable. In theory, there is nothing to stop a group of billionaires from dumping a trillion dollars to form a new third party with every chance of success, but the two other parties would just shift positions to copy the upstart and people would have no incentive to switch.


Some people are incorrectly believing that the theory only works for 2 competitors or a single axis, but it is only explained that way for simplification. Why do competitors open their stores next to one another?, Why Are Gas Stations Often Located Next To Each Other?.

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    There are usually more than two parties in the parliament in countries that don't use First Past the Post voting, and coalition governments are made up of several parties. So the problem is FPTP, not the median voter theorem. – michau Jul 27 at 5:59
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    Voting between two options is a premise of the median voter theorem, not a consequence. The median voter theorem says "if there are only two options to vote for, and ..., then ...", not "if ..., then there will only be two options to vote for". – user2357112 supports Monica Jul 27 at 6:13
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    The median voter theorem only applies if the parties are on a single left-right continuum. Once you allow multiple dimensions of policy it no longer works. – Paul Johnson Jul 27 at 7:22
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    @PaulJohnson No that's not true. The full theory name is called Hotelling's Model of Spatial Competition. It can work for multiple axis, i.e. conservative/liberal, authoritarian/anti-authoritarian, libertine/moral, etc. It is only explained on a single axis for simplification. – Chloe Jul 27 at 17:10
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    You are entirely wrong. Suppression of third parties is result of first-past-the-post voting combined with single-member electoral divisions. Each of those favour two-party on it's own, both combined eliminate multipartism entirely. That's the reason why US and UK are global outliers with only two parties, their systems are designed to eliminate everyone outside of establishment. – M i ech Jul 29 at 9:38
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Because independents aren't politically uniform. They don't necessarily have any more in common with each other than they do with members of the major parties. To refer to a voter as 'independent-leaning' is a contradiction – they are declaring that they don't 'lean on' the views of any political group!

Your four possible explanations all assume that there is a set of policies that appeals to all independents. Because such policies appeal to a plurality of voters, major parties would be likely to gain net votes by adopting them. Essentially, your question is about the stability of the two-party system. As other answers have noted, this is a contentious issue in political science, but Duverger's law is a good starting point.

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    Disagree on the contradiction bit: they're independent because they're independent of the major, established, and successful parties. – Andrew Jul 29 at 15:13
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In addition to the answers given here, there is a simple cost/benefit analysis to consider:

If you possess the resources required to start a viable large third party, and/or to take one of the existing minor parties and make it mainstream:

  1. A very large voter base
  2. A deep pool of organizers in all 50 states
  3. Significant funding
  4. A non-zero number of potential candidates starting out with at least minimal name recognition

...it's actually a much better return on your investment to simply take over one of the existing parties. The existing parties have well-established brands, and in most states they have significant ballot access advantages. They're also vulnerable to capture by determined groups.

Building a new party is a lot more work than seizing one of the two existing parties.

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    Good alternative focus which also answers the question. – Andrew Jul 29 at 15:26
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As illustrated by the majority of posters to date, there is significant impedance to change an N-party system into N+1. Historically, it has taken more than just a lack of identification to shift the balance.

For instance, the first world war saw Canada shift to a multi-party system as farmers represented a large body that was not well served by the agenda of the wealthy. In this the case the UFO rode the sentiment of postwar discontent.

In Spain, the scandals during the sub-prime recession led to 4-way vote split as two parties emerged (Podemos left of left, and Cuididanos center-right). This in turn forced coalition governments that have provided significant experience for the new parties.

Both Canada and Spain also lean to multi-party systems because first-past-the-post allows representation due to regional demographics such as in Quebec and Catalonia.

I suggest that critical mass could form due to strong new leadership/representation and significant missteps on the part of all (both) major parties. However, any new alternative must have critical mass independent of the ability of an existing party platform to absorb a new party platform. Clearly this is the exception rather than the rule.

  • Basically we need a major war or recession, crappy candidates, and strong leadership lol. – Andrew Jul 29 at 15:22
  • The most prominent historical example of this kind of new-parties-emerging-through-huge-failure in the US of this would be the Republican Party. It didn’t stay a third party for long because consumed the Whig Party (Which was internally split on slavery, as opposed to the GOP that was totally against it) – Joe Jul 31 at 11:04
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The primary reason this happens in presidential races is the winner takes all system.
"The District of Columbia and 48 states have a winner-takes-all rule for the Electoral College. In these States, whichever candidate receives a majority of the popular vote, or a plurality of the popular vote (less than 50 percent but more than any other candidate), takes all of the state’s Electoral votes."[1]

This means presidential candidates who do not win an entire state, with two state exeptions receive no votes whatsoever in the Electoral college.

While absorption into the two major parties also plays a factor, inability to gather more than a quarter of the needed electoral college votes[2], also serves as an undertow against third parties.

[1] https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/faq.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_third_party_performances_in_United_States_presidential_elections

The most popular alternative to the two party system are coalition government which is often used in conert with parliamentary systems.

  • Although this is a popular explanation for why Republicans and Democrats dominate, abandoning a winner take all system would not create a large, vaguely centrist third party of the type the questioner mentions, but a series of smaller, less broadly appealing parties. Also a party could be successful in Congress without being successful in the Electoral College while running for President. – Joe Jul 27 at 21:30
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Instability issues.

If the target voter base is even slightly, or even just apparently inclined in favor of one of the two dominant parties more than the other, it will naturally tend to empower the opposite party more, because the vote that is shared across these platforms ironically gets divided, putting the least popular of the three into a favored position.

The late Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign demonstrated that the conservative slant of his Independent platform actually sabotaged that election for conservatives.

Probably ideally, the electoral system should be amended to be respectful of voters' actual preferences so that a vote for the same principles across different nominal platforms or parties still counts towards those principles or platform in the event that the first or second etc. candidate does not win.

If you've ever played a three-player free-for-all real-time strategy game, you will know that the dynamics of a three-player game make for considerable unfairness at any point in time. There will always be an imbalance, meaning at least one of the three players will usually be fighting a two-front war at a time when the other two are fighting primarily a one-front war. All it takes is some unfortunate timing or bias to overwhelm the third player and subsume his resources into the first two.

  • As long as those parties don't merge into one another... – Andrew Jul 29 at 15:25
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There was in the past with the Populists during the Gilded Age (1890s). They not only tried to appeal to the discontented farmer class (who were becoming increasingly "unimportant" in the age of machines) but also to Americans in general as an alternative to the mainstream parties. They eventually merged into the Democratic party because they simply couldn't compete in a two-party system. I imagine the same would happen today. Our politics is strongly grounded in identity, and that's exactly what the two predominant parties provide a sense of, even if people don't claim to associate with either party (for whatever reason).

A third party would have to appeal to enough people to disrupt the two-party system. How would it do that without splitting loyalties left and right and always betraying itself? How "moderate" of a stance can you take on controversial issues that require definite stances and not just pandering? It's harder than it sounds.

You could argue we live in different times, and you're right. Except not really politically. If anything, the sharp division between Republican and Democrat has grown more pronounced, and if you don't identify with either one, then it's as though you don't belong anywhere except that blurry middle.

There's also a popular (but arguably harmful) insistence that a Republican isn't one unless they identify completely with all of the party's ideologies. One could argue things have gotten "bad" in that sense—identity is everything in 21st century politics. It would take a very coordinated effort to disrupt the current system.

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Part of the problem is that while independents make up about a third of the population, they're broken up into three groups:

  1. The people you discuss, who are ideologically in the middle.
  2. People who mostly agree with the Democrats but have individual strong points of disagreement, e.g. they may be pro-life or anti-immigration.
  3. People who mostly agree with the Republicans but have individual strong points of disagreement, e.g. they may be pro-choice or pro-gun-control.

These groups are similar in size but constantly changing. Sometimes they will join the parties with which they almost align and sometimes they won't.

So what is this middle party supposed to do? Presumably they wouldn't get any of the Republican/Democrat vote. They might get one of the mostly Democrat or mostly Republican vote, but they are unlikely to be able to get both at once. Even if they get all the centrist independents, that's still only about two thirds as big as either party.

Traditionally, people have flirted with third parties, but they haven't voted for them in large numbers. H. Ross Perot was as successful as anyone's been since 1968, but he still finished a distant third.

If this is really what you think should happen, then encourage some Republican to challenge Trump in the general. William Weld would be possible, but I actually think that the best candidate would be Mia Love. She's everything that Donald Trump is not:

  1. Minority.
  2. Female.
  3. Young.
  4. Personally religious and moral.
  5. Pro-immigration.
  6. Polite.

She would appeal to a group of people on the right and could gather votes from people who don't want another four years of Trump but can't really stomach the thought of voting for someone like Joe Biden who is pro-choice, anti-police, small military, etc. She also might appeal to voters who don't want to vote for an older white male.

If it looked like Trump was going to beat Biden, Biden voters might start switching to her as the electable alternative. Particularly pro-life black and Hispanic voters. Or women.

Or she might just take some votes away from Trump and allow Biden to win. Or take votes equally from both and have no effect (what exit polls suggested Perot did).

If you really want more moderates to be elected, my suggestion would be to pursue electoral reform. If we eliminated partisan primaries and replaced them with a Condorcet-compliant election form (either in the primary to produce a top two general or to also replace the general), then there wouldn't be the same need to run to the extremes to win the primary. Moderate candidates, like John Kasich in 2016, could combine independents and voters from both parties in primaries.

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    I like this answer up to "If this is really what you think should happen". After that, it gets into editorializing instead of answering the question. I'd upvote it if it ended there. – Bobson Jul 26 at 21:13

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