Is Polarized America Primed for a Breakout Third Party?

The ouster of Republican Liz Cheney from her leadership position in the House of Representatives could provide fertile ground for the emergence of an alternate party, according to political scientist Bernard Tamas.  

“I would say that the time is basically ripe for a third-party challenge, and, largely, the reason is because of the level of polarization in American politics, especially the movement to the right by the Republican Party,” says Tamas, an associate professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia and the author of The Demise and Rebirth of American Third Parties.  

But even if a third party were to emerge, Tamas says, the history of American politics suggests it could be short-lived and enjoy limited success at the polls.

House Republicans stripped Cheney, from Wyoming, of her post as conference chair after she publicly broke with former President Donald Trump, rejecting his baseless claims of widespread fraud in the November 2020 presidential election, which he lost to Democrat Joe Biden.     

“If you look at the two parties right now, what the Democrats do is much more with opposition is kind of integrate them. … It’s very much of a big net strategy,” Tamas says. “But the Republicans have been moving more and more towards pushing out moderates and pushing out anyone who challenges former President Trump.” 

And those circumstances, he says, are historically consistent with other times when third parties have emerged in the United States.  

Third-party disrupters 

The Populist Party, which championed poor farmers, emerged in the 1890s and was gone by 1900. During its brief time, however, it posed enough of a threat to Democrats that the party eventually adopted some of the Populist Party’s ideals.   

In 1912, the more progressive wing of the Republican party, led by former President Teddy Roosevelt, split with the Republican Party to form the Progressive Party. Roosevelt went on to win a bigger share of the popular vote than William Taft, the Republican nominee, but both lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. While the division hurt Republicans at the polls, the move did eventually push the Republican Party more to the center. 

It is the fear of splitting the vote that can work against third-party candidates, which helps the two major parties retain their dominance in politics.  

“When a voter enters a voter booth, they have to make a calculation, and they may prefer somebody who they don’t think is going to win, and it makes no sense to throw away your vote,” says Alexander Cohen, an assistant professor of political science at Clarkson University in New York. “And the people who donate money to campaigns, the people who operate in politics, they, in turn, recognize that this is a pattern and so they very seldom throw their support behind a third-party candidacy, because it’s not going to succeed.” 

Deeply entrenched 

Cohen says it’s difficult to transition away from a two-party system without fundamentally changing the structure of government, as well as rules for campaigns and campaign finance.  

“In America, the two parties have spent a lot of time and energy, and written laws that favor their own continuation and make it very difficult for third parties to emerge,” Cohen says. “In some states, there are laws that mean that third parties require more signatures to get on the ballot than the major parties, for whom it’s automatic. So, the two major parties don’t want competitors, and they’ve designed a system that further makes it difficult.” 

It’s possible that a third-party candidate could prove victorious in smaller local elections, according to Cohen, but he says the two-party system is here to stay in the more significant contests.  

“You’ll note that Liz Cheney isn’t leaving the Republican Party. As soon as she does, she’s done in politics,” he says. “The players who you would most expect to say, ‘I’m stepping away, we’re creating a new movement,’ aren’t doing so because they know that is not the way to get their policies represented.” 

Tamas agrees that it is unlikely that third parties will ever consistently win key elections. Their key influence, he says, has always been through disruption that leads to more moderation in the major parties. 

“Compared to most other countries, third parties (in the U.S.) are weak, so this leaves open one particular strategy that they have, which is to attack one of the parties, disrupt the politics, temporarily, and with the expectation that this is not going to have a permanent position in politics,” says Tamas. “It’s going to be just creating a course correction.” 
 

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