The American Legion Magazine | 9.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd

“America has had great parties, but has them no longer.”[i]

These words were written not by a grizzled Beltway pundit surveying the wreckage of the 2012 elections, or by some melancholy political science professor longing for the good old days, but by a foreign admirer of America who came to this somewhat-depressing conclusion in the 1830s. His name was Alexis de Tocqueville, and he offered his dour diagnosis in Democracy in America, among the most insightful commentaries on the people and government of the United States ever written.

With Washington increasingly unable to address critical challenges to America’s future—slowing entitlement spending, reining in the deficit, protecting the military from cuts, reviving the economy, taking full advantage of homegrown energy sources—many Americans today seem to share Tocqueville’s view. For example, just 29 percent of the country approves of how congressional Democrats are doing, a paltry 23 percent of the country approves of how congressional Republicans are doing, and only 18 percent of the country is satisfied with how the nation is being governed—the lowest rating since Gallup began asking the question in 1971.[ii] 

As a consequence, some observers are calling for new political parties to take a crack at fixing Washington. In fact, a Gallup poll reveals that 60 percent of Americans believe “a third major party is needed.”[iii]Are there any third parties up to the task? And if so, what does history tell us about their chances for crashing the two-party party?

Taking the Reins

One thing history tells us is that America’s two-party system is almost as old as America. What’s intriguing is that most of the Founders expressed concerns about political parties.

In the Federalist Papers, for instance, James Madison worried about the rise of political “factions,” which he described as any collection of citizens “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens.”

John Adams feared the “division of the republic into two great parties.”[iv]

Likewise, George Washington had deep reservations about political parties. “All combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities,” he said in his farewell address, “serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party.”[v]He warned that parties could “become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”[vi]

Despite the misgivings of the Founders, political parties naturally—and almost immediately—developed. In retrospect, it seems inevitable given the divergent views of Adams and the Federalists on one side, and Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists—who rebranded themselves as “Democratic-Republicans”—on the other. (Madison began as a Federalist but found his way into Jefferson’s party.[vii])

One group—one faction, one party—wanted to construct a strong union, with a strong central government and a strong constitution that the government could wield to act on behalf of a growing nation. The other group—the other faction, the other party—wanted power to reside in the states, sought to limit the power of the central government and demanded a Bill of Rights to protect the individual and the states from the central government.

The Constitution these two groups crafted is, not surprisingly, an exquisite compromise of their divergent views of government.

Traces of these divisions are evident in today’s major parties. Indeed, despite the Founders’ worries, “Most of the time, the political struggle between two major national parties, under changing labels, has represented what appears to be a natural division between competing ideological traditions in American politics,” as historian James Reichley argues in The Life of the Party. He notes that “parties have helped American democracy balance governmental efficiency with accountability and freedom,” citing problems with attempts at one-party democracy in Mexico and elsewhere.[viii]

Popularity Contest

Even if political parties serve an important purpose, there’s nothing in the Constitution that mandates them.

In the first presidential election, for instance, the candidates ran without any party affiliation at all. Washington technically never joined either party, though he aligned himself with the Federalists (and they with him).

Through much of the 1820s, as the Federalist Party ceased to be a national force, the United States was effectively a one-party state, at least in presidential politics. But by 1832, four different parties vied for the presidency. Third-party candidates—and for that matter, second- and fourth-party candidates—grabbed 45 percent of the popular vote.[ix]

Elements from some of those opposition parties coalesced into the Whig Party, which won its first presidential election in 1840. That year, the Free Soil Party claimed 10 percent of the popular vote.

Reflecting the national ferment over slavery and the federal-state power struggle, several parties scrambled for power in the 1850s and 1860s. Third parties won a scant 5.5 percent of the popular vote in 1852. However, in the following presidential election, third parties—including the newly minted Republican Party—claimed 34 percent of the vote.

In 1860, the once-dominant Democratic Party finished fourth in the electoral-vote tally, as third parties took 31 percent of the popular vote. Lincoln’s Republican Party, no longer a third-party spoiler or underdog, claimed 39 percent of the popular vote—enough to win the presidency in a deeply divided America.[x]

For the next 30 years, third parties barely registered in national politics. But in 1892, third parties claimed 11 percent of the popular vote, and the Populist Party won 22 electoral votes.[xi]

Although there were three national third-party candidates in 1896, they combined for just 2.1 percent of the popular vote. There were four third-party candidates in 1900, but again, they claimed only 2.75 percent of the popular vote.

Among the most well-known third-party presidential bids came in 1912, when former President Theodore Roosevelt switched from the Republican Party to run as a Bull Moose Progressive. In a race that featured five national parties, TR gained 27.4 percent of the popular vote—not enough to win, but plenty to divide Republican loyalties and pave the way for the election of Woodrow Wilson.[xii]

Since the 1912 election—an anomaly fueled largely by TR’s popularity—third-party candidates have seldom garnered more than 3 percent of the popular vote. The exceptions are 1924, when the Progressive Party took 16.6 percent of the popular vote; 1968 (American Independent, 13.5 percent); 1980 (Independent, 6.6 percent); 1992 (Independent, 19 percent); and 1996 (Reform, 8.4 percent).[xiii]

Related, the percentage of third-party/independent members of Congress has fallen steadily since the decade before the Civil War, from 9 percent in the 1850s to less than 1 percent in the 2000s.[xiv]

The Minors

Why is it so difficult for third parties to break through in U.S. politics? The answer to that question has much to do with the system the Founders created—a system designed to prevent, or at least discourage, momentary passions from triggering too-rapid political change.

Madison envisioned a representative system that would check “the cabals of a few.”[xv]Similarly, Hamilton believed a federal system and republican union of states would restrain “local factions” and “powerful individuals.”[xvi]

Thus, everything from the predetermined timing of elections, to the separation of branches, to the unique way presidents are elected, to the shared powers of federal and state governments, plays a role in preventing parties from taking hold too quickly or becoming prominent nationally too rapidly.

Political scientist Marjorie Randon Hershey points to the primary system as another factor. “When disgruntled groups have the opportunity to make their voices heard within the dominant party through a primary,” she explains, “the resulting taste of power will probably discourage them from breaking away to pursue a third-party course.” This is what happened in the South for decades, when factional disputes “were contained within the Democratic Party by the existence of primary elections,” thus discouraging third-party efforts.[xvii]

On top of these systemic obstacles to the emergence of new parties, third parties face practical problems: lacking sufficient resources to compete in an era dominated by television, being required to reach a certain threshold of support before making it onto ballots, navigating the byzantine maze of 50 different state election codes.

This doesn’t mean third parties don’t make a difference or don’t have an impact. Reichley notes that when powerful social movements emerge, they are often “taken up by one of the two major parties.”[xviii]

Moreover, third parties can tip the balance in presidential elections, as we saw in 2000, 1992 and 1912, when third parties siphoned away enough votes from the main parties to impact the final vote tally.

That brings us to today’s third parties. For the sake of conciseness, let’s focus for now on parties that have participated in presidential elections at the national level.

In the past four presidential election cycles (stretching from 2000 to 2012), the best third-party showing was the Green Party’s 2.73 percent of the national vote total in 2000. The Libertarian Party’s best showing was 1 percent in 2012; the Independent Party’s high-water mark was 0.56 percent in 2008; and the Reform Party’s best was 0.43 percent in 2000.[xix]

To be sure, there are many other third parties—the Constitution Party, Natural Law Party, Socialist Party, Justice Party. In fact, a PBS analysis revealed at least 54 national political parties in the United States, “37 of which have had candidates run for the presidency.”[xx]

Although some elements of each of these parties’ platforms appeal to some Americans, a glance at their main issues underscores why many of them do not gain broader appeal. Instead, by focusing on niche issues, they often attract niche voters: for some it’s the environment, for some immigration or abortion, for others legalizing and de-stigmatizing various vices, for others cutting the federal government down to 18th-century size or growing it into an EU-style behemoth, for still others abolishing nuclear weapons.

This helps explain why—in a diverse nation of 314 million people—third parties don’t gain more traction and seldom seem ready to graduate from the minor leagues. As Tocqueville observed, “Society is convulsed by great parties; it is only agitated by minor ones.”[xxi]

Interestingly, there is a “third party” that has made a significant impact of late, although it may not really be a political party at all.

Some observers say the Tea Party could crash the two-party party. As evidence, they point to the 2010 congressional elections, which swept more than 40 new representatives and five new senators aligned with the Tea Party into office. By 2012, more than 50 House members were part of the so-called “Tea Party Caucus.”[xxii]

However, there are some important caveats to consider. The 2012 elections saw half-a-dozen Tea Party incumbent freshmen lose in House races.[xxiii] Today, just 8 percent of voters say they are members of the Tea Party, down from a high of 24 percent in 2010, according to Rasmussen polling.[xxiv] And most important of all, at least when it comes to long-term viability, the Tea Party is a misnomer. With no centralized organization, no unifying umbrella structure, and technically no candidates—it pays to recall that the vast majority of candidates who identify with the Tea Party’s limited-government principles run as Republicans—the Tea Party is not a political party in the traditional sense of the term. Rather, it is an amorphous, grassroots political movement. The movement’s staying power and relevance over the long haul remain to be seen, although House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat has been attributed to Tea Party support.[xxv]

Third Place

In an era when the two main political parties are so deeply unpopular, it’s interesting that the Democratic and Republican parties garnered 96.25 percent of the popular vote in 2000, 99 percent in 2004, 98.5 percent in 2008 and 98.2 percent in 2012.[xxvi]

Those numbers force us to return to Tocqueville’s observation about “great parties.” It pays to recall that “great” has more than one meaning. Yes, it can mean “eminent” and “distinguished,” as in “Washington was a great leader.” But Merriam-Webster reminds us that it can also mean “large” and “predominant.” By that definition, today’s Democratic and Republican parties are as great as any in American history.

[i]Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840, 1981, p.88.

[ii]CNN/ORC Poll. March 15-17, 2013, http://www.pollingreport.com/dem.htm and http://www.pollingreport.com/rep.htm; http://www.pollingreport.com/cong_rep.htm and http://www.pollingreport.com/cong_dem.htm and http://www.gallup.com/poll/165371/americans-satisfaction-gov-drops-new-low.aspx.


[iv] James Reichley, The Life of the Party, 2000,  p.17.

[v]Washington's Farewell Address, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp.

[vi] Washington’s Farewell Address.

[vii] http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/james-madison

[viii] Reichley, pp.3-4, 30

[ix] Dave Leip, Atlas of Presidential Elections, Election of 1832, http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/.

[x] Dave Leip, Atlas of Presidential Elections, Election of 1860,  http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/.

[xi] Dave Leip, Atlas of Presidential Elections, Election of 1892, http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/.

[xii] Dave Leip, Atlas of Presidential Elections, Election of 1912, http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/.

[xiii] Dave Leip, Atlas of Presidential Elections, http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/.

[xiv] Hershey, p.41.

[xv] Federalist Papers, p.125.

[xvi] Federalist Papers, p.482.

[xvii] Marjorie Randon Hershey, Party Politics in America, 2005, p.31.

[xviii] Reichley, p.179

[xix] Dave Leip, Atlas of Presidential Elections, Election of 1972, http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/.

[xx] Kristina Nwazota, “Third Parties in the U.S. Political Process,” PBS Newshour, July 26, 2004,


[xxi] Tocqueville, p.88.

[xxii] House Clerk, Members-Elect 112th Congress, http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/112-members-elect.pdf; Alexandra Moe, “Just 32% of Tea Party candidates win,” NBC News, http://firstread.nbcnews.com/_news/2010/11/03/5403120-just-32-of-tea-party-candidates-win?lite;

[xxiii] “Tea Party holds most seats while alienating voters,” Bloomberg News, November 8, 2012.

[xxiv] Rasmussen Reports, “Just 8 percent say they are Tea Party members,” January 7, 2013.

[xxv] Robert Costa, Laura Vozzella and David A. Fahrenthold, "Eric Cantor succumbs to tea party challenger Tuesday," Washington Post, June 10, 2014.

[xxvi] Dave Leip, Atlas of Presidential Elections, http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/