Third parties don't work

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Posted by: Brian
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Gallup’s annual Governance poll. (Source)

Unionizing is smarter

Having voted third party for two decades, I feel that I’m speaking from experience when I say that they can’t succeed. I used to believe that they could, because so many people wanted one. In fact, this month Gallup reported that a record 63% of adults said that a third major party is needed! Doesn’t it seem logical that if enough people want something, it will appear on the the market to meet the demand?

It doesn’t work that way.

Math doesn’t care about your feelings

As everyone knows, the United States has a two-party system, where the Republicans and Democrats win 99% of the time. (Exceptions like Bernie Sanders only prove the rule.) When I decided to run for the state legislature, I picked team Democrat primarily because they were opposed to the Iraq War. This is the thing about parties; they are practical about accumulating political policies for their team, not principled. Which means that over time, each comes to fervently stand for opposing whatever the other party supports, producing insanely high partisan polarization.

Why is that? Why can’t we have three parties locked into a political version of rock-paper-scissors, where each is equally weaker and stronger against the other two? The answer is simple: because parties exist to produce a winning bloc of votes. (This includes legislative bodies as well as elections.)

Put another way, elections are a zero-sum game. Accordingly, the most efficient way to allocate resources in an election is to have one winner and one loser (instead of two or three or four losers) and we tend toward a two-party system. This is Duverger’s law.

A seesaw is a great visual image for this concept, because only one side can touch the ground at a time. That represents the winner of the election—the candidate who got the largest number of votes—with the other side of the seesaw representing the runner up. The two ends almost always represent the two major parties.

Third party votes are distributed along the perpendicular axis. They are often referred to as ‘wasted votes’ because, in a strictly mathematical sense, this is true. Had those voters stayed home, the outcome would have been exactly the same. (Voting third party lets people feel like they have a say in the outcome, but remember: Math doesn’t care about your feelings.)

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay

Third party votes are also referred to as “spoilers,” because those voters made a conscious decision to NOT get on the seesaw, where they could have potentially tilted the balance toward one side or another. Instead, they stayed on the pivot point. While third parties don’t work, they can temporarily spoil themselves into relevancy.

Case study: the presidential elections of 1968 & 1972

In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon was elected president with 43.4% of the popular vote. Hubert Humphrey, Democrat, had received only 42.7% of the vote, and third party candidate George “segregation forever” Wallace received 13.5%, mostly in the deep south. The victory was a vindication for Nixon, who had lost to JFK in 1960 by 0.2% of the popular vote. He was determined to win reelection in 1972.

The obvious solution was to target that 13.5% bloc of votes that George Wallace had received. George Wallace, and those southern states, had been solidly Democratic until passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Now they were looking for another option that would let them have “states’ rights” to keep things separate-and-unequal for Blacks. Richard Nixon was on it; he ramped up the war on drugs to, as his domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman put it, go after “two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Nixon’s “southern strategy” was a resounding success in 1972. Not only did he sweep all the areas George Wallace had won four years earlier, he carried 49 states! (Massachusetts still voted Democrat.) It’s absolutely amazing to me what a reversal this was from Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory just eight years earlier.

There’s a great quote by historian Richard Hofstadter: “The role of third parties is to sting like a bee, then die.” Similar to how big tech companies buy out potential competitors, if a third party gains electoral traction on a issue, one of the major parties will absorb that policy in order to win. As long as elections are zero-sum games, the United States can’t have a stable multi-party system.

(It’s worth looking at what happened when another third party candidate, Ross Perot, got 19% of the vote in 1992. While he pitched many common sense reforms, his signature issue was that the budget should be balanced. Republicans and Democrats both took up this issue—at least for a few years—and roughly split his bloc of votes between them. As a result, neither party questions the Ross Perot fallacy.)

Thought experiment: reforming a business

What are some other ways for reformers to accomplish their goals? Imagine there are thirty people working at a restaurant, and only 20% approve of the way management runs the place. (Congress’ approval rating frequently falls lower than 20%, but I’m in a generous mood at the moment.) There are four main options for improving their working environment.

1) Just complain

The employees could complain a little or a lot about all the things they don’t like. This is unlikely to be effective, because if management actually cared about improving the working conditions, they probably would have done it already. It has the advantage of requiring the least effort and lowest risk.

2) Work their way up into management

Perhaps some of the employees could get themselves promoted. Trying to fix the system from inside has two problems. First, since it requires management’s support, zealous reformers are less likely to win their blessing. Second, the process of ingratiating oneself can lead to a change of perspective, where the individual begins to associate themselves with management instead of the rank-and-file.

3) Start a cooperatively run restaurant

The employees could start a competing restaurant, where they would be in charge of setting the working conditions. This has the disadvantage of requiring intense amount of capital for start-up costs, and includes the risk that customers wouldn’t follow them to the new establishment. If the new restaurant fails, they could all end up out of work.

4) Form a union

The employees could unionize, and collectively bargain to improve working conditions. They would have to proactively determine a set of demands to present to management, and if refused, be willing to go on strike and disrupt the status quo. A strike means a temporary loss of employment at best, but could result in a permanent loss of their jobs.

These four options also apply to reforming the living conditions of citizens in a democracy. Complaining does little, and major parties absorb would-be reformers over the long period of time it takes to move up into leadership. Forming a competitive third party has, as a practical matter, very high barriers to entry, as well as mathematical principles (Duverger’s law) against it.

When a labor union succeeds, it’s not because they’ve pushed management out and replaced them, but because they’ve forced a reevaluation of the relationship, in order to ensure more equitable treatment for all. Similarly, a union of voters can not displace the major parties from holding power, but can use the drive to win elections as leverage for legislative change.

Case study: adopting alcohol prohibition

Formed more than a century and a half ago, the Prohibition Party began running a presidential candidate every four years. Their high-water mark came in 1892, when they received 2.2% of the vote. This was not enough to get the Republicans and Democrats to want to “buy out” the party. (The People’s Party had received 8.5%, and Democrat William Jennings Bryan successfully absorbed their bloc of votes in 1896 with the policy of free silver, but that’s another story.)

The role of third parties is to sting like a bee, then die.

-Richard Hofstadter

The following year, the Anti-Saloon League was formed. They drew attention to the political corruption saloons fueled and focused on prohibition legislation at every level of government. They were supported by a broad coalition of reformers who recognized the widespread social harms alcohol caused; how it contributed to crime, poverty, and domestic violence.

Under the leadership of Wayne Wheeler, the Anti-Saloon League united these reformers as swing voters. Prohibition wasn’t a partisan issue, and wherever candidates for office had differing views on the subject, the prohibitionist candidate could expect an extra bloc of votes. Over the years, they elected representatives at the state and federal level. The strategy was described as “turning minorities into majorities.”

In 1916, Wheeler achieved a critical mass in Congress to advance what became the 18th amendment. By accepting the fact the United States has a two party system and focusing on policy instead of a fanciful third party, they achieved their goal of alcohol prohibition.

Unionizing as voters is true reform

The American Union of swing voters is not a third party, because starting third parties doesn’t work. Since the real goal of political reformers is to change policy, a national union of swing voters can skip directly to that stage in 2024 by positioning themselves at the seesaw’s pivot point.

Unlike a third party, which needs about 35% support to elect a single candidate, a national union of swing voters can control the balance of power in Washington with just 3.5% support. This gives a union the leverage needed to unstick the gears of legislative machinery.

Like a labor union, a union of swing voters requires a detailed set of demands, which are developed through a people’s legislative assembly. A crowdsourced package of legislative solutions can offer the American people concrete solutions in 2024.

Unlike a union of restaurant workers risking their employment, a general strike in the ballot box can’t result in a loss of citizenship, but like voting third party, risks that the greater-of-two-evils will prevail.


If you’re like me and have voted third party in the past, you want better representation in Washington. Since third parties don’t work, join the American Union instead. Together, we can collectively bargain for a better social contract.

Basic membership in the American Union of swing voters is just 25 cents a day and a good-faith pledge to vote together on November 5, 2024. Together we rise!

Join the American Union for $7/month

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Author: Brian