Would a three-party system be better?
Frustrated by the inability of the present 2-party system to function, more folks are talking about the creation of a third party thinking that would break the deadlock in Washington.
At the outset, let us admit that the present system was designed by the Founding Fathers to keep anything from happening until a massive consensus developed that would move a proposal through two houses of Congress, the president and the Supreme Court.
Alexander Hamilton worried about that when the Constitution was written.
In one of his Federalist Papers he noted that while the present system would prevent anything evil from happening the same system would also prevent anything good from happening.
Moving Toward Change
Apparently, the Founding Fathers wanted stability more than change. When we talk about adding a third or fourth party, we are talking about moving away from stability and toward change. That in itself would frighten a lot of people.
Parties are seldom formed until they are mobilized by an issue that has broad appeal. We have had individuals run as third party candidates but they failed because their causes didn’t have a popular base.
The only meaningful example in modern history was the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond race in the 1948 election. Thurmond had an issue that no one wanted outside of the South – African-American bigotry.
In that race, Democrat Harry Truman captured 303 electoral votes, Thomas Dewey got 189 and Strom Thurmond received 39. The winner needed 270 votes so Truman was re-elected.
Supposing that Truman and Dewey each got 200 votes and the third party candidate Thurmond got the remaining 138. Since none of the candidates would have reached the majority of 270, what do you suppose Thurmond would do before the electoral votes were counted?
Yep, he would have brokered a deal with either one of the other two, expecting to get a promise of legislation that would suppress African-American influence in the South.
Bargaining after the election occurs in multi-party systems with all parties using their votes to get a piece of the action.
In multi-party systems, the bargaining occurs after the election when they make deals and trade votes, compromising on the issues.
Stopping Third Parties
After the 1948 election, many partisans trembled at the possibility of a third party candidate getting enough votes to force bargaining. Consequently, a nationwide campaign was launched to prevent another Strom Thurmond in the future by changing the system. Nothing was ever done because any change in the U.S. Constitution would require support of two-thirds in both houses and three fourths of the states.
In 1912,Teddy Roosevelt demonstrated the difficulty of a third party victory in the present Electoral College system. He formed the Bull Moose party to run against incumbent President Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Teddy got 88 electoral votes, Taft got eight and Wilson 435. Taft and Roosevelt divided the Republican vote, permitting Wilson to win 40 states with 42% of the vote.
For a third party to win, it would have to draw support from both parties with an issue that appealed to moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats. What issue would appeal to independents and moderates? Balanced budget? Christian nationalism? Abortion (either side)? Bigger military? Smaller military? More Social Security?
Not only would a third party need a big attractive issue it would also need a lot of money. A lot of money. A lot of money. And then some.
A lot of money would buy controlling stock in the Brooklyn Bridge.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.