A third party, in any democratic republic having a presidential system of government, is any political party smaller and less powerful than the largest and most powerful two. Such parties rarely, if ever, gain power or even representation in the legislative branch of government at the federal level, but often gain representation or even dominance at a provincial or municipal level. But the Republican Party remains today the memorable exception: a third party that displaced one of the two major parties of its day when that party was in steep decline. (The other major party, the Democratic Party, remains today.)
Normally, parliamentary governments (in which the executive is a member of the legislature, elected by the legislature, and responsible to the legislature) allow minor political parties to have a minimal level of representation at all times. These parties often become valuable coalition partners for either of the two most powerful parties, unless those two parties can reconcile their differences and form "national unity governments."
But presidential governments (having independently elected executives) usually form two-party systems in which two political parties become entrenched, and minor parties do not matter, except as electoral spoilers.
The most likely reason for this disparate performance of minor parties in presidential and parliamentary systems is that, in a parliamentary system, one's vote is at least as important on a federal level as on a provincial or district level, if not more. In contrast, as the late Representative and Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill famously said,
|“||All politics is local.||”|
Third-party rise and fall
Minor or "third parties" in a presidential system typically arise because the major parties, being very large, are often slow to react to new issues, or to develop strategies to appeal to new voting blocs that are finding their identities for the first time. But third-party movements can fall just as quickly when one of two things happen to their issues:
- Voters lose interest.
- One of the major parties co-opts the issue and incorporates it into its own platform.
Without unique issues that remain exclusive to them, political parties cannot survive—and no such thing as intellectual property rights exist to "protect" third parties from major-party issue co-optation.
In addition, third-party movements sometimes fail when their voters grow impatient with their continued electoral failures.
The Republican Party remains today the sole exception. At the time of its organization, the Whig Party was in steep decline. In addition, its primary issue, abolitionism, became a powerful electoral draw after the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford polarized the electorate as never before. Abraham Lincoln was, of course, the first Republican President of the United States.
Third-party movements in history
The following is a partial list of third parties in the United States, other than the Republican Party, which has not been considered a third party since the Election of 1860:
- Anti-Masonic Party
- Progressive Party
- Prohibition Party
- Communist Party of the USA
- Socialist Party USA
- Socialist Equality Party
- Socialist Workers Party
- Workers World Party
- States Rights Democratic Party (aka "Dixiecrats")
- American Independent Party
- Green Party
- Libertarian Party
- Constitution Party
- Reform Party
Relevance of third parties
While third-party candidates rarely win elections, third parties often hold relevance in elections:
- "Splitting the vote" - if a third-party candidate is moderate or takes positions similar to the two major party candidates, the vote for a candidate may be split, allowing the opposing candidate to win. For example, in 1992, Reform Party candidate Ross Perot split the vote with Republican George H. W. Bush, allowing Democrat Bill Clinton to win the presidency. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader split the vote with Democrat Al Gore, allowing Republican George W. Bush to win the election.
- Protesting/making a statement - In the 1948 presidential election, Strom Thurmond and the newly founded States Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) ran in support of racial segregation, winning 39 electoral votes.
For these reasons, third parties can often bring attention to issues otherwise ignored and encourage major parties to take action.
- *Prohibition Party official site
- Socialist Party USA official site
- Socialist Equality Party official site
- Socialist Workers Party official site
- Workers World Party official site
- Green Party official site
- Libertarian Party official site
- Constitution Party official site