Third Party

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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.)

Political conditions

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.
Thus the only vote of national import that a voter casts is a vote to elect a President (or, in the United States, to choose one particular delegation of Presidential Electors). Thus the typical result is the complete dominance of government by one or the other major party, or at other times, a division of government between executive and legislative branches, or between the two houses of the legislature if that legislature (like the United States Congress or any State legislature) is bicameral.

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:

  1. Voters lose interest.
  2. 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:

Relevance of third parties

While third-party candidates rarely win elections, third parties often hold relevance in elections:

For these reasons, third parties can often bring attention to issues otherwise ignored and encourage major parties to take action.


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