Haven't third party and independent
candidates always been "spoilers"?
Can a third party really win?
Every single presidential election year, our country has endured the inevitable but largely pointless debate over the fantasy of a competitive third party. Until now, the verdict has always been the same: third parties have no chance of winning, which makes them nothing more than “spoilers.”
The caution and concern surrounding the so-called third-party conversation is understandable. Since the two-party system was established in 1864, a third party has been unable to win a U.S. presidential election. Even Theodore Roosevelt and his Progressive Party were unable to win in 1912 and Roosevelt had already served as a popular U.S. president. The spoiler argument certainly held true in 1992, when Ross Perot sent Bill Clinton to the White House and George H.W. Bush home, and in 2016, when the number of votes third-party candidates received in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin was larger than Donald Trump’s margin of victory.
The undisputed fact is that our political system is designed to protect the two-party system. Ballot access rules, debate rules and the millions of dollars of public funds that both major parties are entitled to receive make the playing field extraordinarily inequitable.
However, it’s an enormous mistake to judge the future possibilities of new party solely by the failures of the past. Something like 1787 has never been tried before. Sure, there are existing political movements and third parties, but the political movements are usually born out of frustration and anger and the third parties are generally based on a singular issue (Green Party) or just a severe extension of one of the two major parties (Libertarian Party). This is one of the main reasons third parties have never really caught on. Previous efforts haven’t worked because the outsiders were practically identical to one of the major party candidates. At that point, why take the chance? It’s the better the devil you know than the devil you don’t syndrome.
The bottom line is that the Democratic and Republican Parties have had 196 and 170 years, respectively, to get this right, yet things have progressively gotten worse. We cannot afford to waste any more time traveling the path of least resistance — and voting for the lesser of the who in the heck cares — simply because the two major parties, however wounded, believe they have the perpetual right to keep the playing field all to themselves.
Perhaps the biggest mistake both parties have made is not understanding that, for decades, elections have not been a victory for either of them, regardless of who wins or loses. Elections are now about voting for the lesser of the evils than anything else. Razor thin elections would be beneficial if they sent the desired message of disapproval to all the players in Washington. But instead, they provide a false sense of success, where the winning side incorrectly interprets the rejection of the losing party as an endorsement of their own instead of a criticism of the entire process. A temporary defeat may shame our leaders into compliance for a month or two, but it is largely ignored as a demand for better leadership.
A new party can absolutely be the catalyst for revolutionary change, but only if its inspiration transcends single issues, individual egos, and just one election cycle. The ultimate goal is not to change the results of just one election or just one particular office. It’s to change the rules of the game once and for all.
Besides, the "spoiler" thing doesn't make much sense anymore anyway. We've already made it clear we need to end the destructive two-party dynamic. Because of the way American elections inherently work, only a competitive third party or independent candidate can logistically make that happen. But this once herculean task is a heck of a lot easier now, because the death of the two-party system has already been initiated — not from the landing blow of a third party at the ballot box, but because the two major parties have finally blown themselves apart.
For years, the significant divisions within the parties have acted much like water that freezes inside a rock and eventually breaks it apart. In truth, there have actually been multiple parties for years, even though they have cleverly disguised themselves as two.
This is yet another reason we must have more players in the game. The ideological fractures and growing divisions within the existing parties will only make our overall national gridlock much worse. It’s already bad, but as the only two major parties get more internally jammed up, we are guaranteed that absolutely nothing gets solved. Ever. Never. Ever.