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[Research Reports] Why has there been no rise of third parties in the United States?

Satoshi Machidori (Professor, Kyoto University)
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Research Group on the US FY2021-# 1

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.


The Joe Biden administration has been in office for more than six months, but it has yet to make any significant progress in either domestic or foreign policy. Of particular note is that, as of early October 2021, there has been no major headway made in domestic economic policy since the initial spending package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan), which included measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic, due to conflicts with Congress. This, along with questionable foreign policy choices such as the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the restoration of the Taliban regime, has had a negative impact on the administration's approval ratings. With next year's midterm elections in mind, economic policy should probably be the biggest concern for the administration.

An obstacle to domestic political success is the deep and strong rivalry, or polarization, between the Democratic and Republican parties. This polarization had been growing long before the Biden administration, and it gained especially widespread attention globally during the administration of Donald Trump. In fact, however, it has been the keynote of American politics in the 21st century, and researchers not infrequently trace its origins to the conservatism of the Republican Party beginning in the 1960s and the increasing liberalization of the Democratic Party since the 1970s. However, the Biden administration has been constrained not only by the rivalry between the two major parties but also by that between liberals and centrists inside the Democratic Party, another indication that growing ideological conflicts are having an impact within party ranks.

Whether it is the polarization between the two major parties or the conflict between the extremists and the centrists within parties, the question that naturally arises is why there is such an obsession with having two major parties. If the intra-party disputes are so bitter, why not split the parties? If the result were a multi-party system, multiple patterns of forming parliamentary majorities would emerge, and the effects of polarization would be mitigated. For example, one view in the academic debate is that a multi-party system is necessary to protect American democracy, as Lee Drutman has argued in his recent book (Lee Drutman, Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, Oxford University Press, 2020).

However, as a practical matter, the two-party system in the United States is extremely strong, and it is difficult to imagine any change will be seen in the near future. It is unlikely that any political party other than the Democratic and Republican parties will emerge and change the two-party system into a multi-party system. Why is that? What would it mean for American democracy? This report examines these issues below.

The emergence of a third party and its consequences

Third parties are not entirely absent from the history of American political parties. The Republican Party, which emerged just before the Civil War, was essentially a descendant of the Whig Party, but it was a third party at the time of its formation. There have since been many third parties that cannot be lumped together as so-called minor parties, such as the Populist Party, which had its origins in the farmers' movement of the late 19th century, the Progressive Party led by Theodore Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential elections, and the American Reform Party founded by Ross Perot that caused a temporary stir in the 1992 presidential elections. Even in the relatively recent past, there is the example of the Green Party of the United States led by Ralph Nader, which has made its presence felt by fielding candidates in several presidential elections.

However, most of these third parties did not manage to undermine the two-party stronghold and very quickly either became insubstantial as political parties or survived with severely diminished power. In the examples above, the Populist Party, after its heyday in the 1896 presidential elections, was largely absorbed by the Democratic Party. The Progressive Party rejoined the Republican Party in 1916 at Roosevelt's behest. The American Reform Party waned in strength and virtually disappeared by 2000. The Green Party of the United States has remained active but has not regained the momentum of the 2000 presidential elections, when the votes for Nader were said to have influenced the overall outcome.

To date, only the Republican Party has started out as a third party and come to constitute one of the two major parties. The Democratic Party originated as an offshoot of the Democratic-Republicans, the largest and de facto sole party at the time, in order to elect Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828. The Whig Party, which originated from another faction that supported John Quincy Adams at that time, did not emerge from a third party. Furthermore, there are no examples of any third parties moving into the two-party system after the Civil War, in contrast to the change in the second-largest party from Liberal Party to Labour Party in the first half of the 20th century in Britain, which also has a long history of two-party systems.

"Tents" for profit sharing

Why, then, do third parties not become more powerful? It would be appropriate to answer from two points of view.

The first is that political parties in the US have functioned exclusively as profit-sharing units. Hiroshi Okayama, a political scientist, explains, borrowing a phrase from Tip O'Neill, political parties in the US are "tents" under which people with various ideals and interests gather and, if they can come and go as they wish, it does not matter what they do or where they do it. (Hiroshi Okayama, アメリカの政党政治 American Party Politics, Chuko Shinsho, 2020, p. 5).

The organization of modern political parties established in Europe in the 20th century is characterized by a pyramidal structure with the party leader at the top and party members at the bottom, and by the rational pursuit of common ideals and interests through the acquisition of power and the expansion of party strength. In other words, a modern political party is an organization in which all activities are carried out in pursuit of goals shared by its members. Therefore, becoming a member of a party is a clear commitment that entails obligations, such as the payment of party fees, as well as the right to participate in the management of the organization.

However, political parties in the US have not traditionally been of this nature. While it may not matter where they are or what they do, individual party members do not, of course, have completely differing interests. There are many groups (factions) under each tent, and there are shared goals among those who gather there. However, these groups have long been bound to narrow geographic areas, such as particular states or regions, or only interested in particular policy issues, with no philosophy or goal uniting the groups. Their commitment to being party members is also very weak, and there is no pyramidal organizational structure beyond these groups.

There are many factors that bring groups together but profit sharing, including the allocation of governmental positions, has historically been of great significance. The basic structure of political competition in the US is that parties fight for political power at both the national and local levels, and the winners distribute the profits to their supporters (the members of their groups). This is why political parties have become widely influential in people's social lives. If political parties play such a role, it is natural to expect the winner to hold all the resources (the source of profit sharing), which is compatible with a two-party system that leads to a literal winner-takes-all. Even today, the profits associated with competitions between the parties are enormous, and it is hard to deny that political parties have become corporations of sorts with many interested people.

Strong institutional deterrence

Another factor that has deterred the rise of third parties is the political system. Specifically, the adoption of a single member plurality (first-past-the-post: FPTP) system in most legislative elections and the existence of publicly elected chief executives including the president, governors, and mayors have had a significant impact. Both factors are known to encourage the establishment and survival of the two-party system.

First, the fact that elections to Congress and many state legislatures are based on the single member plurality system leads to two strong candidates in each district, which is an advantage for the two-party system. However, given the organizational characteristics of political parties in the US and the concept of representation, in which members of Congress are expected to represent their local communities and individual interests, it was possible to have a combination of two major political parties that differed from state to state or district to district, as in Canada. In fact, until the 1960s, the Republican Party was extremely weak in the South, and there were many differences in the strength of the two major parties in different regions, and this meant that there were differences in the competitive relationship when viewed on a state or district basis.

Despite this, the reason why the two major parties in the US have become the same combination nationwide is largely due to the presidential elections. In presidential elections, electors are chosen by state but, since the entire US is a single electoral district that produces a single winner, the contest is between the same two leading candidates everywhere. This has more than just the effect of narrowing down the number of parties that can field candidates; it also has the strong effect of having parties with the same name throughout the US. As mentioned earlier, the reason why multiple groups that do not ordinarily share the same ideals and interests are united under the same party's name is to fight and win presidential elections. The fact that the parties were formed solely for the purpose of winning presidential elections was consistent with the nature of political parties as tents in which diverse groups coexist.

Other laws and practices related to elections and political parties also have the effect of favoring the two major political parties and discouraging the entry of third parties today. For example, state laws governing who can be recognized as a candidate in presidential elections and whose name will appear on the ballot may require a party's past votes to exceed a stipulated level or a significant number of signatures from the general electorate. Third-party candidates are often treated as minor candidates and are not invited to candidate debates held by the mass media.


As argued above, the reason why third parties have not emerged in the United States is that each of the two major political parties is only loosely cohesive and allows various groups to pursue their individual interests while coexisting, and that there are institutional factors that encourage such a two-party system and competition between the parties. This can be attributed to two factors. While each of the two major parties has its own mainstream ideology and policies, it is far more effective for a group to expand its support and presence within the two major parties, even if it takes a different position, than it is to create a third party. Therefore, there is little reason to expect that American politics will shift to a multi-party system, or that one of the two major parties will be replaced by another anytime soon.

However, this is not to say that American democracy is operating stably and smoothly. As today's polarization of party relations progresses and intra-party conflicts intensify and weaken political parties' character as loose combinations of diverse groups, the absence of third parties has negative impacts. In other words, if polarization makes it difficult to form a bipartisan majority and it becomes the norm for other parties not to cooperate despite the president's intentions, the policy process will be subject to severe wear and tear like an engine that has lost its lubrication. Although splinter groups have long existed within parties, when factional infighting becomes as fierce as it is today, the strong momentum to implement policies, which is one of the advantages of a two-party system with inter-party conflicts, cannot be maintained, and this can cause voters to feel more disappointed.

A solution that is more in line with American political tradition and institutional structure would be for the two major parties to return to being "tents" and restore fluidity to the policy process. That is essentially where the historical role of the Biden administration should be sought (Satoshi Machidori, "分極化の質的変容と大統領職への影響 Qualitative Transformation of Polarization and Its Effects on the American Presidency," Research Report, Japan Institute of International Affairs, Research Group on the US No. 2, March 4, 2021. ). American democracy is, however, not so stable that we can dismiss as mere dreaming the arguments that explore the significance of third parties and the possibility of a multi-party system.