Third Parties Don’t Work: Why and How Egalitarians Should Transform the Democratic Party

I agree with Domhoff’s analysis of the party system, and why third parties can’t win, though I disagree with his solutions. None of the minor parties are qualified to run the state because no one is qualified the state. The purpose of minor parties should be merely propagandistic, i.e. running electoral campaigns merely to spread ideas and not to “win.” However, any one of the minor parties might be a basis for an intentional communities, startup societies, or radical decentralist movement, which does not require ideological uniformity. Actual political activism should only have two purposes, devolving power and repealing laws.

By G. William Domhoff

This document first explains why third parties cannot work in the United States. Then it explains how and why it would now be possible to transform the Democratic Party into a nationwide liberal-labor-left coalition, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which forced the southern white racists who previously controlled the party into the Republican Party.

To understand how the electoral rules shape the number of parties, consider this brief example from a different country in a different century:

In the late nineteenth century, Belgium elected its parliament from geographical districts and had two stable political parties, with the Catholic Party usually defeating the Liberal Party. But in the 1890s a Socialist Party came on strong, and the Liberal Party was in danger of extinction. The Catholic Party quickly changed the electoral system because it did not want to end up in a one-on-one battle with the socialists.

The system it chose, proportional representation, gives parties seats in the parliament roughly in proportion to their overall vote in the country as a whole. The Liberal Party was saved and Belgium operated with three political parties for many decades thereafter.

As this historical example suggests, electoral rules can play a big role in determining the number of parties. This possibility is confirmed by systematic studies comparing various kinds of electoral systems over the space of many decades. Electoral systems like the one Belgium used first, which are now designated by an overly long term, single-member district plurality systems, almost always have just two parties. The few third parties that hang on are usually regional or ethnic in nature. However, they are sometimes based on blue-collar workers and the few remaining radical small farmers.

In contrast to a system based on districts and pluralities, countries with systems of proportional representation usually have four or more parties, and would have even more if there wasn’t a minimum vote that has to be reached to receive any seats at all. Although the centrist parties soak up most of the votes, these countries are often governed by a coalition of two or more parties. Roughly speaking, there are left-of-center, center-left, center-right, and right-of-center coalitions. In this kind of system, everyone’s vote counts, and voter turnout is therefore very high.

When it comes to electoral systems, the United States is the most extreme of the countries with a single-member district plurality system, meaning that its third parties have been very small and ephemeral. They rarely win more than a percent or two of the vote, and rarely last more than one or two elections when they do receive more than a few percent. This striking difference also is one key reason why so few socialists were elected to Congress in the 20th century. In a study of the percentage of Socialist or Social Democratic party members in national legislatures across the world, only South Africa had less — zero — than the two who made it to the House of Representatives a few times in the first quarter of the twentieth century. More leftists were elected to Congress in the 1930s and early 1940s as Democrats — from California, Washington, Montana, Minnesota, and New York — than were ever elected earlier as socialists. They weren’t fully open about their socialism, or their sympathy for the Communist Party, but their views were well known to everyone involved in politics at the time.


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