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Why are third parties important in a political system?

Third parties are important in political systems for two primary reasons. The first is that they provide an organized structure for candidates to run from when candidates are in disagreement with the major parties. The second is that third parties often promote new ways of thinking and ideas the other parties try to avoid.

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In American political parties, the Democratic and Republican parties have such a monopoly and tight grip on the reigns of power that it is hard to argue the relevancy of a third party. Even the handful of candidates elected as independents caucus with or support one of the major political parties. Some political scientists refer to the American electoral system as a duopoly.

In the 1800s, the prevalence of more than two parties was not uncommon. By the twentieth century, political parties other than Democratic and Republican became less frequent and gradually have been subsumed into the two major parties. Theodore Roosevelt may have been the most successful third-party candidate in American politics. He left the Republican party and formed the Bull Moose Party in 1912. Other notable runs for national office include those of Robert Lafollette, George Wallace, and Ralph Nader. Their vote percent was not nearly the same as Roosevelt's, indicating that the strength of their vote was an anomaly in presidential politics. However, though less common at the national level, third parties are more numerous in state and local elections.

Ballotpedia (2019) reports there are 224 qualified parties at the state level. The three most active are the Libertarian (37 states), Green (26 states), and Constitution (14 states) Parties. The list does not include candidates that run as independents, as technically, independents run free of any party apparatus or structure. Although in American politics at the national level there seldom are third-party challengers, this does not mean that third parties are not important in a democracy. Third parties are important at the local and state level in several significant ways.

Third parties provide a platform for voters disenchanted with the current political situation a place to express their disdain for the major parties. By being organized, third parties can participate in public debates about policy and offer a different viewpoint than that shown by the other parties. They can be a great source of education for the public.

The two major political parties tend to be hamstrung by the party platform and tend to only speak to what their base of support wants to hear. Not so for third parties. For example, the Green Party, as you might expect, promotes environmental issues. By focusing on the environment, it results in the other parties having to answer difficult questions they try to avoid, like those about climate change or environmental–social justice. In some elections, candidates from the major parties will blame third parties for their loss, citing that if there were only two choices, voters would have voted for one party or the other. This statement presumes that third-party candidate voters will vote for one party if there is not a third choice.

The United States may be the only democracy in the world with a duopoly. Other countries in Europe have several choices in elections at every level. Germany, as an example, has seven major parties and several smaller minor ones. Our neighbor Canada has five parties represented in their federal parliament. On our southern border, Mexico has four parties. Although there have been several attempts at forming national third parties in recent history, these have not been successful, as the current political parties have made it nearly impossible to build successful third-party organizations at any level in the United States.

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