Resisting the duopoly: US third party politics

9 Mins read

As one of the most important and divisive Presidential elections in the history of the U.S. looms, voters are being asked to choose between two candidates, Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joseph R Biden Jr.

Both men have unquestionable differences in policy and demeanor yet they share some subtle similarities, making it hard for voters to decide between what some see as the lesser of two evils.

Though the history of third parties in the US is hardly comparable to some of the ever-changing political landscapes of its Western European allies, these candidates can still have a significant impact on the results of a presidential election.

Recent polls have shown that young people are becoming increasingly disenfranchised by the political system that they live and operate within, and in what is being called by both sides “the most important U.S. election in history” some young voters are deciding to show this dissatisfaction by talking an alternate route – voting for a third-party candidate.

The duopoly of party politics in the United States is one that has changed little since the birth of this relatively young nation, with the two-party system holding strong in almost every election since 1796.

Since then, citizens of the US have been presented with candidates from the two main parties, whether that be the Federalists of John Adams in 1796 or the Democratic-Republican party of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, or the better-known Democrats and Republicans of 2020.

Every President elected since the inception of party politics has been a member of one of these major parties, and with the highest vote share for a third party being 19% for Independent candidate Ross Perot in 1994, this is unlikely to change sometime soon.

Libertarian party members demonstrating at a pro choice rally in Washington D.C.

Libertarians at the November 12, 1989 abortion rights march in Washington, DC [Wikimedia: Carol Moore]

However, despite third party candidates having never been close to winning a presidential election, vote counts for third party tickets such as the Libertarian and Green parties have been going in an upward trajectory since Ralph Nader acquired 3% of the popular vote in the 2000 Presidential election. In some individual state counts he received a much higher percentage, exceeding the difference between the two main candidates George W Bush and Al Gore – the most high-profile state being Florida, where the loss of Democrat votes to the Greens was one of the factors thought to have handed George Bush the state and, therefore, the Presidency.

Despite a lull in third party support between the 2004 and 2012 Presidential elections, the polarising Presidential battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton along with some questionable policy positions and personality traits on both sides, left room for a small rise in vote share for the two main third parties.

Between them, the Libertarian and Green Parties won more than 4% of the popular vote. This is a relatively small number when compared to the vote shares of the two main candidates, yet when third party vote totals are compared to the vote differences between the main parties in individual states, they start to make more of an impact, as was seen with the crucial results in the Florida race of 2000.

[pullquote align=”right”]“It’s a culture of dependence and fear that restricts our freedoms. It’s two sides of the same coin, two wings on the same bird.”[/pullquote]Of course, this is not to say that these ballots would have definitely swung the results in favour of Hillary Clinton in key swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida, but there is certainly an argument to say that without third party involvement, the results of the 2016 election could have looked very different.

The 2020 presidential election is proving to be a big one for millennials and ‘Generation Z’ voters over the age of 18. According to a Harvard university poll, 63% of young people say they are definitely going to vote in the presidential election, compared with 47% four years ago; voters aged between 18-24 make up 37% of eligible voters, making the young vote in 2020 more important than ever.

“Mainly, I feel like the Green party does a much better job in public welfare than the main two parties. President Trump has again and again shown that his abilities to lead this country are inept, and Joe Biden’s plans for ‘BidenCare’ are flimsy. I have never been a vocal supporter of the Green party until about eight months ago,” says Makayla, a Green party-supporting high school student from Pennsylvania.

Most young voters between the ages of 18-39 supported Bernie Saunders or Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primaries, two senators who represent the left of the party while it was less likely that young people were supporting Donald Trump than other Republican candidates. The election of Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee and four years of Donald Trump as President has left many young voters feeling that the status quo does not adequately represent their interests. While many are settling for what they feel is the lesser of two evils, there are some who are looking for alternate solutions.

Dylan is a high school senior and local Green party activist in Oil City, Pennsylvania, one of the hotly-contested swing states Democrats and Republicans are spending a large amount of time and money on. He is campaigning for the Green presidential candidate Howie Hawkins and the Green party in his mock high school election.

DYlan Lu and friends posing for a group photo while canvassing for local candidate Michael Badges

Dylan and some others from his high school Green party canvassing for local candidate Michael Bagdes-Canning [Dylan Lu]

“As someone on the left, I am unwilling to choose between the best of two corporatist candidates that will generally support and sponsor the same destructive domestic and foreign policy points. One of the big arguments to vote for the Democratic party is that we can pull them left, but despite decades of us tirelessly trying to bring the Democrats to our side, they continue trudging their way to the right. I have no love for them and they have no love for me. By voting for them, I am enabling them to continue what they have been doing for years.”

Dylan is representative of many young voters on the left of the political spectrum who feel they have been disenfranchised by the nominations of moderate candidates by the Democrats in the last two primaries and are looking for an alternative.

“The Republicans are certainly not getting my vote, but the Democrats act like they are entitled to it which really rubs me the wrong way. Democrats are too busy courting moderate conservatives to pay attention to the left and because of that, we are leaving them,” he said.

“The Green Party in the past had seemed like environmentally-focused Democrats, which I wasn’t particularly drawn to. Nowadays, the Green Party has embraced its repressed socialist roots and has teamed up with several socialist groups to form an electoral coalition, an approach that I advocated for in the past,” Dylan told us.

“The Green Party of today has a real chance to flank the Democrats from the left, depending on the results of this election, and I find this to be very exciting and well worth supporting.”

Traditionally the Green Party of the United States has been an environmentally focused party, prioritising measures to tackle climate change and environmental destruction as a whole. This focus still remains, but since the official creation of the party as it is today in 2001, the party has started to branch out into other areas; basing their policy on four pillars – peace, ecology, social justice and democracy. The four pillars pertaining to reducing military spending, tackling the climate crisis, expansion of social security, the introduction of a national living wage, campaign finance reform and changing the election system to a more proportional representative system.

However, it is not only young people on the left who have trouble voting for a party which they think fails to represent their interests. Libertarians find themselves stuck in the middle of the two main parties, often having to choose between a candidate they agree with fiscally but not socially and visa versa.

Joel and friends posing for a photo with Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen

Joel (far right) and friends canvassing alongside Libertarian party candidate Dr. Jo Jorgensen in Pennsylvania [Joel Getz]

“I’m a former registered Republican, but truly only because I was at first unaware of the Libertarian Party.”

Joel is a 26-year-old Libertarian party supporter and Pennsylvania social media director for the Jorgensen/Cohen campaign. The gap in representation has left many fiscally conservative, socially liberal young voters looking for other options after years of not being represented by either the Democrats or Republicans.

“I support the party because I believe in personal freedom, the fact that the only person who knows what’s best for you and your family, is you, and certainly not the Federal Government. And because of the NAP (Non-Aggression Principle) which is essentially the belief that you have the freedom and right to live your life in any manner you see fit, so long as it doesn’t prevent anyone else from doing so.”

Joel is not alone in being drawn to the ideological consistency of the Libertarian party. Mel Peterson is a young Libertarian voter from Utah, a traditionally ‘red’ state that has voted Republican in every election since 1964.

“I grew up “Conservative” (Republican) and assumed my family wouldn’t lie to me about party affiliation and what the importance of voting red was. I began to think for myself and realised my grandparents have voted for a party, not principals, for decades and the cancer of government has spread till it isn’t manageable. It’s a culture of dependence and fear that restricts our freedoms. It’s two sides of the same coin, two wings on the same bird.”

Libertarians believe in small government economics (low regulation, low taxes etc.) and no government interference in the lives of the individual i.e. pro-choice, anti death penalty, pro-gun and pro LGBTQ+ rights. When it comes to social issues, polls suggest that Generation Z members who identify as Republicans are holding significantly different positions than their older Generation X and Baby Boomer counterparts.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Do I think the Republican Party is doing this because they think it is the right thing to do? No.”[/pullquote]When asked whether black people were treated less fairly than white people, 43% agreed with the statement, compared to 20% of Generation X and Baby Boomers. We could be seeing an erosion of the Republican party from the bottom up as young voters slowly become more socially liberal.

Jacob Bosen is a Libertarian party supporter from Morgan, Utah, he believes that the duopoly of party politics in the US is on its way out: “I think the majority of young people identify as Democrats, because of this I think the Republican party will die out, but a more radical Democratic Party will emerge. I think the future will be Libertarianism versus Socialism.”

Statistics suggest that Morgan might be right, the Democratic primary saw Bernie Saunders leading Joe Biden by 53% to 3% with voters under the age of 35, suggesting that unless generational psychology takes its course and we all start to suddenly become more socially conservative as we age, the Democrats will need to re think their political alignment, or face losing more youth votes to the Green Party. While Republicans may have to start embracing social liberalism or risk losing votes to the Libertarian Party.

Whether or not young third-party voters believe that their candidate will win any presidential, congressional or local elections in the near future, belief that third parties will gain traction moving into the 2020s was consensus amongst the interviewees.

“Increasing dissatisfaction with the two-party system will allow a third party to emerge as a competitor for the Republican and Democratic Parties. The majority of Americans think a third party is needed. They just need to break out of their indoctrinated tribalism and actually vote for a third party,” Jacob told us.

While there are many Americans who would disagree with Jacob about the growing importance of third parties, it would be hard to ignore the evidence to suggest that Republicans and Democrats are worried about a growth in third party support. With both parties guilty of legally challenging a third party’s legitimacy to be on the ballot in states where they stand to lose votes, while funding efforts to get third party candidates on the ballot in states where they believe they can siphon votes from their opponents.

Libertarian candidate Spike Cohen stands in front of a group of supporters while doing an interview at a rally in Utah

Libertarian vice presidential candidate Spike Cohen at a Libertarian party rally in Utah [Barry Short]

This activity seems not to phase young third-party voters, only leading them to believe there will be more room for third parties in the future. Matt, a 28-year-old registered Libertarian was encouraged by these efforts: “The Republican party is exposing people to the Green party. There isn’t anything wrong with that. People still have the choice on how to cast their vote. I live in a mostly Republican state and am told that if I vote for the Libertarian party I’m siphoning votes from the Republican candidates and helping the Democrats win.”

Jacob agrees: “I think it proves the point that third party candidates pose a threat to the two parties. Do I think the Republican Party is doing this because they think it is the right thing to do? No. They are just as threatened by third parties as the Democratic Party is.”

While the 2020 election is unlikely to be won by a third party candidate, it’s not clear how long it will be until there is a non-Republican or Democratic president; what we do know is that young voters are slowly changing the face of American politics, whether that’s by dragging the establishment parties kicking and screaming into the 21st century, or by replacing them altogether with parties champing at the bit for the opportunity.



Featured image by Sophie Nadel

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