3rd Parties: What They’re For and What They Do

by Rick Gaber


  • The primary purpose of third-party candidates running for public office is to call attention to otherwise ignored, misrepresented, or even suppressed principles or issues. Eugene Debs did so for the plight of the factory worker and Ross Perot for the national debt crisis.** There are usually MORE than two sides to every issue – WAY more. And yet despite their hype and hysteria, when the smoke clears, the "major" parties often turn out to be on the same unprincipled side anyway.
  • The secondary purpose is to get the major parties to adopt the most important portions of the 3rd party platform as part of theirs (The Socialist Debs ran 4 times but quit after not only achieving this, his goal, but after seeing the progressive income tax and the Federal Reserve System, his two most history-changing platform planks, actually become law.).
  • Third parties give the far-sighted voter a way to make a visible statement and have a greater impact on the direction the country moves far into the future. In 1908 a vote for Debs had at least 33 times the long-term impact on the nation as a vote for any major party candidate (including the Republican Taft, who "won"), by my calculations.
  • They give the principled and knowledgeable voter a chance to cast his vote without feeling dirty afterwards, even feeling good, especially since every vote really counts to help a 3rd party get or keep ballot access (it's enormously important for helping a 3rd party get on the ballot in the future).
  • They work to enhance the prospects and credibility of lesser-known ideas and lesser-known candidates, especially the 3rd party's state and local candidates, to gain and solidify ballot access, to expand the party’s influence, to develop an ever-larger national presence, and maybe even to replace or supplant one of the so-called "major" parties.
  • They serve as what Richard Winger calls an " 'emotional bridge' for voters who have given up on supporting one major party but are not yet ready to vote for the other," and in so doing they don't just lure voters to the polls; in the long run they even help prevent "stagnation and tyranny," (see http://www.ballot-access.org/winger/iba.html)
  • Third parties give sources of leverage and ideas to major-party loyalists to "keep the pressure on" their party to adopt or emphasize positions or principles it tends to ignore, abandon or advocate much too feebly.
  • They provide a vehicle for like-minded people to meet, share ideas, brainstorm, strategize, develop new approaches to public policy, and spin off subgroups to raise public awareness of, and campaign about, specific issues even on a local basis.
  • Their presence and activity give whoever does win office more latitude and public support in choosing new or different public policy approaches or solutions to existing or anticipated problems, challenges, concerns or crises. THIRD PARTIES ARE WILLING TO TACKLE THIRD RAILS.  SOMEbody’s got to be available to do it!
  • They often work to encourage changes in election laws where the 3rd party, its supporters and other voters would like to see fair and equal ballot access for all parties, or runoff elections whenever no one gets a clear majority, or cross-endorsement of candidates, or preferential voting, or proportional representation, or ease of casting write-in votes, or choice of "NOTA" (none of the above). After all, stupid, unfair, even outrageous state and local election and ballot access laws and enforcement methods have gone unchallenged long enough in hundreds of jurisdictions.
  • They actually IMPROVE the health of the "two-party system." According to Richard Winger in The Importance of Ballot Access, "Using the criteria of high voter turnout, the absence of gridlock, and exchange of power between the two major parties, we can see that our two-party system was healthy in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s ... [when] our political system contained many vigorous and powerful third parties."
  • (...and that this is NOT necessarily the only or primary purpose of a 3rd Party is a point often lost on many politicians, journalists and academics, let alone on the general public): They strive to win (which IS possible IF real equality in media coverage, as 3rd party candidate Abraham Lincoln enjoyed, is reestablished).
  • They give the otherwise ignored, used, abused, betrayed, disgusted, disappointed, frustrated, victimized, insulted, and/or outraged voter a chance to cast a vote without feeling dirty afterwards, a reason to go to the polls AT ALL in the first place, and maybe even to come out of the voting booth feeling GREAT!

"There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution."- John Adams, 2nd President of the United States

  Check out the surprising results of some eye-opening book polls HERE.


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