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Why America Is Stuck With Only Two Parties

If the United States ever gets a major new political party, it won’t be built by think tank denizens.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Earlier this week, the Republican political strategist Juleanna Glover wrote on The New York Times op-ed page that disaffected Republicans are wondering “at think-tank conference tables, over coffee at the Senate Chef and at the incessant book parties on the Washington social circuit” if they can’t “jump-start” a 2020 third party presidential bid to take advantage of public disaffection with the Republican and Democratic parties.

I have bad news. It’s not going to happen. In the last week, several political commentators have offered reasons why, including The New Republic’s Jeet Heer, who wrote that “any renegade Republican who challenges Trump would feel the wrath of the right-wing noise machine.” But the structural barriers at play here are perhaps even more important for explaining why such a presidential bid isn’t going to materialize. First, the rules are rigged against any new political party getting ballot lines in all 50 states in time for 2020. Second, there’s no mass movement searching for a new party vehicle. And third, the idea of a self-financing billionaire popular enough to get around obstacles one and two is a contradiction in terms.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time in American politics when it was relatively easy to jump-start a new political party and get it into the mainstream. That was how the Republican Party—the only third party in American history to become a major party—displaced the Whigs (along with several smaller parties) between 1854, when it was founded, and 1860, when it propelled Abraham Lincoln to the presidency.

It took three things to create a party back then: people, money, and ballots. Parties were responsible not only for recruiting and nominating candidates for office, but they also printed and distributed their own ballots (typically with the help of partisan newspaper publishers). Thus, there were very few barriers to entry: Candidates didn’t have to petition to appear on a ballot, and new parties were free to endorse candidates from the more major parties, so their nominees ran less risk of being labeled spoilers. Essentially, parties could contest for power just as soon as they had backers and supporters. This was what happened to the Liberty and Free Soil parties in the nineteenth century: Starting in the mid-1840s, as the two dominant parties—the Whigs and Democrats—hewed to the pro-slavery forces in their ranks, these new formations sprouted quickly and began gathering anti-slavery advocates.

In 1848, Free Soil nominated former President Martin van Buren after the Whigs supported slave owner Zachary Taylor for president, and got 10 percent of the national vote. Crucially, they were able to do this after the Whig convention that summer because there were no legal obstacles to getting him on the ballot. Six years later, in July 1854, the Republican Party held its first convention and swept the Michigan statehouse and executive branch that very same year. By 1856, its presidential candidate John Fremont won a third of the popular vote and 114 electoral votes.

That’s no longer possible: Today, third parties can’t mount their own presidential bids after they learn whom the two major parties have nominated—there simply isn’t enough time between the end of primary season and the general election to gain meaningful ballot access in enough states to win an Electoral College victory. Evan McMullin, the former CIA operative who ran for President in 2016 as an anti-Trump alternative to Hillary Clinton, was only able to get on the ballot in 11 states because he entered the race so late. It would’ve been easier in the 1800s: McMullin wouldn’t have had to collect millions of petition signatures and hire expensive lawyers to get on the ballot.

Here’s the underlying problem: the ballot, which was once the property of voters organically organizing themselves into parties, has become the property of state legislatures dominated by the two major parties. The introduction of uniform, printed state ballots—a reform of the late 1800s intended to quash the buying and selling of individual votes—also gave legislatures the power to determine who was qualified to be on the ballot. Republican and Democrat-controlled legislatures swiftly learned that they could use this power to smother rising third parties like the Populist Party, and gave themselves automatic lines on the ballot while instituting onerous petitioning requirements to hinder other upstarts. (When political scientists argue that the first-past-the-post system of awarding representation invariably forces voters into a two-party duopoly, they forget to note that it’s only when ballot lines are so rigidly guarded that two specific parties, in this case the Ds and the Rs, manage to artificially lock themselves in power.)

Between 2010 and 2012, businessman Peter Ackerman attempted to jerry-rig a path through this thicket by paying for professional petition-gatherers to qualify a new shell of a party called “Americans Elect” on state ballots. He and his colleagues hoped to set up a national online primary and lure someone—most likely former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg—into seeking its nomination. But Ackerman’s plan had a fatal flaw: He needed other people’s money to pay for ballot access, and because Americans Elect needed to scale fast and risked alienating the political establishment, he promised his donors secrecy. This just fuelled the rumors that, as one New York Times columnist wrote, his party was taking in some “serious hedge-fund money.” After spending $35 million, Americans Elect had a ballot line in just 29 states and a paltry turnout for its national primary. No one was clamoring for a new “centrist” third-party, least of all one suspiciously beholden to the same kinds of fat cats dominating the two major parties.

People like Glover, who hold out hope that another centrist party like Americans Elect might surface in 2020, often respond to the naysayers with the fact that polls indicate widespread interest in a third party. It’s true that today, 61 percent of Americans tell Gallup they like the idea of a third major party—but in 2007, 58 percent said so, and in 2010, 58 percent said so, and in 2013, 60 percent said so, and no such party broke through, not even Ackerman’s, which had plenty of money to get on the ballot and the support in the same class of “politically orphaned political strategists, academics and donors” who Glover says are now, once again, ready to lend a hand. As Ackerman demonstrated, these do not amount to a mass base, let alone a rump.

Historically, third parties in America form when a disaffected minority gets organized around a specific issue or set of demands. That’s how the Socialists and the Farmer-Labor party took hold in several states and many cities for decades in the last century, and how smaller parties like the Right-to-Life, Libertarian, Green, and Working Families Parties have achieved footholds more recently. Beyond the well-appointed offices of the Bipartisan Policy Center on Eye Street, there is no mass of “centrists” or “moderates” hungry to split the differences between Democrats and Republicans. If there were, then No Labels, the home of self-identified centrists like Joe Lieberman and Jon Huntsman, would be booming instead of plaintively tweeting about “bipartisan moments” from Trump’s State of the Union address.

The last fantasy of centrist third-party advocates like Glover is that a popular business executive will step into the breach, like “financier David Rubenstein, Ginni Rometty of IBM or Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase,” all of whom are wealthy enough to personally finance a new party’s drive for ballot access and national attention. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a popular billionaire politician willing to risk their own money in such a quixotic pursuit. Truly rich people are wealthy because they don’t throw their money down drains; Trump, who may not actually be a billionaire, notably spent very little of his own money on his 2016 race. And Bloomberg, who has dallied several times with an independent run—at least according to the very well-paid sycophants on his political staff—has wisely chosen to avoid testing the notion that a divorced liberal Jewish technocratic billionaire from Wall Street could get elected. Anyway, he seems to prefer to be able to jet off to his Bermuda home whenever he feels like it. People who imagine that some sane billionaire businessman is going to save America underestimate how much these people enjoy their lifestyles and not having to give up their privacy.

The hard reality is that if we ever get a major new political party, it won’t be built by think tank denizens. It will be built first in states like New York, Connecticut, and Oregon, where minor parties don’t have to risk “spoiling” the election because they can endorse candidates from another party, or cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco where ranked-choice voting (where you can assign your vote to a series of candidates in order of preference) eliminates that barrier. And then it will move to power in a few states and maybe a few congressional seats. The presidency will be its final prize, not its first.

Until that happens, disaffected Republicans like Glover should do what unhappy minorities have done inside the major parties for decades, ever since ballots were made uniform and candidates were forced to petition for access: organize and fight to take back their party from within.