When the founders initially wrote the Constitution, many of them had envisaged a minimal role for political factions in government. They could not entirely predict what the system would evolve into within just a few decades.
The American electoral system has historically favored two dominant parties at any one time, pushing third-party contributions to the margins of American politics. However, there is still a rich and interesting history of alternative parties dating all the way back to the early days of the Republic. Both the Democrats and Republicans began as alternative political movements that offered a different perspective on the important issues of the day.
The middle of the 19th century was perhaps the apotheosis of the multi-party system. With the decline of the Whigs and the growing question of whether to restrict the expansion of slavery into the territories, minor political parties such as the Free Soil Party, the Constitutional Union Party, and the American Party, as well as the rising force of the Republican Party, all made an important mark on the American political landscape. However, following the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Republicans and Democrats had solidified their status as the two main U.S. political parties on the national level, leaving minimal room for any third-party impacts on American society.
By the end of the 19th century, the tumultuous battle over worker’s rights and monopoly power gave rise to a series of successive parties that threatened to upend the dominance of the two-party political system. The Greenback Party and the more successful agrarian People’s Party, epitomized by William Jennings Bryan and his “Cross of Gold” speech, advocated for fiat money, collective bargaining, and more extensive federal regulation.
This tumultuous phase culminated in 1912 with one of the most infamous third-party challenges in American history when the Progressive Party, co-opted for a time by Theodore Roosevelt’s “bull moose” platform, received 27.4 percent of the vote and temporarily eclipsed even the Republicans, while Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party of America received an additional 6 percent of the votes. This made it one of the most significant moments in third-party history in the United States.
Since this high watermark, however, third-party influence over American politics has waned slightly. Only a few American third parties have managed to win a large number of Electoral College votes in the latter part of the 20th century. Perhaps the most significant challenge to the two-party system in this era came from the American Independent Party in 1968. The combined ticket of Alabama Governor George Wallace and former Air Force General Curtis LeMay, both of whom ran on a pro-segregation platform, carried 46 electoral votes on the strength of nearly 10 million votes and 13.5 percent of the electorate.
While these results on the national level would seem to demonstrate the limitations of third-party influence on elections, they are still important for the alternative political perspectives and political diversity in the United States. Third-party beliefs and ideas that began on the margins of the political system often eventually spread to the center.
Third-party politics are also an important and thriving force at the local level. Today, even though the two-party system still remains the dominant force in American politics, organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America function as a kind of bulwark and support system for candidates who don’t fit the traditional political mold.
This article will explore five examples of third-party ideologies prevalent in the United States today from across the entire political spectrum. It will provide a robust description of third-party platforms, election results, and notable figures in each party. Third-party democracy in the United States might sometimes be limited, but it has never entirely gone away.
The Libertarian Party is the largest non-major political party in the United States. Founded in 1971 by activist David Nolan, who opposed the price controls imposed by Richard Nixon and other departures from free-market orthodoxy, the party emphasizes the values of limited government, free markets, private property, balanced budgets, and expansive civil liberties.
Given its strong stances on social tolerance and economic freedom, the Libertarian Party has attracted adherents from both the left and the right side of the political spectrum, even though today it shares the strongest association with the right. Libertarianism often appeals to members of the Republican Party who are disenchanted with the more restrictive criminal justice and civil liberty planks of its platform. Nobel-winning economist Friedrich Hayek and popular novelist Ayn Rand have traditionally supplied the intellectual ballast for modern libertarianism in the United States. Ludwig von Mises is another popular libertarian figure who emerged from the individualistic and laissez-faire-oriented Austrian School of economics.
Given these strong influences, libertarian third-party principles sometimes diverge from the right. Unlike the traditional tough-on-crime approach advocated by the Republican Party, libertarians tend to believe that the criminal justice system should be limited in its scope; the modern party advocates for the legalization of victimless crimes, the end of harsh and overly long sentences, and the abolition of the death penalty. It also opposes most forms of censorship on free speech grounds, and internationally, it tends to favor a non-interventionist foreign policy. However, due to secular-religious differences in the party, it has historically been split on the matter of abortion rights.
As of 2023, the Libertarian Party boasts some 700,000 registered members, which makes it the third largest among all United States political parties. It has elected hundreds of elected members at the local level, representing everything from city treasurer to judge to mayor. House Representative Justin Amish became the first serving member of the Libertarian Party in Congress after switching from the Republicans in 2020, but he would later decline to run for office again.
On the national level, the party’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the changes in the political tide. Although it hasn’t yet mounted a serious challenge to the presidency, the libertarians have put forward a few notable third-party campaigns. During the 2016 election, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld earned nearly 4.5 million votes, equivalent to around 3.3 percent of the electorate, for its best ever finish. During the 2020 election, the combined party ticket of Clemson Professor Jo Jorgensen and businessman and activist Spike Cohen also delivered a strong showing of more than 1.8 million votes.
The origins of the modern-day Green Party date back to 1987, when the First National Green Gathering met at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. From there it would gradually evolve into the Association of State Green Parties in 1996, which brought together the disparate collection of local green parties from around the country under the aegis of a single organization. With the growing salience of climate change and environmental sustainability, the group officially became the Green Party of the United States in 2001. Activist Howie Hawkins and political scientist John Rensenbrink were instrumental in the party’s foundation.
While many aspects of American politics are unique, the Green Party is actually a global movement united by a common progressive cause. Like its counterparts from around the world, the American manifestation of the Green Party favors strong environmental protection, good ecological stewardship, worker’s rights, fairer income distribution, a reduction in corporate power, social justice, gender equality, lower military spending, and limitations of arms proliferation abroad. It tends to place a strong emphasis on grassroots organization and local community input to solve important issues over national decision-making.
By some metrics, the Green Party is the second largest among the non-major political organizations in the country, with more than 200,000 members nationwide. The party experienced some early success in state races with wins by Audi Bock of California, John Eder of Maine, and Matt Ahearn of New Jersey. Gayle McLaughlin also served as mayor and city county member of Richmond, California. The party currently boasts more than a hundred elected officials from around the country, mostly at the local level.
The Green Party has made an impact on presidential elections too. Under the candidacy of Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke, the Association of State Green Parties had an unexpectedly strong showing in 2000 with 2.8 million votes, equivalent to 2.7 percent of the total electorate. After the official formation of the modern party, Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka led the way to a result of more than 1.4 million votes for 1.1 percent of the electorate in 2016.
The Reform Party is the creation of Texas business magnate Ross Perot, who was responsible for one of the most interesting and unexpected independent political movements in American history. In 1992, Perot hoped to create an alternative to the two major parties. After entering the election against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, Perot briefly seized control of the polls on a wave of disenchantment that some pundits have attributed to the rising national debt and the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but it’s also possible that the surging unemployment rate, which peaked at 7.8 percent at the exact same time, may have contributed to his surprise showing.
Just as his popularity was peaking, however, Perot then made the surprise decision to briefly drop out of the race in July. His poll numbers never quite recovered from that moment. He finished the election with 18.9 percent of the vote but no electoral votes, which still made him one of the most successful candidates in independent political history.
Following the end of the election, Perot officially founded the Reform Party in 1995 upon a self-described ethic of fiscal prudence and opposition to free trade. The Reform Party generally favors balanced budgets, the expansion of economic opportunities, ethical and responsive government, and a middle ground approach to many other social and fiscal issues.
With his party firmly established, Ross Perot and running mate Pat Choate mounted one of the more impressive third-party elections in history with 8.4 percent of the vote in the 1996 election. Although his campaign eventually fizzled out, the Reform Party then had a major breakthrough when Jesse Ventura won the election for Governor of Minnesota in 1998. However, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who tacked the party somewhat rightward, couldn’t capitalize on that momentum and finished the 2000 race with around half a million votes. Ralph Nader, who had previously run under the banner of the Green Party, became the presidential candidate of the Reform Party in 2004 and again secured around half a million votes. In both 2016 and 2020, businessman Rocky De la Fuenta ran as the Reform Party candidate, winning less than a hundred thousand votes each time.
The Forward Party is the brainchild of entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and Mayor of New York in 2021. His most distinctive and audacious idea was to establish a universal basic income of around $1,000 a month for American families as a potential response to the threat of rising automation. Although it remains to be seen whether automation will indeed displace workers any time soon, a universal basic income is actually a popular idea among many academics and activists as a means of solving poverty. Pilot schemes for a UBI have been trialed all over the world, including in Ontario and Stockton, California, with varying results.
The Forward Party was initially conceived upon a unique premise. Although some independent political platforms mostly cater to a narrow niche of the electorate, the Forward Party, by contrast, is more of a big tent that aims to bridge the country’s ideological divides and unify the nation. Founded in 2021 by merging with the Renew America Movement and Serve America Movement, the party has a centrist bent that focuses on electoral and government reform, citizen engagement, and innovative solutions to America’s problems. It has advocated for several powerful minor party initiatives such as ranked choice voting, independent redistricting commissions, and Congressional term limits. It has also supported the idea of giving citizens a voucher that they can spend on a political campaign of their choice.
While the party is still in its nascent phase, it has already attracted some big names, including former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, former Pennsylvania Representative Joe Sestak, and former Florida Representative David Jolly. The next big step for the party is to recruit enough existing or prospective third-party candidates who can run for office and win under its banner. The Forward Party is also interested in supporting distinctive candidates from across the political spectrum who may agree with elements of their platform.
The Constitution Party was born from an infamous broken pledge by George H.W. Bush that he would not raise taxes during the 1988 election. In response to this perceived betrayal, political activist Howard Phillips formed the U.S. Taxpayers’ Party and began competing in presidential elections by 1992. In order to better reflect the originalist position it had adopted (which claims to adhere to the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution), the party officially changed its name to the Constitution Party in 1999.
The Constitution Party is best described as a more ideologically rigid manifestation of the Republican Party. It expresses the far-right principles of Christian nationalism, including limited government, the reduction or even outright abolition of certain taxes, lower spending, balanced budgets, expansive gun rights, a robust military presence, and stricter regulation of legal immigration. It also opposes abortion rights on any grounds. Many of these principles it shares in common with the similarity rightwing nationalist American Independent Party. However, unlike the AIP or the traditional Republican Party, it tends to oppose direct intervention in foreign affairs.
As of 2023, the Constitution Party has more than 100,000 members across the nation. Most of its elected officials have served on the local level, but over the years it has won a few statewide races in Montana, Colorado, and elsewhere. Candidate Tom Tancredo also finished second in the 2010 Colorado gubernatorial election with 36.38 percent of the vote, ahead of the Republican candidate. The party still competes at every presidential election on a national level as well. Lawyer Darrell Castle led the party to its best result in 2016 with more than 200,000 votes for 0.2 percent of the total electorate. Other notable third-party leaders for the presidency include former Representative Virgil Goode in 2012 and businessman Don Blankenship in 2020.
Although in certain exceptional moments third-party influence on American elections has been strong, minor political parties still often struggle for relevance in the country’s diminished third-party system. Third parties have tried to solve this conundrum in various ways. Some have attempted to compete on the state or national level by recruiting big-name candidates from the major two parties. However, others focus largely on local issues. For example, the progressively-oriented Working Families Party tends to associate with elected Democratic officials such as Ayanna Pressley on the national level while only running its own candidates for local office.
Nevertheless, there isn’t an easy way out of this conundrum, because the system itself narrows the level of political choice in the United States. Compared to the vibrant multi-party parliamentary system of European governments, the winner-take-all nature of American elections certainly disadvantages political alternative movements that want to make an impact upon the country. Intra-party coalitions between different factions (such as business-minded Republicans and culturally conservative Republicans) also tend to be emphasized over coalitions between disparate parties.
The unfair structure of the American political system shouldn’t discourage independent political participation. Instead, third-party supporters may need to focus on changing the rules of the game. Ranked choice voting or proportional representation would give greater power to United States third parties across the entire country. This in turn would be good for political diversity as a whole and could make third-party voting more common, which will also greatly increase third-party significance. Electoral reform has been implemented on a limited scale in many cities or states, but some feel the idea needs to be taken nationwide. This is the most likely path to relevance going forward.
If you’re ready to help put an end to the dysfunction of the United States’ two-party system, learn more about how you can volunteer and become part of Good Party’s growing movement.