The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Third Party Strategy

There are two kinds of third parties in American politics. We have already discussed in Third Parties & Ideology the Jeffersonian analysis, defining two basic party differences:

And we have suggested that the two major parties in the United States can be understood as falling within those two fundamental categories. Third parties, however, seem to be of two types apart from those categories. One type attempts to take its place in the Jeffersonian categories, and would replace one of the major parties because it is not responding to the people and has lost its mass appeal. At any given time, there is usually only one of these parties contending with the major parties, and they either replace a major party, as Lincoln's Republican Party replaced the old Whigs, or they quickly fade out of existence, as did the Bull Moose Party and any number of others down through the years. All of this is very healthy. It is all an attempt to provide a government of the people, not of the party, and win or lose, they are attempting to provide the people with what they apparently want.

The other type of third party is quite different. It is highly ideological, with a fixed platform similar to the parties in the Parliamentary system. It is perennial, and always with the same ideological message. It invariably has limited popular support, but seems to appeal to people with a strong interest in political theories. Third parties of this type are like a fifth wheel in American politics. They often have a great many ideas, and many of them may be very good ideas. In fact, it is the ideas and the improvements projected to arise from those ideas that attract people to the party. But these parties are never able to rise to major status with the American electorate. Their platform, if it is ever enacted, is done so by the major parties. The Socialist party, for example, never came close to winning a presidential election, but many of their ideas are a part of commonly accepted social services in America today.

The two major parties, on the other hand, have broad popular support, but they are not very ideological, and the ideas they promote seem to be in a constant flux as they try to adapt to whatever they feel they can sell to the American people. One could be described as vaguely pro-business, and the other as vaguely pro-people. I need not identify them any further, because no one would be confused as to which is which, and that only proves the efficacy of the categorization. All of this fits very well the above description of party differences given by Jefferson.

Ross Perot's Reform Party seems to be one of those minor parties that aspires to replace one of the major parties. It has ideas, but they are presented as meeting the real, more general needs and wants of the American people today in a way that the major parties are failing to adequately address, and not as an ideological position outside mainstream politics. The Reform Party has much popular appeal, and if it can connect with the voters, one could see it possibly replacing one of the older major parties.

Perennial third parties of the ideological stripe are not intent on "giving the people what they really want," but rather "giving the people what they SHOULD want." They have an ideological mission, and that makes for a world of difference. The major parties could be viewed as pandering to the people; the minor parties as trying to educate them. Unfortunately, it appears that the party that panders is the one that meets with major success in American politics. In America, the people are the sovereign, and all sovereigns expect to be placated, not manipulated.

Ideological third parties would be far more effective if they acted more like an educational association and a voters league, rather than trying to be a political party. They need to convince the masses of the people of the rightness of their ideas, and they need to bring their influence to bear on mainstream candidates who might champion their causes. Not until they get the support of a broad spectrum of the American people will such changes happen, and when such a broad spectrum is that supportive, one of the major parties will take up the banner. That is the way our system works. So, education of the public should be their primary goal. If the people are won over, the people's force will be irresistible.

One group that really knows how to exert influence, even though the results are pernicious, is the Christian Coalition. They promote their own ideas, but most importantly, they act as a block of voters who will support candidates who will endorse those ideas. Of course, the results of all this is unproductive because, being essentially a religious organization, their agenda tends to divide the voting public and create resentment. Everyone has some feeling about religion and is put off by having the dogmatic beliefs of some other religious group crammed down their throat. By pressuring Republican candidates to support its positions, the Christian Coalition causes many in the Republican party to turn against those candidates. But a third party turned coalition whose ideas are not based on religious dogma would not introduce such divisiveness were it to follow that model, and would likely produce more constructive results.

By trying to be a political party, a third party has far less influence than it would if it were some kind of voters coalition. Mainstream candidates are not inclined to adopt their positions because they know that those votes are already going to another candidate. Why should they? What would be gained? Third parties are actually defeating their own purposes by being a small political party. Since they run their own candidates, no major party will ever court them in hopes of winning their collective votes because those votes are already committed to someone else. Thus, all their energies are spent in an effort that makes little or no headway. Just imagine how much influence the Christian Coalition would have if they became a political party and ran their own candidates. The Republicans would ignore them completely, since there would be nothing to be gained from them. Being relatively small in numbers compared to the major parties, their candidate would have no chance in national elections, and such a party would soon fade from the scene. Yet, by acting as a block vote and bringing their influence to bear, they have tremendous power, even if the results are, in this particular case, counterproductive.

Moreover, by running candidates for office, a third party expends a tremendous amount of resources on campaigning, etc., that would have greater impact if spent on educational programs. If they published a newsletter, distributed pamphlets on vital issues, and in other ways promoted their ideas to the public, and in addition if they endorsed candidates, identified those who support their agenda, etc., they could become a real political force. Moreover, as an independent organization trying to influence politicians, they would doubtless attract media attention and bring in more of the people who were also interested in their reform measures. In fact, if they would do that instead of trying to make it as a third party, they could become the kind of force the republic needs to correct the abuses of government. Their influence would be all for the good.

Their failure to do this arises, I believe, from their misunderstanding of the American political system. They are trying to follow the European (Parliamentary) model, not the American one. Major parties in this country are NOT ideological. They represent the two major divisions as defined by Jefferson, and groups that would influence national policies would do better working through one of those major divisions. In a sense, there is great advantage here. The major parties are already established. The machinery is already in place. Both are already positioned on one side or the other of the "Jeffersonian Divide." Anyone can join, and anyone can run for office. Party members of a certain persuasion can join together and throw their weight behind candidates of their choice, or run one from their number. The whole thing is a perfect set-up for any group trying to exert influence. One wonders why such a group would ever try to wield influence by forming a minor party, and thus doom themselves to perpetual failure.

Unless there are drastic changes (like introducing the Parliamentary system of government), this nation is not going to ever elevate an ideological party to major status. Those with a national program need to recognize this political reality if they want to be effective and to work within the American political system as it exists.

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

© 1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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