By Richard Winger
Contrary to claims from those who assert the introduction of third parties into our political system would only worsen the existing problems of gridlock, American history shows that third parties actually enhance the positive consequences of a two-party system. Here's how:
In a healthy two-party system, the major parties are distinguished from each other by a clearly differentiated platform. Voters, for the most part, enthusiastically hold allegiance to one of these parties and participate with high turnout at the polls. The parties are characterized by internal cohesion. When these conditions exist, the two major parties will ideally protect the political system against tyranny and legislative gridlock.
Using the criteria of higher voter turnout, the absence of gridlock and the exchange of power between two major parties, we see that our two-party system was healthy in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. During that time, control of the House passed back and forth, on the average, every four years. Each party was clearly differentiated in its platforms. And almost 80 percent of eligible voters went to the polls from 1876 to 1892.
A key reason for this vibrancy was the existence of many vigorous and powerful third parties. Some examples are the Greenback Party, the Union Labor Party and the Peoples Party. These groups forced the major political parties to pass significant anti-monopoly legislation as well as important labor legislation.
But these parties did more than simply force the two major parties to adopt various policies. Third parties have always provided an emotional bridge for voters who are weary of supporting one major party but aren't yet ready to vote for the other.
There is another crucial contribution. The emotional bridge provided by a third party not only lures voters to the polls-it can also help turn one of the major parties out of power. Without the third-party bridges, the party in power might never be defeated, a situation that could lead to stagnation.
We need third parties more than ever to introduce new ideas into the system, provide an outlet for people unhappy with current government policy, and make it possible for some third party to grow into a new major party, replacing one of the existing parties.
Richard Winger is the editor and publisher of Ballot Access News.