Rancor within the Republican Party peaked last week between members who remain loyal to former President Donald Trump and those who want the party to repudiate him and his continued false claims of election fraud.
First, there was the dramatic expulsion of Congresswoman Liz Cheney from her leadership post in the House of Representatives after she voted to impeach Trump and denounced his claims the 2020 election had been “stolen” by the Democrats.
Then came the announcement that more than 100 disgruntled conservatives are exploring the possibility of launching a new political party rededicated to founding ideals.
To non-U.S. observers, the creation of a new political party from the shards of one riven by internal discord may seem perfectly natural. Unlike the United States, many democracies around the world operate with a multitude of parties — and new parties can have immediate success. In France, Emmanuel Macron founded the En Marche Party in April 2016. By May 2017, he was elected president of the country.
But in the U.S., the history of “third” parties as an alternative to the Republican and Democratic parties that dominate national politics has been less impressive.
'Spoilers,' not winners
In the modern era, third parties have never been able to do more than act as a “spoiler” in presidential elections by siphoning off votes from one of the two major parties and have sent only a tiny number of lawmakers to the House or Senate in the past 70 years — never achieving significant levels of power.
“The history of third-party movements in the United States is that usually, they end up just getting absorbed into one of the two major parties,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “That, or they're essentially made obsolete by changes from the major party.”
The current battle
Last week’s announcement of a possible third party came as Republican House members stripped Cheney, daughter of two-term Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, of her position as House Republican conference chair for her continued denunciation of Trump.
That same day, a coalition of disaffected Republicans, including former governors, members of Congress, ambassadors and Cabinet officers, signed a letter demanding the Republican leadership either reform the party or face the creation of an “alternative” political home.
The message they want to deliver to Republican Party leaders is “enough is enough,” said Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff in the Trump-era Department of Homeland Security, who penned an anonymous tell-all book about his time in the administration.
“We need to offer a commonsense coalition for this country and a more unifying alternative vision than what we're seeing from the present GOP, which has now become rotten to its core for the persistent attacks on our democracy,” Taylor told CNN last week. “So, our message is, it is time to either reform or repeal the Republican Party.”
But creating a viable third party in the U.S. is easier said than done.
'Very unusual democracy'
Building a successful third party in the United States, if success is defined as having a meaningful role in the operation of the federal government, is extraordinarily difficult because of the way political power is distributed.
“I think the first thing that people need to know is that we are a very unusual democracy in a whole series of ways,” said Marjorie Hershey, professor emeritus of political science at Indiana University Bloomington and author of a widely used textbook on American government.
The U.S., she said, is one of only a “very few” two-party systems in democratic countries. Part of the reason for that is because election laws are written by state legislatures, which are themselves dominated by the two major parties. They tend to make it very difficult for new political parties to even be listed on the ballot in the first place.
Steep hill to climb
Further, because every member of the House and the Senate is elected in an individual winner-take-all race, a third party, even one with substantial support, can still be shut out of power.
In most other democracies, a party that received 10% of the vote for the legislature would earn a proportionate share of the available seats. In the U.S., though, it is possible for a third-party movement to amass a significant percentage of the overall national vote without securing a single seat in either house of Congress. That would only change if the third party’s support was concentrated in a state or district to the point of giving it a majority of the vote there.
Similarly, the way presidential votes are tallied on a state-by-state basis makes it difficult for a third party to compete. For example, when Texas businessman Ross Perot ran for president in 1992, he was extremely successful in terms of winning votes —receiving 19% overall. But because those votes were spread evenly across the country, he didn’t win any states, and therefore received no votes in the Electoral College.
So, when Taylor and his fellow former Republicans threaten the Republican Party with the establishment of a new party, the threat is seen not as an effort to establish a new center of power in U.S. politics that can operate on an equal footing with Republicans and Democrats. Instead, it seems more like a promise to drain enough votes from Republican candidates to ensure Democratic victories.
That there is no viable path for an alternative party to actively participate in governing the U.S. is accepted as a given by most Americans. But there are some who wonder if it ought to be.
“In so many other democratic systems, a ‘third’ party could be a major party,” Hershey said. “It’s one of those things that's so telling — what we regard as normal for a democracy in the United States is not at all normal in the larger democratic world.”