The story goes something like this: back in 1890, the undisputed master magician of Vienna was Eisenheim, a brooding man known to humiliate upstart magicians with his skill. Then an unknown magician named Passeur arrived in town. He booked his shows on Eisenheim’s off days, and on his opening night he performed feats of such wizardry that people began to wonder if Eisenheim had met his match. Furious, Eisenheim debuted tricks the following evening that bested those of Passeur, but Passeur’s act the night after raised the bar yet again.
The rivalry went on like this for weeks, and the citizens were swept up in the drama: half argued for Passeur’s superiority, the other half, Eisenheim’s. Then one night, Passeur gave a performance of such genius that it left no doubt as to who was the master. But as the show ended to the roar of applause, Passeur reached up to his face and ripped off a rubber mask to reveal Eisenheim underneath, laughing maniacally.
The supporters of third party politicians often characterize Democrat and Republican candidates as the same person in different suits, or perhaps more accurately, the same wolf in different sheep’s clothes. They insist the “duopoly” candidates are pawns to the same shady special interests—career politicians who don’t have their constituent's best interests in mind. The only chance at a true democracy, they say, is to support a third party candidate. There are many—Green, Libertarian, Justice, Constitution—and while they champion strikingly disparate views, they agree on one rather obvious thing: it’s time for an option besides Democrat and Republican.
Which begs the question, why don’t we have one?
The biggest challenge to third party politicians lies in the mechanics of our electoral system. Congress, for instance, is composed of representatives from districts. Districts are “single-member,” meaning that only one person is going to Washington to represent it. If there are three candidates vying for that seat, our electoral “first past the post” system dictates that the winner takes all, even if the votes were close.
On the national level this system is represented by the Electoral College, which dictates that the presidential candidate to win a state’s popular vote wins all its electoral votes. This system has merits and demerits, but one of the undeniable byproducts is it naturally encourages the emergence of two parties. To illustrate, imagine you have five candidates representing five different parties vying for one open seat. Like-minded parties will fuse together to create a larger electorate base and increase their chances of election. If four of those five parties fuse to create two new more powerful parties, it leaves one much weaker party. Voters will gradually abandon the weak party on the grounds it has no chance of winning—no one bets on a losing horse—forever marginalizing it in a negative feedback loop.
Our electoral system has been around for over 200 years, and any reform to a more nuanced system would be a very long, very hard fight. But assuming it could happen, we should ask ourselves do we even need a third party?
There’s no definitive right answer to this. It’s fact that multiple political parties allow for a more accurate representation of the country’s political landscape. But they also can result in fractious divides and hung congresses, where the increased difficulty in obtaining a majority can severely impede the lawmaking process (just look at Italy).
That said, one could argue that our two party system does incorporate and reflect the leanings of its members who would otherwise vote third party. The Tea Party for instance, which by any measure has little in common with the moderate Republicanism of yore, has single-handedly shifted the entire party to the right. Republican candidates now have the tricky-if-not-impossible task of appealing to both Tea Partiers and the undecided moderates and independents.
Therein lies an interesting point: a two party system promotes centrism. Because each party has such a broad base, it must find a candidate to represent the happy average that will bridge the spectrum of its own extremes. Romney, for instance, must split the difference between Tea Partiers and Log Cabin Republicans. Obama must appeal to both Occupy-ers and blue collar Ohioans. Even more than that, to get elected those candidates must be able to win the favor of the undecided independents right smack in the middle.
Today, our country elects its next President. Whoever that is will, more or less, represent the political mean of the nation more than the other guy. And in a democracy, that’s about all you can ask for.