Challengers to Duopoly: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two-Party Politics

Challengers to Duopoly: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two-Party Politics

Challengers to Duopoly: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two-Party Politics

Challengers to Duopoly: Why Third Parties Matter in American Two-Party Politics


Building on the foundational importance of its predecessor (Politics at the Periphery, 1993), Challengers to Duopoly offers an up-to-date overview of the important history of America's third parties and the challenge they represent to the hegemony of the major parties. J. David Gillespie introduces readers to minor partisan actors of three types: short-lived national parties, continuing doctrinal and issue parties, and the significant others at the state and local levels. Woven into these accounts are profiles of some of the individuals who have taken the initiative to found and lead these parties. Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Jesse Ventura, and other recent and contemporary electoral insurgents are featured, along with the most significant current national and state parties challenging the primacy of the two major parties.Gillespie maintains that despite the infirmities they often bear, third parties do matter, and they have mattered throughout American public life. Many of our nation's most important policies and institutional innovations--including abolition, woman suffrage, government transparency, child labor laws, and national healthcare--were third-party ideas before either major party embraced them. Additionally, third parties were the first to break every single gender, race, and sexual orientation bar on nomination for the highest offices in the land.As Gillespie illustrates in this engaging narrative, with the deck so stacked against them, it is impressive that third-party candidates ever win at all. That they sometimes do is a testament to the power of democratic ideals and the growing disdain of the voting public with politics as usual.


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by.

Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”

You are entitled to know something about my approach to the topic of this book. Paraphrasing words from a chilling query from the McCarthy era, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any third political party. I am interested in them all. I have been since 1967, when, as a young graduate student at Wake Forest University, I attended a university-sponsored symposium on alternative politics. Two of the speakers there were unforgettable.

Norman Thomas, then eighty-two, had carried the presidential standard of his Socialist Party in six consecutive elections from 1928 through 1948. Thomas had served as a kind of “left-wing conscience” during the Great Depression. Several of his party’s platform planks—Social Security among them—had found their way into public policy during the New Deal era.

George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder and commander of the American Nazi Party, provoked a hostile Wake Forest audience with his racist views. Standing in front of him in silent protest was an African American football player waving a large American flag. Months later Rockwell lay dead at age forty-nine, the victim of an assassin’s bullet fired by a renegade former member of Rockwell’s party.

One of those symposium speeches I found instructive. The other astounded me by its bare-knuckled viciousness. I came away from them both more convinced than ever that a free marketplace of ideas is the surest approach to truth.

Hopes can inspire, but people with the impulse to step beyond major-party bounds, to craft or support third parties, should also be fortified by stiff resolve and a devotion to cause. Those taking this less-traveled road need to know the barriers they will face along the way.

Far more than a naturally evolved two-party system, the American polity has become a duopoly: a system in which the electoral route to power has been jointly engineered by Democrats and Republicans to underwrite their hegemony. They have done it by gravely disadvantaging outside challengers.

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