Will This Be a Four-Party Election?

tags: election 2016

Ted Widmer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and the Center for American Progress.

Third parties don’t fit cleanly into the simple political narrative most of us have in our heads of red versus blue, and two parties battling it out, Super Bowl-style. Yet for much of our history, outsiders have pushed their way onto the playing field, disrupting the narrative of the Big Game.

In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party are holding steady with 9 percent and 3 percent, according to a recent CNN poll of polls. It is never an exact science to assess the impact of third-party votes — there are libertarians at both the right and left ends of the spectrum — and third-party types are notoriously fickle. But there is a rising possibility that these votes will affect the outcome in close states.

A survey of our chaotic past suggests that third parties have done considerable damage to the major parties. Certainly that is the feeling among Democrats, whose memories of Ralph Nader’s turn in 2000 remain raw. But third-party runs have also opened windows that might have remained shut. A proliferation of parties in 1860 helped elect Abraham Lincoln, and in 1912 Woodrow Wilson was another beneficiary of a four-party contest.

It would be tempting to cite stern warnings from the founders against this potential threat to the political establishment. But they were so hostile to the idea of parties writ large that they do not provide much help. In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison warned against the spirit of “faction,” and George Washington amplified these fears in his farewell address of 1796. Four years later, the barn door was wide open, and the horses were running free. It was as if no one had heard him at all.

In the 19th century, messy elections persistently undermined the claim of Americans to have invented a system of politics worthy of global emulation. In 1806, a prominent Virginian, John Randolph, was trying to organize a new party that was neither Federalist nor Republican (Jefferson’s claim that all Americans were united persuaded no one). Randolph called it a “tertium quid,” or a “third something.” ...

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