By: Dana Westgren, MPA, Cornell University ’14

Recently, party polarization has been a focal point of US political discussion. As the parties appear to draw apart, it appears there may be space for the development of a third party in United States politics. However, there has never been a successful, long-lasting third party in this country. A review of the literature and legislation shows there are several roadblocks to third party development, including the country’s electoral structure and campaign finance laws. However, there is more to the discussion. Through analysis of historical times of party flux — the Civil War, the rise of Populism, and civil rights — it becomes clear that large parties absorb fledgling third parties by adopting their policy platforms. Third parties are able to attract both new voters, as in the case of African Americans when they gained suffrage, and voters who have become disenchanted with their party in the case of Southern Democrats. A combination of theory and historical research points to this outcome across history, including examples of recent third party candidates such as Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. Modern Democrats and Republicans have become overarching parties that essentially stifle third party growth.

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About the Author
Dana Westgren is a MPA graduate at Cornell Institute for Public Affairs with a concentration in Public Management. She focuses on community development, with a specific interest in providing impoverished communities with education and access. She received a bachelor’s in Management and Marketing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in her hometown.

Cornell Institute of Public Affairs

Written by Cornell Institute of Public Affairs

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