Third Parties Are In This Together
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The sooner that third parties in the United States coalesce behind election reform, the sooner they will all start winning. Union ForwardRead More
Third parties in the United States, despite their ideological differences, are united by one thing: they are not competing on a level playing field.
I spoke with members of three different minor parties in the U.S. about their experiences as candidates and activists in the world of third party politics. Each discussed disillusionment with the two major parties, a disdain for the culture war politics which dominate those parties, and enthusiasm for a multi-party system.
The Forward Party, founded in late 2021, aims to unite a broad coalition of independents and third parties behind several key election reforms which promise to eliminate the “spoiler effect”: Voting reform (ranked-choice voting, approval voting, or STAR voting), non-partisan primaries, and independent redistricting commissions. Andrew Yang, founder and co-chair of the new party, stated that their goal is not just to replace one of the major parties, but to transition to a political system with three or more national parties.
The party’s platform includes three different options for new voting methods, although ranked-choice leads the pack in nationwide recognition and support. Ranked-choice voting, used today in Alaska and Maine, allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate earns 50 percent of the initial vote, then the candidate with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and anyone who ranked the losing candidate first then has their second-place votes counted. Voters are assured that they can rank a minor candidate first and have their second-place vote counted if their first choice is eliminated.
Non-partisan primaries, used today in Alaska, California, and Washington, include all candidates from all parties in one primary election, thus allowing unaffiliated voters to participate alongside registered Democrats and Republicans. The combination of voting reform and primary reform promises to weaken barriers to third party success and give a voice to voters who do not feel represented by the two-party system.
Historically, third parties in the U.S. have pursued ambitious national campaigns at the expense of building a lasting foundation for a party. Today, record levels of dissatisfaction with the two major parties are driving many of America’s independents to explore how a third party could realistically succeed.
Members of the Libertarian, American Solidarity, and United Utah parties joined me to share their wisdom with today’s ambitious activists who dream of seeing an end to the two-party system.
“Nobody is owed a vote. It’s your vote, it belongs to you, and Green Party voters are not otherwise Democratic Party voters.” — Michael Vick, American Solidarity Party (Liberation Caucus)
Michael Vick grew up in Democratic Party politics. His father, now retired, was a union iron worker and professionally involved with the Democratic Party.
Vick remembers numerous congresspeople coming to his house as a child, and he attended the 1996 convention in California, when President Bill Clinton was nominated by his party for a second term.
He also grew up in a theologically conservative church, and believes he took the ideals of his church to heart more than either of his parents. As he came of voting age, his personal values felt distant from the Democratic Party. His economic views fell to the left of the party, and his pro-life beliefs often put him at odds with party leaders. He could never find a home in the Republican Party, either:
“Even though on paper, I agree with some Republicans on social issues, I vehemently disagreed with them on everything else.
At the national level, they didn’t really care about the social issues. They used them as a wedge issue in order to get people to vote for them. I would rather have somebody tell me they’re pro-choice than have somebody tell me they’re pro-life and not actually be pro-life.”
Vick did not wait for ranked-choice voting to cast his ballot for third party candidates, reflecting his strong-willed belief that neither major party had done enough to earn his vote. He remains proud of his vote for Ralph Nader in 2000, despite having been pushed back into the Democratic fold for a time after receiving criticism from friends and family over his vote.
His hopes for the Democratic Party eventually dimmed to a flicker in 2016. Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign was something he “finally, really believed in.” The progressive economics and populist rhetoric of Sanders’ campaign appealed to him in a way that the Democratic Party never had before. Sanders’ loss to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left Vick thoroughly disillusioned with the existing party system, and pushed him even further to the left in some areas, including what he described as ‘“imperial war policies.”
Vick came across the American Solidarity Party while he was searching for a presidential candidate he could vote for in 2020. The party platform’s combination of workers’ rights, pro-life and family values, environmentalist and non-interventionist values struck a chord with him, and he found himself not just proud to vote for their candidates, but enthusiastic about helping them grow.
Founded in 2011, the American Solidarity Party is a Christian democratic party, yet it does not require that its members are Christian. Vick emphasized that the party is happy to work across political divides to accomplish shared goals wherever possible. Keenly aware of a tendency for Christian democratic parties to drift to the political right over time, he co-founded the Liberation Caucus within the party in an effort to provide a counterbalance to rightward drift and to make the party more welcoming to those on the left.
Around the same time he discovered the party, Vick ran for the Indiana House of Representatives and was nominated by the state Democratic Party. His experience as a Democratic nominee only frayed his faith in the party further. In their attempts to maintain a uniform platform across the country, Democratic organizers in Indiana discouraged Vick from taking a strong pro-life stance, a stance he believes would have been tremendously helpful in his district. In the end, he was defeated by incumbent Representative Chuck Goodrich.
The American Solidarity Party is focused on electing a number of municipal candidates, judges, as well as their first state representative. Vick identified the third party spoiler effect as one of the most significant roadblocks to higher ambitions, though he expects that the major parties will ignore or outwardly oppose any attempts at reform:
“Neither major party is interested in solving this issue. They’re interested in using the issue to keep their own voters, basically holding them hostage.”
The data aligns with his assessment. Independents in the U.S. have outnumbered Democrats and Republicans for the past 12 years. Together, the two major parties represent barely half of voters. Their entrenched political power is threatened by America’s “purple voters” who favor a multi-party system. Should these voters coalesce in a meaningful way, they will have more than enough numbers to upend the two-party system.
The Democratic and Republican parties, however, argue time and time again that Americans are “wasting their vote” by casting a ballot for a third party candidate. Democratic leaders contend that a vote for a Green only helps Republicans, and Republican leaders contend that a vote for a Libertarian only helps Democrats.
Vick wholly rejected these claims, pointing in particular to the 2000 presidential election in Florida. Democratic activists claimed that Green Party nominee Ralph Nader was responsible for Al Gore’s loss in the state, since Nader won nearly 100,000 votes while Gore lost by several hundred. However, Gore also could have won the state with just a handful of the estimated 250,000 Florida Democrats who voted for George Bush. Rather than blaming voters for their choices, Vick blamed the Democratic Party for failing to earn peoples’ votes:
“Nobody is owed a vote. It’s your vote, it belongs to you, and Green Party voters are not otherwise Democratic Party voters.
You can’t get these voters if you want Wall Street money. The Democratic Party wants to act as if they can both take Wall Street money and fix problems that are caused by people on Wall Street.
The Democratic Party prefers that we keep the spoiler effect because it keeps people in line.”
Vick expressed a desire for third parties to make clear the distinction between advocating for centrism versus representation. He does not consider his views to be centrist, yet he feels unrepresented by government all the same. His views are likely reflective, at least in principle, of those held by millions of Americans who agree with some ideas from the left and some from the right. Vick sees things to like in multiple ideologies, yet he does not believe the Democratic or Republican parties to be sincere champions of those ideologies.
In a system with five or six political parties, U.S. government would be more capable of representing the nuanced and diverse views of voters. The American Solidarity Party is pro-life, yet it is pro-labor. The two-party system broadly fails to reflect the views of anyone—liberal, moderate, or conservative—who does not adhere to a rigid ideology dictated by party bosses.
A coalition across third party lines which emphasizes electoral competition and better representation could go a long way in the 2020s, particularly as popular opposition to both major parties grows. Should this coalition focus on implementing ranked-choice voting and non-partisan primaries in a growing number of states, the control that Democratic and Republican Party leaders wield over our elections will be diminished.
“Restoring trust back to our elections is the number one thing that we have to do.” — January Walker, United Utah Party
When January Walker ran for Congress in 2022 as a member of the United Utah Party, she encountered firsthand the layers of institutional resistance to third party candidates.
The United Utah Party shares a focus with the Forward Party on the “process by which our laws are made and executed” rather than top-down policy prescriptions. United Utah leaders offer a non-ideological option for reform-minded voters, and the party seeks to increase transparency and accountability in government.
In her 2022 run to represent Utah’s 4th Congressional District, the January Walker campaign reached out to more than two hundred media outlets, yet not one of them offered her an interview. The campaign’s outreach was not even able to count on mentions of her name in reporting. One outlet offered her a cooking segment instead, asking if she would share her “favorite recipe.” None wanted to talk about her campaign. As a result, she became familiar with unconventional ways of reaching voters:
“Reach into the tools that you have. This could be Twitter Spaces, TikTok Live, Facebook Live—all of these tools are available to you so that you could reach out … That’s how we circumvent the traditional media.”
Walker qualified for the first televised debate of the campaign, which her Republican opponent—incumbent Representative Burgess Owens—refused to attend in protest of The Salt Lake Tribune. The Tribune had previously published a cartoon deemed racist by Owens, and the executive editor was scheduled to moderate the debate.
The first debate featured January Walker and Democratic Party nominee Darlene McDonald. Instead of facing the two on a follow-up debate stage, Owens chose to arrange a second debate directly with the McDonald campaign, and Walker did not receive an invitation.
In the end, Walker received 6 percent of the vote, triple the threshold for the United Utah Party to retain ballot access in the state. The reach of her campaign, however, was constricted by a media landscape apathetic to third parties and the decision of her Democratic and Republican opponents to organize a debate from which she was excluded.
What the U.S. media landscape does not reflect is that a majority of Americans believe that the two parties do “such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.” U.S. voters are far from apathetic about new parties. Today, Walker argues from firsthand experience that 21st century U.S. elections are more reflective of the interests of Democratic and Republican party bosses than those of voters. She offered Gen Z Americans one note of guidance in particular:
“If I could give one piece of unsolicited advice for Gen Z:
Do not make the same mistake that the Millenials made. We had access to the same information as you. We knew that [the major] parties would use issues to divide us and to get our votes, and we just went along with it, or we disengaged, or we didn’t vote…
Don’t be afraid to leave the two-party system.”
Walker emphasized that among Gen Z voters—as well as U.S. voters in general—purple voters, or independents, out-register either major party. To her, the claims that your vote makes no difference and that third party candidates cannot win are not reflective of reality. The chance for America’s purple voters to build a coalition that ends the two-party system is at a record high.
She spoke of the Americans who told her that her campaign rekindled their sense of hope for the future, many of whom had not felt that hope in decades.
Walker’s abandonment of the two-party system came as she lost faith in their ability to make a decision free from partisan or ideological influences. She is a champion of blockchain technology and a regulatory framework for the cryptocurrency industry, believing that the technology could go a long way in restoring transparency and integrity to U.S. elections and our national budget. Her fear is that the traditional two-party system is not capable of responsibly adapting to modern technology.
In terms of elections, Walker sees potential for blockchain technology to boost voters’ confidence in elections and slash wasteful spending on audits:
“Today, you have privacy of your vote … You would still be able to carry over that anonymity into blockchain voting.
If somebody said, ‘Hey, I don’t trust this,’ you would be able to go back and see … ‘This is a real person, they’re an American citizen, they meet all of the qualifications’ … You can go through and you can actually see that information, instead of costing $500 million to do an audit on the elections if somebody claims that there was fraud, you could spend a few million.”
She had to wait more than two weeks for final results from her own congressional race in 2022, whereas blockchain technology could have allowed for real-time results as votes were tallied.
Walker stressed its potential to restore accountability to the national budget, as well. Even if it were necessary for an institution such as the Pentagon to have a private blockchain for their budget, the technology would slash the amount of misappropriated tax dollars:
“If you tie transactions to a blockchain … [you are] able to track and trace down every last penny, where that money is going, and all of a sudden there’s no question as to ‘Was there corruption here? Are we just leaking money? Is somebody stealing it?”‘“
Broadly speaking, advocates of blockchain technology find themselves “politically homeless.” Many supported Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign, enthused by his balanced approach to harnessing the technology’s innovative potential while providing a fair regulatory framework. Cryptocurrency has been embraced by businesses and groups across the ideological spectrum, yet Democratic and Republican leaders often paint it merely as a threat to established institutions.
Walker’s own campaign serves as a beacon for blockchain enthusiasts to abandon the two-party system and find new homes. Her willingness to take on duopoly forces firsthand has inspired thousands of Americans who spent years feeling disillusioned and politically homeless.
She advised young third party activists and candidates to focus on connecting with people above all else. This includes interviews and campaign events, but she stressed that non-political events were some of the most influential for her campaign:
“People don’t want to talk about politics … Some of our most popular events were those that we focused on the community, so this was doing river floats, and barbecues, and putting fairs together.”
Walker is considering a 2024 campaign to represent Utah’s 4th Congressional District.
Joshua Reed Eakle, like Michael Vick and January Walker, essentially found himself shoved into third party politics out of disgust with the two major parties.
Eakle has been involved in third party politics for ten years, and he is a current Board Member of the Classical Liberal Caucus of the Libertarian Party. From 2019 to 2021, he served as the State Chair of the Libertarian Party of Tennessee.
His introduction to libertarian ideas came from former Representative Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign. His abandonment of the Republican Party, and the two-party system, came after he became convinced that GOP leaders had undermined Paul’s campaign, and that they were not interested in listening to voters. In both 2012 and 2016, Eakle cast his ballot for the Libertarian presidential nominee, former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson.
The 2016 election season drove Eakle to volunteer and later become involved professionally with the Libertarian Party. He stepped in as the Chairman of the Knox County Libertarian Party affiliate, which he transformed into the party’s largest affiliate in the country. Eakle described Gary Johnson’s 2016 campaign as a high point in fundraising and enthusiasm for the party, and he was able to turn his own success as a local party official into a campaign for the state party chairmanship.
A political party must do one of two things to earn ballot access in Tennessee. Parties earn automatic ballot access if at least one of their candidates earned 5 percent of the vote in a statewide race in the previous four years. Parties that do not meet this requirement must submit a number of signatures of registered voters equal to 2.5 percent of the total votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. The law meant that during Eakle’s tenure as state chairperson, Tennessee Libertarians were responsible for collecting 56,000 signatures to achieve ballot access:
“I realized when I was in the state that you’re wasting a lot of peoples’ time by trying to run bigger candidates when you have this system that’s completely built against you.
If you’re dealing with a system where it costs you $250,000 in the state to get ballot access, whereas your competition takes that money and immediately puts it into advertisements, you can see why that would create a situation where you are at a huge disadvantage.”
As Chair of the Tennessee Libertarian Party, Eakle sought to use the party as a vehicle for building consensus on certain issues across party lines, including ballot access and civil asset forfeiture reforms. He worked successfully with a group he founded called For All Tennessee to pass a state law in 2021 which banned no-knock search warrants.
In addition to these policy goals, Tennessee Libertarians focused on local and non-partisan races. Eakle, however, believes that a popular figurehead is necessary to build a national political movement:
“It’s kind of like a catch-22.
In order to raise awareness on these issues in a way that will build the coalition that you need to make the state-level reforms, you have to have somebody that is able to run at the national level and articulate what the vision is.”
Third parties have faced this fundamental challenge for decades: they are forced to invest energy and resources into national campaigns to generate sufficient media attention for their goals, yet this diversion of resources often leaves state-level reform efforts lacking in funding and enthusiasm. Third parties’ lack of progress towards boosting their electoral viability has left an image of them in Americans’ minds as aimless or adrift.
The Libertarian Party saw a decline in its energy and fundraising after the 2016 election. The Mises Caucus, founded in 2017, set to work building the infrastructure it needed to shape the future of the party in its own vision. As enthusiasm for the “traditional” wing of the party waned, the Mises Caucus raised money, hired staff, and recruited major influencers including comedian Dave Smith.
The Mises Caucus emerged in the weeks after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as a dispute over the party’s response escalated into a fight for control of the party itself. An article published weeks before the rally by the Mises Institute which included the term “blood and soil” drew accusations of racism and bigotry from Libertarian Party leaders, and dragged ideological splits between the two camps into full view.
Libertarians who would later join the Mises Caucus felt that the party had grown too politically correct in recent years and had strayed from the ideals of Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns. Leaders of the caucus succeeding in building a coalition capable of overtaking the Libertarian Party, although Eakle has doubts that their power will last. The 2022 Libertarian National Convention saw the Mises Caucus sweep leadership contests, cementing their takeover of the party in the span of just five years.
As a member of the Classical Liberal Caucus, Eakle views the Mises takeover as a misguided reaction to the culture war. He criticized party leaders for prioritizing social media engagement over more important ventures and holds them responsible for a recent decline in membership and donors. He took particular issue with the new leaders’ decision to remove a plank from the Libertarian Party platform which condemned bigotry as irrational and repugnant, one of the first decisions they made after the 2022 convention.
An initiative led by former Libertarian vice presidential nominee Spike Cohen successfully replaced the platform plank with a pledge that the party would “uphold and defend the rights of every person, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or any other aspect of their identity.” A number of Libertarians, however, were left struggling to understand why the initial decision was made to remove the party’s condemnation of bigotry from its platform.
Eakle offered the Mises Caucus credit for their strategic and organizational success, though he believes that focusing on culture war politics will only erode existing distinctions between Libertarians and the major parties. From his personal perspective, Eakle wishes for Libertarians to embrace working across third party lines to achieve common goals:
“It’s just more culture war stuff that you can find in the GOP or Democratic Party.
The Libertarian Party, for some ungodly reason that has no bearing in any strategic thinking whatsoever, has decided to go after the Forward Party publicly, which makes absolutely no sense to me.”
Individually, the Forward, Libertarian, American Solidarity, or United Utah parties look at the duopoly and see an invulnerable colossus.
The answer to this challenge is not to devote more party resources into hail-Mary third party presidential campaigns. The answer is to unite third parties behind the shared goal of election reforms that allow all of our views to win representation in government.
Supporters of the Forward Party are supporters of a multi-party future. Party leaders emphasize that Americans can remain a member of their current party while also calling themselves a member of the Forward Party. For example, one could be a Forward Libertarian. Or a Forward Green.
As Michael Vick from the American Solidarity Party highlighted, the third party movement is not necessarily moderate or centrist. Although many centrists are likely to gravitate away from the current Democratic and Republican parties, the Forward Party’s primary goal is to restore competition and vibrancy to our democracy. Powerful elites and party bosses on the left and the right bear responsibility for the erosion of the average American’s political power, not just one or the other.
The recent surge in popular support for ranked-choice voting, non-partisan primaries, and a third choice on the ballot offers a rare chance for America’s independents to end the two-party system. Individually, third parties lack the numbers and resources to mount an earnest challenge to the duopoly.
Together, they could have both.
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