How to Think About Party Dissolution

A woman shows off her T-shirt during a rally with former President Donald Trump on September 25, 2023, in Summerville, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

When we talk about America’s political parties today, there seem to be just two: Democrats and Republicans. This is all the more amazing given widespread dissatisfaction among voters, a majority of whom don’t want to see a Trump-Biden rematch in 2024. Yet most analysts still claim that a third-party run is simply impossible and that Americans are destined to be held hostage by the two feuding parties.  

But this is a narrow view of U.S. history. In fact, over the past 225 years, there have been a host of parties (and third parties), including: the Federalists, the Whigs, the Greenback Party, the Know-Nothing Party, the Liberty Party, the Free-Soil Party, the Anti-Masonic Party, the Bull Moose/Progressive Party, the Independent Party, and the National Republican Party. Some have had brief tenures, some longer, but the fact that we have had so many speaks to the possibility that America might not be a Republican or Democrat duopoly forever.

Parties fall because of internal contradictions that prevent them from confronting external events. The Federalists were never able to build support outside the Northeast in the aftermath of the War of 1812. The Whigs, in contrast, could not reconcile the conflict between Northern and Southern party members over slavery. In other words, the Whigs could not sustain being a national party with internal contradictions, while the Federalists could not overcome being a regional party.  

Other parties rose to tackle a national issue that had been insufficiently addressed by the other two parties. The Know Nothings were anti-immigration, for example; the Anti-Masonic Party was, as the name suggests, anti-Mason; and Ross Perot secured 19 percent of the popular vote, but zero electoral votes, with his message about our unsustainable debt—about $4 trillion at the time, roughly an eighth of what it is today.

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