JONATHAN H. MARTIN – In Election’s Wake, Will Third Parties Rise?

In the aftermath of the election, important questions abound about the nation’s future. However, one is clearly missing from the public conversation: Will Americans’ growing frustration with the major parties give third parties a new boost?

As well known, the 2016 Democratic and Republican presidential nominees were the most disliked in recent U.S. history. And since 2013, according to Gallup, a sustained majority of Americans has thought “our major political parties do such a poor job that a third party is needed.” Thus, minor parties enjoyed a notable spurt in campaign engagement this year. Of course, in the ballot box they didn’t surge countrywide, as they’d hoped. Their top two presidential candidates received less than 5% of the vote combined, and their gains at lower levels remained isolated. Still, for third parties could it be that “the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a changin’” (Dylan)? That’s certainly possible, if “winning” pertains to the crucial, immediate battle for more grassroots supporters and activists.

On the battle’s left front, minor parties may have a considerable opportunity to advance. Months before Election Day, many progressives were already simmering about the Democratic primary, which they viewed as rigged against Bernie Sanders by a pro-Clinton party establishment. Clinton’s loss to Trump seems to have accentuated their disgust with the party leadership. These “Berners” are familiar with polls suggesting that Sanders, as a progressive populist, would have been better able to win the general election than Clinton, a chameleon-like corporate hack. They realize that Sanders’s clear class-based message may well have attracted numerous economically disaffected voters ultimately drawn to Trump or repelled by Clinton. They could even infer that the Democratic Party would rather lose a major election than back a true progressive candidate. Therefore, many ordinary progressives may now have a lot less tolerance for a party that fails to represent them. Furthermore, the Democratic Party is very unlikely to stop disappointing (if not betraying) them, because it remains beholden to wealthy elites who provide much of its campaign cash. As a result, even Bernie may be unable to prevent a bleeding “DemExit” into new or existing progressive third parties in the months and years ahead.

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