So was born, lived a little space, and died the Progressive party. At its birth it caused the nomination, by the Democrats, and the election, by the people, of Woodrow Wilson. At its death it brought about the nomination of Charles E. Hughes by the Republicans. It forced the writing into the platforms of the more conservative parties of principles and programmes of popular rights and social regeneration. The Progressive party never attained to power, but it wielded a potent power.
The two party system in America is remarkably durable. Just the phrase "third party" conjures up images of John Anderson, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot and George Wallace. These are all people who exited or were never inside the system. It implies actors at the margins engaged in Quixotic (though see here and here) attempts to fundamentally alter conventional politics. It also postulates two parties as though they are fixed poles on the political map. Nearly everything about the way we talk and think about American politics assumes the context of two major parties fighting for majority control.
In general it has served us well and seems reasonable enough. Short version: We have one party for each side of the political spectrum. If you favor a more active government in domestic affairs and a predisposition for collaboration internationally vote Democrat. If you favor less spending on social programs and a more assertive "peace through strength" attitude abroad vote Republican. Anyone anywhere on the political spectrum has to choose one of these, and in doing so the most radical elements on both sides will be usefully channelled into moderate positions, resulting in generally prudent policymaking that changes on a gradual and sustainable slope. You won't have governments falling every nine months and the kind of turbulence associated with whipsaw changes in direction.
This model only becomes problematic if the tension and adversarial nature assumed in it turn into cooperation and collusion, as in the quadrennial orgyleadership and enough of its members were fully on board, and let's face it - the end result is all that matters. Glenn Greenwald summed it up beautifully: "While there are substantial, important differences between Republicans and Democrats, critical political debates are at least as often driven not by the GOP/Democrat dichotomy, but by the split between the Beltway political establishment and the rest of the country." of bribery and corruption at the party conventions. A look at the FISA reform circus tells you all you need to know about how united the Democrats and Republicans are on eroding our civil liberties. Yes, some of the former opposed it (Dodd and Feingold in particular were passionate and articulate) while the latter were nearly unanimous in their support.
In a situation like this supporting a third party candidate like Bob Barr or a true major-party maverick like Ron Paul can serve a great purpose. Looked at from a horse race perspective these candidacies are almost uniformly failures. The most successful in the last generation--Ross Perot--did not win a single electoral vote. But he won 19% of the popular vote on a candidacy centered on, if not almost entirely based on, balancing the federal budget. The deficit reached a then-high of 316 billion dollars in July of 1992, and was balanced by January of 1998! There are plenty of reasons for the turnaround, and the US economy is unfathomably complex; on such a scale it is basically impossible to draw a 1-to-1 correspondence with any kind of cause and effect. But Perot's candidacy put the issue on the table and made fiscal responsibility in Washington a priority.
Those of us deeply disappointed with the Democrats and who are partially redirecting our energy, time and money elsewhere can aspire to much the same result. No one seems to think the Libertarian Party is poised to replace one of the current major parties (though such seismic shifts have happened, Lani Guinier Heresy is alive and well. But we are not fighting to change the anatomy of the body politic, rather to inject some unpopular ideas into it. Political, media and cultural leaders at the highest levels are very much at ease with a system where criminality is mere mischief and the natural result of policymaking. Such things are to be grappled with in academic settings and think tanks, not prosecuted in court. Changing that environment would result in a great deal of discomfort and there is an enormous predisposition to just look discreetly away. (Please see Andrew Sullivan's demolition of this monstrous proposition.) If we can help to end the polite ignoring of lawlessness, the treating of felonies as shuttlecocks to be batted around as part of a delightful but inconsequential game --if we can get at least some of them to start living by the rules the rest of us must live by--then our efforts will be a success regardless of whether or not they ultimately result in an ongoing movement. occasionally), and there is no reason to expect additional ones as long as the