The Important Role of US Third Parties

H. Ross Perot speaking during his 1992 presidential campaign
Arnold Sachs / Getty Images

While their candidates for President of the United States and Congress have little chance of being elected, America’s third political parties have historically played a major role in bringing about sweeping social, cultural, and political reform.

Women's Right to Vote

Both the Prohibition and Socialist Parties promoted the women's suffrage movement during the late 1800s. By 1916, both Republicans and Democrats supported it and by 1920, the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote had been ratified.

Child Labor Laws

The Socialist Party first advocated laws establishing minimum ages and limiting hours of work for American children in 1904. The Keating-Owen Act established such laws in 1916.

Immigration Restrictions

The Immigration Act of 1924 came about as a result of support by the Populist Party starting as early as the early 1890s.

Reduction of Working Hours

You can thank the Populist and Socialist Parties for the 40-hour work week. Their support for reduced working hours during the 1890s led to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Income Tax

In the 1890s, the Populist and Socialist Parties supported a "progressive" tax system that would base a person's tax liability on their amount of income. The idea led to the ratification of the 16th Amendment in 1913.

Social Security

The Socialist Party also supported a fund to provide temporary compensation for the unemployed in the late 1920s. The idea led to the creation of laws establishing unemployment insurance and the Social Security Act of 1935.

'Tough on Crime'

In 1968, the American Independent Party and its presidential candidate George Wallace advocated "getting tough on crime." The Republican Party adopted the idea in its platform and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 was the result. (George Wallace won 46 electoral votes in the 1968 election. This was the highest number of electoral votes collected by a third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt, running for the Progressive Party in 1912, won a total of 88 votes.)

America’s First Political Parties

The Founding Fathers wanted the American federal government and its inevitable politics to remain non-partisan. As a result, the U.S. Constitution makes no mention whatsoever of political parties.

In Federalist Papers No. 9 and No. 10, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, respectively refer to the dangers of political factions they had observed in the British government. America’s first president, George Washington, never joined a political party and warned against the stagnation and conflict they can cause in his Farewell Address.

“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” — George Washington, Farewell Address, September 17, 1796

However, it was Washington’s own closest advisers who spawned the American political party system. Hamilton and Madison, despite writing against political factions in the Federalist Papers, became the core leaders of the first two functional opposing political parties.

Hamilton emerged as the leader of the Federalists, who favored a strong central government, while Madison and Thomas Jefferson led the Anti-Federalists, who stood for a smaller, less-powerful central government. It was the early battles between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists that spawned the environment of partisanship that now dominates all levels of American government. 

Leading Modern Third Parties

While the following is far from all of the recognized third parties in American politics, the Libertarian, Reform, Green, and Constitution Parties are usually the most active in presidential elections.

Libertarian Party

Founded in 1971, the Libertarian party is the third largest political party in America. Over the years, Libertarian Party candidates have been elected to many state and local offices.

Libertarians believe the federal government should play a minimal role in the day-to-day affairs of the people. They believe that the only appropriate role of government is to protect the citizens from acts of physical force or fraud. A libertarian-style government would, therefore, limit itself to a police, court, prison system and military. Members support the free market economy and are dedicated to the protection of civil liberties and individual freedom.

Socialist Party

The Socialist Party USA (SPUSA) was founded in 1973 as a successor to the Socialist Party of America, which, in 1972, had split resulting in another group called Social Democrats, USA. The SPUSA supports democratic Socialism and has enjoyed varying degrees of support when its candidates have run against both Republicans and Democrats.

Claiming total independence from the Democratic Party, the SPUSA advocates for the creation of a “radical democracy that places people’s lives under their own control,” a “non-racist, classless, feminist, socialist society” in which “the people own and control the means of production and distribution through democratically-controlled public agencies, cooperatives, or other collective groups.” In keeping with traditional ideals of Marxist Socialism, the party supports the right of workers to freely form labor unions to ensure that “production of society is used for the benefit of all humanity, not for the private profit of a few.”

Reform Party

In 1992, Texan H. Ross Perot spent over $60 million of his own money to run for president as an independent. Perot's national organization, known as "United We Stand America" succeeded in getting Perot on the ballot in all 50 states. Perot won 19 percent of the vote in November, the best result for a third party candidate in 80 years. Following the 1992 election, Perot and "United We Stand America" organized into the Reform Party. Perot again ran for president as the Reform Party candidate in 1996 winning 8.5 percent of the vote.

As its name implies, Reform Party members are dedicated to reforming the American political system. They support candidates they feel will "re-establish trust" in government by displaying high ethical standards coupled with fiscal responsibility and accountability.

Green Party

The American Green Party's platform is based on the following 10 Key Values:

  • Ecological wisdom
  • Community-based economics
  • Grassroots democracy
  • Decentralization
  • Gender equality
  • Personal and social responsibility
  • Respect for diversity
  • Nonviolence
  • Global responsibility

"Greens seek to restore balance through recognizing that our planet and all of life are unique aspects of an integrated whole, and also through affirming the significant inherent values and contribution of each part of that whole." The Green Party - Hawaii

Constitution Party

In 1992, American Taxpayer Party presidential candidate Howard Phillips appeared on the ballot in 21 states. Mr. Phillips again ran in 1996, achieving ballot access in 39 states. At its national convention in 1999, the party officially changed its name to the "Constitution Party" and again chose Howard Phillips as its presidential candidate for 2000.

The Constitution Party favors a government based on a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and the principals expressed in it by the Founding Fathers. They support a government limited in scope, structure, and power of regulation over the people. Under this goal, the Constitution Party favors a return of most governmental powers to the states, communities and the people.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "The Important Role of US Third Parties." ThoughtCo, Jul. 3, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, July 3). The Important Role of US Third Parties. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The Important Role of US Third Parties." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).