April 3, 2024 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Third parties are a scam

They can’t win, but they can sap your will to make the world better.

Courtesy of CNN, via screenshot.
Courtesy of CNN, via screenshot.

Share this article

Robert F Kennedy Jr is in the news, so it’s time to talk about the effect of third parties on presidential elections. 

I’m not going to lead with the fact that they are spoilers, though that’s what they are, because I don’t want to put the initial emphasis on the major party candidates. I don’t want to do that, because it validates one of the arguments in favor of third parties – that a “true alternative” is a threat to the two-party status quo. 

Neither am I going to lead with sympathy for people who are looking for “true alternatives.” I trust most mean well, but this is the country we have. Let’s not pretend we don’t live here. And I’m just tired of this.

As Hillary Clinton said, when asked what she’d tell people who dislike the choice before them: “Get over yourself. Those are the two choices. One is old and effective and compassionate and has a heart and really cares about people. And one is old and has been charged with 91 felonies. I don’t understand why this is even a hard choice, really.”

RFK Jr, a member of one of America’s great political dynasties, knows third parties can’t win. If he wanted to change the system, he would work to change the system. He isn’t doing that, though. Why? Because changing the system isn’t the point – scamming you is. 

Instead, I want to lead with emphasis on third parties themselves. They are scams. Their candidates know they are scams. Third parties can’t win. Their candidates know they can’t win. They might even tell their supporters they know they can’t win, but that they should vote for them anyway, as a protest against the two-party status quo. 

That, my friend, is the scammiest scam of them all. 

I’m all for protesting the status quo. The status quo is often plainly evil. It should change for the sake not only of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but for the sake of real human dreams and lives lost to malicious laws and institutional inertia. By all means, protest that!

But there are a million ways to protest. 

Participate in public demonstrations. Write letters to the editor. (Publish a newsletter!) Join an advocacy. Send money to groups fighting for issues you believe in. Boycott businesses you dislike. Lobby elected officials. Urge them to keep promises. Enforce consequences when they don’t. Put real power in the hands of people you trust to make the world better and fairer. (Organize an “unaffiliated” vote to warn an incumbent about his policies regarding an overseas war.) 

There are thousands of productive ways of flexing your small-d democratic power. They are available to everyone. Use them.

You know what’s not a productive means of protest? Voting for a third party in a presidential election. Why? Because they can’t win. All you’d be doing is throwing away your power (and probably your dollars) as well as any hope in the promise and potential of democratic politics. They can’t win, but they can sap your will to make the world better. 

Why can’t they win? If you listen to people like RFK Jr, it’s because the two-party system is too powerful. In that story, you’re the victim and he’s your champion. That, my friend, is what a demagogue does.

Leave a tip here ($10?). Thanks!

They can’t win, because the system wasn’t designed for more than two parties. In presidential politics, the winner takes all. Second place gets nothing. Third place gets nothing. If you and I compete, and you get 50 percent plus one of the total vote, you get all the votes. I get zero. Only in a proportional system would I get a proportion of the votes. Only in that system would you, the winner, have to bargain with me to form a government. That’s how it’s done in Israel, for instance. Not here. 

The winner-take-all system means there’s only enough room for two parties to compete effectively. And just to spell it out in explicit terms – the parties themselves are not why third parties can’t win. The winner-take-all system is why. And the thing is, RFK Jr, a member of one of America’s great political dynasties, knows it. Think about that. He knows it, but he’s not saying it. He’s letting people believe otherwise.

If RFK Jr or any third-party candidate truly wanted to change the system, they would work to change the system. They would organize with others to establish, say, ranked-choice voting. They would work from the inside of the existing party structure in what’s called “fusion voting” to change the existing party structure. (This is where third parties at the state and local level can be effective.) They aren’t doing that, because changing the system isn’t the point – scamming you is. 

Third-party scammers like Robert F Kennedy Jr do more than spoil things for one of the major-party presidential candidates. They spoil democratic hope. They get well-meaning citizens to believe they are the only way of changing the system when they were never the only way. (There are thousands of ways!) And when they fail, and they always fail, supporters inevitably blame the two-party system when they should really be blaming the scammers who scammed them. 

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.