This question sounds naive at first, but let me explain:

In most sources it is argued that the "first past the post" system of voting favours the existence of just two (relevant) political parties. While I understand the argument, this is not true everywhere. Take e.g. Great Britain, which has strong regional parties, not only in Northern Ireland, but also in Scotland and Wales. Even in some parts of England, the Liberal Democrats win seats. As far as I know, the same is true for Canada.

Also in France, Macron created his own party and won the elections, while there where still some other parties winning seats.

So, why does the USA not have an important third party, e.g. a regional party? Why, in its history of more than 200 years, with a lot of changes, with parties being founded and parties changing there attitude towards important topics (like the Democrats towards civil rights), there was never a third party that survived?

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    Actually the Republicans were a third party that survived, but that was because the Whigs fell apart.
    – Mary
    May 17, 2020 at 15:04
  • I would say that as both Canada and the UK have a non-elected Head of State, then this comparison isn't quite the same. France is more apt, but they still have an internal leader (Prime Minister) which is a position not in existence in the US. Therefore, these comparisons are not quite as equal as you'd think. Possibly Japan is better than the ones you suggested because the Emperor is near-enough figurative to not matter in daily life (as much as I understand), and there you get two major parties with no other options.
    – gktscrk
    May 17, 2020 at 15:07
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    You need to do some more research. the US has more than two political parties. May 17, 2020 at 16:12
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    @KorvinStarmast So, then tell me which third party has won a reasonable amount of seats in congress? May 17, 2020 at 16:33
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    This question has an answer on Politics SE if you're interested. Might have something to add that isn't already mentioned here.
    – Chipster
    May 18, 2020 at 3:22

4 Answers 4


The big difference is right there under your nose: The Presidency. Its a very powerful office under the US system, and its (more or less) directly elected in a (more or less) first-past-the-post manner.

France does have a similar system with its presidency, but it is (only?) a semi-presidential system, not the full-blown one the US has. Under the French system their legislature actually handles the day-to-day "executive" running of the governmental machinery. All but a very few types of Presidential actions under their system must be counter-signed by the Prime Minister or approved by Parliament. For example, the French president's office cannot unilaterally fire civil servants it has become annoyed with, as US administrations can and do. It is simply a far less powerful position, and thus doesn't really hurt anything important if the holder is a political operator outside of the existing party system.

The US uses a full-blown Presidential System, where the entire executive branch is under the control of the President, and legislative leaders have no real power beyond drafting and passing laws (and even then, it has to either have the assent of the President, or they have to really really want that law). In short, it can be very difficult for either branch to do their job properly if the other branch doesn't want them to. This means the US presidency not only can never really operate outside of the political system, but rather sits at its very apex. They are inherently the national leader of their party.

So what the US has is a system where the pinnacle of political power in the country is an office elected via a first-past-the-post national plebiscite (with some annoying/endearing complicating machinery). This is where Duverger's Law kicks in. Since the entire rest of the country's political machinery is tied to that office, the only political parties that can be considered effective under this system are ones that can plausibly capture the Presidency and get a majority or near majority in Congress. There mathematically cannot be more than 2 of those.

  • (+1) Since 1962, the French political system is more presidential than you describe. Outside of cohabitation (which a 2000 reform was designed to eliminate), the president basically runs the government. Formally, many decisions are taken by the prime minister (including naming some key civil servants without any parliamentary oversight) but s/he has no real autonomy. My guess is that the electoral system is a bigger difference, it's not purely FPTP, which is one reason the party landscape has always been very unstable.
    – Relaxed
    May 18, 2020 at 17:30
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    Imma let it slide this time, but please in the future do not make trivial edits to posts just to change from the poster's native US spellings to UK spellings, or visa versa.
    – T.E.D.
    May 23, 2020 at 18:03

You are missing the trees for the forest.

Congress and the Presidency are two very different beasts, elected in two very, very different ways.

The dominance of two political parties in presidential races is because all of the larger and medium sized states are winner take all at the Electoral College. Many of these, the so-called swing states, will be decided by quite small margins. Running as a third party candidate ensures the victory of the Party furthest from your own political views, as most recently happened with Ralph Nader's run in 2000. Any habit of making political enemies in this way out of potential allies is a fast road to nowhere.

By contrast, in Congress one must really acknowledge that the lack of party discipline in both houses means there is in reality 535 political parties: 435 in the House and another 100 in the Senate. Yes, almost all of these are associated with one or other of the two large funding organizations known as The Democratic Party and The Republican Party - but these are at best broad coalitions of general political alignment. The vote of each Representative and Senator is effectively for sale to the highest bidder on every call of the roll. That's why there is so much, and has always been so much, pork barrel in American political bills since urbanization of the States started for earnest about the same time as post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Finally, what the drys and suffragettes discovered in the late 19th century is that a far more effective means of influencing political decision-making (than running third party candidates) was to, for lack of a more descriptive term, "extort" compliance from already elected Representatives and Senators. A vocal minority of voters determined to block-vote on a single issues easily swings elections, and more and more easily as overall participation drops as it always does on off-presidential years. This in turn was possible because of the lack of Party Discipline and any true Parliamentary Whip as in a Westminster system.

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    There's another aspect that I think fits your answer, Pieter. In the UK system, coalitions are formed after elections, whereas over time the in the US system the coalitions tend to be pre formed. May 17, 2020 at 16:14
  • @KorvinStarmast: The U.S. funding apparatus and alignment is pre-formed - but the coalition building occurs on every; single; call; of; the; roll; in; both; houses. May 17, 2020 at 17:24
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    I don't quite get your point about "535 political parties". Congress nowadays is highly polarized - with staggering accuracy, it's possible to predict how a Congressperson will vote based solely on whether they have a D or an R next to their name. In the House, the vast majority of votes are cast along party lines, not really suggestive of a diversity of party stances among representatives. May 18, 2020 at 14:07
  • @KorvinStarmast - My typical argument there is that under the US system coalitions are formed prior to the election, and then the voters decide which coalition is Government and which is Opposition.
    – T.E.D.
    May 18, 2020 at 17:44

First, as others have mentioned, there are more than just two parties in US politics. Well-known third parties include the Libertarian & the Green Parties. And there are some that are significant on the local level, such as the Vermont Progressive Party, which has members in both houses of the Vermont state legislature.

But the reason there aren't any significant third parties is simple: lack of infrastructure. By "infrastructure", I mean some form or organization that continues to exist even after a failed election.

I'm not very familiar with how elections work in countries other than the US, but in this country running for most offices is a very complex & labor-intensive endeavor. It involves much more than getting one's name on the ballot, knocking on doors, & participating in debates & meeting with people to gain their endorsements. (In some races, there are no debates or organized groups who can offer useful endorsements.) Knowing how to do this comes from experience, that is having people around with this experience -- or have participated in previous elections.

Now after a successful election is that those who were the most useful get hired on as staff -- which means they are available for the next election to other candidates of that party. But what happens with these people after an unsuccessful election?

When it comes to the Democratic & Republican parties, there are paying jobs that can be given to these people so their knowledge is not lost. Often they are jobs in the party, or other political appointments, or sometimes make-work positions in the private sector. These people comprise what you might call the party infrastructure.

But when it comes to an unsuccessful election with a third party, there is no easy way to keep ahold of them -- beyond appealing to their loyalty & ideology. Which works only so far: working fiercely 6 or 7 days a week to get someone elected, only to lose badly (most third parties get less than 10% of the vote), is discouraging. The Democratic & Republican parties are challenged to recruit volunteers to work campaigns, which means running a state-level third party is even a bigger one.

And then there are various legal barriers in place to discourage third parties; these vary from state to state. (On the other hand, it's an open secret that Republican operatives will help a Green candidate get on the ballot so to draw votes from the Democrats in a close election; & yes, the Democrats have been known to help a Libertarian candidate for the same reason.)

Infrastructure is the reason why Bernie Sanders, the sole Socialist currently in the Senate, decided to run as a Democrat: the Democratic party has the infrastructure that a third party candidate can only dream to have.


An important issue is that the American President is elected separately from the determination of the majority party in the legislative body in the United States.

In most European countries, the head of government is the leader of either the majority party in the legislative body (House of Commons, L'Assemblee, Bundestag, etc.), or more likely, the head of the majority coalition, in a multiparty setting. In this kind of situation, it makes sense for a number of small parties to form in order to represent competing interests in the legislature, then band together to choose the national leader. Under "European" rules, the President of the United States might be Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader, and we, like Germany, would have had a female CEO already.

But in the U.S., the race for the Presidency is distinct from the legislative election process discussed above. It has its own special rules, including the Electoral College alluded to in the last paragraph, which cause the Presidential race to lend itself better to a two party system. Basically, a President needs to win with a plurality in each state, and then win a majority of state electoral votes. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won with about 60% of 60%, that is a majority of votes in states with a majority of electoral votes. His theoretical vote total could have been 36% or even less, but he won a few "stray" votes elsewhere to come to 40%.

"Third party" candidates (Ross Perot in 1992, Robert LaFollette in 1920) tend not to gain traction. (One partial exception, the "Bull Moose" Party, was led by a former President against the incumbent President.) Although this is true mainly at the Presidential level, this has also discouraged fragmentation of the legislature as well.

Here's how "European" rules might have worked in an American context. In the 2000 Presidential election, George Bush Jr. and Albert Gore Jr. both won 48% of the popular vote. Ralph Nader, of the Green Party won 3%. Assuming that legislative seats had been apportioned in proportion to the popular vote, Nader, with his 3%, would have formed a coalition with either Bush or Gore (probably the latter), to arrive at 51%. Conceivably a winning "bidder" (possibly Bush), might have made Nader president in exchange for the Vice-Presidency and a dominant Cabinet. (In 1933 Germany, conservatives made Adolf Hitler Chancellor in exchange for the Vice-Chancellorship and 8 out of 11 Cabinet seats; they thought they could control Hitler, and they were wrong.)

In 2000, nothing of the sort happened. In fact, Bush was made President by the electoral college even though he had fewer popular votes than Gore. Not only did he have fewer votes than Gore plus Nader, he even had fewer votes than Gore and Nader together in Florida (the "tipping point" state).

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