Eugene Debs in 1918: dared to challenge two-party rule and landed in jail

Two-party dictatorship

Third parties face a whole series of increasingly impossible hurdles. Daniel Lazare looks at how both Republicans and Democrats oppose democracy

Joe Biden claims to be defending democracy against the ravages of Donald Trump and his ‘Make America Great Again’ movement. But he is really undermining it.

The latest example of the misnamed Democratic Party’s war on democracy involves a third-party presidential bid mounted by Robert F Kennedy Jr - the 70-year-old son of Bobby Kennedy, whose own presidential campaign was cut short by assassination in 1968.

RFK Jr is an odd ball who gives new meaning the word, ‘eclectic’, by borrowing from the left and right - although these days it is mostly the latter. He is anti-vaccine, he believes in quack cures for Covid, he is pro-Zionist, and he believes that Nato expansionism triggered Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Most polls have him at around 12% or 13% - figures that will presumably fall, once the presidential election enters into the home stretch. But for now he is keeping Democrats up at night, worrying that he will steal away just enough votes to deprive Biden of victory in a half-dozen battleground states.

Their solution is to use an abundance of legal tricks - either to force him off the ballot or require him to spend so much money in litigation that he will have little left over to mount a campaign. Instead of allowing Americans to vote for the candidate of their choice, the Democrats’ aim is to allow them to vote only for a candidate vetted and approved by a self-serving political establishment.

Such a strategy is only possible in a country with some the most onerous voting laws on the books. All first-past-the-post voting systems encourage two-party duopolies by sending a clear and unmistakable message that, if people insist on voting for the party they like most, they could all too well end up propelling the party they like least across the finish line. Vote for a militant leftist, in other words, and the chances are that he or she will take so many votes away from a wishy-washy centrist that a conservative will end up slipping through. This is how winner-take-all systems work - they subtly, but powerfully, tilt the political field toward the status quo.

But the US is even worse. One reason is a complicated political structure that requires new parties to campaign not in one governing institution, but in several: ie, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the presidency, and perhaps state government too. But the United States has also installed a dense thicket of rules and regulations, whose purpose is to make any campaigning difficult. A new party can draw up a programme, sign up members and enlist candidates. But, since getting on the ballot can cost millions for lawyers and poll workers, that is often where it ends. They can go no further because a suffocating legal system will not let them.


The goal is obvious: to ensure bourgeois control. The process began around 1900, when new parties began to proliferate. The Socialist Party was the most prominent. It fielded hundreds of candidates for Congress and state and local offices, while its standard bearer, Eugene V Debs, racked up 902,000 votes in the 1912 presidential election and 914,000 in 1920, while serving a federal prison sentence for sedition. Other third parties also made inroads, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party in 1912 and Robert LaFollette’s Progressives in 1924. The Communist Party fielded some 1,200 candidates at all levels in 1932.

It was too much for a capitalist class reeling from the depression. When a black communist named Claude Lightfoot garnered 33,000 votes in a state legislative race in Chicago, the state responded not only by upping the number of signatures needed to qualify from 1,000 to 25,000, but by requiring the CP to obtain them in scores of rural counties, where the party was weak. Communists did their best to meet the new requirements, but fell short in five successive state-wide elections and were thus shut out.

Faced with a similar communist ‘threat’, Florida came up with another trick: bar any party from running that had not won at least 30% of the state vote in the previous two presidential elections. Alarmed by communist organising in the coalfields, West Virginia also hiked the number of signatures needed to qualify - in its case by a factor of seven. In 1937, California increased the number tenfold after the CP shocked the bourgeois establishment by fielding 35 candidates for Congress and the state legislature. Georgia and Ohio imposed draconian restrictions in the 1940s, while Missouri, Wyoming, Maryland and other states did so in the 1950s and after. Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal - supposedly an agent of democratic transformation - did nothing to halt such tendencies. Neither did the Supreme Court despite occasional decisions in favour of beleaguered third parties.1 The more post-war capitalism expanded, the more the political field needed to contract.

The result is that, where a few thousand signatures once sufficed, it now takes 675,000 to run nationwide, according to one advocacy group.2 The Socialist Equality Party, which is fielding Joseph Kishore and Jerry White for president and vice-president, estimates that the real number is more like 1.5 million in case of legal challenges. “In contrast,” the SEP notes, “getting on the ballot nationally in Russia - constantly denounced by the American media as the most authoritarian and undemocratic country in the world - requires the gathering of 100,000 signatures.”3

By that standard, America is roughly 15 times more undemocratic than Kremlin-type evil-doers. Moreover, the US political structure does not just hobble upstart parties: it also provides mainstream opponents with a wealth of opportunities to attack and harass. They can scrutinise third-party signatures for invalid addresses or other discrepancies. They can challenge whether a candidate is a bona fide resident of the district he/she is running in (US election law generally requires a politician to live in the state or district in which he/she is seeking office). They can scrutinise campaign donations to make sure all I’s are dotted and T’s crossed in that respect as well.

The result is lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, as new parties traipse from one courtroom or election board to another, trying to explain why they deserve a place on the ballot next to ‘real’ parties like the ‘Repocrats’.

Americans have little idea how far behind international standards they have fallen. In Britain, all a candidate needs to stand for parliament is 10 signatures in a given constituency plus a £500 deposit, to be returned if he or she gets five percent of the vote. Any party with 250 signed-up members can run in all 338 House of Commons districts in Canada, while any party with 500 can run in all House of Representatives races in Australia. (Individual candidates must also deposit AU$2,000, refundable if he or she racks up at least four percent.) Ireland, Finland, Denmark and Germany require no more than 250 signatures, while Austria and Belgium require up to 500 in larger districts. France and the Netherlands demand only paperwork. In 2006, the Council of Europe rebuked Belarus for requiring signatures greater than one percent of a district’s voters - a standard that US states routinely flout.4

A spokesman for Jill Stein, who ran as the Green Party presidential nominee in 2012 and 2016 and is hoping to get the nod again in 2024, was bitter now that more Democratic harassment is on the way. He said:

If this is the plan Democrats intend to use - to tie up third-party campaigns with trumped-up legalese or to change rules midstream, because they are afraid of losing voters to candidates who better represent their values and priorities - I don’t know how that can be considered an exercise in democracy. The Democrats appear to want to kill democracy in order to save it.5


Quite right. So why is America such an outlier? One reason, of course, is that it is an oligarchy, in which the top 10% monopolises two-thirds of all wealth, according to the latest statistics.6 Given the acute instability of such an arrangement, it is clear that the political establishment can tolerate democracy only in the most limited doses.

But another reason is constitutional. In an otherwise excellent article, Jacobin magazine, an arm of the Democratic Socialists of America, argued that third-party barriers have “nothing to do with the constitution or the founding fathers”, since they postdate them by a century or more.7 This is nonsense. The constitution has everything to do with it. However belatedly, third-party restrictions flow naturally from an 18th century document in which the word, ‘democracy’, nowhere appears.

To be sure, the new American system of government quickly gave rise to a novel political system, pitting Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party against Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s ‘Democratic Republicans’, as they were confusingly known. But, while such parties allowed for a high level of popular participation by the standards of the 1790s, they did not anticipate the mass parties pioneered by the Chartists and Social Democrats during the age of industrial capitalism and therefore failed to advance beyond an 1830s stage of development. When socialists tried to open the political system up some 70 years later, Democratic and Republican leaders responded as they were all but programmed to do - which was to close ranks against the newcomers and shut them out.

If Madison, the Virginia planter who served as the US constitution’s chief architect, viewed ‘faction’ as synonymous with “violence … instability, injustice and confusion” - not to mention “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property or for any other improper or wicked project” (to quote the famous 10th Federalist Paper) - then who were bourgeois party bosses to disagree? America had too much party democracy, as it was. It could stand no more.

Today, it can stand even less. Political parties are essentially voluntary associations in which citizens band together to fight for a common programme - socialism, ‘animal rights’, whatever. They come together, argue or split apart, as they try to persuade others to adopt their point of view. Given all that, Republicans and Democrats are not even parties at all. “No-one joins them, no-one pays dues to them and no-one attends monthly meetings to debate party policy or ideology,” I pointed out four years ago. “Instead of programmes, they have ‘platforms’ that are mostly for show and which candidate are free to ignore.”8 Rather than free associations, they are little more than highly regulated mutual-aid societies for aspiring politicians, corporate donors and Hollywood celebrities.

Some 63% of Americans believe a major third party is needed to break up the two-party monopoly, according to a Gallup poll last September. The same number expressed “not too much or no confidence at all in the future of the US political system,” according to another poll around the same time.9 It is a grim judgment on the part of a population yearning to breathe free. Yet the Democratic response is to tighten the political dictatorship even more, so that anti-Trump voters will have no option other than to vote for a party that stands for inflation, wage stagnation, social decay and war.

Authoritarianism is closing in, as Trump defends the January 6 insurrectionists as good patriots gone slightly astray, and Democrats seek to narrow voter options. Indeed, with Kennedy complaining about the “harsh treatment” of “J6” rioters, he seems to be embracing a brand of authoritarianism all his own. US democracy is so depleted at this point that it can only come up with authoritarian solutions to the problems that ail it.

It is not a good sign, and Biden is making it worse.

  1. R Winger, ‘How ballot access laws affect the US party system’ American Review of Politics No16 (winter 1995).↩︎

  2. www.cofoe.org.↩︎

  3. www.wsws.org/en/articles/2024/03/23/bzsf-m23.html.↩︎

  4. jacobin.com/2016/11/bernie-sanders-democratic-labor-party-ackerman.↩︎

  5. dailycaller.com/2024/03/20/dnc-dems-police-third-party-candidates-ballot-access-efforts-biden.↩︎

  6. www.statista.com/statistics/299460/distribution-of-wealth-in-the-united-states.↩︎

  7. jacobin.com/2016/11/bernie-sanders-democratic-labor-party-ackerman.↩︎

  8. ‘Explosive contradictions’ Weekly Worker February 23 2020: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1287/explosive-contradictions.↩︎

  9. news.gallup.com/poll/512135/support-third-political-party.aspx; www.pewresearch.org/politics/2023/09/19/americans-dismal-views-of-the-nations-politics.↩︎