While history has seen numerous political parties in the United States, the Democrats and Republicans have effectively locked down control of the system. This is not to say that third-party candidates have not run (Jill Stein and Ralph Nader) or even won (Bernie Sanders). While the 2020 field has yet to be fully occupied, Starbucks “person of means” Howard Schultz expressed plans to run as an independent. While Donald Trump insulted him, Trump does want him to run. Alas for Schultz, few people seem to want to vote for an egotistical billionaire asshole. After all, one might say, we might already have one of those in office. While the relative merits of Schultz can be debated, I will focus on the more general matter of third-party candidates.
As noted above, the political machinery of the Republicans and Democrats have a lock on the political system. However, these parties do not date back to the founding of the country, thus showing that new parties can and have arisen to replace the old. As such, the idea of a successful third-party emerging is not absurd. That said, such a party would face two formidable cash-infused monsters who control the machinery of the state. While one party might see an advantage in a third-party that damaged their rival, both parties would presumably join forces in bipartisan unity to defend their shared lock on politics from a third party. Because of this, any third-party would face an uphill battle.
On the positive side, the number of independent or no-party-affiliation voters is quite large—according to a recent poll, 42% of Americans self-identify as independents. While independents presumably do not all share a unifying ideology, there are clearly enough of them to allow for a viable third-party candidate—if that candidate could get their support. The question is whether the independents could be motivated to form an organized third party that could challenge the two dominant parties. There is the concern that at least some of them are independents because they dislike the party system. But, the number of people outside the two parties is large enough for another viable party. The problem in the past has been, obviously enough, that third-party presidential candidates have not been able to capture enough of these independent voters.
In recent years, third-party candidates have tended to simply pull votes away from the other two parties with no chance of winning. In fact, third-party candidates are often used as (probably unwitting and unwilling) tools by the two dominant parties. For example, the Republicans have provided support to third-party candidates, such as Ralph Nader, they believed would pull away votes from the Democrats. This shows the main problem with third party candidates: since they are not viable, they merely serve as weapons for one of the existing parties. From a moral and practical standpoint, it would thus seem to follow that a potential third-party candidate who agrees mostly with the Republicans or Democrats should not run—in doing so, they simply increase the chances that someone they oppose will win.
But, if no one runs as a third-party candidate, then there is no chance that a third party can arise. As such, third-parties are in a rough place: if they put up candidates, they help one of the other parties win. If they do not put up a candidate, then they are irrelevant. One possible solution, that has been suggested by others, is for third-party candidates to stop running for president for now. Instead, they should focus on building political influence at the local and state level. Once the third-party holds a meaningful number of local and state offices, then they would have a more realistic chance at the presidential level. To use an analogy, third-parties tend to be a bit like amateur sports teams who insist on going up against the pro teams in the big games. They need to be more practical and build their team in the minor leagues of local and state government. As such, while I think that third-party candidates should not run for president now, I do think they should start preparing for a meaningful run in a decade or two. In regard to Schultz, we definitely do not need an egotistical “person of means” in the 2020 race.