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The Principle of Minority Power
It Makes a Viable Third Party Possible

In Brief: Minority power can work by denying majority power to all the parties. Suppose, for example that the Senate had forty-nine Democrats, forty-nine Republicans, and two Senators from a third party. No committee could be formed, no rule changed, and no bill passed without cooperation of at least two of the parties.
Click to read about America's Last Successful Third Party.

The Principle of Minority Power: To understand the principle of minority power, it may be necessary to forget what we think we know about American politics. In this country, we've seldom experienced significant examples of minority power, over any extended period of time. (See the article on the establishment of the Republican Party.)

We usually think and work in terms of majority power. The one with the most votes, the most legislators, the most court seats, or the most money wins.

Minority power functions by denying majority power to all the parties. It's easy to use the U. S. Senate as an example, because there are exactly 100 seats in the Senate. With two parties, one will always have a majority (unless there's an exact tie). If the Democrats hold forty-nine seats, the Republicans hold fifty-one. If the Republicans hold forty-nine, the Democrats hold fifty-one. And whichever party holds fifty-one or more controls everything.

But if there were three parties, it would be possible for no party to hold a majority. Possible—not guaranteed. If one party held fifty-one seats, it would still control everything. But if the largest only held forty-nine seats, that party wouldn't control anything by itself. It would have to attract members from at least one of the other parties, in order to do anything at all.

Imagine a Three-Party Senate
In a three-party situation, if two of the parties are opposed on any issue, the third party gains tremendous power—even if that party is tiny. Imagine a Senate with forty-nine Democrats, forty-nine Republicans, and only two members in a third party—call it the Little-Engine Party. If the Democrats and the Republicans agreed on an issue, the Little-Engine Party would have no power. But suppose the two large parties were diametrically opposed, as they often are today. Imagine the Democratic party solidly aligned to support one version of a a tax bill, and the Republicans in favor of another. Neither party could pass its bill without the two lonely members of the Little-Engine party. The Little-Engine party would have three options. They could vote with the Democrats, they could vote with the Republicans, or—they could write their own tax bill, and seek some Republicans and some Democrats to support it.

Of course, if the Little-Engine party favored extreme tax measures that neither large party wanted, the big parties could simply work together to write a tax bill on which they could agree, and leave the Little-Engine party out of the decision. Or some coalition of the three parties could craft a tax bill that would actually work for most Americans, without damaging the rest. That hasn't happened in our lifetimes.

Independents Can Also Be Effective
Minority parties actually aren't essential for minority political power. Independent Senators or Representatives can be just as powerful as a third party, as long as there are enough of them to deny the majority to both of the major parties. Look again at the above example, featuring the Little Engine Party, but instead of the tiny party, imagine that two Senators are independents. On any issue where neither of the independents vote with either of the major parties, the two independents, working together, would have just as much power as a small party. They could even introduce legislation, and recruit support for it from members of the big parties.

Coalition & Consensus
The beauty of a minority power situation, where no party holds an absolute majority, is that coalition and consensus are required for any action. That is what changes everything.

Our founding fathers understood majority and minority power. They understood how the majority can tyrannize a minority, and they built protections against that kind of tyranny into the Constitution. That's why there are three independent branches of government instead of two.

Unfortunately, after working so hard to avoid a two-part structure in the government itself, they immediately fell into the establishment of an informal two-party power structure. If there's a heaven—and if Franklin, Madison and Jefferson drink brandy at night discussing what they accomplished, and what we've done with it—they surely still rue their failure to constitutionally protect against majority party power. But we can correct their failure, by building viable minority parties, and then using them collaboratively to permanently change the rules of governance, perhaps even the constitution, to protect us from the tyranny of the majority.

Click to:
Read about America's Last Successful Third Party

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The political saga of the past several years has brought changes across the polical spectrum. It has not, however, changed the fundamental principles expressed on these pages.

Some of the pages have been revised, and some await revision, to add content and to update specific references to parties, events, etc. While that revision proceeds, please read the information posted here for its fundamental ideas and principles.

As always, your comments are welcome: leaveparty@greatreality.com

copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson