After a debate that was arguably the most indecent in American history, it’s healthy to wonder “are Clinton and Trump really the only viable options?”

The Democrats and Republicans have largely been the only two choices in presidential and congressional elections since the Civil War. There have been a smattering of third party options, but by and large theirs has been a story of loss and denigration. But why? In order to determine why third parties fare so badly, we need a little more of the back story.

The History of the Two Parties

After the creation of the Constitution, those in power quickly realized that they needed to build strong and sustained coalitions in order to accomplish their political goals. George Washington saw this all too plainly and warned in his farewell address, “The alternate domination of one faction over another…is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”

Despite Washington’s warning, roughly two parties have almost always dominated throughout US history. Starting with the Federalists and the Democrat-Republicans, power in the legislature and executive rested in these and a few other parties until the Civil War. At that point, two parties held power: the Democrats, who generally supported the continuation of slavery, and the Republicans, who favored its elimination.

Following the Civil War, white Southerners largely voted Democrat (in part because southern African Americans favored the party of Lincoln), the two parties battled over the Midwest, and Republicans held the Northeast. While the two parties each enjoyed regional domination neither could be classified as liberal or conservative. For this reason, they could pass more bipartisan legislation drawing from either the liberal or conservative wing of each party.

This all changed in the 1960s when Republican Barry Goldwater famously told Georgia activists to stop chasing the African American vote and to “go hunting where the ducks are,” the ducks being white Democrats in revolt against integration. The development of the so-called “Southern Strategy” led to the party alignment that we see today. Since that time, there has been a steady polarization, either among voters or among representatives, depending on which political scientist you ask.

Republicans and Democrats

Ideologically, Republicans tend to be moderate to very conservative. Fiscally, that means lower taxes and a freer market. Socially, that means religious freedom, which entails the right to practice one’s religion and the right to conscientious objection. Republicans also have a strong attachment to the right to bear arms and do not think climate change is a pressing issue. In their opinion, governments should not be trusted and typically engages in corrupt behavior at worst and inefficient behavior at best.

Democrats tend to be moderate to very liberal. On the fiscal side, they value a social justice and government programs to assist those in need. On the social side, they favor as little government intrusion as possible, although some favor that promote healthier choices. They have a strong preference to limit access to guns and see climate change as an existential threat. In their opinion, those in government seek to help people and are free from the selfish motives seen in private industry.

Judging by this combination of interests, you might be thinking that each party is ideologically inconsistent, and you’d be right. Fiscally conservative people fit more naturally with socially liberal people; moderates do not comfortably fit into either party anymore. These facts have caused third party candidates to enter the fray hoping to convince voters that they have a better option.

The Role of Third Parties

In recent memory, the Reform Party, the Green Party, and the Libertarian Party have all played a role in American elections. Ross Perot running as an independent and then as the Reform party candidate presented a centrist alternative to the two parties. His candidacy is sometimes credited with causing both George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole to lose. Ralph Nader of the Green Party played spoiler in the 2000 election when Al Gore lost. Due to their tide-changing role in three elections, and the bleak prospects of winning any election outright, third parties are largely considered to be spoilers.

This year’s “spoilers” are Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. Johnson is offering an alternative to those who want limited government both fiscally and socially, and Stein has long been an advocate for seriously addressing climate charge. Both of these views do not have a comfortable home in either the Republican or Democratic Parties. And considering the historically low favorability ratings for both major party candidates, it appears to be harder than ever to make the case for the entrenched two party system in 2016. So what can be done?

Consider a few alternatives:

  1. The State of California holds elections using something called a “non-partisan blanket primary” or a “jungle primary”. In a jungle primary, all candidates run for the same elected office, regardless of political party. Under this system, the candidates receiving the most and second-most votes become the contestants in the general election. It is entirely possible that two candidates of the same political party could advance to the general election, but ideally this would promote two centrist candidates rather than two ideologically polarized candidates.
  2. In Parliamentary systems, where parties are represented proportionally to the percentage of votes they receive, two or more parties have to form coalitions in order to govern. This provides voters with smaller parties that focus on a more consistent group of (often niche) policies while also promoting compromise and deliberation.
  3. Finally, Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin suggest we create a “deliberation day” where candidates and voters spend a day debating the issues. This would create a more educated electorate and reduce the likelihood that candidates will try to package their message into soundbites.

This election has been ugly, divisive, insufficiently transparent, and recently downright appalling. As Reason’s Nick Gillespie points out, this election provides “airtight” evidence for why the American people need more electoral options in November. We should all hope those in and out of government hear the wake-up call.