I am not going to argue the merits of the American two-party system, but with that being said the American system has been in place for over two centuries, giving plenty of time for any sincere third party to gain a foothold. So why have so many third parties achieved so little?
But that's the wrong question to ask, third parties in the past have achieved a lot, not only by (intentionally or not) splitting the votes of one party thus improving the odds of another, but by adding to the national debate, addressing important issues that other parties won't touch, transforming the major parties, and occasionally they lead to the creation of a new dominant party.
But that was in the past. Today we have Republicans itching to tax, ready to "control" guns, eager to put the environment before prosperity, and willing to increase the size of government. We've also got quite a few Democrats that won't touch our guns, reluctant to raise taxes, ardently pro-life, and willing to limit government.
The point is that today's major parties are all over the map. If you're in a moderate state and you're a Democrat wanting to go to Congress, but the incumbent is also a Democrat, your best chance is to run as a Republican. People win like that. This doesn't bode well for a third party when every position has been taken by Republicans and Democrats.
The dominant parties are collapsing, not in a practical sense, but ideologically. Party affiliation is increasingly determined or at least willingly facilitated by location and expediency, not personal values or beliefs. Thank God there are still a few differences, otherwise we'd be calling them "party A" and "party B."
So what does this have to do with third parties not being taken seriously?
I'll start with this question: Can you name any third parties in American politics that aren't around today? If you named more than one or two consider yourself above average. There have been around 80, which is another sad fact by itself, that so many have disappeared with so little memory.
Another simple answer is that third parties are just that: third. If second place is the first loser what the hell is third? Some obscure fringe group not even worth mentioning? All too often these parties are only worth mentioning merely because they caused the otherwise unlikely electoral loss of a dominant party.
Third parties are traditionally the obscure, the fringe, or so damned principled that they leave the dominant party because of a disagreement over something like the gold standard, but many have formed in protest of both major parties.
Not only are third parties obscure, fringe and third, they are mainstream, moderate and consequently, 4th, 5th, 6th... 20th. It's all about ideology, the more radical you are, yeah you might identify more closely with the Communist party, but not too many others would vote for the Communist party. The more mainstream you are, the more you relate to the main parties, which is why not too many others would vote for your Libertarian party.
That's the problem with third parties, they too are all over the map, except they lack the luxury of simultaneously being united. The only strength the third parties have is disgruntlement with major parties, since every issue is already owned by them.
One could argue why third parties do so poorly is because of the major two, which is a valid argument. But let's not shift all the blame. Some third parties have done well, even nationally.
I mean, I could easily see myself voting for a Constitution party member or a Libertarian party member. I agree with a lot of what they advocate, except I won't vote for them. Foreign policy is very important to me. Those two parties are so damn isolationist it is like asking us to go backwards and ignore the threats abroad until we wake up on 9/11 again, or would 12/7 be a better example? At least the neocons and the realist Democrats are willing to do something abroad to protect our interests, including security interests.
But that's just me. I would find it hard to believe Americans care as much as I do about America's role in the world. It's not the issues that has got the Constitution Party and the Libertarian Party down, it's that they're populist in their message. I mean do you honestly think a majority of Americans are in favor of readily available abortions? I seriously doubt it, but that is the party that won, the Nancy Pelosi party. Or what about George Bush's stand on stem cell research, most Americans disagree with him. But we sure re-elected him. The big two aren't populist parties, and when it comes to spread their message they rally the base, not everybody who is listening.
The third parties of today won't be taken seriously most importantly because they're principled populists, oxymoronic if you ask me, but they pull it off nicely, so nicely they don't win much. I mean look at the Iraq war.
Pretend it's 2003. Everybody knows Saddam has WMDs or at least highly suspects it. France, Russia, & China screwed us at the UN, but Saddam remained. Whatever your party, you have to have a foreign policy of some kind, and a nuclear Saddam would really mess things up for our badly needed oil, or for downtown Manhattan with a briefcase and a lunatic. You may not have taken the steps Bush has, but you would have done something about Saddam. France, Russia and China sure the hell weren't going to. Yet every third party I can think of is most assuredly against the war in Iraq, it's on their front pages plain sight. It's as if they had known all along Saddam didn't have WMDs. But that don't matter, it's popular to be against the war, anybody can muster up any ol' principled stand to be against the war, and that's what they all did.
Being populist attracts few, especially for the long term. Win the hearts and minds of principled people, and you have a solid base, a base that can grow.
The third parties don't have the luxuries of the major parties, and that's why they don't have the luxury of being populist. But they sure give it hell. They'll take any stand for votes, accept any politician with clout, spread any message for publicity, and continue down the easy counterintuitive path of perpetual insignificance.
While we get screwed by the Republicans and Democrats, the third parties have got to learn to get their collective head out of their collective ass.