Is America Ready for a New Third Party? Third Parties in US History--And What They Mean (Part 2 of 5)

In the previous installment, we examined the current DC buzz about third parties, on the middle and on the right.   

In US history, third parties have arisen when a disaffected sector of the population felt that it had no true voice inside the existing two parties, and so it must find a new voice, in a new party. Typically, the third party has its moment in the sun, and then one of the two established parties co-opts its message and enlists its members, and so the third party disappears. Yet on rare occasions, the old parties can’t co-opt the new message, and so the third party actually displaces one of the two parties.  

Such was the case, for example, in 1854, when rising Abolitionist fervor in the North collided with the reality that the Whig Party, having dominated the North for decades, could not make up its mind on the issue on slavery. Meanwhile, the Southern-dominated Democratic Party remained firmly in favor of “states’ rights,” which meant, in practice, the continuation of slavery in Dixie.  And so the Republican Party sprang up as a third party; it nominated a presidential candidate two years later who finished second in a three-way race.  And four years after that, in 1860, the upstart Republicans elected Abraham Lincoln. By then the Whig Party had completely collapsed, and in the North, at least, most of its members became Republicans.  

In other words, the Republican Party had come up from third-party status to first-party status in a hurry; from 1860 to 1912, the GOP won 11 of 13 presidential elections against the Democrats.

Yet dominant as the Republicans were in the half-century after the Civil War, they did not speak for everyone, especially in the Plains States and the West. And neither did the Democrats, who  still bore the political stigma of rebellion.  

In the 1870s, millions of Americans came to see the Republican Party as the champion of big business, especially the railroads. In addition, Republican hard-money policies--a firm adherence to the gold standard--had the effect of deflating prices and thus hurting debtors, who had to pay back in ever more expensive dollars. New groups, calling themselves the People’s Party, or the Populists, or some variant thereof, sprang up everywhere but the Northeast; they demanded more regulation of business and, in effect, more inflation, through the use of silver, as well as gold, to back US currency. It was a radical platform for the time, putting the Populists to the left of the Democrats of that era, on economic issues. 

The Populists were never well organized, but they were able to gain third-party status in many states, and, as a result, they were able to elect their candidates to statewide and federal office.  

In the 1892 presidential election, former Iowa Republican congressman James B. Weaver, running on the People’s Party line, won 8.5 percent of the vote and a total of four states, against incumbent Republican president Benjamin Harrison and Democratic challenger Grover Cleveland.   

Cleveland won the election, and over the next four years, something interesting happened: Most Populists joined the Democratic Party, inspired by “The Great Commoner,” William Jennings Bryan, a former Democratic Congressman from Nebraska.  It was Bryan who electrified the masses with his legendary speech at the Chicago Democratic convention, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!” Bryan stirred ‘em good, but he lost the 1896 presidential election, and lost again, in 1900 and 1908. Still, for better or for worse, the Populists had been mostly folded into the Democratic Party.  

That’s a key pattern we can see over and over: When a third party gains political traction, one of the two major parties co-opts it. And that’s why there’s been no third party to emerge as a serious force since the Republicans’ breakout in 1860.  

In 1912, former Republican president Teddy Roosevelt tried mightily to launch a new party, the Progressive Party, which won 27 percent of the vote and six states that year. The Progressive Party soon disappeared, to be sure, but it nevertheless left a legacy. The ‘12 presidential election broke the iron grip of the Republicans on the White House, and it also put a significant new idea on the public agenda: national health insurance.  The Democratic Party, of course, soon picked up the idea, and the rest is history, all the way to Obamacare a century later.  

We can note a distinct pattern in third-party politics from 1870s through the 1920s; the third parties were almost on the left. We can therefore conclude that it was the left--from populists to progressives to socialists and communists--who felt most unheard by the Republicans and Democrats of that era. Indeed, the coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal put left-wing third parties to sleep; who needed them if FDR’s Democrats would accomplish many of the same goals?   

Yet if the New Deal-era Democratic Party was moving left, what would happen to an older kind of Democrats--from the South? The folks of the Old Confederacy were not likely to cotton to the union organizers and civil-rights integrators.  So once again, a big voting bloc was on the move. 

Beginning in the 1940s, the ideological pendulum had began to swing yet again. Now it was the right that was growing restive. In 1948, Strom Thurmond, the Democratic governor of South Carolina, a strapping World War Two veteran who had parachuted into Normandy Beach while in his 40s, bolted from the Democratic in protest against President Harry Truman’s pro-civil rights policies. Thurmond viewed the Republican nominee that year, Tom Dewey, as just another Yankee liberal, and so led the “Dixiecrat” (formally, the States’ Rights Democratic Party) ticket in the November election, winning four southern states, although he was unable to prevent Harry Truman from being re-elected. 

The Dixiecrat party disappeared, but the migration of Southern Democrats into the Republican Party commenced; Thurmond endorsed Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and formally switched parties a dozen years later, in solidarity with Republican Barry Goldwater. In 1968, George Wallace, the once and future Democratic governor of Alabama, not reconciled to being a Republican, tried to start yet another third party, the American Independent Party, but after a strong regional showing in the ’68 general election, that party fizzled, too. In 1972, Republican Richard Nixon won every Southern state in a landslide; by the 90s, the Republicans were fully dominant across Dixie.   

Along the way, of course, the Southern-fried Republicans have become far more conservative, thus snuffing out would-be third parties on their right wing. And at the same time, the post-New Deal Democrats have stayed firmly on the left, snuffing out third parties on their left wing.  

So we can see, once again, that a third party movement erupted, and then subsided, as it was consolidated into one of the two major parties. This has been the pattern, now, for a century-and-a-half.   So far, at least, either the Democrats or the Republicans have been effective at co-opting new surges of enthusiasm.  

And that’s why the newest group with a grudge against the status quo--people in the middle--have had a hard time punching through.  

In 1980, liberal Republican Congressman John Anderson of Illinois ran against Ronald Reagan for the GOP presidential nomination. Anderson lost that bid, of course, but during the course of his campaign in the Republican primaries, he gained media attention and a devoted following in yuppie precincts.  Although no conservative, he was also not a true liberal. Indeed, he was much more in tune, culturally, with many affluent Americans than either Reagan or the born-again-Christian incumbent, Jimmy Carter.  

So Anderson chose to run as an independent in the ’80 general election. At his peak, he was polling in the 20s, although by election day he had fallen down to below seven percent in the actual balloting. Still, it was possible to see in the Anderson candidacy a disgruntled yuppie knowledge-worker class, which felt alienated from both the Democratic and Republican orthodoxies. For a brief moment in the mid-80s, it seemed as though Sen. Gary Hart (D-CO) might be able to capture that post-industrial middle, but then, of course, Hart dissolved in his own sexual muddle. 

Then came Ross Perot as a centrist-populist independent in 1992, focusing on the economy while ignoring social issues. He won nearly 20 percent of the vote--the best showing for a third party since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912--and given his lavish self-financed campaign, he might possibly have won had he not been, well, eccentric.   

Yet the relative success of the Perot campaign proved that there was/is an opening in the middle, for candidates who focus on middle-of-the-road issues such as deficit-reduction while eschewing discussion of hot-button social issues.  

Indeed, Perot opened yet another door in the middle: Nobody seemed to mind that he was spending his own money in the 90s, and so, ever since, more and more “self-funders” have come forth, most of them promising to put their business expertise to work in politics. And so rumors abounded, in fact, that another self-declared centrist independent, Michael Bloomberg--far richer than Perot--might run as a pragmatic indy presidential candidate in 2008 or 2012.    

Bloomberg never did, of course, and he was candid as to why: He didn’t think he could win. Can’t get much more pragmatic than that.   

So that’s where we are today: The two major parties have tamped down restless spirits on their respective ideological edges--or at least they think that they have. Yet meanwhile, the center bubbles with enthusiasm for something new, stoked by the sense that new money and new technology could open up new electoral possibilities.   

We’ll look at that restless middle in the next installment.   

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