What Role Have Third Party Alternatives Played in America?

Adapted from: The Week, July 9, 2004.

Whether liberal or conservative, populist or separatist, all third parties share one belief: The country’s political system is broken, and only an outsider can fix it. In 1968, when George Wallace ran for president on the American Independent ticket, he thundered that there wasn’t “one dime’s worth of difference” between Republicans and Democrats. Running as a Green 32 years late; Ralph Nader told voters, “Don’t go for the lesser of two evils. At the end of the day, you end up with evil.” Historian David M. Kennedy com¬pares third parties to the biblical prophet Jeremiah, whose divine mission was to purge the world of “sin and corruption.”

The earliest third party was the Anti-Mason, who wanted to curb the secret society’s supposedly nefarious influ¬ence on American life. In 1832 their candidate, William Wirt, won 8 percent of the popular vote against Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. Among the more successful early third-party contenders were the Southern Democrats’ John Breckinridge and the Constitutional Union’s John Bell, who in 1860 won 18.1 percent and 12.6 percent of the popular vote respectively.

Third party candidates have never won the presidency? The reason seems to be that history is stacked against them. For more than two centuries, American politics has been dominated by two big com¬peting ideas, represented by two parties. At the nation’s founding, Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists backed a strong central govern¬ment; Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans favored power for the states. Both parties faded in the nonpartisan “Era of Good Feeling,” which followed the War of 1812, but were reborn in 1832 with the advent of Andrew Jackson. Jackson, a Jeffersonian of an expansionist, egalitarian cast, began the modern Democratic Party. He was opposed by reconstituted Federalists, who called their party the .Whigs. By 1854, the Whigs had evolved into a pro-Union, anti-slavery party known as the Republicans.

In 1908 as Theodore Roosevelt prepared to leave the White House he urged his fellow Republicans to nominate Secretary of War William Howard Taft as his successor. Roosevelt assumed Taft would continue his legacy of trust busting protecting the environment, and regulating the food and drug industries. But as president, Taft disappointed his mentor, who decided the republic would be better off if he returned to the White House. In 1912 Roosevelt broke away from the Republicans and, as the nominee of the progressive “Bull Moose” Party, challenged Taft for the presidency. On the campaign trail Roosevelt denounced his 326-pound protégé as a fathead and a “puzzle-wit.” Taft responded by calling Roosevelt a “dangerous egotist and a demagogue”. In private he was devastated by T.R’s enmity. Roosevelt was my closest friend he told a reporter through his tears. In 1918 six years after both were defeated by Woodrow Wilson, Taft and Roosevelt chanced to meet in a Chicago hotel They spoke warmly and at some length, but it was their last conversation. Roosevelt died the next year. Taft journeyed to his funeral at Sagamore Hill on Long Island stood over the grave, and wept.

Today, there are five officially recognized third parties on a national level: Reform, Libertarian, Green Constitution (formerly the U. S. Taxpayers Party) and the Natural Law. All of these parties have qualified for ballot line in presidential elections by get¬ting 100,000 or more votes for at least one of their candidates in the past 20 years. Over the previous 200 years, though, there have been literally dozens of third parties.

Third parties often focus on a single main issue and force it into the mainstream of American political life. It was third parties that first pressed for emancipation, female suffrage, prohibition, and an end to child labor Socialist Eugene V. Debs lost both his 1912 and 1920 presidential runs, but much of his platform, like Social Security, ulti¬mately formed the basis of the modem welfare state. Before 1992, neither Democrats nor Republicans paid much attention to the run¬away federal deficit. Then came the Reform Party and H. Ross Perot. Running a largely self-funded, highly quixotic campaign, the eccentric billionaire sounded the dangers of an unbalanced budget. His message was so popu¬lar that he got 19 million votes -19 percent of the total. Both major parties took notice and quickly began preaching fiscal responsibil¬ity. But that wasn’t Perot’s only impact.go19 million votes -19 percent of the total. Both major parties took notice and quickly began preaching fiscal responsibil¬ity. But that wasn’t Perot’s only impact.

Like many third-party candidates before him, he probably changed the outcome of the election. Perot drew millions of votes away from the incumbent Republican, President George H.W. Bush, and allowed Bill Clinton to be elected with just 43 percent of the vote. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt bolted from the Republicans to run as the nominee of the Progressive Party. Roosevelt pulled in a whopping 27.5 percent of the popular vote, splitting the GOP and costing incumbent William Howard Taft the presidency. Taft got just 23.2 percent, and the Democratic challenger, Woodrow Wilson, won with 41.9 percent. In the historic election of 2000, Ralph Nader played a similar spoiler role, and Democrats now blame him for handing the White House to George W. Bush.

The numbers would certainly support this view. Nader probably cost Gore the electoral votes of 11 states where the margin between the Democratic and Republican candidates was razor thin. In Florida alone, Nader won 97,488 popular votes. Bush ultimately was deemed the winner of that state by 537 votes. A national exit poll by the Voter News Service found that if Nader hadn’t run, 47 percent of his voters would have gone for Gore, and 21 percent for Bush.

Usually third parties, (if they don’t disappear outright), are generally co-opted by their competitors. More than a million people voted for the Populist candidate, James B. Weaver, in 1892. A decade later, the Populists barely existed: Republicans and Democrats alike had stolen many of their planks, including railroad regulation, direct election of sena¬tors, and the 40-hour workweek. In 1924, Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette ran as the Progressive candidate on an anti-corpo¬rate, pro-labor platform. Come the Depres¬sion, New Deal Democrats absorbed his remaining followers. In 1968, Richard Nixon recognized George Wallace’s appeal to working-class whites who feared urban unrest and rising crime. Exploiting those anxieties in 1972, Nixon convinced many of Wallace’s supporters to vote Republican. He won reelection by a landslide. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter put it, “Third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die.”

Will we ever consider supporting a third party alternative in order to stop the lack of cooperation between the Democrats and the Republicans and sincerely address what is best for American and not what is in the best interests of our elected officials? Only your vote will tell.

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