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Third Parties in American History: Not Usually Effective Agents of Change

[ 79 ] July 26, 2011 |

In the comments to the post on moving American politics to the left, a number of people have talked about the value of 3rd parties in turning the main 2 parties to your position. I am skeptical and I think that a cursory look at the major 3rd parties in American history suggests that the argument for the efficacy of 3rd parties is only tenable in its most shallow form.

1. The Republican Party–The Republican Party really isn’t a 3rd party but people call it such. What was happening is that the Whig Party had collapsed over the issue of slavery. Something had to replace it because it was no longer a tenable entity. The Know-Nothings nearly won the day and probably would have had the South not overplayed its hand with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But there is little to no relevancy here for thinking about 3rd parties today.

2. The Liberal Republicans–The classic top-down 3rd party with zero staying power, the Liberal Republicans of 1872 consisted almost wholly of Republican elites who didn’t like that Grant was trying to enforce Reconstruction. Disappeared by 1873. Absolutely no relevance to the present except as an example of how limited top-down 3rd parties are.

3. Populism–This is the most complicated. People cite the Populists as moving the Democrats to the left. Maybe. Certainly Bryan was to the left of Grover Cleveland. But it’s also important to note that many of the actual reforms desired by the Populists were accomplished by the Progressives, who were by and large Republicans. When Wilson became the next Democratic president, he was probably the least reform-minded of the 3 candidates in 1912. If you look at his record, he got a bunch of legislation passed in 1913 and then did as little as possible until he realized that the nation was demanding more reforms and he needed to get something passed in 1916 in order to get re-elected. Of course, 1916 and 1896 are a long time apart, but it’s not like the Populists somehow made the Democratic Party a standard-bearer of the left. Bryan won the nomination twice, but in 1904 it went to Alton Parker, who was more in the mold of Cleveland than Bryan.

The Populists were also only sort of a 3rd party. As several historians have noted, the Populists made hay where, in effect, states were controlled by a single party, whether the Democrats in the South or the Republicans on the Plains. They were a response to the complete inability of people to influence the shockingly corrupt state legislators of the Gilded Age. In states that had legitimate two-party competition, the Populists made very little headway.

4. The Bull Moose Party. Another top-down entity that disappeared as soon as Roosevelt threw the election to Wilson. Arguably the apotheosis of the Progressive movement, but utterly without cohesion and really made little difference in American history. Gets a lot of play because of the TR self-promotion machine, but of limited real importance.

5. The Dixiecrats (and other segregationist third parties of the civil rights era)–These were a response to changing party and regional dynamics and were part of a fairly natural realignment. Not sure what relevance there is here to today.

6. Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party–A complete failure. Did not turn the Democratic Party to the left. Marginalized and soon forgotten.

7. The Green Party–If Nader hadn’t thrown the election to Bush, it would be a total irrelevancy. It certainly did not move the Democratic Party to the left. If anything, it increased the marginalization of the party’s left-wing by showing the lack of commitment to party structure among liberals.

So I don’t see any useful examples from the past that suggest creating a 3rd party is going to do anything other than throw elections to Republicans. The only reasonable possibility is along the lines of something Historiann suggests, that the Democratic Party no longer remains a functioning entity and that a new party rises from its ashes like the Republicans in 1854. There are 2 problems with this. First, I don’t know what the issue is that would make the Democrats crumble as a structure. There is nothing like slavery out there; if anything, such a scenario would see Republicans break over abortion. Except, and this gets to the 2nd problem, right-wing Republicans showed how to take over a party structure rather than blow up the party. That’s how you get things done. These calls for a 3rd party always assume that they will be of The People and will somehow remain immune to big-money politics. And I don’t see any evidence for that.

The only solution is to take over the Democratic Party from the inside.

Update–It’s been noted that I forgot the Socialist Party, which made its great stand in 1912. Not sure this changes anything though. Like the Populists, the Socialists were part of a huge upheaval of demands for social change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While Eugene Debs was a powerful voice for the poor and while the Socialists had success in winning local elections in Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee, I don’t think you can make an argument that they really moved either major party to the left. In 1912, all 4 legitimate candidates were running on platforms that called for some level of social change.

Comments (79)

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  1. calling all toasters says:

    Time to get clean for Gene.

  2. Malaclypse says:

    There is nothing like slavery out there; if anything, such a scenario would see Republicans break over abortion.

    I think the Republicans are a whole lot more likely to break over immigration and hating non-pale people. The CoC wants immigration, the base does not.

    • DocAmazing says:

      The other minority issue that’s hurting the Rs is gay marriage and the treatment of LGBT folks in general. There are more than a few big donors who naturally tend toward CoC Republicanism, but who won’t go near the party anymore because it’s been taken over by snake-handlers and survivalists. Those donors are making their way to the DLC.

      • Malaclypse says:

        But I don’t think most CoC types care about abortion/sexuality issues one way or the other. It really does not impact their bottom line, and they are personally wealthy enough to insulate themselves from the effects of hate. Think Lindsay Graham loses any sleep when a gay kid gets beat up in a redneck bar?

        Immigration hurts the bottom line. So will default.

    • JRoth says:

      But bear in mind that the CoC is effectively radicalized as well. It still has a friendly, Main Street Republican public image (it’s not clear to me what local chapters are like), but the national org is about as moderate as Randians (in fact, I’m not sure there’s any daylight between the two in practice).

      The result of this is that, even though they don’t agree with the radical Christian base on all issues, they’re not in any sense more moderate, and thus don’t have any problem sharing the tent with other radicals.

      As for hating non-pale people, the GOP is making a pretty good go of it as the Party of Whites, holding a majority of even under-30 whites right now. It’s been said for years that this road leads to electoral doom due to demographic realities, but I’m not so sure. 80% of the white male vote + 55% of the white female vote + a smattering of well-off minorities sounds like a pretty solid coalition to me, especially since turnout is much higher (particularly in off years).

      • Murc says:

        Digression; local Chambers of Commerce can be incredibly hit and miss depending on local politics, demographics, and what political era you are talking about.

        During the Civil Rights era, local Chambers in the deep south would be instrumental in enforcing segregation, and were a powerful social tool for doing so. At the same time, many of these chambers were working hand in glove (and were sometimes run by) labor interests to try and ensure people could get well-paying, well-protected jobs. Other chambers elsewhere in the country would do the same thing, only without the racism.

        Nowadays local chambers are a bit of a crap shoot. There’s a lot of Randian bullshit but they also do genuine work helping small local businesses stay competitive with giant conglomerates. My own local chamber recently united most of the local physicans in private practice into an insurance co-op that made it much easier and cheaper to insure their employees. My Dad, who is a podiatrist, was literally able to hire an extra person and a half because of that.

        Of course, said local chamber also engages in CRAZY rent-seeking behaviour. Try and get a new liquor license in this town.

      • mpowell says:

        Look, what can the Republican party do to get 80% of white voters? There are only so many ways to appeal to white people as a class and there are enough genuinely liberal white people that it’s just not going to work past some point. Maybe Fox can help brainwash more and more of them, but there is definitely a limit there.

        • JRoth says:

          Well white males* already go Republican at a rate that’s hard to explain without unpleasant implications. Basically, the GOP piles up the following backlashes: sexual, racial, nativist, populist (sigh), secular, social safety net (oh, and some gay panic, too). Mass media has spent 15-20 years working really hard to communicate the message that Real Men hate, well, pretty much everything liberals stand for.

          I don’t really expect them to reach 80% on any regular basis, but then I didn’t expect them to make torture a major plank of their national platform without facing any backlash. And actually, that’s another thing that the mass media have been celebrating for 20+ years; when Bush started torturing, every American male under the age of 40 had spent most of his life being told, via movies and TV, that heroes resort to torture when the chips are down. Voila, consent manufactured. I don’t think it was anyone’s conscious strategy, but it sure worked as if it had been.

          * note that I specified white males at 80%; the GOP’s war against women is too overt for them to get much more than a modest majority of women

  3. JRoth says:

    In Adair County, Iowa, there’s a beautiful little rest stop that’s a sort of memorial to Wallace. Not a word about the Progressive Party.

  4. JRoth says:

    I do think it’s worth noting, btw, that the Republicans have had far-right candidates in the primaries far, far more often (and more numerous) than the Democrats, suggesting that they don’t consider bottom-up to be the only route to institutional power. And it long predates the far right dominating the party as a whole – Goldwater’s the most obvious example, but Pat Robertson was extreme (or perhaps at the right edge) by the standards of the contemporary GOP when he ran.

  5. Jim Lynch says:

    “Except, and this gets to the 2nd problem, right-wing Republicans showed how to take over a party structure rather than blow up the party. That’s how you get things done”.

    I’ll contend that what used to pass for moderate republicans accomplished the same goal within the democratic party. Which accounts for the ever rightward drift of that conquered organization. As their estranged soul brothers in the bona fide GOP have moved ever further into Crazy Town territory, they are inclined to go with the flow.

    • NonyNony says:

      Moderate Republicans were aided by liberals who gave up on the Democratic party in the 60s and 70s – so it wasn’t like the moderate Republicans had to work very hard to take over the Democratic party.

    • commie atheist says:

      If you have access to the WSJ website or dead tree edition, check out Gerald F. Seib’s column today for a laugh:

      A generation’s worth of political forces have pushed Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left, and rendered the political middle in Congress weak and thin, to the extent it exists at all.

      I laughed until I cried when I read that this morning.

      Yes, the Democratic Party is so far left that their solution to the debt ceiling limit problem is to offer the Republicans everything they want – all cuts, no taxes. And still get turned down because it’s just not enough.

  6. c u n d gulag says:

    I love it when I hear people calling out for a third party. It’s kind of funny. As if it’s the easiest thing to do.

    Also, while it’s not written into the Constitution, the system we have is sort of skewed to be a two party one. There’s nothing to prevent a third party. It’s just not easy to find the right niche, and then fund the efforts necessary to make it a viable alternative to the other two.

    And there’s a reason most new democratic countries go with a Parliamentary system than the one we have. They look at our system, and go “YUCK!”
    We should look to overhaul our system and modernize it, but you know THAT ain’t gonna happen!

    Having said all of that, the third party niche I see may be an anti-corporation party.

    But good luck convincing the morons in this country that they have been voting against their best interests for over a generation. Sure, usually with Republicans, but now with a lot of Democrats, too.
    The Democrats lost a lot when they ran away from their Main Street base to go and mess around with the rich floozies on Wall Street.

    • Lee says:

      A parliamentary system might be better but its worth considering this, if a constitutional convention gets called than the crazy rightists will get to send people to it to. Imagine the damange that they could do.

    • dangermouse says:

      Having said all of that, the third party niche I see may be an anti-corporation party.

      Inasmuch as there’s any opening for the at-best-unlikely prospect of a meaningful third party, it’s jobs.

      Cause there’s a lot of people who don’t have have jobs, and neither party is giving an overwhelming appearance of giving any fucks about them.

  7. Joe says:

    “Wilson became the next Democratic president, he was probably the least reform-minded of the 3 candidates in 1912.”

    Debs did get 6% of the vote in 1912, but putting that aside, interesting if Wilson was less reform minded than Taft. Is this a matter of platform or what?

    What populism did to some extent was to make certain “left” notions the law of the land. This seems to be the bottom line point, so I’m not sure if it matters ultimately if Republicans (who used to be the civil rights party) were more sympathetic to their platform at some point.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      If you look at Taft’s record and Wilson’s stated desires in 1912, Taft comes across as more Progressive than Wilson. Wilson felt there were a few changes that needed to be made and then that was it. Meanwhile, Taft busted more trusts than Roosevelt.

      As far as the Populists moving the nation to the left, it should also be said that this was one of many movements at the time calling for reform–various labor movements, anarchism, socialism, communism, Populism, etc. So the Populists played a role here, but there was a general desire to reform. Among working-class people, it came from a desperate desire to make their lives less terrible. From the middle-class, Progressivism became an option to save America from both the unwashed hordes and rapacious capitalists. So Populism is not unimportant, but arguably it was less important as a third party than in how its overall ideas integrated with the many other movements going on at the same time.

      • Joe says:

        Thanks.

        The trust thing as not telling me much aside, the first point sounds reasonable.

        There often are various movements going on when some party comes in and takes advantage of the spirit of the age, perhaps (as your comment suggests) as a moderate force.

        If the “party” is less important, perhaps ALL parties are less important in some fashion.

      • Walt says:

        I think cause and effect are hard to disentangle, but it’s plausible to me that the Populists helped along those movements. The American left is defeated and demoralized, and needs a constructive step forward. After the Obama experience, I don’t know if you can create energy for a movement predicated on the idea of working within the Democratic party.

    • Joe says:

      I’d add that to the degree the Bull Moose Party helped promote the progressive cause, including by defeating a candidate deemed too conservative by various Republicans, it pushed things in a certain direction. This included a more moderate candidate, one that had a decent chance of winning, in 1916.

  8. Scott Lemieux says:

    I also think people confuse cause and effect; destabilizing, cross-cutting issues lead to third parties, but that doesn’t mean that third parties cause the subsequent realignments. At any rate, as you say, third parties are most successful when they deal with new issues, not just “a similar coalition only more left-wing.” There’s certainly no precedent for that working.

    • David Kaib says:

      This is spot on.

      Another problem worth noting is that in most of these cases, the new party was composed largely at the elite level of former party officials and candidates of the established parties. When people say that all the Democrats are hopeless, that would mean that the stuff of a new party is lacking.

      Part of the barrier here is that the discussion often focuses on the word “support.” Fighting for control of the Democratic Party is not usefully described as supporting the party. The issue is not deservingness, but rather one of strategy. In our system, control over party organs gives one power. Thinking that way requires looking at the world through a lens of organizations and institutions not political preferences and votes, which is why the conversation so often misses the mark.

  9. Very, very true. I’d also add that a lot of Populist success came from ballot fusion, especially in the Midwest and West.

    Ballot fusion is, IMHO, the best third party option out there and it’s infuriating that no one will actually pay attention to it (outside of New York) in favor of counter-productive cathartic attacks on the Democratic Party.

    • soullite says:

      Because it failed miserably in NY. What has the Working Families party actually won? Not jack shit. The NY party continues to move right on workers issues and they continue to be beholden to wall street and bankers.

      Your theory is nice, but where tested, it has failed. Nobody sees any reason to try it elsewhere.

    • Hogan says:

      The New Party paid attention to it until the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that states had such a powerful interest in a stable two-party system that they could continue to ban cross-endorsement. Now it’s a question of getting Democrats and Republicans to unilaterally (bilaterally? ) disarm.

  10. David Kaib says:

    The Populists had much more promise when they were organizing independent of electoral politics. To the extent that moving towards electoral politics made sense, it did so in those places where they already enjoyed a strong organization and a group of committed people who were breaking out of received ways of thinking. That suggests a historical precedent, but it is a very different one from starting a nation-wide third party.

  11. Tom Allen says:

    How do you do a post on third parties in American history, particularly focused on moving the country to the left, and completely leave out the Socialist Party?

  12. soullite says:

    The establishment parties don’t want change. So what’s the point?

    Right now, it’s pretty clear that all of you calling to try and change things within the party don’t really want change at all. That’s why you have to keep quoting Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias and ignoring every real leftist out there, because those leftists want change and you do not. You are simply trying to keep everyone on your little reservation.

    There is no reason to trust any of you anymore.

      • soullite says:

        Eat a dick.

        My, isn’t this productive.

      • soullite says:

        Seriously, just how many comment sections have you either been kicked out of altogether or driven away from in disgrace?

        Yet here you are, a right-wing plant still pretending to be a loyal Democrats despite popping up all of three seconds after Obama won in 2008 to shill for his rightwing politics. You started out playing the ‘lets pretend politics work the way it does in PIG!’ and ended up screaming bloody murder at every leftist you came across. You telling anyone to go the fuck away is a joke.

        • Hogan says:

          Fine, then don’t go away. Just stop making the same gotdamn comment five or six times in every gotdamn thread.

          Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack, if you’ve got nothing new to say.

        • How about all of the other people who tell you to go the fuck away?

          You bring absolutely nothing to any discussion – oh, wait, except for some disdain for gay people and women.

          Go. The Fuck. Away.

        • a right-wing plant

          Says the person who trolls about the irrelevance of gay people and women on every civil rights thread.

          still pretending to be a loyal Democrats

          You, of all people, are questioning my Democratic loyalty?

          despite popping up all of three seconds after Obama won in 2008 to shill for his rightwing politics

          Did accusing me of pretending to be a loyal Democrat and then accusing me of shilling for Obama in the same sentence make sense in your dented little head? Because it makes absolutely no sense typed out.

          Go. The Fuck. Away.

        • Murc says:

          You know, joe, the next time I feel like pointing out that YOU have a tendency to impute malice where its not clear any exists, I’m going to remind myself about soullite and maybe think about it a little bit before hitting submit.

          Because wow.

    • Malaclypse says:

      That’s why you have to keep quoting Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias

      I used to be a leftist, but Loomis’ constant toadying towards Matt Yglesias has made me outraged about Chappaquidick.

      and ignoring every real leftist out there, because those leftists want change and you do not.

      Says the person who wrote And it helps all of 2-5% of the population, none of which includes me. So forgive me if I don’t applaud other people’s lives being made better while mine gets turned into shit., because that is just how real leftists roll.

      • NonyNony says:

        Yeah – I gotta say that soullite calling out anyone on their “leftist cred” given his ‘statement of solidarity’ that you linked to above is kind of hilarious.

        • Malaclypse says:

          I kind of think saying that Loomis “quotes” Yglesias, without bothering to mention that the quotes are usually part of an ongoing feud, in a comment on the blog where the feud actually happens, is pretty impressive.

          I mean, the quote just proves he is a selfish hypocrite. But the Yglesias comment implies he things we all lack basic reading comprehension.

          • DrDick says:

            Self awareness, or awareness of any sort, is not really soullite’s strength. He trends more toward unsubstantiated and unfounded sneering condescension.

      • rea says:

        Soullite’s politics–he’s all for the little guy, as long as the little guy ain’t black, hispanic, gay, or female–are indistinguishable from those of George Wallace.

        • Malaclypse says:

          So socialist, and nationalist. Hmm. National Socialist. Rings a bell, that phrase does. Would this agenda be based mainly on ressentiment? Because I swear I’ve read about this somewhere before…

  13. ploeg says:

    Insofar as third parties have made a difference in national politics, they have not been “Third Parties” as such. For example, the abolitionists, the Grange, trade unions, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These third parties made a difference by working within the existing two-party structure, or less often by working entirely outside of the political process.

  14. [...] endorse Erik’s post, but to add a few [...]

  15. Jager says:

    The only state with any tangible results from a viable 3rd party push is North Dakota. The NPL (Non Partisan League) was organized by populists, progressives, socialists and disaffected members of both parties. They took over the state in 1915 running as Republicans and immediately organized a state owned bank, a state owned mill and elevator company and banned corporate owned farms. If I recall correctly they got over 70% of the vote. Over the years they elected entire slates of state officials, governors, congressmen and senators. The merged with the Democrats in the mid 50′s. The on going legacy of the NPL is a state with just over 600 thousand people with a budget surplus of over a billion dollars in cash and another billion in state bonds all held in the states own little Bank of North Dakota. Minnesota had a similiar effort with the Democratic Farmer Labor Party or DFL. The DFL is still viable in Minnesota. You’ll hear franken say DFL from time to time when he is back home in Minnesota.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      As you yourself admit by the end of your comment the Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota from the late 1910s to the 1930s is another example. And the Progressive Party in Vermont currently makes a difference (most notably in providing an institutional base for Bernie Sanders, who is anything but a typical Senate Democrat).

      • Jager says:

        The upper midwest at the time was at the mercy of the commodity companies, banks and railroads,the NPL was a reaction to the crushing financial grip of those giant companies. Interesting the wingers in my old home state wouldn’t give up the “socialist” Bank of North Dakota at gunpoint nor the State Mill and Elevator Company. The B of ND does a great job for samll business in the state, low interest lows, incentives for creating jobs, etc. Imagine the power and size of a state owned bank in California!

    • DrDick says:

      Agrarian socialists and populists had a similar impact in Oklahoma in the early 1900s. The state constitution bans corporate farms and requires insurance companies to charge no more than the lowest rates in the nation.

  16. Gabriel Mares says:

    So I think this is the second time Loomis has referred to 1912 as the socialist “big push” – but 1920 was when Debs received the most votes (don’t know how it worked out as a percent of the popular vote).
    Also, if we understand Wilson as the most pro-status quo candidate, it’s worth remembering that he got about 41% of the electoral vote – that’s lower than Clinton’s 43% in 1992. Many people (rightly, to my mind) argue that without Perot in the race, HW Bush would have won. If there had been some sort of Progressive unity ticket, even leaving out the Debs vote, that would have potentially won the election. If we include the Debs vote (a shaky counterfactual, sure – but let’s go with it) and made the election straight up two parties, I think the progressive candidate would have easily won, even if he shed a few more moderate votes in attracting the radicals. So 1912, 1992 and 2000 all work as models for how third parties actually hurt your cause…

  17. actor212 says:

    Duverger’s Law. Google it.

    This dog won’t hunt. Period. Next?

  18. virag says:

    saying that nader threw the election to bush is easily the dumbest thing ever said on anywhere in the internets. of course, there’s more than a few things tied for dumbest thing on the internets, but that’s one.

    if you are incapable of understanding what happened during the 2000 presidential election, well, that’s very sad for you.

  19. IM says:

    Yes, waht about Farmer Labor? They had six or seven seats in congress at their peak. Shuold matter more then the greens etc.

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