We are in that point of the election season when third party diehards make the false claim that the Republicans were a third party. Of course this is at Counterpunch.
“Third parties can never win” or so you have heard a thousand times. Except — and it’s one huge exception — under historical circumstances much like the conditions we currently face. We are living in a rare historical moment when the deep inner conflicts of the system can no longer be solved, compromised, or even faced by normal political means. The two-party system has only made things worse.
In the years before the Civil War, there was an issue that also could not be solved, compromised or avoided: slavery. Slavery was an economic system but it was also a political system that gave special benefits and special powers to the slave-owning class. The radicals of the day had a name for this rigged system: “The Slave Power.”
The decades before the revolutionary leap of 1863 are full of meaningful parallels to our own time. The existing two-party system was destroyed because it could not solve the problem of slavery. Instead, the politicians of the day resorted to gag rules, denial, distraction and deception — all the same tools used by our current political class in the face of the new issues for which there is no middle ground.
Now we face a clusterfuck that no amount of denial, propaganda, or machine politics can make go away: extreme wealth and political inequality, irreversible climate chaos, systematic racism and patriarchy, perpetual war, global empire, and the collapse of democracy. The corporate power rules over us because it has merged with the government in order to secure the special powers, protections, and benefits that guarantee its supremacy.
As our anti-slavery ancestors fought the “Slave Power” so must we fight Corporate Power.
Three third parties — the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party and finally the Republican Party — tried one after the other to take this fight against Slave Power to the northern white masses. They took aim at the Slave Power and they were armed with a “revolutionary reform:” the demand for the non-extension of slavery to the western territories. (More on this in an upcoming article.)
This is a highly tortured account of the Republican Party’s rise. But let’s get something out of the way first. The Republican Party was not a third party. It flat out was not a third party. The aggressive demands of the South in the 1840s and 1850s had made the Whig coalition collapse. It simply did not exist as a functional party by 1854, when Kansas-Nebraska put the final nail in its coffin. The creation of the Republican Party that year filled the vacuum in the American political system by creating a new second party. It immediately took on that role, being the clear second party by 1856. So this argument that the Republicans can give third parties hope is simply not true.
Moreover, the rise of the other anti-slavery third parties is not exactly some wonderful history. Yes, people such as James Birney had moral right on their side. They also had pretty simplistic views of politics. And Birney throwing the 1844 election to James Polk was a disaster significantly worse than Ralph Nader throwing the 2000 election to George W. Bush. Polk engaged in an openly colonialist war where he and his henchmen stole half of Mexico explicitly to expand slavery. That caused enormous pain and suffering to both Native peoples and Mexicans who suddenly found themselves in the United States, not to mention that it pulled the U.S. right into a path where civil war became nearly inevitable.
Now, it’s hard to make an argument against these third parties given that the Civil War ended slavery (more sort of ended slavery, but ended chattel slavery anyway). Maybe anything is justified that got rid of that horrible sin of America, but it’s awful teleological to go back and say that throwing the 1844 election to Polk was a good thing because 21 years later something happened.
Moreover, the Republican Party wasn’t even dominated by abolitionists. Even within that party, actual abolitionists were just the radical wing. It included moderates such as Abraham Lincoln and conservatives who were not at all comfortable with getting rid of slavery such as Montgomery Blair. If anything, those wings of the Republican Party were far larger than the abolitionist wing. There was a reason Lincoln had to move so slowly toward emancipation and really was only nudged into it by slaves forcing the issue. On top of this, for the vast majority of anti-slavery whites, the problem with slavery is how it affected white people, not the moral argument that it was evil to enslave people. In short, the central ideology of the party was not abolition, but free labor, which centered the future of the American democracy around middling white male landownership and control over their lives, which they saw as impossible in a slave society where a small number of wealthy whites had labor to work for nothing.
So if someone is going to make claims about the founding of the Republican Party, actually understanding the Republican Party is critical. Given how much this guy draws from Foner, who literally wrote the book on the centrality of free labor to the Republicans, this is extra frustrating.
The bigger point though is this–don’t fall for bullshit narratives about the past in order to justify third parties today in an election where we face actual fascism right in front of our faces. I don’t really think too many LGM readers really need to hear this again, but it’s always worth pushing back on false narratives.