Why Third Parties Just Don’t Work in America

A 1904 Campaign Poster for candidate Tom Watson of "People's Party," also know as the "Populists." They didn't last long, though some of their policies did. Also, Watson turned into a xenophobic, racist nutball.

A 1904 Campaign Poster for candidate Tom Watson of the “People’s Party,” also know as the “Populists.” They didn’t last long, though some of their policies did. Also, Watson turned into a xenophobic, racist nutball.

Why can’t the United States muster the will to create a viable third-party to challenge the calcified, shame-immune, institutional bureaucrat incubation pits known respectively as the Democrats and the Republicans? Throughout American history many idealistic souls have longed for a third-party alternative to the ensconced two-party system, and, despite a few fleeting exceptions, they have been sorely disappointed.

The American tradition of mass democratic politics has historically combined with structural limitations within the country’s governing institutions to make third-party movements akin to knocking on Mordor’s gates and hoping to be let in with a wink and a smile. Yes, one does not simply start a third-party in America.

These facts, however, have never stopped Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions from advocating for a third-party. Over at Time’s Swampland blog, Joe Klein is merely the most recent Prospero calling into the political tempest for a third-party to wreck onto American shores and shake up the system for the better, and he seems to think such a party is still possible. Citing the candidacy of New Age guru Marianne Williamson, who is running to unseat California’s long time incumbant Democratic congressman, Henry Waxman, Klein sees a third-party image on the horizon that may prove to be more than a mirage:

Could Williamson be the harbinger of a wave of Independent candidacies in 2014? Are people so sick of the two existing parties that they’re ready to go shopping for something new? “We’re seeing this all over our polling,” says Peter Hart, who does surveys for NBC and the Wall Street Journal. “People are sick of the status quo: 60% believe that the entire Congress should be replaced. They’re looking for alternatives.”

Klein is right to point out that Americans really seem to want a third party. The Gallup poll he cites led the Washington Times to recently declare the rise of “third-party fever,” claiming that more than ever, Americans want more political options. I have no doubt that they do. Heck, I’m one of them who wants to move beyond the bifurcated nest of incumbant morlocks currently clogging up the political pipes. But ideals do not a reality make.

Americans have always wanted more party representation, but they never really get it. Klein himself recognizes this fact, admitting that “I’ve been skeptical about 3rd parties in the past. The best of them–the Populists, Ross Perot (at least when it came to budgetary matters)–tend to have their hot ideas co-opted by the Democrats or Republicans.” As he notes, the idea of “co-option” explains America’s historical dearth of third parties, and why that dearth will likely continue.

America’s small “r” republican tradition of mass politics — especially since the early nineteenth century — created an environment through which various political platforms, ideas, and concepts could be introduced freely into public discourse and, therefore, be easily co-opted and absorbed by different political players. When taken in tandem with the basic mechanics of how the American political system is structured, you get a recipe for two-party blandness.

As Sociologist G. William Domhoff meticulously explains, America’s political system is based on districts and pluralities, rather than on mere proportional representation. This limits the ability of multiple parties to compete for representation and discourages the type of party coalitions common in parliamentary democracies. The election of American presidents via a direct national vote, as opposed to the parliamentary system of a victorious party choosing its leader, further dilutes third-party options.

Americans wishing to change the system to reflect proportional representation, Domhoff writes, will run smack into Article V of the Constitution, which states emphatically that “no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” Americans’ need to ensure that less populous states receive equal — often greater — representational clout means that a parliamentary system and, by extension, greater party variety, isn’t going to happen.

But, as I already noted, it isn’t just the American system’s design that has constantly thwarted third parties; it’s also its culture of mass democratic politics that has allowed third parties ideas to be absorbed, co-opted, and reclaimed in a system that already favors big-tent style political organizations, not fractured micro-movements. The fate of two famous American parties, the Whigs and the Populists, demonstrate why third-party movements just don’t gain much traction in a political culture as incestuous and consolidation-prone as that of the United States.

A Whig Party banner from 1848. Candidate Zachary Taylor whon the presidency.

A Whig Party banner from 1848. Candidate Zachary Taylor Whon the presidency.

The Whigs were not a proper third-party; in fact, they were, for a while, one of the two dominant American political parties, but their demise shows the power of American party consolidation. The Whigs’ political lineage dated back to Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists and reached its zenith under the stewardship of compromise-prone Kentucky politico Henry Clay.

Under Clay’s “American System,” the Whigs touted a nationalistic platform via federally subsidized infrastructure development, a national bank, and economic protectionism. For their troubles, they elected four presidents and popularized a political theory that remains a vital part of contemporary American discourse. But two primary developments, the debate over slavery and increased immigration, eventually killed off the Whigs by the mid-1850s and made way for the Republican Party’s rise to national prominence.

Originally a national party with strength in the North and the South, the Whigs began to fracture over the issue of slavery in the territories. Since the passing of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Whigs had gradually been splintering along pro and anti-slavery lines. This divide came to a head following the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise line and opened up the western territories for possible pro-slavery settlement under the banner of popular sovereignty. Northern anti-slavery Whigs opposed Kansas-Nebraska, while southern pro-slavery Whigs, incensed at their northern party brethren’s stance on slavery, migrated to the Democratic Party.

Immigration, especially that of Irish Catholics who, by the 1840s, were arriving in waves to the northeast’s major population centers, also contributed to the Whigs’ demise. Fears of a devious “Papist” invasion in the still largely Protestant U.S. gave rise to the Nativist, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings threatened to attract disgruntled Whigs infected with the fever of nativism until another incipient party, the Republicans, used fears of the southern “Slave Power” to create a coalition of anti-slavery Whigs, Nativists, and Democrats that finally locked the door on the Whig mausoleum. As historian William Gienapp writes in his classic book The Origins of the Republican Party, “like the Slave Power, the Catholic Church seemed a threat to liberty, and Republican rhetoric often linked the two by warning of the dangers they posed to cherished American ideals.”* Thus, the Republican Party was able to co-opt multiple, fractured political movements into an effective big-tent party that exists to this day.

In contrast to the Whigs, the People’s Party, more commonly known as the Populists, were a true third party. The Populist movement grew out of late nineteenth century discontent among southern and western farmers who complained of the high cost of agricultural equipment, the practices of corrupt railroad companies that overcharged small farmers while coddling big businesses, and monetary policies that encouraged endless debt. In order to lobby the state to address their grievances, an alliance of farmers formed the Populist Party in 1892. Their “Omaha Plan” called for inflationary currency, government backed subtreasuries, a graduated income tax, and state ownership of the railroads.

The Populists filled a vacuum that challenged the entrenched power of the Republicans and Democrats, but eventually fell prey to co-option by those very same parties. The white supremacist Democratic Party played on southern white farmers’ fears of racial integration to discourage any Populist alliance between blacks and whites. This racial demagoguery drew many farmers out of the Populist fold and into the Democrats’ bigoted arms. One of the most famous Populists, Georgia’s Tom Watson, advocated for racial cooperation before succumbing to a delusional fit of bile-soaked race-baiting, leaving a legacy so rotten that a statue of him currently residing outside the Georgia state capital is now being removed.

In addition, the Populists were internally divided over whether or not they should fuse with the two powerful major parties, who held the political clout to pass laws. The issue of “fusionism” eventually killed the Populist Party. In 1896, Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan co-opted much of their platform before losing to Republican William McKinley.

While the Populist movement was dead by the turn-of-the-century, their legacy survived in the form of the federal income tax, a national bank, federal regulation of railroads and farm credit, and the direct election of senators — all former Populist positions that the two major parties eventually co-opted and made law. The Populists, like other American third-party movements, couldn’t survive being absorbed by the major party sponges.

Ross Perot, independent candidate for president in 1992.

Ross Perot: The independent candidate for president in 1992 who just couldn’t finish.

The co-option legacy that killed the Whigs and the Populists has resurfaced whenever third parties threaten to challenge the two-party system in America. Diminutive Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate who garnered 18.9 percent of the national popular vote in 1992 by offering up voters a country-fried mish-mash of liberal and conservative positions, eventually watched Democrats and Republicans co-opt his anti-debt, balanced budget platform. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader siphoned just enough votes away from human flag pole Al Gore to help put George W. Bush in the White House. This scared the hell out of Nader’s Liberal supporters, thereby pushing them back into the corporate Democratic Party fold.

U.S. history shows that while there’s always potential for third-party movements to gain varying levels of steam among an electorate fed up with only two political options, the mass marketplace of American political discourse has consistently drawn third-party ideas into the major parties’ gaping maws.

As the Whigs, Populists, and Ross Perot discovered, when combined with a political system that is structurally hostile to multiple party growth, American mass democracy creates a perfect storm that assures the continued dominance of the very thing that most Americans say they can’t stand. So dream all you want folks; in the end, if you’re a Tea Partyier, you’ll vote Republican, and if you’re a bleeding heart Hippie, you’ll vote Democratic. It’s the American way, unfortunately.

* William Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 372.

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