Originally published in the Green Horizon Quarterly
Sam Smith, 2012 – Added to all the other obstacles faced by third party activists is a paucity of analytical and historical guidebooks for their struggles. The media tends to be dismissive of third parties and lacking in understanding of their contributions to American politics. While some academics have done fine studies of individual movements and parties, scholars aren’t particularly interested in the aggregated effect of third parties. Further, as with journalists, one finds on campus a deep and uncritical reverence for a ‘two party system’ that has, in fact, formed America’s largest conspiracy for the restraint of trade – the trade in political ideas. Finally, activists themselves are usually so involved in what should be that they can forget to look closely at what is and how it works for and against their efforts.
This windshield appraisal of America’s third party movements is not for the purpose of proving a thesis, arguing a point or suggesting reforms, but rather to help activists gain a better sense of the political environment in which they have to work. And to help them recognize both the potential and the limits that present themselves.
First, the good news: America’s third parties have been immensely important to the country as catalysts of political and social progress. Their efforts lent weight to the anti-slavery movement, to the institution of an income tax, and to women’s rights. While most of the power in 20th century politics was held by centrist or conservative white Protestants and Irish Catholics, the major reforms of that period stemmed from three third party movements: the Populists, the Progressives and the Socialists.
One reason journalists and historians tend to discount the impact of third parties is because of their obsession with apexes of power and those who inhabit them. In reality, however, change often comes not from the top or the center but from the edges. Ecologists and biologists appreciate the importance of edges as sources of life and change, whether they be the boundary of a forest, the shore of a bay or the earth’s patina so essential to our being that we call the atmosphere. The political edge, at least metaphorically, has many of the same critical attributes.
Third parties have come in all sorts of shapes and colors. Some have aimed at a single issue such as slavery or drinking. Some have been driven by the popularity of an individual such as Teddy Roosevelt or Ross Perot. The ones with the deepest effect on the country’s history have tended to be both parties and movements spreading like a virus throughout American culture, such as the Populists, Progressives and Socialists. To be any of these represented a commitment far beyond today’s membership in one of the major parties. Finally, there have been statewide parties such as the Farmer Labor Party, New York’s Liberal and Conservatives, and the DC Statehood Party that were far more successful within their constituency than many national third parties.
By far the most successful third party in history was the Republican Party which four years after its first run for the White House elected a president, Abraham Lincoln. But this is only part of the story, because two third parties helped lay the groundwork beginning 20 years earlier with the presidential campaigns of the anti-slavery Liberty Party and Free Soilers.
Two other 19th third parties served either as precursors of something bigger, with the Greenbacks, with its emphasis on monetary policy, a warm-up band for the Populists and the Prohibition Party, which got only 2% in its best presidential bid, but won a whole constitutional amendment 50 years after its founding.
In the 20th century, if you wanted to make a big splash in national third party politics, the best way to do it was with a major icon such as Roosevelt, Wallace or Perot. Here are the best numbers for various third party candidates:
Theodore Roosevelt 28%
Perot (1992): 19%
George Wallace: 14%
Debs (1912): 11%
Perot (1996): 9%
All other 20th century third party candidates got 3% or less, including Debs in three additional runs and Thurmond and Henry Wallace in the hot 1948 race. It is useful to note that all the leading third party candidates – with the exception of George Wallace and Debs – drew heavily from mainstream constituencies rather than running as radical reformers.
Obviously the numbers don’t tell the whole story. For example, the New Deal drew from Populist, Progressive and Socialist ideas despite low turnouts for their candidates. The Populists, despite topping out a 9% in a presidential race, influenced the politics of two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.
Still, if you want to affect national politics with a national third party presidential run, history suggests that getting over 5% – preferably closer to 10% – is a good way to start. Otherwise, you can probably expect a less direct impact for your efforts, perhaps decades in the future. And, in any case, you can expect your swing at presidential politics to be fairly short-lived.
That does not mean, however, that these parties – like certain insects – were merely born, had sex, and then died. In fact, some of the third parties had long, healthy lives, in large part because they were as concerned with local as with national results. The Socialist Party is the most dramatic recent example, with a history dating back over 100 years. The party’s own history suggest that eclecticism didn’t hurt:
‘From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of “reform vs. revolution,” the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making “immediate demands” of a reformist nature. A perennially unresolved issue was whether revolutionary change could come about without violence; there were always pacifists and evolutionists in the Party as well as those opposed to both those views. The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of ‘building the new society within the shell of the old.'”
By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending in 1960. And the party reports that Karen Kubby, Socialist councilwoman, won her re-election bid in 1992 with the highest vote total in Iowa City history.
Some highly successful third parties never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of the major parties). Albeit in a confused and weakened status at the moment, the Liberal Party of New York remains the longest lived third party next the to the Socialists. Founded in 1944 – in a break with the more radical American Labor Party – the Liberals benefited immensely from New York’s fusion-friendly election laws, which allowed it to support Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and to claim credit for giving Kennedy enough votes for his presidential victory. Other nominees of the party have included Averill Harriman, Mario Cuomo, Jacob Javits, Robert Kennedy, Fiorello LaGuardia and John Lindsey. Swinging the gate of New York politics made it exceptionally important.
The Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota lasted 26 years before merging with the Democrats. During that time it elected a senator and a governor. And in DC, the Statehood Party held an elected position for 25 years and some years later merged with the DC Green Party.
As for the Greens, the recent near victory of Matt Gonzalez for San Francisco mayor is the latest sign of success in viral politics of a party that had already elected a score of mayors elsewhere. While SF mayoralty may not seem as important as a Green presidential run, I was shakened from that assumption a few days after election when it suddenly dawned that Gonzalez’ race was not just local; for me it meant that there somewhere in America there was a city roughly the size of my own in which 47% of the voters agreed with me. It was a remarkably cheering revelation.
There is, it appears, no one right way to run a third party in the U.S. It always has to be a form of guerilla politics because the rules are so thoroughly stacked against those not Democrats or Republicans. Thus the judging the right tactics at the right time, as opposed to planning moves strictly on the basis of their presumed virtue, would seem to be the wisest course. To slow down traffic I might be morally justified in stepping into the Interstate, spreading my arms, and shouting, “stop,” but it is probably not the most useful thing I could do for the cause. Besides, like some third party presidential candidates, I might not have another opportunity. My initial virtue might turn out to have been terminal.
For example, the question of fusion arises periodically. History clearly shows that there is no clear answer as to whether fusion is useful or not as a general principle because sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. The Liberal Party of New York used it magnificently (thanks in part to the laws of that state) while many feel fusion helped bring down the Populist Party. Beginning in the late 19th century state legislatures began taking action against fusion because, presumably, they thought it was working. And it can be argued that the moves against fusion were part of a broader counter-revolution that included the end of Reconstruction and giving corporations rights of the individual. In any case, today forty states and DC ban fusion.
One may oppose fusion on principal – for it certainly degrades the message of one’s party – but how is it that unprincipled opponents of reform also see it as such a danger? These are the sort of questions that Greens need to answer pragmatically without tying themselves into all sorts of moral and ideological knots. The impact could be profound. For example, the ban on fusion is the only thing preventing a third party from running its own candidate for vice president along with, say, the Democratic candidate for president. If Nader had run for vice president in 2000, his vote total would have been much higher and might have revealed far more sympathy for Green politics than is apparent today. Instead of being blamed for 2000, the Greens might have been actively courted for 2004.
Similarly, the question of whether or how to run a presidential candidate needs to be subjected to the lens of history. Again, the lessons are multiple and far from clear. To me, they suggest that a good third party presidential run should be reserved for when the stars are aligned – a major party weak, an unusually popular voice for your own, and a social revolt in the making.
There is one other factor that is truly new in America: the destruction of constitutional government in the wake of September 11. Besides all its other horrors, the developments make it even more difficult for a third party national campaign. But the war or terror is in many ways a war to protect a tiny percentage of the American elite and their capitals of politics and business – much as only ten percent of those in Orwell’s 1984 were actually members of the party; the rest lived in a countryside living relatively normal lives.
Oddly, however, this presents an opportunity for the Greens. As I wrote recently:
“At present the Green Party seems exceedingly concerned with whom it will run for president, if anyone. This is a time-consuming, agenda-skewing, image-monopolizing business. . . But what if the Green Party declared itself the party of the countryside, of free America, and set its sights on organizing not just the survival, resistance, and rebellion of the unoccupied homeland, but its revival, its discovery of self-reliance, and its energetic practice of democracy and decency? There is a wealth of electoral opportunity. For example, in 15 states more than half the state legislative seats are presently won without a contest.
“There is a logic to the Greens becoming the party of free America. After all Greens are the party most in the American tradition of decentralization, democracy, and cooperative communities. And they have ample precedent in the grassroots Populist Party which took on robber barons of startling similarity to those now served by the Bush regime.”
The important thing, however, in discussing such matters is for Greens to remember that they are members of the same team, selecting the next play not to prove their virtue but to improve their position. The virtue they can take for granted; the position will be determined by each day’s practical choices. If there is any virtue to be observed during these difficult decisions it is that of gentleness towards each other. And while there is much to be learned from the past, perhaps the most important is an appreciation for the magnificent uncertainty of the whole adventure.