Making Sense Of The Issues And Ideologies That Shape Politics In The United States

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Two-Party Blues, Part 3 - The History of Third Parties

As I unfold this series , I have received many comments telling me that a third-party movement is pointless and impossible. America, I'm told, is hopelessly entreched in the Democrat vs. Republican paradigm.

History tells a different story. Consider the following facts:

- In 1832, two non-major candidates won electoral votes in the presidential campiagn.

- In the mid-1850's, a new party (The Republicans) emerged and sent the traditional Whig Party to its grave. They rallied around a major social justice issue in American history, the abolition of slavery.

- Before World War I, there were more than 600 cities with mayors who were socialists and belonged to neither major party, with Milwaukee being the largest. Much of the worker justice movement was born in these cities and because of these mayors.

- In 1912, a third-party candidate (Teddy Roosevelt) outpolled the incumbent and his former vice-president Howard Taft, initiating a sea change in the history of the Republican Party and the tone of American politics in general.

- In 1968, a regional third-party candidate (George Wallace) gained 45 electoral votes. The way he split the Democratic base and enabled the dawn of the Republican Southern strategy signalled another sea change in American politics. In addition, his racist rheotric and loyal following exposed to the nation the deplorable attitudes of much of the South toward segregation.

- In 1992, billionaire Ross Perot literally bought his way into presidental contention. He didn't win any electoral votes, but recevied 19% of the popular vote and enabled Bill Clinton to win a surprise victory over incumbent Geroge Bush. Perot brought the issue of national debt into the limelight, and his campaign style raised questions about the influence of money on elections.

- Since 1990, two independent Senators (Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman) have been elected. Lieberman's comeback win after a primary defeat shows how personality can trump party.

Clearly, one does not need to have an (R) or a (D) by one's name to make an impact on the American political system. Those who make that claim are either ignorant of history, or have loyalties to one of the major parties that prevent from seeing other possibilities. The more public opinion grows suspicious of the Republican/Democrat hegemony, the more tightly those two parties cling to their power and distort the facts which suggest that other paradigms are plausible.

In the next post, I'll dig into a question that is very relevant to anyone seeking life beyond the two major parties. Many say that while it might be possible for a third party to rise (as the Republicans did in the mid 1800's), it will inevitably lead to the death of one of the other major parties - giving us the same two-party system, just with different names.

Such a shift, however, is not innocuous. It invariably leads to one of those sea changes in American politics, such as the election of Wilson right before World War I - an event whose significance can't be overstated. Clearly, third party candidates are often the catalysts for some of the most significant changes that happen in our nation.

Stay tuned!

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