What the GOP can learn from its third-party past


The 1912 Progressive Party Convention (From Library of Congress)

The idea of a third-party alternative for #NeverTrump Republicans seems to be over.

A key filing deadline for independent candidates in Texas has passed, Mitt Romney has stopped recruiting candidates, and after much distress, Republicans have begun to fall in line behind their presumptive nominee.  

As unpredictable as this election has been so far, a third-party run still appears implausible. That tells us something about how American politics organizes around parties, policies, and people.

Especially since the Republican party began as a third-party, the party’s past might inform how it handles its current identity-crisis.

Forgetting how we used to vote

The filing deadlines, ballot signatures, and quirks of primaries and caucuses that prevent third-party candidacies–all features of the modern campaign–make it seem as though the two-party system is somehow enshrined into law.ballotboxi32106.jpg

Lisa Disch, a professor of political science at University of Michigan, said the country wasn’t always like that.

“Today people might mistake our two parties as something constitutionally mandated,” Disch said.

How the country used to vote, by literally placing ballots into a box, demonstrates a forgotten past of our political choice. Parties used to print their own tickets to deposit into ballot boxes instead of picking candidates from state issued ballot in a voting booth.

In the modern era, the two major parties have consolidated the choices on that ballot. So while third-parties might serve as “harbingers for the future” ideas of the major parties but they rarely develop into governing or effective opposition.

“Ross Perot or Ralph Nader still can get on the ballot,” Disch said. “But they run for ideological purposes rather than creating any organization.”

America was never founded on parties

61o16NsA5KL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Historian Sean Wilentz argues in his book The Politicians and The Egalitarians, that an “anti-partisan” impulse has been part of the American attitude since the republic was conceived.

In fact, the Founding Fathers designed the United States constitutional system almost deliberately designed against parties. The Founding Fathers distrusted parties and factions. George Washington famously warned against their influence in his Farewell Address.

The premise of the American Revolution lays bare a contradiction about self-government: in the absence of a king, how can you organize around ideas without forming parties, how do you lead without becoming tyrants?

Even Thomas Jefferson, a vocal critic of parties and factions, formed the Democratic-Republican party to oppose John Adams’ Federalist party, losing to Adams in 1786 and defeating him in 1800.

Wilentz outlines how the tension between political parties and popular frustrations runs through the country’s history.

In fact, the origins of the Republican Party emerge from those tensions when Martin Van Buren’s creates a single-issue third party as an alternative to the populist Democratic party and the incremental Whig party.


A Currier & Ives cartoon about Martin Van Buren titled “The Modern Colossus” depicts the former President jumping from the Democratic party to the Whigs and Abolitionists. (From Library of Congress)

“It’s highly ironic that Martin Van Buren, who’s often thought of as inventor of the political party or at least a technician of the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democratic party, runs as a anti-slavery Free Soil candidate,” Willentz said. “That tells you a lot about the issues at stake.”

Van Buren left the presidency in 1841 as a Democrat and ran again in 1848 as a Free Soil candidate in 1848. His departure from the party he built demonstrates a clear decision on the divisions of his day.

“The point here is political parties have internal histories,” Willentz said. “There’s nothing static about it, he didn’t reject the idea of the party but what the party had come to be.”

Finding a platform to stand on

While pundits talk about a Republican civil war today, we forget that the party itself emerged from drastic divisions in the country.

“Sectionalism over slavery broke both the Whigs and the Democrats apart,” Wilentz said. “By the 1850s, the Democratic party lost its anti-slavery wing and became the party of the slave south, the Whigs lost the north, nativists began building their own parties.”


Dividing The National Map 1860.jpg

“Dividing the National map,” an 1860 satirical cartoon about the sectionalism before the Civil War. (From Library of Congress)

This disarray among the Whigs and the Free Soil party produced the conditions for the Republican Party and Lincoln’s unlikely election. Lincoln’s reputation and the future of the Republican party would not even find firm ground until after his assassination.

“One of the things about most modern third parties is they never last because they often aren’t designed to last,” Wilentz said. “They can have an impact on an issue as powerful as slavery, but they haven’t gone on because of the way American politics has been structured, first across the finish line wins, almost impossible to become a viable party.”

Popularity with the people

Fast forward to the early 20th century and the Republican party has endured through the corruption scandals of Grant’s presidency, retooled to the reforms of the Gilded Age but faces popular support for direct democracy through direct election of senators and primary contests, threatening the old guard of the party’s incremental.

Perhaps the most famous third party challenge started from inside the Republican party with former president Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt finished his presidency in 1908 and chose William Howard Taft as his successor to the Republican party.

The two men fell out when party divisions between Roosevelt’s progressive wing and Taft’s conservative wing came to blows over a litany of policy issues.

salvation roosevelt.jpg

“SALVATION IS FREE BUT IT DOESN’T APPEAL TO HIM”- A 1912 cartoon from the magazine Puck, in which Teddy Roosevelt attempts to baptize the Republican party and President Taft in the salvation of ‘Teddyism.’ The Third-Party Choir sings: “And sinners bathed beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. (From Library of Congress)

“Roosevelt actually wins the primaries but loses the nomination at the convention because the party decides to stick by a sitting president,” Wilentz said. “It wasn’t until 1968 that primaries became as central as they are now.”

Roosevelt was furious, and he left the Republican convention to form his new party.

“Roosevelt thought he had the backing of the people,” Wilentz said. “He was no shrinking flower.”

In his book, Wilentz describes the Progressive Party, often referred to as the Bull-Moose party, as “the political party to end all political parties.”

“A lot of it was anger and bitterness was similar to the bitterness that helped propel Van Buren to run,” Wilentz said. “The parties were dividing, there was almost fratricide within the parties… Roosevelt thought Taft had sold out his Square Deal.”

Though Roosevelt outpaced Taft in the general election, their split (along with the Socialist candidate Eugene Debs garnering 6 percent of the popular voted) handed the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who would adopt some of the progressive reforms.

“Third parties are sometimes a sign of something in a party that is dying off,” Wilentz said.

What doesn’t kill the party makes it stronger?
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton, said that parties either deflect from or draw in discontented voters because that’s what they’re designed to do.


1968 editorial cartoon by Herbert Block showing Presidential candidate George Wallace tailoring a coat, “3rd Party” and “Law and order talk”, to fit over the robe, “Racism”, of a Ku Klux Klan member and Wallace supporter, holding sign, “Wallace for President.” (From Library of Congress)

“Political parties are strong, muscle in organization, muscle in money, muscle in how people identify,” Zelizer said. “Even if you don’t like politics, the winner-take-all lends does not lend itself to third parties.”

The power of party organization means that third party constituencies more often get brought into the larger party, and sometimes fail to spoil the dominant party’s bid.

For example, George Wallace’s presidential run in the Democratic primary in 1964 and his segregationist American Independent run in 1968 outlined Nixon’s famous Southern Strategy.

“Wallace was pretty powerful,” Zelizer said. “He played effectively to disaffected Democrats. He was wrong on social policy, and his tone on race relations had a similar sentiment to Donald Trump.”

While Trump’s rhetoric echoes Wallace, there’s one major difference for the choice the Republican Party now faces: Trump’s inside the party, not out.


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