Third Parties in the US Are More Important Than You Think

Despite America’s two-party duopoly, third parties have played a crucial role in shaping US politics for good and ill — from bringing us pro-worker reforms and the welfare state to laying the groundwork for Donald Trump’s right-wing authoritarianism.

People's Party candidate nominating convention held in Columbus, Nebraska, 1890. (Wikimedia Commons)

Donald Trump put the kibosh on the idea of a new right-wing party at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Trump’s followers will remain in the Republican Party, where they’ve established themselves as the biggest and most influential faction. Even so, the mere fact that the possibility of a new “MAGA” or “Patriot Party” was discussed reflects the ongoing desire for more clearly defined political parties in the United States.

Americans across a range of political persuasions yearn for three or more parties. Recent polls showed 63 percent of Republicans think a third party is necessary, which is up 10 percent since 2018, and 68 percent want Trump to lead it. A poll of Republicans taken in mid-February registered a double-digit majority — 46 to 27 percent — ready to abandon the GOP and join a Trump party.

Trump’s very success as a Republican politician, however, obviated the need for him to break away from the GOP fold. The Republican Party is, at this point, a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump Enterprises. He has managed to complete the transformation of the GOP that was in the works long before he descended the gilded escalator at Trump Tower. Why walk away from it now, when you can use your popularity to keep “Republicans in Name Only” in line?

Our political system stacks the deck against third parties. They have, however, played an important role in American political development despite their lack of success at the polls. From the nineteenth century to the rise of Trump, third parties have helped to shape US politics by forcing previously excluded issues and demands, for better or worse, on the nation’s agenda.

Third Party Blues

Conventional wisdom has always considered the third-party option a dead end, thanks to America’s peculiar set of electoral mechanisms. First-past-the-post elections shorten the life expectancy of new parties. Unless a third-party candidate wins outright, even a solid showing at the polls amounts to nothing in terms of representation. Elaborate ballot access procedures in each state make it tiresomely difficult to get on the ballot in the first place, and unless the fledgling party can meet arbitrary thresholds for permanent ballot access it has to jump through hoops each election cycle.

Then there’s the spoiler alert used to discourage third-party efforts before they ever get off the ground. Forming and voting for a third party is worse than futile, the wisdom goes, because it might capture enough votes to throw the election to the greater evil.

Given such formidable obstacles and counterarguments, it’s a small wonder that third parties even exist. But they still do, and they always have. Some are well-known, like the People’s (Populist) Party and Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive (Bull Moose) Party. But don’t leave out the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, the Legal Marijuana Now Party, the Natural Law Party, the Anti-Nebraska party, the US Pirate Party, the Traditionalist Worker Party, the Guns and Dope Party, and so on. The list ranges from the sublime to the silly, but their profusion suggests that despite all the reasons they shouldn’t exist, they have.

Partisans of these upstart parties are likely to agree with Eugene Debs when he said that he would rather vote for something he wants and not get it, than vote for something he doesn’t want and get it. The proliferation of the third parties, which goes all the way back to antebellum America, is a living indictment of the two-party system and the way it suffocates democracy.

The great virtue of the two-party system, its proponents maintain, is that it opens up an umbrella under which various groups and interests can take shelter and coalesce, lending the whole political universe a certain stability. That has been more or less true for much of American history.

But that virtue is also the great weakness of the two-party duopoly. It stifles the expression and influence of distinct social voices, almost invariably those of subordinate classes, despised races, heretical dissenters, and cultural rebels. Third parties might instead be seen as the health of democracy, rather than as an irrational nuisance gumming up the works.

Whether a sign of health or a persistent neurosis, the third-party phenomenon has customarily been treated with condescension. An eminent American historian compared third parties to bees: “Once they have stung, they die.” Which was another way of saying that in the long run they don’t matter.

Since there have been many, many bees out there over the years, there is a numerical truth to what is otherwise a smugly myopic view of American political history. Every major social and political transformation has been anticipated and driven forward by third-party eruptions. Often these political formations were preceded by social movements that eventually forced their way into the political universe. If the two-party system lagged behind in registering these seismic upheavals, then that is evidence of the system’s inherent opaqueness and stolidity, not the irrelevance of those movements and parties that kept stinging.

Slavery, Plutocracy, and Third-Party Opposition

Not all bees die after stinging. The Republican Party began as a third (or to be strictly accurate, a fourth) party. Formed in 1854, it gathered up the splintered remains of the Whigs and Democrats who together ran the show during the previous quarter century. This third party, which has been with us ever since, became the vessel of slavery’s destruction, something the Whigs and Democrats studiously worked to avoid.

The Republicans began as a third party and a strictly regional party. For all practical purposes it didn’t exist outside the North, and Lincoln became president in 1861 with only 40 percent of the popular vote. Moreover, it was itself the outcome of earlier third-party and social movement efforts to force antislavery politics onto the nation’s agenda.

The Liberty Party ran two presidential campaigns in 1840 and 1844. Liberty Party supporters formed the core of the Free Soil Party, which ran one presidential campaign in 1848 based on the singular demand that slavery not be allowed in the new Western territories — “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men” was its campaign slogan. The nativist and anti-Catholic American or “Know-Nothing” Party also attracted plenty of antislavery supporters, especially in the North, and did better than the Republicans in the 1854 off-year elections. For supporters of these political start-ups, the two-party system demonstrated “a miserable and disgraceful competition for securing the support of the slave interest of the South by concessions and compromises.”

All of these parties were fed, in turn, by the growing abolitionist movement. Neither the Liberty nor the Free Soil Party mounted big vote totals (the Know-Nothings did far better, and nearly beat out the Republicans for major party status in the North). But they played a key role, through their translation into the Republican Party, in fostering the most fundamental social transformation in American history. The old two-party system could never have done that.

Nor could it have accomplished on its own the regulation of business and finance, the creation of the welfare state, or the partial democratization of the workplace. Those are, or least were until recent decades, the salient characteristics of modern American capitalism. None of this would have been conceivable without the proliferation of social movements and third parties in the decades after the Civil War.

Regulation of the railroads and industrial trusts more widely was first of all accomplished by aroused movements of farmers and small businesses in the towns and cities of the heartland. The Grange and Farmers’ Alliance organized millions against the overweening power of Eastern finance. The Knights of Labor and other movements of industrial workers placed the eight-hour day and the right to organize a union on the national agenda.

Greenback, Greenback-Labor, Anti-trust, Union Labor, and other parties sprang up to force these issues into the political arena. Some ran presidential campaigns, some stayed local. The Greenback Party won a million votes in 1878 and sent fifteen people to Congress. The momentum of these third-party insurgencies irresistibly led to the formation of the Peoples’ Party in 1890, which retained the character of a social movement even as it entered the electoral arena. According to a historian of Kansas, the movement could “hardly be diagnosed as a political campaign. It was a religious revival, a crusade, a Pentecost of politics.”

Today’s punditry looks down upon populism. It seems too seamy, too open to popular prejudice, too credulous, too easily manipulated. It is worth noting, however, that all democratic politics are inherently populist — even the most aristocratic politicians have to appeal to the people — and the assessment depends on whose ox is getting gored.

People’s party candidates for president and vice president 1892 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

If the manipulators of mass sentiment occupy high stations in public life, and consort with the country’s most formidable financial and business circles, yet proclaim they have the people’s welfare at heart, that’s called “persuasion” rather than manipulation. If someone less schooled, lacking the right connections, and excessively passionate calls on beleaguered farmers to “raise less corn and more hell,” as Populist leader Mary Lease did, then that’s “demagoguery.”

Death came to the People’s Party after a short decade. Yet in that time it elected dozens of congressmen, several governors, a number of senators, and hundreds of state representatives and local officials. More enduring than its electoral victories were the causes for which it fought: government regulation of powerful business interests (Populists even called for the nationalization of the railroads, telegraph, and public utilities), the eight-hour day, price supports for agricultural commodities, progressive taxation, antitrust legislation, the abolition of prison labor, public banking, and the direct election of senators. These were stings that kept on stinging.

Ex-president Theodore Roosevelt led the Progressive Party into the 1912 presidential elections. As much as he would have disowned the association, his new party carried forward much of what the Populists first advocated. It was, as a MAGA Party led by Trump would also be, a cult of personality around Roosevelt. And like a MAGA Party would be, it was the product of a split between an established and rising wing of the Republican Party.

That’s where the similarity ends, however. The Progressive Party championed a cluster of social welfare and social insurance reforms that would later become inscribed in two subsequent Democratic Party administrations — the “New Freedom” of Woodrow Wilson and the New Deal legislation of Teddy’s distant cousin, Franklin.

Despite Roosevelt’s outsized role, the Bull Moose Party also bore the characteristics of a social movement. Social reformers like Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, renowned fighters against sweatshops, champions of the minimum wage and the struggle for the eight-hour day, were prominent in its ranks. Party activists saw themselves as “standing at Armageddon” and “battling for the Lord.” And the party identified with the movement demanding women’s suffrage and made it part of its platform.

Nor is Roosevelt’s third-party enterprise entirely comprehensible without taking account of the growing strength of yet another party — the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs. Debs polled nearly a million votes in the 1912 presidential election. More importantly, Socialists were winning numerous local offices in towns and cities around the country, their presence was palpable in the labor movement, and the party’s newspapers circulated widely among urban immigrants and rural homesteaders.

All this was a measure of the times. Roosevelt did well, capturing 27 percent of the popular vote — more than President Taft and better than any other third-party presidential candidate in US history. The Progressive Party died very soon thereafter. As a cult of personality, it was bound to once its hero returned to the GOP. But the afterlife of its sting could be felt inside the two-party duopoly for decades to come.

Eugene Debs. (Wikimedia Commons)

A similar dynamic operated during the New Deal years. Progressive Party activists became New Deal advisers, policymakers, and officials. Labor parties emerged or re-emerged in the Midwest and pushed the Roosevelt administration and the Democratic Party to the left. An insurgent labor movement formed Labor’s Nonpartisan League, which was not really nonpartisan, but used its leverage in the electoral arena to keep Roosevelt on message regarding the demands of the rising industrial labor movement.

Populist movements demanding income redistribution and social security frightened the New Deal administration. Huey Long, the populist senator from Louisiana, created the “Share Our Wealth” movement. The suburban Detroit “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin, reached millions with an anti-capitalist message that, unfortunately, eventually turned to the far right. A retired doctor from South Dakota, Francis Townsend, decried the lot of the elderly barely hanging on in Depression America and demanded a monthly allotment from the government to keep them afloat.

These movements had millions of followers and coalesced to form the Union Party in 1936. It did poorly as so many of its predecessors. But it stung, and it was the sting that left a mark.

Trumpism before Trump

What historians call the “New Deal order” prevailed until the world economy, or rather that part of it dominated by the United States, began unravelling in the early 1970s. Signs of trouble had appeared before that, however.

American apartheid was at stake. Efforts to dismantle it originated as a mass civil rights movement that, along with the labor movement, was the most consequential in the country’s history. Eventually it registered politically, mainly within the Democratic Party, which passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and more. Little third-party activity of lasting consequence emerged to the left of the Democrats during this time.

Instead, a third-party movement emerged on the Right, and here is where the roots of Trumpism lie. Alabama governor George Wallace, the country’s leading segregationist and life-long Democrat, ran for president in 1968 as the candidate of a personal electoral vehicle called the American Independent Party. Wallace had already posed a serious challenge to the Democratic Party establishment during the 1964 primaries. He did quite well, not only in the Deep South but across the industrial Midwest. He did even better in 1968 when he won 13.5 percent of the popular vote and forty-six electoral votes in the general election as an independent candidate.

The American Independent Party (AIP) channeled feelings of resentment among some sections of the white working and lower middle classes. Those resentments were primarily related to anxieties concerning the Civil Rights Movement’s assault on the old racial order. But they were also driven by the stagnation and material decline in their own standard of living, by their use as cannon fodder in the Vietnam War, and by a painful awareness that their values and ways of life were held in contempt by the country’s cultural elite. In sum, they were motivated by racial animosities but were angry as well about their own needs being ignored by establishments of both major parties, between which, as Wallace never tired of pointing out, “there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference.”

Like third parties before it, the AIP soon died. But also like third parties before it, it left a deep imprint on the two-party system. When he ran for president in 1968, Richard Nixon was as worried about George Wallace as he was about Humbert Humphrey. Could Nixon win some of those disaffected Southern Democrats? Could he chip into the northern blue-collar vote that usually went to the Democrats, or would they gravitate to Wallace instead?

Twenty thousand turned out for a Wallace rally in Madison Square Garden, and according to internal American Federation of Labor polls one-third of its membership was drawn to Wallace. Nixon won, barely. Wallace’s performance, however, was strong enough to prove the wisdom of a strategic reorientation of the Republican Party.

Before Wallace, the GOP depended on middle- and upper-class voters, suburbanites, well-off farmers and small-town businessmen, professionals and technocrats, members of the Elks Club and local chambers of commerce. The party apparatus was buoyed by plenty of cash from industry trade associations and major corporations. No one thought of the Republican Party as a fit home for working-class people, regardless of their race.

The American Independent Party changed that perception. In his reflections on the 1968 campaign, left-wing journalist Jack Newfield noted, “I cannot recall either Lyndon Johnson in 1964 or Hubert Humphrey in 1968 campaigning on any positive, exciting ideas which might excite the almost poor workers whose votes they took for granted. In contrast, Governor Wallace had been sounding like William Jennings Bryan as he attacked concentrated wealth in his speeches.”

Wallace standing against desegregation at the University of Alabama in 1963. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nixon and his people noticed. They adopted what soon became known as the “Southern Strategy” to capture that longtime Democratic Party stronghold in the old Confederacy. Nixon also called upon something his advisers described as the “silent majority” — an amorphous mass of presumably ordinary working people fed up with the atmosphere of anti-American irreverence they associated with the racial revolution, the anti-war movement, and the counterculture. Nixon strategists also conceived a third, “blue-collar” strategy aimed directly at those northern industrial centers where alienated white trade unionists and other white workers found Wallace and the AIP appealing.

Well past the reign of Nixon, through the Reagan and Bush years, the Republican Party stayed in the grip of powerful business circles and continued to rely on votes from its traditional affluent and well-educated constituencies. From one election cycle to the next, however, the “silent majority” and its “blue-collar” component became less and less silent, less and less the pliable tool of the party’s country-club old guard.

Fissures that erupted in both parties signaled the trend. Billionaire businessman Ross Perot ran independent campaigns for the presidency in 1992 and 1996. In an economy already hemorrhaging industrial jobs, Perot warned Americans that they would hear a “giant sucking sound” of lost jobs if Bill Clinton was allowed to negotiate a free trade agreement with Mexico. Clinton won. Workers heard the “giant sucking sound.” And Perot did reasonably well as a third-party candidate, particularly in 1992, when he won 19 percent of the popular vote.

Democrats didn’t pay attention, and they remained committed to the neoliberal politics of Clinton’s “third way” all through the Obama years. They took for granted the allegiance of their working-class base long past its sell-by date. The Republicans, however, couldn’t be so complacent.

In 1996, Pat Buchanan, a former Nixon advisor, scandalized Republican National Convention delegates by denouncing free trade (something as dear to the GOP high command as it was to Bill Clinton’s Democrats), charging immigrants with stealing American jobs, and lambasting the party hierarchy for being weak in defense of the nuclear family, paternal authority, sexual restraint, and religious faith. For a brief moment, the prospect of a divided Republican Party, one that could conceivably split in two, loomed.

Buchanan flirted with third-party aspirations, but they evaporated quickly. Life within the GOP seemed to return to normal during the Bush years. But Nixon’s “silent majority,” and the so-called “Reagan Democrats” were becoming increasingly vocal and feisty. The Tea Party uprising during and after the financial collapse of 2008 expressed a general disgust at the malfeasance and felonious behavior of the country’s peak financial institutions and their political enablers in both parties.

Made up of a mélange of grassroots rebel groups and right-wing foundation-funded media outlets, the Tea Party was an inchoate phenomenon that attracted all sorts. It attracted small business people who felt beleaguered by government regulations, well-off suburbanites who resented being taxed to help the poor, dynastic businessmen like the Koch brothers who saw it as a device for flushing the government down the drain, as well as some working people struggling through the Great Recession. Socially incoherent, it was a third party in the making that never quite made it.

Instead, it took root within the Republican Party. By the middle of the Obama years, people loosely associated with the Tea Party were mounting successful primary challenges to senior members of the Republican establishment. The likes of Mitch McConnell could hold on to their positions only by playing to a constituency increasingly driven by antiestablishment convictions. The “silent majority” was silent no longer.

Some of that white working-class world nonetheless voted for Obama, latching onto his rhetoric about starting anew. Their hopes were disappointed, and many of them voted for Trump rather than Hillary Clinton’s same old, same old. They were after all Hillary’s “deplorables.” On the surface, the GOP seemed rock solid. But it was liquefying down below.

Donald Trump made the most of these tectonic shifts. He went after what was now an aroused white plebeian insurgency, manipulating its racial and xenophobic undercurrents, sympathizing with its real experience of decline, identifying with its feelings of cultural ostracism. His rhetorical irreverence was seductive, and his authoritarian inclinations were a natural outgrowth of the imperial presidency.

Tax cuts and deregulation kept the traditional elements of the Republican Party on board, but over the years the GOP underwent an organ transplant; its heart was elsewhere. Meanwhile, some wealthier better-educated elements, particularly those with moderate to liberal cultural sensibilities, left the GOP for the Democrats.

Without this extended period of third-party agitation, running from the American Independent Party through Perot’s candidacies, and the Buchanan apostasy, and the rise of the Tea Party, Trump’s triumph is hard to imagine. The country’s most outlandish incarnation of the lumpen-bourgeoisie — someone who had jettisoned every trait of bourgeois rectitude, self-restraint, piety, sexual propriety, and decorum — made himself the hero of a degraded white multitude, savaged and made defenseless by deindustrialization, and whose values of family, religion, and patriotism the nation’s elites had long since abandoned.

Joe Biden soundly defeated Trump in 2020. Nevertheless, Trump’s Republican Party increased its blue-collar vote by 12 percent from a decade earlier. Despite his open racism and xenophobia, Trump even polled better among working-class Hispanics and African Americans than he did in 2016 (13 percent better among Hispanics and 7 percent better among African Americans), while the Democratic Party’s share of these voters fell by 8 percent.

The Republican Party’s chemistry is highly unstable. Trump is not forming a new party. Doing so would require the kind of hard organizational work that doesn’t suit him. At the moment he seems in command of the GOP, which makes a MAGA party unnecessary. If such a party formed it would likely show fascist characteristics, like other far-right movements that have drawn support from demoralized working-class constituents along with other parts of the population.

Whether such a party comes into existence in the future or not, the Trump years disconfirm with a vengeance the complacent notion that third parties don’t matter. For good or ill, they don’t really die — they keep on stinging.