The Third Party Tradition in American Politics: Against Duopolist Historical Revisionism

When partisans of the Democratic and Republican Parties seek to discourage others from engaging in third party and independent political activism, they return time and again to what I call the historical argument, which seeks to prove that third party and independent movements will necessarily fail in the future because they have never succeeded in the past. Historical fatalism of this sort is foreign to the foundational spirit of the United States and is symptomatic of the degeneracy and decline of popular political thought under the reigning duopoly system of government. Furthermore, and like so many of the propositions put forward by the propagandists of the Democratic-Republican two-party state, the argument does not even possess the virtue of being true. Over the next few days, I plan to provide excerpts from a number of scholarly articles detailing the third party tradition in the United States in order to counter the revisionist tendencies of duopolist ideologues, who seek to erase or otherwise obscure the third party and independent political tradition in the United States in the interests of short term political gain aimed at nothing more than maintaining the two-party political status quo. My starting point will be John D. Hicks's seminal article "The Third Party Tradition in American Politics," which appeared in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review in 1933.

Hicks's article provides a history of third party politics in the United States from around 1800 through 1930. Over the course of the paper, he discusses no less than fifteen minor parties and argues that such groups have had an impact on the course of US history that rivals those of the major parties. In his historical sketch, Hicks details the influence (among others) of: the Tertium Quids, the Anti-Masonic Party, the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, the Know Nothings, the Constitutional Union Party, the Liberal Republican Party, the Grangers, the Greenback Party, the People's Party (i.e. the Populist Party), the Socialist Party of America, and the Farmer Labor Party.

In his introductory paragraphs, Hicks writes:
Possibly a good many intelligent voters would be surprised to learn that the two party system was not ordained by the Constitution, and that a division into political parties was not even desired by some of those who first guided the nation's destinies . . . Far more depressing to the ordinary elector, however, would be the discovery that the United States has never possessed for any considerable period of time the two party system in its pure and undefiled form. It is a fact, easily demonstrated, that at least for the last hundred years one formidable third party has succeeded another with bewildering rapidity; and that, contrary to the customary view, these third parties have seriously affected the results of presidential elections, have frequently had a hand in the determination of important national policies, and have played perhaps quite as important a role as either of the major parties in making the nation what it is today. (Emphasis added, Hicks, pp. 3-4.)
In the final pages of the article, Hicks concludes:
To the superficial observer the history of American third party movements might appear to be only a long succession of jeremiads. It is true enough that the successes of these parties at the polls have been ephemeral and their hopes of endurance unfounded. But their chronic re-appearance is a factor in American history that cannot be overlooked. In three-fifths of the presidential elections held during the last hundred years the candidates of significant, and at least temporarily powerful, third parties have been before the voters. In possibly half a dozen instances the third party vote has snatched victory from one major party ticket to give it to the other. Innumerable state administrations have been in the hands of third party men, and in spite of the late Democratic landslide a Farmer-Labot governor still rules in Minnesota. To dismiss third parties lightly under these circumstances is to show a lamentable disregard for the facts. [Emphasis added.]

But it is not so much in the terms of victories won and candidates elected that the importance of third party movements should be assessed. What is of infinitely greater consequence is the final success of so many of the principles for which they have fought. It is almost a law of third party history that the triumph of the third party cause means the death of the party, and the reason why this is true is self-evident. Let a third party once demonstrate that votes are to be made by adopting a certain demand, then one or the other of the older parties can be trusted to absorb the new doctrine. Ultimately, if the demand has merit, it will probably be translated into law or practice by the major party that has taken it up. Not all third party ideas endure, and it is a good thing they do not; but the list of third party principles that have finally won out it formidable. The abolition of slavery, the restoration of "home rule" to the South, the regulation of the railroads by state and nation, the revision of the banking and currency systems to secure a more adequate and a more elastic supply of money and credit, the various attempts to curb the "trusts", the conservation of natural resources – these reforms, to mention only a few of the most obvious, made headway at first mainly through third party agitation . . . . The chronic supporter of third party tickets need not worry, therefore, when he is told, as he surely will be told, that he is "throwing his vote away." This backward glance through American history would seem to indicate that his kind of vote is after all probably the most powerful vote that has ever been cast. (Emphasis added, Hicks, pp. 26-27.)
In attempting to account for the continuous succession of third party movements in the United States, Hicks discounts economic arguments, and instead suggests a structural mechanism is at work:
There is more merit in the theory that American third parties have come about as natural by-products of our diverse sectional interests. Major parties must command support in every section, and must manage somehow to collect everywhere the maximum number of votes. That one man's meat is another man's poison has frequently been true as between the various sections of the United States . . . Let a whole section begin to feel that its interests are being permanently discriminated against by both old parties, and the time for a plain-spoken third party, organized mainly along sectional lines, is about ripe. (Hicks, p. 28.)


Samuel Wilson said...

Couldn't Hicks's argument in the third excerpt paragraph be used to vindicate the Bipolarchy, since it appears to prove that the major parties are eventually responsive to the demands of insurgents? After all, all the achievements Hicks lists were accomplished by Republicans or Democrats. It reminds me of an editorial cartoon I saw in a biography of Norman Thomas. One character notes that the famous Socialist never won an election. Another notes many of the reforms he advocated, all of which were law by the time of Thomas's death. The punch line: "You see? The system works!" But I suppose it depends on what we mean by "the system." Hicks and the cartoonist are describing if not hailing a system that works despite the Bipolarchy. The real purpose of a third party in this account is not to take power but to make enough noise that those who have power have to listen to its demands. The question nearly eighty years on from Hicks's study is whether the system can still be trusted to respond the same way.

d.eris said...

I don't think it vindicates the bipolarchy so much as it does the constitution and the efforts of third party insurgents. The duopoly parties come out looking like cynical opportunists. But, still, you make a good point. Over the course of the article, Hicks emphasizes the electoral, and process-oriented victories of the parties I linked above. From only a handful to dozens of winning candidates in a given election. On the other hand, he also noted how things like the open national convention, which we equate with the duopoly parties, were demanded by third parties to make the process more transparent.