The Third Party Tradition in American Politics: Against Duopolist Historical Revisionism, Part 2

Since at least the middle of the twentieth century, political historians of the United States have employed the "party system" concept in conjunction with that of the "realigning election" to periodize the history of US politics, yielding the delineation of five or six different party periods. The Wikipedia entry on the US party system quotes from Benedict, Burbank and Hrebenar's Political Parties, Interest Groups and Political Campaigns:
Scholars generally agree that realignment theory identifies five distinct party systems with the following approximate dates and major parties: 1. 1796-1816, First Party System: Jeffersonian Republicans and Federalists; 2. 1840-1856, Second Party System: Democrats and Whigs; 3. 1860-1896, Third Party System: Republicans and Democrats; 4. 1896-1932, Fourth Party System: Republicans and Democrats; 5. 1932-, Fifth Party System: Democrats and Republicans.
Needless to say, the party system model privileges the major parties in its theorization of American political history. Even though it obscures the third party and independent tradition in American politics, it can also be read against the grain. See, for instance, Dale Sheldon's Brief History of Political Parties in the United States, which I excerpted over the summer in a post on political fragmentation and partisan realignment. However, some contemporary historians are acutely aware of the limitations of the model. In "The "Third Party Tradition" Reconsidered: Third Parties and American Public Life, 1830-1900," Mark Voss-Hubbard argues that:
A principal weakness of the party period concept is that phenomena that lay outside "party" are often subsumed into it or made idiosyncratic by definition. (p. 122.)
This, Voss-Hubbard suggests, has led many historians to discount, or trivialize the importance of non-conformist, third party and independent political movements throughout US history:
Little in this revisionism treated third partyism as a phenomenon that illuminated mass belief about politics and governance. Instead, third parties were cast as anomalous examples of extremism in a normative political tradition that was pragmatic and liberal capitalist. (p. 125.)

Scholars identified "systems" of major party voting alignments, then folded them into a larger "realignment synthesis" in which certain critical elections marked the transition from one alignment to the next. Central to the interpretive framework were the major parties – their policy orientations, legislative behavior, and relationship to voters serves as the point of departure for historians of nineteenth century politics . . . despite their emphasis on the major parties, new political historians also fitted third partyism into their long-range model. Certain third party movements – notably the Antimasons and Know-Nothings – seemed best to represent the ethnocultural bases of nineteenth-century voting behavior and, most important, were pivotal transition parties in the realignment synthesis. However, more penetrating insight into third partyism has proved disappointingly elusive . . . a research agenda that promised to organize political history around long-range systemic patterns that defined a regime was bound to deflect attention away from traditions of popular antipathy toward the regime. (Emphasis added, pp. 126-128.)
Published in The Journal of American History in 1999, Voss-Hubbard's article begins from the assumption that an independent third party tradition is central to American political history. It is on this precise point that he links up with John D. Hicks's work on The Third Party Tradition in American Politics, excerpted here the other day in the first post of this series. Voss-Hubbard writes:
To Hicks and others of his generation, third party movements were important subjects of inquiry because they represented Americans' frequent dissatisfaction with the major parties and the government – both state and national – that those parties almost always controlled. Hicks thus implied that a defining characteristic of the nation's populist, third party tradition, popular anger at the two-party regime, was a vital and recurrent theme of the party period. (p. 121-122.)
However, while Hicks focused almost exclusively on official minor parties, Voss-Hubbard widens the scope of analysis to include independent and non-partisan political associations, uniting all three under the banner of what he calls "anti-partyism":
The anti-partyism that concerns us here was not the same as classical antiparty belief. By the 1830's few raised the fundamental objections to political parties that James Madison and other thinkers of his generation had . . . The anti-partyism I will focus on was a secular discourse that communicated deep frustration with the immediate political and governmental context while also marking third parties as social movements, not conventional political parties. Nineteenth-century third parties defined themselves as antiparties, reaching beyond party politics to politicize other dimensions of thought and experience in American public life. (p. 124.)

Though variations on the theme abound, one pattern emerges clearly: significant numbers of nineteenth-century Americans swarmed into independent movements when the major parties failed them. (p. 128.)
The history of independent and third party activism demonstrates not only the continuity of opposition to the two-party regime, but also of the continuous corruption of the two-party regime:
third party movements, including those commonly thought of as farmer- or worker-based, assailed corrupt politics as often as they attacked corporate greed or exploitation in the private sector. Indeed, the antiparty belief that government was overrun by tainted politicians and the special interests that controlled them stands out as a central theme in the public cultures of virtually all nineteenth-century third parties. (Emphasis added, p. 129.)

Above all, third party movements crystallized anger with a system of politics and governance that failed to address felt needs. Antipartyism reflected the belief among third partisans that the current political regime lacked a broad moral purpose; that short-sighted politicians, preoccupied with patronage and other petty partisan intrigues, were out of touch with popular needs and concerns. (pp. 130-131.)
Because women were denied the vote, Hubbard argues, they were a driving force behind non-partisan political reforms (for example, abolition, temperance, prohibition), and lent strength to third party efforts against the entrenched two-party regime:
In the 19th century a framework of nonpartisanship may well have been as robust and influential as the partisan framework of national two-party politics. The ideals learned and experiences gained from nonpartisan public activism helped guide Americans' consideration of many governance issues. When third party movements set out to politicize their agendas for new governmental policies, they drew largely on the nonpartisan framework of thought and practice . . . third party movements, with their origins in extrapartisan reform organizations, built upon these nonpartisan ideals and impulses. They turned nonpartisan expectations of governance against the regime by poiticizing their issues in antiparty terms. (pp. 140-141.)
Voss-Hubbard concludes by arguing that the strength of independent and third party movements was, paradoxically, also their greatest weakness:
Just as antipartyism was central to the rise of third party movements, so too did it figure in their usually rapid demise. The story of third party defeat is a familiar one. The seeming ease with which the two-party regime co-opts the third party agenda and beats back thoroughgoing change is a stock conclusion in the history of third party movements. To explain third party defeat, scholars invariably emphasize daunting systemic obstacles. The nation's single-member, winner-take-all system of election and representation and the presence of obdurate major party organizations, each with a corps of well-helled operatives, a profusion of party mouthpieces, and near monopoly control over patronage ensured that insurgency took place within a hostile environment . . . Third parties faced long odds, but the numerous issues they raised and the ease with which they mobilized locally and statewide illuminated the considerable potential for challenging the regime in nineteenth-century America. (Emphasis added, p. 142.)

As they developed into organized parties, making direct and indirect appeals to other insurgent movements and pockets of discontent, third party movements tended to become sprawling supercoalitions of the disaffected. Antiparty claims of allegiance to the public good facilitated the initial mobilization . . . but antipartyism also masked the ideological diversity and social divisions within third party organizations. (pp. 143-144.)
In the next installment of the series, we'll look at a few articles considering the American third party tradition in the twentieth century.


Samuel Wilson said...

Voss-Hubbard is on to something in making a distinction between third parties and independent movements. Third parties were rife in my current period of study in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but in many cases the third party was a temporary construct consisting of disgruntled factions of one of the major parties who had lost the latest primary or convention, often encouraged by operatives of the opposite party. The existence of more than two candidates in many elections was evidence less of genuine grass-roots insurgency than of lack of party discipline. Independent movements, however, could have tremendous impact. The Prohibition movement is the best example. While the Prohibition Party never got far at the polls, extra-electoral pressure, including threats to seek the recall or removal of elected officials for failure to enforce excise laws, combined with populist hostility to an alleged liquor lobby, gradually broke the resistance of Bipolarchy politicians. Also worthy of note in this case was that Prohibitionists' ultimate goal wasn't electing a president but getting a constitutional amendment passed. The ultimate question remains whether the 21st century Bipolarchy is so much less responsive to independent pressure than earlier versions that independents face no alternative to seeking direct political power.

d.eris said...

That "ultimate question" gets right to the heart of the next piece I'm reading through, which argues that with the New Deal, the Democratic Party appropriated for itself a significant amount of political activity that had previously gone toward independents and third parties.

But we might also pose the opposite question. Perhaps the duopoly parties have become TOO responsive to outside/independent pressure, attempting to placate every possible group in the search for votes among a highly diverse populace, and hence creating all sorts of contradictions, since not all of these promises can be kept, since either they are mutually exclusive or there is no way to fund them etc.