The Third Party Tradition in American Politics: Against Duopolist Historical Revisionism, Part 3

In the first two posts in this series, I excerpted John Hicks "The Third Party Tradition in American Politics" from 1933 and Mark Voss-Hubbard's "The Third Party Tradition Reconsidered" from 1999, to demonstrate the significance and import of third party and independent politics in US political history and thereby counter the historical-revisionist claims of contemporary duopolist ideologues. Both of these articles considered the third party and independent tradition in the pre-New Deal era. In an article published in The Journal of Politics in 2007, Shigeo Hirano and James Snyder attempt to account for "The Decline of Third-Party Voting in the United States" over the course of the twentieth century. Hirano and Snyder argue that:
electoral support for third parties – mainly left-wing third parties – declined because the Democratic Party co-opted the left-wing policy position beginning with the passage of the New Deal agenda . . . [and] . . . find little support for the hypothesis that the decline of third-party voting was immediately due to electoral reforms such as the introduction of direct primaries and the Australian ballot, except possibly in the south. (Abstract.)
They begin by noting the difference in support for third party candidates in the periods from 1890-1920 and 1940-1970:
Electoral support for third parties in the U.S. has not always been so small. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the vote shares of third parties – such as Greenbacks, Populists, Progressives, and Prohibitionists – were more than twice as large as in recent years. Over the period 1890 to 1920, third party candidates for the U.S. House, Governor, and U.S. Senator won more than 10% of the total vote in 16 states. In contrast, over the period 1940 to 1970, third party candidates for these three office never won 10% of the total vote in any state. More than five times as many third party congressmen were elected to the U.S. House in the period 1890 to 1920 as compared to the period 1940 to 1970. Furthermore, in state legislatures third parties won a plurality of seats in either the upper or lower chamber of nine state legislatures during the first period (1890-1920), compared with none during the second period (1940-1970). (p. 1.)
Like Hicks and Voss-Hubbard, they too note the lack of research into the third party tradition in the United States, stating, "there are few systematic analyses of mass third party movements in the U.S. over time, and even fewer analyses that attempt to link the claims about voter and party behavior to understand" changes in third party voting patterns (p. 2). Hirano and Snyder (H&S) focus on three hypotheses: co-optation, the secret ballot and the direct primary.
One prominent hypothesis offered to explain the decline in third party voting is changes in electoral laws – especially the Australian ballot and the direct primary elections laws.  Another hypothesis – which has primarily been applied to specific cases – is that third parties sometimes collapse after one of the major parties co-opts their key policy positions. (pp. 2-3.)
But they consider a number of others, such as institutional hurdles:
The most common claim for why the U.S. does not have a viable third party is that institutional arrangements, such as the single member district, the electoral college, and the presidential system, do not provide incentives for voters to support third parties or for high quality candidates to join third parties . . . While these institutions are likely to contribute to the failure of third parties to consistently attract votes, they are unlikely to explain the variation in third party electoral support across time. (p. 18.)
Economic arguments:
Another claim in the literature is that third party electoral success is linked to the state of the economy (Stedman and Stedman, 1950). However, the evidence for a connection between short-term economic fluctuations and third party electoral support is mixed at best . . . The evidence seems more consistent with the conclusion in Herring (1965) that “third parties are bred in prosperity as well as depression.” (p. 19.)
Resource inequality and media bias:
A third claim in the literature is that the lack of resources and media exposure available to a third party relative the major parties limits the ability of third party candidates to compete effectively . . . some historians have noted that the resource difference between the third party candidates and the two major parties was a significant problem even in the nineteenth century when third parties were relatively more successful at attracting electoral support than in recent years. Furthermore during the height of declining third party electoral support, 1934 to 1959, third party candidates’ media exposure was protected by government under the Communication Act of 1934 which made it mandatory for the media to provide equal access to third party candidates. Thus, it seems unlikely that the resource and media explanation alone can explain the decline in the third party electoral support. (p. 19.)
The rise of independents:
A more recent claim in the literature is that the pattern of declining third party electoral support has occurred because elections have become more candidate-focused. Gillespie (1993) and Rosenstone et al. (1984), which focus on third party presidential candidates, argue that these mass third party movements were supplanted by individual third party campaigns. In addition, we know that the ratio of independents to third party candidates has increased during the 20th century. (p. 20.)
H&S find the evidence in favor of the co-optation argument the most compelling:
We find considerable evidence consistent with the cooption argument. More specifically, we find that the large and seemingly-permanent decline in left-oriented third party voting was linked to the large and sustained leftward shift of the Democratic Party during and following the New Deal. In contrast, we find only mixed evidence for the electoral law argument. Outside the south, we find no evidence that the introduction of the direct primary or Australian ballot led to an immediate drop in third party electoral support. (p. 3.)
Though they state that the introduction of the Australian ballot, i.e. the secret ballot, had no immediate effect on support for third party candidates, they also note that the effect of this innovation might only have manifested itself later, as states tightened their ballot access laws:
although we find no evidence that changes in electoral laws had an immediate affect on third party electoral support outside the south, the affect of these changes may have manifested several years later . . . The adoption of the Australian ballot made it possible for states to impose tougher restrictions on ballot access later on. Thus, the institutional changes may have had a lagged effect not necessarily captured in the estimation technique used in this paper. (p. 21.)
As Richard Winger argued in "The Importance of Ballot Access" from 1994:
We no longer have vigorous and active third parties because Democratic and Republican state legislatures passed restrictive laws that make it exceedingly difficult for third parties to get on the ballot in many states. These laws usually require third parties to gather signatures for a petition to be on the state ballot, and they often place strict deadlines for gathering such signatures. These restrictions did not emerge overnight.
In the conclusion of their article, Hirano and Snyder consider the implications of their findings in favor of the co-optation argument:
In the absence of other factors that may continue to depress third party electoral support today, we might expect that third party electoral support could once again rise in prominence should the Democratic and Republican Parties once again fail to meet the policy demands of the political extremes. (Emphasis added, p. 22.)
The appendix to H&S's article has a number of tables and graphs detailing third party vote shares, among other things, over the last 140 years, and are well worth checking out. In future and concluding installments of the series, I'll attempt to synthesize a number of points from these three articles and consider the implications of this scholarship in the context of the contemporary political scene.


Samuel Wilson said...

Arguably the best evidence for the authors' claims is the Republican adoption of the "southern strategy" in order to co-opt the movement that coalesced around George Wallace in the 1960s, though the GOP never co-opted Wallace himself. In 1968 many observers feared that Wallace's candidacy would throw the presidential election into the House of Representatives. By the Reagan's followes seized the Republican party and amplified its appeal to "angry white males" the Wallace movement ceased to exist as a significant independent political force. Populists are always vulnerable to this sort of strategy because it's easy for partisans to say, "we hate your enemies, too; they are the problem!" -- especially when they aren't. On the other side, social welfare programs have always been an effective tool of pragmatic conservatives, proving that, despite Republican propaganda, the Democrats were the truly conservative (rather than reactionary) party in the 20th century -- whether Democrats like to admit that or not.

d.eris said...

On the basis of the co-optation argument, one could also make a strong case against a strategy of infiltration. Arguably, if you are a strong progressive or conservative interested for the most part in issue advocacy, you are better served not by working to change the parties from the inside, but thwarting them from the outside and thus forcing them to come around to your position. It is likely no coincidence that the recent GOP conservative "purity test" that was floating around the RNC(?) followed upon the heels of the Hoffman insurgency in NY-23.

Les Publica said...

Two things seem to give rise to third parties in the US. One is when the ideological spectrum becomes too far spread out, as happened before our Civil War. The other is when a large group of persons is moving between parties. Thus the Progressives of 1924 were really the Roosevelt Republicans becoming Roosevelt Democrats. Likewise the Dixiecrat and American Independent parties were southern Democrats moving over to the Republicans, and Ross Perot's Reform party was balanced budget Republicans becoming Clinton's balanced budget Democrats.

d.eris said...

Les, another condition is when the ideological spectrum becomes too narrow and there is not enough room in both parties to accommodate the diversity of interests in the US, and maybe another would be when there is very little dynamic movement between the two major parties, when they have become stagnant and rigid.