Third party fever and historical reality

History reveals the truth of what many third party idealists have found out through failure:  Major Parties rule; wannabe parties drool.

SAN JOSE, October 30, 2012 – Some election years, a presidential candidate emerges who fails to survive the gauntlet of the primaries or win backing from a major party, but who captivates very fervent followers.  When this happens, talk of Third Party forays onto the political turf of the two primary political parties arises.  However, history reveals the truth of what many third party idealists have found out through failure.  Major Parties rule; wannabe parties drool. 

If a grassroots movement with a large enough mass of American voters succeeds in busting the monopolistic stranglehold of control over the political election process, it is usually successful mainly    by co-opting,  or taking periodic control of one of the two powerful party machines.  Ronald Reagan and the Conservatives were able to do this when Reagan overcame the Republican Party establishment in 1980.  Barack Obama and the Leftist/Socialists coalition did this when they culminated their efforts by wresting control of the Democrat Party in 2008.

Conversely, an incredibly blatant example of grassroots initiated, third party fever creating a disastrous outcome for one of the two major political parties occurred at the turn of the twentieth century when Republican William H. Taft was up for re-election in 1912.  In this election, the Republican Party fragmented because former president Teddy Roosevelt no longer favored his former political protégé and decided to gain the Republican Party’s nomination instead of Taft.  Roosevelt put in a hard effort to wrest control of the party from Taft, but the Republican establishment stood behind the sitting president.  1912 proved to be a very divisive year. 

Early that year, Roosevelt had declared the theme of his “New Nationalism” stating that “…every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.”  This being quite a rejection of the concept of personal property rights, he found that when the Republican Convention met in June of that year the Party’s National Committee naturally feared Roosevelt’s potent populist ideas.  The Republicans nominated Taft.  In July, the Democratic National Convention nominated Wilson, but his strongest challenge came from a Third Party candidate and not the Republican Party. 

The Convention refused to seat many Roosevelt supporters and later they pledged themselves to Roosevelt and determined that whatever party he would represent, they would back him. In August, Roosevelt supporters in Chicago formed the Progressive Party and nominated Teddy as their presidential candidate.  Roosevelt referred to the new party as the “Bull Moose” Party in order to challenge the Democrats and the Republican establishment.  Roosevelt did not actually expect to win, but was pleased when he came in second and beat Taft who actually had done very little campaigning as he did not expect to win either, after he learned of Roosevelt’s efforts to defeat him via a third party.  But, as popular as he was, Roosevelt lost to Wilson by a tally of 6,296,547 votes (with 435 electoral votes) to 4,118,571 votes (with only 88 electoral votes).  Taft managed to receive 3,486,720 votes  (only 8 electoral votes).  Yet, Roosevelt was happy that he beat Taft. 

After the election, Roosevelt trotted off to South America with his son on another big-game hunt and to explore a Brazilian waterway called the River of Doubt (could there have been some self reflection worked into the itinerary?).  He was in South America from 1913 – 1914 and after the Great War started, he began criticizing the Wilson White House for not doing enough to protect American lives overseas.  Although he spent the next years utterly disappointed in Wilson’s presidency as he continued to criticize President Wilson’s foolish political statements and poor foreign policy decisions during the war.  Even though the Progressive’s nominated him to run against Wilson in 1916, he declined the offer.  Instead, Roosevelt campaigned bitterly against Wilson on behalf of Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican contender.  Hughes also lost to Wilson primarily due to Wilson’s promise to the American people that he kept America out of the Great War, and would continue to do so.

Another incredibly divisive election, perhaps the most divisive in U.S. history, occurred in 1860. Then, as now, there was a fundamental idea being argued over that shook the foundations of the Republic.  The radical and contentious idea drove Abraham Lincoln back to the fundamental documents of the bedrock values underlying America’s founding – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, specifically the Bill of Rights.  That most divisive issue at stake was the issue of slavery, or whether human beings could be treated as property by other human beings.  It is now fashionable to list several reasons for the outbreak of that great and terrible war, the greatest of which was states’ rights against the Federal authority of the national government.   That was how the Confederacy portrayed it.

Lincoln saw it completely differently.  He understood this single issue of whether slavery was acceptable or abominable had the potential to shatter the very union.  He said as much when he used the biblical perspective that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Of course there were other contributing factors leading to the war, including the economic differences between the industrial North and the agriculturally based South.  But essentially, the issue of slavery was the core issue that fractured the country.  This issue was at the center of the disintegration of the old Whig Party and it split the Democratic Party into the Northern and Southern factions.  From the fray emerged the Republican Party, whose champion in the 1860 presidential election was Abraham Lincoln.

Political parties went through turbulent change during the years preceding the Civil War and in the years following the war.  In the previous two presidential elections, in 1852 and 1856, the Democrats had won the White House by large percentages of the electoral vote.  In 1852, the Democrats beat the Whigs by 86% to 14%.  In 1856, after the Whig party was absorbed into either the newly formed Republican Party or the Democratic factions, the Democrats beat the Republicans by 59% to 38%.  But with an abolitionist candidate running in 1860, eventually third party fever set in.  The Democrats splintered into three distinct factions:  the Northern Democrats, the Southern Democrats, and the Constitutional Union Party.

Lincoln and the Republicans won with 39.8% compared to the 29.4% of the closest Democratic rival.  By electoral votes, Lincoln won by an even wider margin with 180 electoral votes compared with 72 electoral votes of his nearest opponent.    The election not only left the Democratic Party in shambles, the nation erupted into outright civil strife.  The Democrats, specifically Southerners who would rather fight than surrender the institution of slavery, had not prevailed at the voting booth.  Their last resort to hold on to their political and economic power was to utilize armed force as they considered their Party and their priorities more important than the good of the entire nation.  If that seems a bit familiar, it is because that is also where America finds the State of the Union in 2012. 

The two party system may indeed broken and corrupt.  President Washington warned against the harmful effects of a divisive political party system in his Farewell Address. He expressed that such fragmenting factions originated from “… the strongest passions of the human mind.” Washington’s belief was that the constitutional separation of powers combined with the system of checks and balances made political parties unnecessary.  Washington warned America against the “Baneful effects of the Spirit of Party.” Unfortunately, much of what Washington shared in his Farewell Address seems prophetic, but his wisdom was ignored. 

Today Americans find themselves at the mercy of the two major parties that dominate the political arena.  However, in 2012, it may be impossible to find many other presidential elections in U.S. history that have been as divisive as this one because this election represents a confrontation of ideas that has been long postponed.  Just like the confrontation over slavery which had been long postponed, this election is more divisive than even the issue of slavery in the days of the Civil War. 

Lincoln was one of the best at putting complex and difficult issues into simple terms.  And in his day, he expressed the issue eloquently in his Gettysburg Address.  He was not even the featured speaker at the dedication of the cemetery for those who lost their lives in that field of battle.  Lincoln only spoke a few minutes, but in that time, he expressed his clarity of understanding when he stated: 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so    conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…    

The 2012 election may also be a test for this nation with regard to whether Americans are deserving of our founding principles of the Land of the Free, such as the guarantees of individual rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the basic physical protection from the sources of harm from around the world.  If a great and powerful passenger train is speeding toward a cliff, one may not want to focus on which side of the aisle they’re on or who could possibly be a better Engineer if only given the chance.  It seems Americans are on that course during these difficult times and Americans have but two choices to take control and correct the direction or the speed before we rush past the point to prevent peril.        


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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