WHY IS THIS MEME BACK?
WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?
I can actually understand where this idea comes from. Our current political system did not fully arise until after the Civil War, and was not fully ossified until after the Second World War, and politics in the 19th century could be much more fluid than today. Still, the sometimes-expressed idea that it was a paradise for Third Parties and Alternative Parties is extremely anachronistic, and comes from historically-illiterate people projecting today’s politics backwards.
Let’s take this from the top, shall we?
American politics have essentially always come down to a two-party system, due to the constitutional and electoral structures of the nation. (The Electoral College and First Past the Post Voting). From the first party-contested election in 1796 until 1808, this was the Democrat-Republicans against the Federalists. Then, the Federalists effectively collapsed due to the War of 1812. In that year’s election, they threw their support behind a dissident D-R against James Madison and the mainline Democrat-Republicans. In 1816, a Federalist candidate was crushed in a landslide, and in 1820, the Federalists did not even manage to run a candidate, and Monroe was reelected without opposition. But nature abhors a vacuum, and so in 1824 the Democrat-Republicans splintered, running four different candidates and forcing the House of Representatives to select a winner. If America had a parliamentary system, then this might have theoretically led to the formation of four new parties. But in America, anyone but an idiot could see that without unity the chance of a presidential victory was essentially nil. And so, the elections of 1828 and 1832 were contested by the newly reunified Democrats and the breakaway National Republicans, with the presence of several minor spoiler parties failing to change the outcome in any major way.
With the dissolution of the National Republicans in 1833, a pattern became apparent. One by one, opposition parties to the Democrats would rise, and one by one they would collapse. Though each transition period would often feature multiple parties or multiple candidates from a new party, inevitability they would consolidate to challenge the majority. This pattern held into 1836, when the Democratic president Martin Van Buren faced four Whig opponents. In 1840, he faced merely one, William H. Harrison, who decisively defeated him. This became the new party system until 1852. It’s worth noting that during this time a Third Party was highly active in American politics: the Anti-Slavery Free Soil Party, who ran candidates in 1848 and 1852. They did not accomplish much of anything.
The next election, 1856, was another transition year. The Whigs, torn apart by dissension over slavery, had collapsed and the Democrat James Buchanan faced two new parties: the anti-slavery Republican Party and the anti-immigrant American Party. He defeated both easily, but the Era of Democratic Dominance was coming to an end. By 1860, the period of transition was over, and the Republican Party had become a major national force, having absorbed the old Free Soilers, most of the Whigs, and much of the American Party. Unlike the Free Soil Party, it was a true national coalition, composed of radical abolitionists and moderate gradualists, able to truly compete in national elections. This was shown by their presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, a known-moderate who opposed immediate abolition of slavery. Meanwhile, the Democrats collapsed over the issue of slavery. (You may be sensing a pattern here…..). Coming out of their convention in Charleston, various factions of the Democratic Party nominated three different candidates: The Northern Democrats, the Southern Democrats, and the Constitutional Union Party.
I expect this is where the misinterpretation of Lincoln’s victory comes from. People who don’t know much history look at the election results, see four different parties and that the Republicans were ‘new’ and assume he was a Third Party rising to challenge the Two Party System. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Lincoln represented the perennial opposition to the Democratic Party, operating under a new name and with a new coalition, challenging a single party that was in such bad shape that it had finally collapsed under it’s own weight. The Republicans never even ran a presidential candidate contemporaneously with the Whigs.
After the Civil War, the political parties began to solidify rapidly. Whereas in the antebellum United States parties often collapsed and reformed, that, uh, didn’t happen quite so much anymore. The elections of 1864 and 1868 were contested solely by the Democrats and Republicans. The election of 1872 is an interesting exception; the Republicans split, and president Ulysses S. Grant was challenged by the insurgent Liberal Republican party. The Democrats, out of power for over a decade now and desperate, threw their support behind the dissidents. If the LRP had won, it’s possible that they and the Democrats would have fully amalgamated, but it was not to be. From 1876 to 1888, elections were solely contested by the Democrats and Republicans, with the Republicans usually soundly defeating their opposition. It was not until the 1890s that another attempted political shift began, with the Populists. In 1892 a Populist Candidate carried five states. In 1896, the Republican McKinley faced William Jennings Bryan who carried the banners of both the Democrats and the Populists. Though McKinley won, Bryan preformed quite well, wining twenty-two states. One could, with some truth, call Bryan a ‘Third Party Candidate’, in that he emerged out of the Populist Movement. But, not being an idiot, he chose to hijack an existing party rather than attempting to challenge the whole system. One could call this the ‘Sanders Approach’.
The last election in which a Third Party had any real chance of victory was in 1912, when a petulant Theodore Roosevelt challenged his old Republican colleagues at the head of the Progressive Party. Though winning six states, all he accomplished was throwing the election to the Democrats. With the exception of a Progressive candidacy in 1924 that won a single state, this would be the last challenge to the Third Party system until 1948, when the Dixiecrats broke from Truman to run an independent campaign. A similarly segregationist campaign was run by George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 1968. That was the last Third Party campaign to win any states, though eccentric independents ran spoiling campaigns in 1980, 1992, and 1996.
Now kids, what have we learned today?
- The current system isn’t set in stone! Though most of us have spent our entire lives within the modern dichotomy, American political parties really do rise and fall, and Third Parties have run more campaigns than you might have realized.
- The American political system inevitably reverts to two main parties or coalitions after a few tumultuous years of transition, as occurred. This is predetermined by the structure of the electoral system, which is based on Winner Take All and mandates winning an absolute majority.
- American politics have fundamentally changed since the early 19th century, in that they’ve solidified. There used to be major political party collapses approximately once a decade. We haven’t had a total realignment like that since the 1890s.
- Third Parties are only relevant in the event of a major party collapse or if they manage to hijack and take over an existing party. But it’s been 150 years since the last time one of our dominant parties completely disintegrated, so I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the former.
- Abraham Lincoln was not a Third Party Candidate and if you think so you are an idiot.
Now, to be clear, I am not opposed at all to the sort of electoral reform that would enable a multi-party system. I believe at minimum this would entail the abolition of the Electoral College, and preferably the institution of preferential voting or even a full parliamentary system. But I do think a lot of Third Party People drastically overstate the impact this would have. Here’s a secret: All politics is coalitions. In a multi-party system, coalitions are formed between independent political parties after the election. In a two party system, coalitions are formed between factions and interest groups before the election. I agree that the former system would be preferable, as it might give American Social Democrats a stronger voice in the system. But I don’t think it would lead to TRUE COMMUNISM IN OUR TIME, as so many people seem to think.
Final Photo By Gage Skidmore