A Third Party?
There have been a number of “third party” candidates for the Presidency in United States History but we’ve never really had a serious third party challenge the Establishment. --- beyond a run for the Presidency. That is, since the earliest days of the Republic we have lived with a binary party system. So, as much as we moan and groan about the Republicans & Democrats, the American populace doesn’t seem particularly interested in actually throwing their support (in great numbers) behind anything outside the “mainstream.”
We currently have the Libertarian and Green Parties vying for attention but, at best, Third Parties have only played a spoiler role In Presidential elections (Ross Perot in 1992, Ralph Nader in 2000). Why haven’t we had any significant parties emerge on the American political scene beyond the Republicans and the Democrats? One explanation may simply be history and tradition. When Hamilton & Jefferson squared off in the early 1790s, creating the first American political parties, the rest of the world only had monarchies and the notion of a multiple party, parliamentary-style political landscape did not exist. As a result, a tradition of the “two-party” system became the norm, with only an occasional “third” party emerging, often to promote one particular issue (anti-immigration, slavery, etc.)
In 1892 the Populist Party, a loose union of western/southern farmers and eastern (white) urban factory workers emerged and, while preoccupied with a currency issue (“bi-metal” vs. the “gold standard”) it also promoted a graduated income tax, direct election of Senators, the 8-hour work day, the creation of the initiative and referendum in states so “the people” could oversee the decisions of their elected officials and that the government take over ownership of the railroads --- and a single term for the President and Vice-President. Quite a “progressive” agenda. While the Populists garnered 22 electoral votes in the 1892 election (winning over a million popular votes --- but also increasing the number of states with “poll taxes” --- paying a tax to vote --- to keep poor whites as well as Blacks from voting), the Populists were essentially gobbled up by the Democrats in the 1896 election, running the Populist favorite, William Jennings Bryant. Big money backed Ohio’s William McKinley and the Populists faded from view, although some of their ideas survived.
After 8 years of Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive “trust-busting” administration (1901-1909), TR passed the baton to William Howard Taft but quickly regretted it as the more conservative Taft steered the Republican Party back toward the “center-right.” This led to Roosevelt creating the most successful (electorally) third party, the Progressives (aka “Bull Moose), for the 1912 election. Needless to say, TR lost (though he far surpassed Taft & the Republicans) and set the pattern for third parties handing the election to one of the major party candidates (1968, 1992, 2000). What is interesting to examine, though, is the 1912 Progressive Party platform. Here are the highlights:
· Strict limits and disclosure requirements on political campaign contributions
· Registration of lobbyists
· Recording and publication of Congressional committee proceedings
In the social sphere the platform called for:
· A National Health Service to include all existing government medical agencies.
· Social insurance, to provide for the elderly, the unemployed, and the disabled
· Limiting the ability of judges to order injunctions to limit labor strikes.
· A minimum wage law for women
· An eight-hour workday
· A federal securities commission
· Farm relief
· Workers' compensation for work-related injuries
· An inheritance tax
The political reforms proposed included:
· Women's suffrage
· Direct election of Senators
· Primary elections for state and federal nominations
The platform also urged states to adopt measures for "direct democracy", including:
· The recall election (citizens may remove an elected official before the end of his term)
· The referendum (citizens may decide on a law by popular vote)
· The initiative (citizens may propose a law by petition and enact it by popular vote)
· Judicial recall (when a court declares a law unconstitutional, the citizens may override that ruling by popular vote).
We can see that the concern about campaign contributions and lobbyists is nothing new and that the “social sphere” reforms have almost all been enacted (in some form or another) over the last century(!). The political reforms and the “direct democracy” concepts have also largely been enacted. The point here is this: do we have any “party” or political group proposing a detailed and specific program that addresses issues of concern to the citizens of the United States? The 1912 Progressives did not win the battle but largely won their war. Who and what is carrying the banner for the people in 2017 and what are the ideas and issues that a thoughtful third party might promote that, even if subsumed by the Democrats or Republicans, would ultimately help “we, the people?”