The Influence of Third Parties in US

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“The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation: we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling-places to prevent universal intimidation or bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated; our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished; and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down their wages; a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”––Populist Party platform, 1892

Some say and I agree that the Occupy movement was not organized, but that is what made it so very powerful. That is where its actual strength laid. By not being organized the established political and financial elites found it very difficult to co-opt it. In fact they are still trying to either co-opt it or starve it to death. And the Occupy Movement definitely was not the first of its kind. We could go back to the Paris Commune or the Revolution of 1848 in Europe and beyond if we really wished to get ticky, but I’d rather stick to the present for now. Without the energy that was unleashed during Occupy Bernie would have most probably had a difficult time finding an energetic base from which to operate.

Consider the history of progressive politics

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The Progressive Movement was concerned about a variety of issues, including monopolies cornering the markets. “In the old parties we trusted until financially we are busted. And if we would our rights regain, we must nominate Honest Men. It is the best that we can do and elect them all in 92. Down with Monopoly. Courtesy U.S. Government

Let’s consider the history of progressive politics in the US over the last 150 years or so. In the 1840s there were two serious political parties: the “Old Republican turned Democratic Party” and the Whigs. The  “Old Republican turned Democratic Party” was overwhelmingly the dominate party. They supported the most conservative line of the day and the Whigs were the more progressive but were increasingly marginalized, by the forces of wealth of the day, until they totally disintegrated.

The Free Soil Party

About that time arose several “third parties.” Probably the most prominent of them was the “Free Soil Party” which was a sort of “populist party” advocating jobs for free men instead of land for slave-holders. A party that stood, not for abolition of Slavery, but for the admission of all new states and territories to the US to be, what was then termed “Free Soil.” They, several Abolitionist Parties and the more progressive of the Whigs joined forces in 1852 to formed the “New Republican Party*.” It also lead to the establishment of a more progressive political party in power. But, let me emphasize that this was done by the force of independent progressive “third parties.” After the death of Mr. Lincoln that progressivism was squashed by the predecessors of the Corporations of today, the “Trusts” and the “Combines”: mostly Railroad companies.

The Progressive Era

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Then in the 1880s there began a backlash to this “corporatization” of the government in what became know as the Progressive Era. Progressivism began as a social movement which grew into a political movement. The early progressives rejected Social Darwinism. In other words, they were people who believed that the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace.** One of the highlights of the Progressive Era was the Sherman Anti-Trust Act which was the first Federal act that outlawed monopolistic business practices in 1890.

“During the “reckless decade” of the 1890s the impulse for reform was driven by “The Populist Party,” which was made up of farmers, small businessmen and reform-minded leaders who were willing to confront the growing problems in the country. The situation was summarized dramatically in the Populist Party platform, issued at its convention in Omaha in 1892, which read in part:

“‘The conditions which surround us best justify our cooperation: we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling-places to prevent universal intimidation or bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated; our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished; and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down their wages; a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.’

“Even allowing for political hyperbole, the Populist claim was essentially true. The Populist Party, like many American institutions at that time, was divided internally over issues of race, geography, economic orientation, and general political loyalty. Although the Populists elected state and local officials, and affected legislation in local areas, their national impact was restricted by the usual limitations on third parties. But in that platform of 1892 they laid out a program of reform designed to help the small farmer, the small businessman and all others who saw themselves as victims of capitalist power. The party disappeared following the election of 1896, when they endorsed Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan, who had addressed Populist concerns in his famous “Cross of Gold” speech. By tying themselves to a major party, the Populists lost their identity and went out of existence.”***

A Triumph for Progressivism

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Curiously, it was a Republican who next took up the banner. This culminated in the rise of Teddy Roosevelt in New York. When the New York political machine tired of TRs “progressive” interference in their control of the state. Thus they nominated him for VP. This position of VP was meant to ensure that TR would be able “to do no damage” to what the elite wanted; however, when Mr. McKinley was assassinated TR became President and he oversaw the implementation of some progressive programs.

Then a Setback00000744

However, once this “progressive” movement had been “mainstreamed” into the two major political parties it was co-opted ensuring its demise and the rise of the corporatist era of the 1920s whose “financial excesses” created the conditions that caused the great crash of 1929. In 1913 the “liberal” (Democratic term or the Republican appropriated “progressive”) Woodrow Wilson oversaw the creation of the Federal Reserve Banking System, a system entirely independent of any and all publicly elected officials and held to account by no one except Wall Street and its financiers who staff, run and manage it. Then after the “Great War” Mr. Wilson engaged in a witch hunt called the “Red Scare” where all truly progressive minded people were targeted for either jail, “repatriation,” or marginalization at the very least. This witch hunt greatly retarded the development of the Labor Movement. And enacting a ban on the domestic distribution of drugs is the Harrison Narcotic Act which eventually led to the present day “War on Drugs” that is so devastating to so many communities in the US today.

A Bold New Hero

Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill
Roosevelt signs Social Security Bill

When the excesses of the 1920s came to a head in 1929 with the great crash of Wall Street precipitating the Great Depression came another rise in third party politics. The strongest of these was the Socialist and Communist parties. With the election of TR’s cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 (who ran on an essentially “austerity,” “balancing the budget” platform) the Labor Movement, esp., the CIO which was very closely aligned with the Communist Party gave FDR an ultimatum. Either work for the welfare of the common working class or face a revolution from below. FDR wisely chose to work with what became his base for the rest of his presidency and his life. But this shift to the left by FDR and the creation of the New Deal came because of a very strong “Third Party” style movement. Even after some initial successes in rejuvenating the economy FDR in 1936 reverted back to his root philosophy and tried to “balance the budget” which was a disaster and was thus forced back to the positions of his “third party” challengers into a fuller implication of the New Deal.

The Retreat to Neoliberalism Begins

Occupy Wall St.

Then with the “Party Establishment” elites refusal to accept Henry A Wallace, a true progressive, as FDR’s VP again in 1944 the shift of the party away from a “people centered” New Deal party began a long and torturous trek. This trek began by securing a more “corporate compliant” party under Harry S Truman to follow Mr. Roosevelt****. With this shift came the assurance of the “COLD WAR” and the vast profits enjoyed therefrom by the “War Industries” or what Eisenhower later called the “Military-Industrial Complex.” In his original draft of that speech Mr. Eisenhower has penciled in the words, “Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex” but thought that might create too strong a reaction among elected officials.

(Whether you approve of the conduct of the “Cold War” or not, you have to face the immense wealth it generated and concentrated into the hands of few Industrialists.)

Thus once again the two Major Parties were used to co-opt progressive movements and to effectively eliminate their threat to the established wealthy elite by way of those elite buying the party apparatus. Even if we are able to “turn” the Democratic Party “back” into a progressive party it wouldn’t be long before the oligarchy repurchased it. So, in my personal opinion something entirely new, like a total reorganization of the economy, has to be tried. For as the medieval North African philosopher said, “For those that do not learn the lessons of history they are doomed to repeat those lessons.”

Roger W. Mills, II

* (This of course lead to the political devision that was used as an excuse for the Southern “Slave-holding” states to secede and form the Confederate States of America.)

** Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt Glossary / The Progressive Era (1890 – 1920)
https://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/progressive-era.cfm

*** The Progressive Era: The Great Age of Reform
http://sageamericanhistory.net/progressive/topics/progressive.html

**** Wallace had enjoyed an approval rating among the delegates of the convention in excess of 60%, but he was replaced by Truman who had an approval rating of just 2%. Thus Truman owed his entire political fortunes to the wealthy elite.
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4 thoughts on “The Influence of Third Parties in US

  1. Throughout American history third parties have been instrumental in making change. My gripe is that they are called “third parties” instead of given the recognition they deserve. The media has decided that we Americans can only have two viable parties……. They have all kinds of parties and all kinds of choices elsewhere. We only have one more choice (party wise) than the old Soviet Union had……….they had one party.

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  2. Of course you are correct. Andrea, “Third Parties” are called “third parties” for the very legitimate purpose of trivializing them. To grant them any dignity would be to jeopardize the apparent legitimacy of the “Major Parties.” Since they have no actual legitimacy in terms of the common citizen they have to resort to subterfuge.

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