Third Parties

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THIRD PARTIES. The American political system has rarely been kind to third parties. No third party has won a presidential election in over a century. From the point of view of the two major parties, minor parties have functioned more as irritants or sideshows than as serious rivals. Parties such as the Libertarian Party, the American Vegetarian Party, the nativist Know-Nothing Party, and the agrarian Populist parties have been most valuable as safety valves for alienated voters, and as sources of new ideas, which, if they become popular, the major parties appropriate. In the historian Richard Hofstadter's classic formulation: "Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die."

Hofstadter explains this phenomenon by claiming that the major parties champion patronage not principle. A better explanation is more structural, and more benign. The "first to the post" nature of most American elections selects the candidate with the most number of votes even without a majority. Marginal parties that woo a consistent minority languish. On the presidential level, the "winner take all" rules for most states in the electoral college further penalize third parties by diffusing their impact. In 1992, Ross Perot received over 19 million votes, 18.8 percent of the popular vote, but no electoral votes, and, thus, no power. As a result, although there is nothing mandating it in the Constitution—and the Framers abhorred

parties—since the 1830s a two-party system has been the norm in American politics.

The classic American third party is identified with an issue, or a cluster of issues. The searing antebellum slavery debate spawned various third parties. James G. Birney ran with the antislavery Liberty Party in 1840 and 1844; former president Martin Van Buren won over 10 percent of the popular vote—but no electoral votes—with the Free Soil Party in 1848. By 1860, the antislavery Republican Party had captured the presidency, although with less than 40 percent of the popular vote in a rare four-way race. Some historians consider the Republican Party America's only successful third party. Others argue that the party debuted as a new major party assembled from old ones, not as a minor party that succeeded.

Third Parties after the Civil War

The century and a half following the Civil War witnessed an extraordinarily stable rivalry between the Republicans and the Democrats. Throughout, third parties erupted sporadically, commanded attention, made their mark politically, rarely gained much actual power, and then disappeared. In the late nineteenth century, the agrarian Populist protest movement produced a Greenback Party and the People's Party. The 1892 platform of the People's Party heralded the reorientation in government power that shaped the twentieth century. "We believe that the power of the government—in other words of the people—should be expanded," the platform thundered. Some of the more radical Populist schemes proposing public ownership of the railroads, the telegraph, and the telephone failed. But many other proposals eventually became integrated into American political life, such as a national currency, a graduated income tax, the (secret) Australian ballot, and the direct election of United States senators. In 1892, James B. Weaver of the People's Party won more than a million popular votes and 22 electoral votes. That year Populists sent a dozen congressmen to Washington, while securing governor's chairs in Kansas, North Dakota, and Colorado.

In the early twentieth century, the Socialist, Socialist Workers, and Socialist Laborites helped radical Americans, particularly many immigrants, express frustration while staying within America's political boundaries. Typically, the perennial Socialist Party candidate, Eugene V. Debs, won hundreds of thousands of votes in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, but not even one electoral vote. The only formidable third-party challenge from that era was a fluke. In 1912, the popular former president Theodore Roosevelt fought his handpicked protégé President William Howard Taft for the Republican nomination. When Taft won, Roosevelt ran as a Progressive. Thanks to Roosevelt, the Progressive Party won 88 electoral votes, and became the only modern third party to come in second for the presidency. Twelve years later, "Fighting Bob" Robert M. La Follette's Progressive campaign only won the electoral votes of his home state, Wisconsin. Still, as with the Populists, many Progressive ideas became law, such as woman's suffrage, prohibition of child labor, and a minimum wage for working women.

Third Parties in the Modern Era

In the latter half of the twentieth century, third parties were even more transitory and often had even fewer infrastructures. In 1948, Southerners rejecting the Democratic turn toward civil rights bolted the party to form the Dixiecrats or States' Rights Democratic Party. Their candidate Strom Thurmond won 1,169,063 popular votes and 39 electoral votes from various Southern states. That same year former Vice President Henry Wallace's breakaway party from the left side of the Democratic coalition, the Progressive Party, won 1,157,172 votes scattered in the North and Midwest, but no electoral votes. Twenty years later, civil rights issues again propelled a Southern breakaway party with George Wallace's American Independent Party winning almost 10 million votes and 46 electoral votes.

In the modern era, the most attention-getting third party revolts cast a heroic independent voice against mealy-mouthed and hypercautious major party nominees. In 1980, veteran Congressman John Anderson broke away from the Republican Party, after distinguishing himself in the Republican primaries as a straight shooter. In 1992 and 1996 billionaire businessman Ross Perot bankrolled his own campaign and party, targeting the deficit. And in 2000, the long-time reformer Ralph Nader mounted a third-party effort that did not even win five percent of the popular vote, but whose more than 90,000 votes in Florida may have thrown the election to George W. Bush.

In an era of cynicism and political disengagement, public opinion polls show that Americans claim they would like to see a third party as an alternative. At the state and local level, some third parties have lasted, most notably New York City's Liberal and Conservative Parties and Minnesota's Farmer-Labor Party. In the 1980s, the Libertarian Party advanced in Alaska, and in the 1990s, Connecticut and Maine, among others, had independent governors, while Vermont had an independent-socialist congressman. Still, these are mere shooting stars in the American political universe. As their predecessors did, modern, consumer-oriented Americans approve of third parties in principle, but rarely in practice.


Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F. D. R. New York: Random House, 1955.

Polakoff, Keith I. Political Parties in American History. New York: Wiley, 1981.

Reichley, James. The Life of the Parties: A History of American Political Parties. New York: Free Press, 1992.

Rosenstone, Steven J. Third Parties in America: Citizen Response to Major Party Failure. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.


See alsoMachine, Political ; Political Parties .