Tag Archives: William Jennings Bryan

Why Third Parties Just Don’t Work in America

A 1904 Campaign Poster for candidate Tom Watson of "People's Party," also know as the "Populists." They didn't last long, though some of their policies did. Also, Watson turned into a xenophobic, racist nutball.

A 1904 Campaign Poster for candidate Tom Watson of the “People’s Party,” also know as the “Populists.” They didn’t last long, though some of their policies did. Also, Watson turned into a xenophobic, racist nutball.

Why can’t the United States muster the will to create a viable third-party to challenge the calcified, shame-immune, institutional bureaucrat incubation pits known respectively as the Democrats and the Republicans? Throughout American history many idealistic souls have longed for a third-party alternative to the ensconced two-party system, and, despite a few fleeting exceptions, they have been sorely disappointed. The American tradition of mass democratic politics has historically combined with structural limitations within the country’s governing institutions to make third-party movements akin to knocking on Mordor’s gates and hoping to be let in with a wink and a smile. Yes, one does not simply start a third-party in America.

These facts, however, have never stopped Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions from advocating for a third-party. Over at Time’s Swampland blog, Joe Klein is merely the most recent Prospero calling into the political tempest for a third-party to wreck onto American shores and shake up the system for the better, and he seems to think such a party is possible in 2014. Citing the candidacy of New Age guru Marianne Williamson, who is running to unseat California’s long time incumbant Democratic congressman, Henry Waxman, Klein sees a third-party image on the horizon that may prove to be more than a mirage:

Could Williamson be the harbinger of a wave of Independent candidacies in 2014? Are people so sick of the two existing parties that they’re ready to go shopping for something new? “We’re seeing this all over our polling,” says Peter Hart, who does surveys for NBC and the Wall Street Journal. “People are sick of the status quo: 60% believe that the entire Congress should be replaced. They’re looking for alternatives.”

Klein is right to point out that Americans really seem to want a third-party. The Gallup poll he cites led the Washington Times to recently declare the rise of “third-party fever,” claiming that more than ever, Americans want more political options. I have no doubt that they do. Heck, I’m one of them who wants to move beyond the bifurcated nest of incumbant morlocks currently clogging up the political pipes. But ideals do not a reality make. Americans have always wanted more party representation, but, in general, they never get it. Klein himself recognizes this fact, admitting that “I’ve been skeptical about 3rd parties in the past. The best of them–the Populists, Ross Perot (at least when it came to budgetary matters)–tend to have their hot ideas co-opted by the Democrats or Republicans.” As he notes, the idea of “co-option” explains America’s historical dearth of third parties, and why that dearth will likely continue.

America’s small “r” republican tradition of mass politics — especially since the early nineteenth century — created an environment through which various political platforms, ideas, and concepts could be introduced freely into public discourse and, therefore, be easily co-opted and absorbed by different political players. When taken in tandem with the basic mechanics of how the American political system is structured, you get a recipe for two-party blandness. As Sociologist G. William Domhoff meticulously explains, America’s  political system is based on districts and pluralities, rather than on mere proportional representation. This limits the ability of multiple parties to compete for representation and discourages the type of party coalitions common in parliamentary democracies. The election of American presidents via a direct national vote, as opposed to the parliamentary system of a victorious party choosing its leader, further dilutes third-party options.

Americans wishing to change the system to reflect proportional representation, Domhoff writes, will run smack into Article V of the Constitution, which states emphatically that “no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” Americans’ need to ensure that less populous states receive equal — often greater — representational clout means that a parliamentary system and, by extension, greater party variety, isn’t going to happen.

But, as I already noted, it isn’t just the American system’s design that has constantly thwarted third parties; it’s also its culture of mass democratic politics that has allowed third parties ideas to be absorbed, co-opted, and reclaimed in a system that already favors big-tent style political organizations, not fractured micro-movements. The fate of two famous American parties, the Whigs and the Populists, demonstrate why third-party movements just don’t gain much traction in a political culture as incestuous and consolidation-prone as that of the United States.

A Whig Party banner from 1848. Candidate Zachary Taylor whon the presidency.

A Whig Party banner from 1848. Candidate Zachary Taylor Whon the presidency.

The Whigs were not a proper third-party; in fact, they were, for a while, one of the two dominant American political parties, but their demise shows the power of American party consolidation. The Whigs’ political lineage dated back to Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists and reached its zenith under the stewardship of compromise-prone Kentucky politico Henry Clay. Under   Clay’s “American System,” the Whigs touted a nationalistic platform via federally subsidized infrastructure development, a national bank, and economic protectionism. For their troubles, they elected four presidents and popularized a political theory that remains a vital part of contemporary American discourse. But two primary developments: the debate over slavery and increased immigration, eventually killed off the Whigs by the mid-1850s and made way for the Republican Party’s rise to national prominence.

Originally a national party with strength in the North and the South, the Whigs began to fracture over the issue of slavery in the territories. Since the passing of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Whigs had gradually been splintering along pro and anti-slavery lines. This divide came to a head following the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise line and opened up the western territories for possible pro-slavery settlement under the banner of popular sovereignty. Northern anti-slavery Whigs opposed Kansas-Nebraska, while southern pro-slavery Whigs, incensed at their northern party brethren’s stance on slavery, migrated to the Democratic Party.

Immigration, especially that of Irish Catholics who, by the 1840s, were arriving in waves to the northeast’s major population centers, also contributed to the Whigs’ demise. Fears of a devious “Papist” invasion in the still largely Protestant U.S. gave rise to the Nativist, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings threatened to attract disgruntled Whigs infected with the fever of nativism until another incipient party, the Republicans, used fears of the southern “Slave Power” to create a coalition of anti-slavery Whigs, Nativists, and Democrats that finally locked the door on the Whig mausoleum. As historian William Gienapp writes in his classic book The Origins of the Republican Party, “like the Slave Power, the Catholic Church seemed a threat to liberty, and Republican rhetoric often linked the two by warning of the dangers they posed to cherished American ideals.”* Thus, the Republican Party was able to co-opt multiple, fractured political movements into an effective big-tent party that exists to this day.

In contrast to the Whigs, the People’s Party, more commonly known as the Populists, were a true third-party. The Populist movement grew out of late nineteenth century discontent among southern and western farmers who complained of the high cost of agricultural equipment, the practices of corrupt railroad companies that overcharged small farmers while coddling big businesses, and monetary policies that encouraged endless debt. In order to lobby the state to address their grievances, an alliance of farmers formed the Populist Party in 1892. Their “Omaha Plan” called for inflationary currency, government backed subtreasuries, a graduated income tax, and state ownership of the railroads.

The Populists filled a vacuum that challenged the entrenched power of the Republicans and Democrats, but eventually fell prey to co-option by those very same parties. The white supremacist Democratic Party played on southern white farmers’ fears of racial integration to discourage any Populist alliance between blacks and whites. This racial demagoguery drew many farmers out of the Populist fold and into the Democrats’ bigoted arms. One of the most famous Populists, for example, Georgia’s Tom Watson, advocated racial cooperation before succumbing to a delusional fit of bile-soaked race-baiting, leaving a legacy so rotten that a statue of him currently residing outside the Georgia state capital is now being removed.

In addition, the Populists were internally divided over whether or not they should fuse with the two powerful major parties, who held the political clout to pass laws. The issue of “fusionism” eventually killed the Populist Party. In 1896, Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan co-opted much of their platform before losing to Republican William McKinley. While the Populist movement was dead by the turn-of-the-century, their legacy survived in the form of the federal income tax, a national bank, federal regulation of railroads and farm credit, and the direct election of senators — all former Populist positions that the two major parties eventually co-opted and made law. The Populists, like other American third-party movements, couldn’t survive being absorbed by the major party sponges.

Ross Perot, independent candidate for president in 1992.

Ross Perot: The independent candidate for president in 1992 who just couldn’t finish.

The co-option legacy that killed the Whigs and the Populists has resurfaced whenever third parties threaten to challenge the two-party system in America. Diminutive Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate who garnered 18.9 percent of the national popular vote in 1992 by offering up voters a country-fried mish-mash of liberal and conservative positions, eventually watched Democrats and Republicans co-opt his anti-debt, balanced budget platform. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader siphoned just enough votes away from human flag pole Al Gore to help put George W. Bush in the White House. This scared the hell out of Nader’s Liberal supporters, thereby pushing them back into the corporate Democratic Party fold.

U.S. history shows that while there’s always potential for third-party movements to gain varying levels of steam among an electorate fed up with only two political options, the mass marketplace of American political discourse has consistently drawn third-party ideas into the major parties’ gaping maws. As the Whigs, Populists, and Ross Perot discovered, when combined with a political system that is structurally hostile to multiple party growth, American mass democracy creates a perfect storm that assures the continued dominance of the very thing that most Americans say they just can’t stand. So dream all you want folks; in the end, if you’re a Tea Partyier, you’ll vote Republican, and if you’re a bleeding heart Hippie, you’ll vote Democratic. It’s the American way, unfortunately.

* William Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 372.

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The Legend of Small Town U.S.A.

smal ltown usa

“Main Street” is one of those apple pie invoking, corn-cob pipe toking, patriotism stoking, nostalgia choking symbolic themes in American culture that lacks a clear definition but with which most Americans are intimately familiar. I’m not talking about the actual street called “Main” that runs through your particular town or city. Rather, I mean the idea of Main Street U.S.A., also known as Small Town U.S.A., or, in recent political terms, Real America. You know what I’m talking about: its the America defined by a lily-white demographic, at a least a partially agricultural economy, Mom and Pop stores (no Targets allowed!), old guys sitting on porches, lots of churches, and a penchant for traditional values, whatever those might be.

Certainly, such towns have existed, and continue to exist, in the U.S. These towns invoke the image of “Main Street” that has been a major part of American identity since the country’s founding. Over at the S-USIH blog, Robert Greene II has a great review of Miles Orvell’s new book, The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community that charts the history of the idea of Small Town U.S.A. Greene writes that:

Orvell situates the idea of “main street” in American history, showing both how this idea has affected American society, and in turn, how American society and technology have affected ideas about main street and the “small town”.

Main Street, Greene notes via Orvell, has been waging a two-centuries long battle against modernization in its many forms.

A combination of factors, whether they be geographic, political, or economic, has caused the gradual disappearance of small towns over time. Yet, despite it being under siege from the forces of modernization, Orvell persuasively argues for the importance of the small town throughout American history. He also shows that the division between the city and the small town, seen time and again in American political discourse and most recently embodied with the red state/blue state split, has gone through intriguing incarnations. For example, his chapter on Sinclair Lewis’ book “Main Street” shows how in the 1920s the small town was seen as backwards, juxtaposed with a Bohemian big city outlook embraced by Lewis and other writers of the 1920s era. However, despite the battering the idea of the small town took from Lewis, H.L. Mencken, and others, the Great Depression would see the idea of Main Street make a comeback—one that has never really stopped.

The Depression led to many Americans longing for a simpler time and place—somewhere that was isolated from the global economic forces causing considerable hardship for millions of Americans. Main Street became that place.

You should read Greene’s whole review and then read Orvell’s book, but one point is especially worth observing here:  the idea of Main Street, or Small Town U.S.A., has perpetually existed in a never-ending cold war against the forces of economic and cultural modernity. The Great Depression that hit in 1929 stemmed from the high-rise towers of New York City, about as far away as you could get from Small Town U.S.A., but the stock market crash hit American small towns in a very real way. So it makes sense that Depression-era Americans embraced the idea of Main Street as the very antithesis, geographically, culturally, and especially economically, of New York City, the heart of the American financial center that had failed them. This pattern still exists in 2013.

Following the great economic crash of 2008, another crash that originated in New York City, Americans have once again embraced the notion of Small Town U.S.A. as the America that matters, especially in contrast to such havens of cultural debauchery like New York. Today, Main Street has no particular, single location, but you can bet that its somewhere in “Flyover Country,” that vast, expanse of mid-western, Small Town Folkistan that, in the minds of many, exists as America’s great inoculator against the cultural diseases festering in coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles. Whereas Small Town U.S.A. supposedly promotes down home American values, the urban coastal enclaves allegedly thrive on a Satan’s brew of diversity, moral relativism, urbanity, and…iced lattes.

Why are such ridiculous distinctions important? Because American political parties have always co-opted the supposed moral superiority of Small Town U.S.A. to suit their own agendas, and today rural and small town political culture is mostly the property of America’s conservative Republican Party. Conservative media hucksters like Glenn Beck have made millions pimping the good ole’ fashioned Murica’-ness of small towns, but no recent political figure demonstrated this penchant better than 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, then Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin. In a now infamous 2008 speech in North Carolina, Palin labeled small town residents as the “Real America:”

“We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit and these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.”

Palin’s words caused plenty of outrage, spurring her to issue an apology. Much of the anger over her comments stemmed from rather pointless semantic arguments over the meaning of “Real America.” Although such a term is generally meaningless and totally subjective, it speaks to the larger tradition that Orvell addresses in The Death and Life of Main Street in which Americans have historically embraced a vague ideal of Small Town U.S.A. without ever having to really define what it is. Palin’s audience knew that “Real America” meant them. They didn’t need a definition because they stood in direct contrast to the “fake America” of liberal urban centers like New York. In the context of a Republican Party rally, “Real America” meant conservative Small Town U.S.A. But this is a definition that will never be fixed. In the late 19th century, for example, Small Town U.S.A. invoked the left wing economic populism of William Jennings Bryan.

According to Glenn Beck, Real Americans stand in cornfields.

According to Glenn Beck, Real Americans stand in cornfields.

This is why Main Street has historically been located everywhere and nowhere at once: its location is wherever Americans want it to be when they feel threatened by the dynamism and dislocation of the capitalist economy and its associated modern cultural changes. Small Town U.S.A. then, is not so much a political idea, though it’s always been used by politicians of all ideological backgrounds. No, Small Town U.S.A., or Main Street, if you prefer, is really a long-running manifestation of Americans’ complicated relationship with modernity. As the world’s pre-eminent, dynamic capitalist country, the U.S. has both embraced, and fought against, modernity by welcoming its technological and economic innovations while simultaneously fighting against the challenges it poses to long-standing cultural traditions.

None of this is to say Small Town U.S.A. is an inherently bad thing. Heck, some of the best day drives and weekend trips you’ll ever take are to the small towns of the American Midwest. But take Main Street as one aspect of America, not as its only aspect. Like the broader United States, Small Town U.S.A. harbors  its own dark secrets, and is prone to the mix of good and bad just like everywhere else. Except for Canada. That place is freakin’ perfect.