Tag Archives: American history

Third-Party Politics in American History—A Response to Ned Foley

In The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, Lisa Disch writes that the pervasive narrative that the United States is, and will always be, a two-party system is a product of “a reading of history that selects for continuity.” Indeed, historians Erik B. Alexander and Rachel A. Shelden would absolutely agree with both Disch and the Washington Post’s recent assertion that “[f]or much of U.S. history, there were more than two major political parties.”

The prevalence of third-party politics in American history is far greater than many educated observers of American politics today appreciate. In a fascinating new article, Alexander and Shelden argue that the two-party system remained fluid longer than traditional scholarly accounts suggest. The 1850s certainly did not mark the high water mark for third-party politics in the United States. In 1890, as Disch reminds us, the People’s Party won three gubernatorial races and achieved majorities in seven state legislatures. In Congress, a Populist fusion alliance held fifty-two of the 332 seats in the U.S. Congress and three in the Senate. The People’s Party would continue to be a significant player in American politics through the election of 1896.

Returning to this history teaches us both that minor parties have played an important role in American politics, even when they did not win a majority of offices, and that a fairly modest difference in the election system of the 1800s, the ability of parties to cross-nominate, or “fuse” together on the same candidate, enabled the proliferation of ongoing, minor parties that took their role in the process seriously, frequently parlaying their ability to rally a bloc of like-minded voters into political alliances that changed the course of American history.  At this moment when American politics is failing, it is foolish to dismiss, out of hand, this history of third-party politics in America. It is also a major mistake to suggest that the only role that third parties have played in American politics is a spoiler role.

Winning is not the only way to measure the value of third parties. Beyond the relationship of the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party, and Anti-Nebraska Party to the antislavery movement’s success, I can say, based on my research, that the Populists were key to the passage of the direct primary and the initiative and referendum in Western states like Colorado. I suspect historians of the period would give the party a good deal of credit for the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and those early labor laws that the U.S. Supreme Court routinely struck down during the period. More recently, the Working Families Party and Conservative Party have each won significant policies for their core constituencies by delivering crucial votes in close races.

We should also not dismiss this history or denigrate its significance because its greatest potential is at the state level. For one, to measure the importance of third parties in terms of their national success is anachronistic. State and local politics was where governance happened in the nineteenth century.  Even today, it is a mistake to dismiss state and local politics. For workers paid by the hour, where you live matters. Only five states lack their own minimum wage statute. The same is true of paid sick leave and free college tuition. In the two states where fusion voting remains viable, New York and Connecticut, those parties have been critical to the passage of reforms that matter to the sort of people who have real needs and are not preoccupied with politics.

Nothing in this post is meant to take issue with Ned Foley’s basic point: It is preposterous to hope that a third-party candidate will win the presidency in 2024 and save our democracy. But even here, analytic caution is called for. We should not confuse independent candidates with a third-party label with third-party candidates such as James B. Weaver, who, running on a fusion ticket, carried five states on Election Day 1892 on the backs of the People’s Party, which itself became the second-largest party in four states that year, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oregon.

My point is this: We may differ about how exactly to characterize the democratic failures in the United States or their causes, but we cannot deny a few basic facts. Public trust in government institutions is at an all-time low. Authoritarianism is on the rise, as are partisan polarization and unapologetic racism and xenophobia. And the major political parties bear significant responsibility for this state of affairs. This is a time to think big (third parties) and be realistic, prioritizing achievable party-centric reforms—like relegalizing fusion.

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