Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
A Bit of History
Political wrangling in the U.S. has traditionally been a two party affair. Whether by design or happenstance, American voters have repeatedly stood in one of two lines. In 1792, mainstream politicians bivouacked either with the Federalists or Democratic-Republicans, while today they camp with either Republicans or Democrats.
Party labels have changed; the issues dividing and defining them not so much. The Federalists of 1792 favored a strong central government, while the Democratic-Republicans—under the leadership of Jefferson and Madison—sought a looser federation of stronger states.
From 1896 to 1932, sometimes called the Progressive Era, Republicans (Progressives) fought the Democrats over such issues as government regulation of large corporate trusts, protective tariffs, the role of labor unions, banking operations, primary election rules, racial segregation, women’s rights and immigration. Sound familiar?
Changing labels has mostly resulted in realignments within a party, rarely actual division. The breakaway Progressive (Bull Moose) Party in 1912—led by T. Roosevelt—stands as a notable exception. Roosevelt’s third party run for a third term cost Taft and the Republicans the White House. For the Bull Moose(s), with defeat came demise.
Today’s Republican Party traces its roots to 1854—coming into a sort of permanent prominence with Lincoln’s election in 1860. The Democratic Party was born in 1828, when the Democratic-Republicans actually split into the two mainstream opposing parties of (Jacksonian) Democrats and Whigs.
Two party dominance has never meant two party exclusivity. Well over 80 political parties have raised their banners since the beginning of the Union. Today there are five parties with dogs in the fight for the presidency. (See Table below)
Have Third Parties Ever Mattered?
The presence of third parties over the 225 years of presidential politics has rarely made much difference. There have been exceptions. The Progressive Party of 1912 garnered enough votes to lose the election for the sitting Republican president, William Howard Taft.
Four candidates competed for the White House that year. Wilson the Democrat won 6.3 million votes (42%) of the total ballots cast. With over 4 million votes (27%) of the total, Roosevelt out polled Taft, who earned the support of only 3.5 million (23%) of the electorate. In last place was Eugene V. Debs, on the Socialist ticket, with nearly 1 million (6%) votes.
Within the past 117 years, third parties have arguably tipped the presidential electoral scale on only three occasions. Ross Perot, running as the Reform Party’s candidate, amassed nearly 19 percent of the total—with 19.7 million votes. In that same year some 45 million voters (43%) cast ballots for Clinton. Coming in a distant second—6 million votes behind—was H.W. Bush. Had Perot spoiled Bush’s chance for a second term? It is a matter of speculation.
Perot’s run for the roses stands out, however. Not only did he make it onto the ballot in most states, he made it onto the national debate stage. Perot showed it was possible, if not usual, for an untested, inexperienced, incredibly rich, outside-the-political-establishment businessman to challenge the sitting plutocracy.
Since its 1992 apogee, the Reform Party has dwindled to a mere 20,000 members. It was, however, one hell of a ride while it lasted.
Wearing [Out] of the Greens?
Roosevelt made his third party run because he felt Taft veered from the progressive path. Perot brought to politics the perspective of a successful—certainly rewarding—business career. He threw his hat in the ring believing that the ethos of business was better than the pathos of politics. With the entrance of Ralph Nader came a certain—if limited—logos of progressive environmentalism.
The contentious candidacy of Ralph Nader in the 2000 United States presidential election is thought by some to have tipped the scale to G.W. Bush. Others point to the SCOTUS decision stopping the recount.
Gore out polled Bush in the popular vote by over 500,000 votes. Unfortunately for him and the Democrats, the popular vote was not distributed to their advantage.
Gore’s (and the Democrats’) Waterloo that year was Florida, where they are still talking about hanging chads and the recount. Bush defeated Gore by 537 votes in the Sunshine state. Nader, running as the Green Party’s candidate, received 97,421 of the cast ballots. His total national vote count amounted to a bit under 3 percent.
Nader’s Green Party candidacy started in 1996 and his ticket topping position ended after
the election in 2000. A long suffering environmentalist, Nader was seen as a cranky and unrepentant spoiler. Having called Gore a “broker of environmental voters for corporate cash," and "the prototype for the bankable, Green corporate politician," he earned the enmity of the then Sierra Club president Carl Pope.
Not wanting a repeat of 2000, the Democrats joined “mainstream” environmentalists in keeping Nader at bay in 2004. In fact it was rumored and never denied, that the now Democratic Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, offered to pay Nader if he would just go away—at least in certain battle ground states.
Nader persevered in his pursuit of the presidency in 2004, when he ran as the Reform Party nominee. His march beyond the fringe continued as the standard bearer of several minor parties, including the Ecology Party of Florida, the Natural Law and Peace and Freedom Parties and the Socialist Alternative.
According to Wikipedia, Nader involved himself in the 2012 election as a moderator—of debates:
During the United States presidential election, 2012, Nader moderated a debate for third party candidates at Washington D.C.'s Busboys and Poets, what USA Today described as a "hipster coffeehouse/bookstore". The debate was attended by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, Libertarian Gary Johnson, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode. He later moderated a similar debate in a studio appearance broadcast by Russia Today.
Johnson and Stein Today
Fresh from the hipster coffee house cum bookstore circuit, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are once more in the fray and on the road. Both are seasoned candidates—Johnson an experienced governor. Hoping to be the beneficiaries of disillusion and disgust, they are striving to make their parties respected, legitimate and lasting combatants on the political battlefield.
Not fucking likely, I must say. Although destined to be remembered as the standard bearers of the forces of none of the above, they do have a role to play in securing a place for future third parties.
I will let Dr. Stein’s words and actions speak for themselves. As reported in The Hill:
Speaking of the possibility of a Trump presidency, Stein made the stunning claim that Donald Trump, despite the unbridled awfulness of his agenda, would actually be the “less dangerous” choice for President compared to Hillary Clinton because he doesn’t know how to work the levers of government and would be held in check by Congress.
This from a candidate who: would be king; gets on a plane for Cincinnati when her speech
is in Columbus; and, thinks a spray can of paint is an effective communication medium. Physician, heal thyself!
Gary Johnson is an experienced “mainstream” politician, having served as the Republican Governor of New Mexico from 1995-2003. This is his second time around as the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee. With creds like these and having been around the political block more than once, you would think that he could mount a serious candidacy. Well, you would be half right.
Once again, I will let the candidate’s words and actions speak for him. Johnson has managed to step in it—with one foot and then with other—twice in the past few weeks. First, was his gaff on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show, when Mike Barnicle asked him what he would do, as President, about Aleppo? Unfortunately for Johnson, he didn’t have the foggiest idea what an Aleppo was. Not only did it show on his face but, the honest man he is, he asked “What is [an] Aleppo?”
I feel for the guy; I do. I have vivid and painful memories of the two times in my career I totally blanked on what I was to say before substantial audiences. Thankfully, I was neither on TV nor running for President.
Then there were two. In an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Johnson was asked about the terror intended September bombs in New York and New Jersey and the stabbings in Minnesota. As a preface to his response, he graciously said that he “…was just grateful that nobody got hurt.” The 29 wounded victims probably didn’t agree with him—although undoubtedly appreciative of his concern.
Running for President of the United States is not easy. Living in a fish bowl, being on the go 20 of 24 hours every day and expected to have a practiced, pertinent and thoughtful answer to every conceivable question has got to be difficult.
On Johnson’s worse day, he comes off better than Trump. I rate a willingness to admit your mistakes and apparent honesty high on the list of character traits I would like to see in my—our—President.
Regrettably, Secretary Clinton is right—politics is a contact sport and stupid can get you gob- smacked. Most telling in this election, however, is not the gaffs of the third party candidates but the forgiveness accorded them. Through it all, they continue to attract likely voters. With razor thin margins of victory likely to determine the next president, it won’t take much for third party candidates to tip the election. Remember Florida.
The depth of despair many of today’s voters feel is so strong they seem willing to vote for “#never them,” fully aware, that in an election this close, one of the two most disliked and mistrusted candidates of the modern political era will be sworn in as the 44th President of these here United States.
Will disenchantment with the Republican and Democratic parties be sustained after the election? Will it result in divorce decrees by regular Republicans and Progressive Democrats?
Watch for Part IV of the Let’s Party series, when I will be discussing why the 2016 election will give rise to mainstream third parties and lead to a more collaborative form of government.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.