A History of the Role of Third Parties in American History.
The time has come again for Americans to decide who they will vote for in the impending Presidential election.
With the election will come the casual conversations and fierce debates between friends and complete strangers about who you should vote for and why. While most people are locked in a never-ending gridlock, squabbling over the merits of their preferred Democratic or Republican candidate, an occasional voice will interject itself into the conversation and declare its support for a third party candidate. This will doubtlessly initiate a domino-effect of eye rolling from those who have long dismissed the idea of supporting a third party candidate.
“I’m not going to waste my vote” they will say. “Why would I throw away my vote on someone who doesn’t stand a chance?” they’ll ask. Most Americans believe that voting for a third party candidate is a fruitless endeavor, even those who themselves frequently vote for third party candidates. A common rebuttal from third party apologists proclaims, “You’ll only be wasting your vote if you vote for someone you don’t believe in.” The problem with this response is that it admits defeat. It concedes that voting for a third party candidate is ultimately inconsequential.
This belief is simply not true.
A close examination of the the influence of third parties in American political history reveals that a vote for a third party candidate is often more meaningful than a vote for a major party candidate.
This phenomenon is due to the fact that loyalty is rarely rewarded in national politics. Any given voting bloc does not benefit from blindly pledging its loyalty to a major party because political parties are in the business of winning elections. Consequently, parties consistently restructure their platforms around the issues relevant to swing-voters.
Meanwhile, the pertinent issues of loyal supporters are often brushed aside or dismissed for the sake of appeasing swing voters. Voting for a third party candidate adds extra emphasis to the political causes of the voter and facilitates party realignment.
While it is highly unlikely that a vote for a third party candidate will put that nominee in office, it is far more likely that the issues important to you and your fellow third party voters will garner more attention from politicians who are vying for your vote. Voting for a third party makes you the most highly sought after political commodity: a swing voter.
Politicians will thank their loyal supporters with a hearty handshake; but they will plead for your vote and go to great lengths to appease you as long as you remain a swing voter. This appeasement will manifest itself in real action being taken in support of the issues you regard as most important. The evidence appears throughout American history.
A brief disclaimer is necessary before I go any further. I do not mean to praise the political goals or the character of men such as William “the Butcher” Poole of the Know-Nothing Party or Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrat movement. I seek only to display political influence.
In 1824 for the first and only time in American history, the House of Representatives selected a candidate who won neither the popular vote nor the electoral college count when it chose John Quincy Adams as President over Andrew Jackson. The political turmoil that followed in the next four years saw the nation divide into pro-Jackson and anti-Jackson factions, which eventually became the Whig Party and the Democratic Party. Out of this partisan mayhem also emerged the nation’s first third party, the Anti-Masonic Party.
Anti-Masonics, who technically predated the Whig Party by five years, emerged in 1828 and preached about the supposed corruption of Freemasons. Essentially, Anti-Masonics sought to blame all the nation’s problems on Masons and believed many of America’s crucial institutions were manipulated by the secretive brotherhood.
The Party evolved in rural, northern states where Jackson was unpopular and the elitism of Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams was culturally unappealing. Though they were never able to gain control of a state house and thus were never able to elect a Senator, they elected multiple Representatives to Congress from rural areas in the northern states of Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.
At their peak, the Anti-Masonics held twenty five congressional seats and won the Governorship in Pennsylvania and Vermont. In 1832, William Wirt was the Anti-Masonic nominee and opposed Jackson and Clay, both of whom were practicing Freemasons. Wirt won 100,000 votes and the seven electoral votes of Vermont.
Wirt’s success in 1832 gained the attention of emerging Whig Party leaders. In order to win Anti-Masonic votes in 1836, the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison, who was also the preferred candidate of Anti-Masonics, along with three other candidates in a bizarre four-way strategy to defeat Martin Van Buren.
Harrison and his fellow Whig candidates lost in 1836, but in the election of 1840 the Anti-Masonic Party left a substantial footprint on the American political landscape. In the Whig National Convention, Whigs unexpectedly bypassed the Whig golden-boy Henry Clay in order to nominate William Henry Harrison, this time as their stand-alone candidate. This was a betrayal to the elitist Whig base which had driven Whig ideology from the beginning. But the decision was made to nominate Harrison over Clay to appease mid-western swing voters and Anti-Masonics who would have continued to oppose Henry Clay had the Whigs not made that change.
Those who had been loyal to the ideology of John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay were brushed aside for the sake of voters with uncommitted loyalty. This marked the beginning of a reoccurring theme in American history; political parties are less likely to reward their stable supporters than they are to pander to the wishes of swing and third party voters.
The acclaimed stump-speaker Harrison, indeed, went on to defeat Van Buren in a year when Henry Clay could have finally gotten his chance to become President. Having effectively forced the Whig Party to broaden its appeal and to nominate their preferred candidate over the favored candidate of most Whigs, the Anti-Masonic party essentially disintegrated and was absorbed into the Whig Party. Anti-Masonics had won the day, if only temporarily, as Harrison’s Presidency ended a month after it began.
Though the impact was short-lived, Anti-Masonics had forced Whigs to accommodate their political goals.
By the end of the 1840s, the American Party and the Free-Soil Party had emerged in the tumultuous and divisive atmosphere that immediately preceded the Civil War. The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s had generated an influx of immigration to the United States and with it came the growth of militant nativism, especially in urban areas along the the east coast. Poor, native-born whites resented the competition and population growth created by immigration.
The American Party–popularly referred to as the Know-Nothing Party–considered immigration the greatest threat to working-class white people and promised favoritism to native born, Anglo-Saxon Americans. By the mid 1840s, Know-Nothings had obtained six seats in the House, including the first Jewish Representative, Lewis Levin. All of their representatives hailed from districts in highly populated New York City and Philadelphia. It would be a decade before the Know-Nothings would expand beyond highly populated cities where party bosses such as William Poole ruled with an iron fist.
The urban confinement of the Know-Nothings was due largely to the fact that immigration and criminal justice reform were second tier issues by comparison to the most important concern to most Americans at the time.
By far the most important political issue of the day was slavery and the possibility of its expansion into new territories. Unlike Know-Nothings, Free-Soilers believed the greatest threat to the working white man was slavery because they believed free labor could not exist side by side with slave labor.
Following the Mexican-American War, anti-slavery and pro-slavery political advocates sought to repeal and replace the Missouri Compromise with a policy more favorable to their respective positions. In 1846, Pennsylvania Democrat David Wilmot introduced a piece of legislation to restrict the expansion of slavery into any new territories. Wilmot believed, as many northerners did, that any expansion of slavery would ruin the potential of free white men to carve out their share of the burgeoning west.
The Wilmot Proviso passed the House in 1846 but failed in the Senate in 1846 and again in 1847 during Abraham Lincoln’s only term as a Whig Congressman. After the failure of the Wilmot Proviso, northern Democrats broke ranks with party leadership and helped found the Free-Soil Party in 1848.
Free-Soilers quickly nominated former President Martin Van Buren for President who carried 10% of the popular vote. Van Buren, however, was not particularly popular in the north where most Free-Soilers resided. Though he was unable to carry a state, he stole valuable northern Democratic votes from Lewis Cass which assured Zachary Taylor the presidency.
In Congress, Free-Soilers found more success gaining two Senators and nine Representatives in the election. The new party also gained mayors and local leaders all over the north and in California where early leaders fought slavery tooth and nail. Being a virtual single issue party, they never held substantial political power, but they were successful in forcing their political issue into the center-stage.
The Whig Party’s spineless response to slavery in the face of pressure from northern Free-Soilers led to the Whig Party’s demise. The Whig Party was subsequently replaced by the Republican Party which adopted Free-Soil ideology as a central component of its platform. The Whigs had attempted to appeal to all voters regardless of region but the new Republican Party appealed exclusively to northerners.
Though the Republican Party is remembered as the party that championed emancipation, it was hardly a single issue party. Republicans supported business and banking, mass expansion of railroads, expanding factories, internal improvements, and a hefty protective tariff which was eventually passed as the Morrill Tariff. In short, the Republicans consolidated every northern issue and was utterly uninviting to southern voters.
The Free-Soil movement had brought about an end to the bi-partisan Whigs and forced the party that replaced it to structure itself around a Free-Soil political agenda. The new Republican Party also overpowered their American Party rivals.
In a time when slavery was driving Americans apart, many Americans, both northern and southern, were coming together in mutual opposition to immigration. The American Party gained support in the new states of California and Texas where citizens opposed increased Asian and Mexican immigration.
Former Texas President Sam Houston became a Senator on the American Party ticket. In 1854 with the virtual collapse of the Whig Party, the Know-Nothings took Congress by storm. Millard Fillmore, though unaffiliated with the party, was their nominee in 1856 and carried a substantial portion of the popular vote. In spite of their relatively high power and influence, the Know-Nothing movement may have been one of the least successful third party movements in American history. The fact of the matter was that the issues surrounding slavery were more important to most Americans at the time. Immigration and crime reform were pushed aside as the new Republican Party emerged in the north and, with the defection of the highly influential Nathaniel Banks, the Republican Party inherited the lion’s share of Know-Nothing support.
Abraham Lincoln was not sympathetic to the Know-Nothing cause, but he lobbied for their votes all the same and many former American Party elected officials promptly abandoned the American Party for the Republican Party, in some cases bringing their anti-immigration ideals with them. Ultimately, the Civil War washed away the American Party and, for a while at least, militant opposition to immigration.
Though the American Party was less successful than the Free-Soil Party, historians will never know how things might have turned out if war had not interrupted the nativist movement.
Years after the Civil War, a small sect of poor farmers made an alliance with plighted industrial workers to form the Greenback Party which championed the cause of inflationary economic measures for poor, debt ridden Americans. Prior to the Civil War, paper money was redeemable in the form of gold and silver coins minted by the government and thus the United States economy was based in bimetallism.
During the Civil War, both northern and southern economies were forced to abandon bimetallism and print out millions of un-backed bank notes to pay war costs. In the North, these notes were called greenbacks because of the green dye used in printing. By the war’s end, these highly-inflated greenbacks were still in circulation and loans were being repaid at inflated rates which helped small debtors but harmed big banks and thus big, industrial northern business interests.
Gradually, Republican leadership worked the US economy towards a gold standard to control inflation. After the Panic of 1873 banks failed, railroad and manufacturing workers were laid off, and new western settlers were deeper in debt than ever. Congress passed an Inflation Bill to expanded the use of un-backed currency, but President Grant, who was in the back-pocket of the wealthy elites in the industrial and mercantile northeast, vetoed the bill. Proponents of inflation lost control of Congress to Republicans who sought to restore a stable, gold backed economy even at the cost of millions of indebted Americans.
The Greenback Party emerged at first as a single issue party opposing the Resumption Act. Supporters argued that American prosperity was bottled up by a gold standard and that only paper currency was adequate to create a fair atmosphere for Americans. They argued that un-backed currency had worked before but was ineffectual when placed side by side with gold based currency. The movement had gained momentum, but Greenback candidate Peter Cooper carried an inconsequential one percent of the vote in the election of 1876. Poor farmers alone simply did not constitute enough of the electorate to make a dent in national politics.
That began to change in the late 1870s when the Greenbacks decided to expand their platform. In 1880, the Greenback Party recruited workers in labor unions to unite with small farmers in opposition to the big banks and big business supported by both major parties. Greenbacks opposed monopolies while fighting for economic reform, an income tax, free distribution of land in new territories, and an eight hour work day. In 1878 they won Congressional seats in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Iowa, Vermont, North Carolina and Maine.
Though they never gained a Senator, Greenback Candidate James Weaver won 305,997 votes in the election of 1880. In 1884, many Democrats began to champion the cause of industrial workers including Grover Cleveland, who fought Gilded Age Captains of Industry but opposed bimetallism and inflationary measures entirely. This made Cleveland the new champion of urban workers but, again, left poor farmers with no one to turn to.
Without its broad appeal, the Greenback Party deteriorated in the 1880s and by 1885 only Weaver remained in Washington as a Representative. But the decline was short lived however: the Greenback Party was born again, bigger than ever, as the Populist Party which had a lasting impact on national politics.
In 1891 the People’s Party, commonly referred to as the Populist Party, rose from the ashes of the broken Greenback Party to again champion the cause of small agrarians. No longer calling for un-backed greenbacks, the Populist Party adopted an approach perceived by many economists of the day as more reasonable in calling for a return to bimetallism and the printing of free silver to alleviate debt in rural America. Populists created alliances with northern labor and stood for higher wages, income tax, and government railroad regulations. Some Populists attempted to form alliances among southern blacks, poor whites, suffragists and prohibitionists. They gained six Senators, forty five Representatives, multiple Governors and nine percent of the popular vote in the election of 1892.
Though they never gained a presidency, their greatest accomplishment was forcing the Democratic Party to embrace their agendas.
Between 1860 and 1912, only one Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was elected President. Though he opposed crony capitalism, Cleveland was a moderate Democrat and fiercely condemned most of the populist platform. He won the popular vote in three consecutive elections and became the first and only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.
Cleveland had to overcome the Greenback and Populist insurgency in the South, where Democrats always won, as well as in the unionized north where most would have probably voted for Cleveland if not for third party interference. Though Cleveland overcame these odds, by the end of his second term, it was apparent to party leadership that the Democratic Party was in need of a revamp.
Cleveland’s response to the Pullman Strike was seen as harsh and resulted in the loss of many northern Democrats to the Populist and Socialist Parties. His inability to effectively deal with the Panic of 1893 also inspired many to favor experimentation with bimetallism.
Meanwhile, the Populist Party continued to gain power in traditionally Democratic sects which further lead party leadership to believe that a change was necessary. In 1896 the Democratic Party and the Populist Party each nominated William Jennings Bryan as their candidate. The “Great Commoner,” Bryan’s nomination marked the dawn of a new Democratic Party and demonstrated again that party loyalty meant little in national politics. Moderate Democrats who had thrice supported Cleveland were cast aside in order for the party to reach out to Populist leaning swing voters. The Democratic Party was willing to change its platform to appease Populist insurgents rather than reward the majority of its loyal constituents with another moderate candidate.
Though Bryan went on to lose three elections, the Populist Party’s influence lived on through the Democratic Party which ever reflected aspects of the Populist agenda.
Third party influence has not always been limited to large-scale insurgencies. The Prohibition Party never represented a large percentage of the voting bloc, but fifty years of steady persistence ultimately led to their short lived victory even though their position was never fully embraced.
In the election of 1884, Prohibition candidate John St. John deprived Republican nominee James Blaine of crucial votes in the pivotal state of New York. This effectively handed the election to conservative Democrat Grover Cleveland. Republicans nationwide were furious. They attacked Prohibition businesses, vandalized Prohibition newspapers, and burned Prohibition leaders in effigy. In spite of this hostility, Prohibitionists had won their point by making Republicans realize that they would not be ignored. Various anti-alcohol pressure groups emerged within the GOP and the Republican Anti-Saloon League was launched in an attempt to draw prohibitionists back into the fold.
With their success, Prohibitionists became even more fervent. They doubled their efforts in 1888 behind philanthropist Clinton Fisk and carried an even heftier portion of the popular vote. The Prohibition Party continued to be a small but vocal portion of the American electorate in national votes throughout the late 19th and early 20th century but never held broad membership.
Part of the reason the Prohibition Party lasted so long was because no Presidential candidate from a major party ever embraced the cause of prohibition and thus no major party ever absorbed Prohibition voters. The fact was simply that most Americans were not receptive to the prohibition message and issues such as railroad reform and bimetallism dominated national politics.
Though he personally opposed alcohol and never partook of the drink in his life, William Jennings Bryan did not fully embrace prohibition until 1910, two years after his final unsuccessful vie for the Presidency. He generally adhered to the Democratic platform which held that it was not the government’s place to legislate morality. Even Woodrow Wilson, the President under whom prohibition was made law, vetoed the Volstead Act which clarified the prohibition regulations.
Prohibitionists never advanced their cause through national politics; instead, they relied on grassroots movements within individual states.
Though only one Congressman, Charles Randall of California, and one Governor, Sidney Catts of Florida, were ever elected to a major office under the Prohibition ticket, prohibitionists around the nation had a substantial influence on local and state government. By the early 1900s, numerous counties and states had become dry of their own prerogative. The phenomenon of localized prohibition marked one of the few times in American history where states fully embraced a cause in spite of the fact that it was never made a top national issue or championed by a mainstream candidate.
The Prohibition Party itself played no small part in spreading publicity through grassroots efforts and by the time prohibition was finally made a federal law, many states had already voluntarily banned alcoholic consumption. Though it took fifty years for Prohibitionists to accomplish their objective, that was not poor timing given the radical nature of their cause and the fact that it was never popular with the majority of American voters.
In any case, the Prohibition Party demonstrated that third party persistence can pay off, even in regard to marginal causes.
Senator Bernie Sanders is not the first socialist to capture the hearts of Americans: he borrows heavily from the Eugene Debs-chapter of the American history book.
In the 1880s, socialist ideology was beginning to take root among working class laborers, rural sharecroppers, and some intellectual elites. Socialist philosophy drove the American Labor Movement and union participation exploded in the Gilded Age. An early union leader and proponent of Socialism was Gene Debs of Indiana.
In 1893 Debs founded the American Railway Union and achieved some modest success in economically trying times. But in 1894 Debs and his union bit off more than they could chew with the Pullman Strike resulting in months of conflict, military intervention, and the eventual defeat of the ARU.
Debs emerged as a highly divisive national figure but a union hero. He eventually become the five time Socialist candidate for President and succored the growth of unions and collective bargaining by founding the International Workers of the World.
As union participation and the Socialist Party grew, politicians became more accountable to this new portion of the electorate. Where previous presidents had absolutely refused to work with unions, Teddy Roosevelt became the first President to initiate collective bargaining when he arbitrated negotiations between unions and employers during the Coal Strike of 1902. Though the Socialist Party only ever gained two seats in the House of Representatives, Debs won 6% of the national vote by 1912 and major parties could no longer afford to ignore the growing ideology.
By 1912, Progressives (who I will examine in greater detail in the next segment) and several Socialists interjected their party goals–including child labor prohibition, labor bargaining rights, the creation of federal trade commission, an income tax, the implementation of an eight hour work day, and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act which protected union rights—into Wilson’s “New Freedom” plan.
Though Wilson appeased Socialist and Progressive voters with many of his policies, he infuriated many Socialists as well as fellow Democrats when he reneged on his promise to maintain American neutrality in World War One. He suspended free speech and jailed many Socialist leaders, including Gene Debs himself, for sedition and treason when they spoke out against the war.
Regardless of this setback which resulted in a monumental Democratic loss in the election of 1920, Democrats had solidified their position as the workers’ party. Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Democrats such as Huey P. Long continued to carry the Democratic Party down this semi-socialist path. Socialists, union members, and laborers had instigated party realignment, not by pledging their loyalty to the Democratic Party, but by stubbornly supporting third party candidates and remaining hostile towards the political establishment.
Debs was not the only influential third party candidate in 1912. Disillusioned former Republican President Teddy Roosevelt went rogue and founded the Progressive “Bull-Moose” Party in retaliation to a seemingly small disagreement with President Taft. He had initially sought the Republican nomination via the 1912 Republican National Convention, but party leadership held firmly to Taft and his more status-quo platform. In response, Roosevelt launched what was arguably the most successful third party campaign in American history.
In its brief existence, the Progressive Party reshaped both major political parties and launched a new era of national advancement.
A major component of their platform was political party and voting reform which was intended to give more power to the electorate and take it away from politicians, party bosses, and small interest groups. Roosevelt argued that the Executive Branch should assume the most responsibility of any branch of government in order to better protect general welfare. He did not support the redistribution of wealth or substantial union empowerment, but rather he supported true majoritarian democracy, immense business regulations, and a stronger executive branch to protect lower-class laborers from corruption.
Indeed, Roosevelt’s Progressives challenged the very foundation of American representative government.
The Bull-Moose Party reshaped both major parties and Teddy Roosevelt’s popularity made many Americans receptive to ideas such as popular referendum to overturn laws and judicial circumvention to topple unpopular rulings. When he carried 27% of the popular vote and became the only third party candidate in history to finish second, both parties understood that they would need to fundamentally change their platform in order to win future elections.
From that point forward, voters expected the government to play a more active role in their every-day lives or, as Roosevelt put it, to be “stewards of the public welfare.”
Though the Progressive Party captured several important political offices in its short existence, Teddy Roosevelt virtually dissolved the Party in 1916 when he endorsed Progressive Republican Charles Hughes for President.
Today, the Republican Party is considered the conservative party, but most modern Republicans are nowhere near as conservative as the likes of Taft or previous presidents who opposed any income tax, any welfare programs, or any semblance of a minimum wage. The election of 1912 spurred by the Bull-Moose Party changed everything we as Americans believe about the role of government and it took heavy third party participation to accomplish that end.
After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, Vice President Harry Truman assumed office and concluded the final months of World War Two. After the war, he became the first President to outright support certain Civil Rights measures including the desegregation of the military.
This socially progressive agenda enraged Southern Democrats who had loyally supported the Democratic Candidate in almost every election since the Civil War. When Truman was nominated in the Democratic National Convention, southern delegates were furious and stormed out of the convention to launch and independent campaign.
These States’ Rights Democrats, or “Dixiecrats,” led by Strom Thurmond would spark the fuse that facilitated total party realignment over the next twenty years.
Though Democrats had militant loyalty in the South, Dixiecrats sought to leverage their political influence to, in effect, blackmail both parties into relenting to their demands concerning segregation. Political pundits of the day were so convinced that the Dixiecrat movement would cost Truman the election that they famously printed election results a day in advance.
But when the votes were counted, Truman had won handily in spite of the fact that Thurmond robbed him of over a million voters and thirty nine electoral votes. The Dixiecrat movement appeared to have failed and both major parties shifted to the left on integration policy. Many dissatisfied white southerners were trapped in political limbo with no major party candidate championing their cause and their situation grew more dire as Kennedy and Johnson shifted even further to the left by supporting Civil Rights, Voting Rights, school desegregation and political integration.
White Southern Democrats were denied privileges in the 1964 Democratic National Convention when Fannie Lou Hamer was chosen to speak on behalf of Democrats from the South. The election of 1964 saw Lyndon B. Johnson elected in a landslide with only a few southern states voting for Goldwater. Out of this atmosphere of white southern disillusionment emerged George Wallace.
Wallace gave a voice to angry white Southern conservatives, and politicians, including Richard M. Nixon, listened. Nixon realized that for the first time in over one hundred years, the South held valuable swing voters. He began to implement his “Southern Strategy” in which he affirmed his commitment to “states’ rights” and “individual liberty.”
Nixon’s rhetoric has often been regarded by historians as coded language in support of racist policies. Nixon’s Southern Strategy coincided with George Wallace’s independent presidential campaign in 1968. But despite Nixon’s Southern Strategy, several states in the deep south still voted for Wallace. Consequently, by 1972 the Republican Party and southern white voters were beginning to influence and change one another.
Partly due to disgruntled southern voters in 1968, the Republican Party under Nixon adopted the path that would link Republicans to social conservatism. This adoption worked both ways as southern voters, who had never been particularly supportive of fiscal conservatism, underwent fundamental change in order to merge into the Republican platform.
Nixon did to Republicans essentially what Truman had done to Democrats and, as was the case with Democrats twenty five years earlier, traditional Republicans were dissatisfied. Loyal “Rockefeller Republicans” who had supported classic Republican policy since the days of Lincoln were unhappy with the new direction the party had assumed under Nixon and many channeled their dissatisfaction into John Anderson’s Independent bid in the election of 1980. But their efforts were too little too late and the Republican Party assumed its modern guise under the leadership of Ronald Reagan.
Wallace voters in the South had set the Republican Party on the path of social conservatism and limited (federal) government. The Party of Lincoln, which had been ostracized by southern voters for one hundred years, was now the party of Southern conservatives. White Southern voters forced the Republican Party to betray what had been its loyal, socially progressive base by demonstrating its willingness to vote for third party candidates.
In 1992, Ross Perot took the nation by storm and led a grassroots movement to reform many problematic issues including balancing the budget, securing the border, congressional term limits, strengthening the war on drugs, and defeating NAFTA. Perot’s independent campaign turned all of those concerns into pivotal issues in 1992 and again in 1996.
Though anxieties related to the national debt had existed for years, Perot added more emphasis and fear with his ever-present charts and, after a strong showing in the election of 1992, Republicans in Congress introduced a balanced budget amendment. Though the amendment failed, Democratic President Bill Clinton worked closely with the Republican Congress and balanced the budget for the first time in decades.
A balanced budget has remained an important political goal ever since Perot’s campaign. Perot strenuously opposed the NAFTA trade agreement which he believed would result in an unsustainable influx of illegal immigration and loss of American jobs. Though NAFTA passed with a bipartisan majority, President Clinton adopted a harsh posture on illegal immigration by increasing border patrol personnel, building fences, and deporting more illegal immigrants than any President to date.
Though Perot’s campaign was not prompted to any substantial degree by opposition to illegal immigration, protecting American jobs from foreign competition has remained a pivotal, divisive issue and politicians from both major parties have been forced to pick a side thanks largely to Perot’s stance in the early 1990s. He also emphasized the need for tougher drug laws and crime reform.
Though the war on drugs had been important since the Nixon administration, Perot’s rhetoric in 1992 spurred renewed interest in drug and crime reform. Leading up to the election of 1996, Clinton took a tough stance on drugs and crime in part to appease voters who were inspired by Perot. In 1994, Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which was arguably the toughest anti-drug and crime legislation in United States history. Though Perot was never elected, many of the measures that he and his supporters advocated were adopted by major parties and remain visible in the political landscape to this day.
The election of 2000 was one of the most contentious contests in American history largely due to the fact that it was one of only four elections where the victor did not win the popular vote. Florida was the difference maker and Bush won the state by a meager handful of votes. The pivotal swing state cast 97,488 votes for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Those votes would have certainly handed Gore the victory in 2000, but instead, Democrats lost by the narrowest of margins.
Nader campaigned on a far left platform and spent more time criticizing Gore than Bush. He and his supporters believed that Gore and the Democratic Party were not giving enough attention to environmental and social justice issues.
Prior to the election, top Democrats suspected that Nader might cost Gore the election, but the well-known advocate refused to suspend his campaign because, in his view, Gore was refusing to address the most important matters.
Sure enough, Nader played the role of spoiler and many Green voters would come to regret their decision and publicly denounced their decision to support Mr. Nader.
Though It is true that Ralph Nader almost certainly handed the election to Bush, it is also true that the Democratic Party has taken drastic efforts to make itself the environmentalist party in order to secure Green voters.
In 2004, Democratic voters nominated John Kerry who had the League of Conservation Voters’ seal of approval and Kerry made sure to address global warming at every turn. He became the first presidential candidate to make environmental policy a central point of his campaign. Kerry, however, was not the first choice of AFL-CIO and affiliate union workers who initially supported Democratic candidate Richard Gephardt.
The AFL-CIO represented many workers in environmentally unfriendly industries such as coal mining and vehicular construction. Though he eventually got their endorsement after Gephardt dropped out, Kerry somewhat weakened the longstanding relationship between the Democratic Party and unions.
In adopting its pro-environment position, the Democratic Party deteriorated the expansion powers of many unions in order to reach out to Green voters who had expressed their willingness to vote for a third party in 2000. Democrats got away with this because they knew unions would endorse them no matter what given that the Republican Party remained fiercely anti-union.
Again the theme emerged that loyal voters were viewed as less important than swing voters.
In 2006, Al Gore himself made “An Inconvenient Truth” and further solidified the Democratic Party as the environmentalist party. President Obama has continued to follow the environmental path and prevented Green voters from launching a massive insurgency as they did in 2000.
By 2012, several important unions and AFL-CIO affiliates including the United Mine Workers of America refused to endorse President Obama for reelection. Democrats have not been drastically crippled by this loss because, to date, the UMWA has not endorsed another non-Democrat candidate. Historically, many environmentalists, including people who voted for Nader, regret their decision. But their vote for Ralph Nader in 2000 arguably did more for environmental politics than anything in American history because it forced Democrats to reshape their party to appease Green voters.
The Libertarian Party has been relatively non-influential in American politics, even when compared to historical parties that died out after only a few years. They have nominated a Presidential candidate in every election since 1972 but have failed to gain any substantial headway.
Libertarian-minded Republican Ron Paul polled well in 2008 and 2012 but came up short in the Republican primaries. After Ron Paul’s defeat in 2012, a particularly large portion of small government advocates refused to endorse Romney and opted instead to support Libertarian Candidate Gary Johnson. In Johnson, Libertarians had found a viable candidate with a notable record in small government and the potential for mass-appeal.
Johnson won well over a million votes in 2012 and it looked as if Libertarians were poised to finally have their day. Prior to the Summer of 2015, Libertarian-minded Republican Rand Paul, the son of Ron Paul, was the front-runner among Republican candidates. Then, over the summer, businessman Donald Trump emerged and interjected a dose of pure political chaos into the Republican Party. Fueled by mass dissatisfaction within the GOP, Donald Trump’s entry into the race quickly scrambled poll numbers and Rand Paul was left in the dust.
Libertarian voters are, again, a seemingly irrelevant factor in the upcoming election. Voters with Libertarian leanings, who represent a surprisingly hefty portion of the electorate, now have two choices. They can do what most Libertarians have done in years past by supporting the Republican candidate in the hopes that their vote will prevent a big-government Democrat from taking office. Or they can support Gary Johnson who has again become the Libertarian nominee.
If Libertarians break ranks as they usually do to support the Republican candidate, they may indeed play a small roll in defeating the Democratic candidate. However, if they sell out so easily again, Libertarians will, in all likelihood, remain a virtual non-entity in national politics.
If Libertarians ever want to be taken seriously, they should throw their support behind Gary Johnson and earn him a sizable portion of the popular vote. In so doing, they may, in fact, contribute to a Democratic victory by “stealing” potential Republican voters.
But if history has anything to tell us about the impact of third party voters, this will force Republicans to restructure their party to fit the demands of Libertarians.
In the upcoming 2016 election, Americans will face many of the same choices they have faced in years past in terms of voting decisions. In spite of the “Civil War” brewing in both major parties, there will be a Republican candidate, there will be a Democratic candidate and there will be a multitude of third party candidates deemed as un-electable by the mainstream media.
Perhaps the mainstream media is correct in regards to the un-electability of third party candidates. Perhaps every vote “wasted” on a third party candidate is a vote that could have been used to prevent the “worst” candidate from winning. Perhaps your vote could play a pivotal role in sending the lesser of two evils to Washington.
But historical examples of third party influence point to a different ideological outcome. A vote for a third party candidate will bring an extra layer of attention to the issues the party represents. A vote for a third party will make your vote a valuable swing vote in future elections. And a vote for a third party will facilitate change in the major parties which will ultimately manifest itself in favorable political outcomes for you and your fellow third party voters.
In short, a vote for a mainstream candidate is a vote for a political party, a vote for a third party candidate is a vote for your political issues.
If you truly agree with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, then by all means, support your nominee. But if you feel that neither nominee is giving proper attention to the issues that matter the most to you, then you have nothing to gain by voting for a candidate who happens to be slightly less objectionable from your perspective.
If you believe the environment is still not being given its due, social justice issues are being glossed over, and our political system disproportionately benefits the wealthy, consider supporting Green candidate Jill Stein. She mirrors Bernie Sanders in most or her policy positions.
However, if you believe both parties are ignoring our constitutional liberties, the national debt, and enlarging an already bloated, leviathan government, consider Libertarian Gary Johnson.
Your vote will be more meaningful if you cast it in support of the candidate who represents the issues that matter most to you.
Make your vote count. Consider a vote for a third party in 2016. It surely will not be “wasted.”