American Duopoly: A History of Third-Party Challenges to the Two-Party System

As Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s political fortunes fluctuate, Erstwhile editors Beau Driver and Graeme Pente offer an overview of the history of attempts, from both within and without parties, to change the United States’ two-party political system.

With the spectacular collapse of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign during the last two weeks, political pundits are speculating whether the Republican Party will be able to recover. Is this election cycle sounding the death knell of the Grand Old Party (GOP)? The two-party system has proved remarkably durable since the founding of the Republican Party before the Civil War, despite a number of significant challenges to it.

The current electoral contest between the Republican and Democratic Parties has its beginnings in the former’s founding in 1854. Though their constituencies and policies have shifted dramatically in the intervening century and a half, both parties trace their institutional roots to the antebellum period. In the 1850s, politics realigned along sectional interests—North and South—mostly over the question of the future of slavery. As the elitist Whig Party collapsed over the course of the decade, the Republicans rallied a number of interest-based political parties to their banner, uniting disparate elements of fledgling parties. Business interests in the northeast from the failing Whig Party, nativist elements from the American (“Know-Nothing”) Party, antislavery Democrats in the northeast and the Midwest, and abolitionists from the short-lived Free Soil Party all came into the fold. The 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency sparked the secessionist movement in the South, embroiling the country in civil war. Northern victory resolved the competing visions for the nation’s future: the United States would develop based on “free” labor and industrialization rather than on slavery and monoculture. In the war’s wake, the Republican Party enjoyed electoral dominance of the White House for all but eight years until the 1912 election. Republicans drew their strength not only from their loyalty to the Union in the Civil War, but also from their broad electoral alliance, which included farmers, urban laborers, and, especially, businessmen and entrepreneurs.

The Republican electoral alliance served the party well, but it was fragile. In the late nineteenth century, a number of third parties attempted to unite what they called “the producing classes” and to split farmers and workers from the Republican coalition. Economic issues tended to galvanize these third-party efforts, such as the Socialist Labor Party or the Greenback Party, which advocated the use of paper currency not backed by gold. The most successful of these challenges came from the People’s, or Populist, Party. Formed in 1891, the Populists believed that both the Republican and Democratic Parties only served the interests of big business, to the detriment of agricultural and industrial workers everywhere. Their 1892 platform called for the coinage of silver into legal currency, a graduated income tax, post offices to act as savings banks, direct election of US senators, the secret ballot, the referendum, and government ownership of railroads, telephones, and telegraphs. In the presidential election that year, the Populist candidate James B. Weaver received 8.5 percent of the popular vote and 22 electoral votes, carrying five states of the Midwest and West (Bibby and Maisel, 23). Populists also elected three governors, including Davis H. Waite in Colorado. In the years between these successes and the presidential election of 1896, however, the silver advocates within the People’s Party took over its direction, to the detriment of the wider reform program. When the Democrats nominated the silver advocate William Jennings Bryan as their presidential candidate, they placed the Populists in a difficult position. They could endorse Bryan and fuse with the Democratic Party or run their own candidate without much to distinguish him from the Democrats. Though Bryan carried 22 of 45 states, they were mostly in the less populous West, leading to a sound defeat in the electoral college. The Populists continued to run candidates through 1908, but they were never again a noteworthy force in US politics. They had delivered most of their constituency to the Democrats, while the Progressive wing of the Republican Party picked up a number of their platform proposals.


Democratic-Populist Presidential Candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896. {{PD-US}}

The next major challenge to the two-party system came not twenty years later as a Republican faction broke away from the party. The early twentieth century saw the rise of a reformist impulse known as Progressivism, which sought to use the government and an emphasis on efficiency to fix the ills of modern industrial society. There were Progressives in both of the major parties, but in 1912 the faction within the GOP sought to take over the party. When they failed to block the nomination of incumbent William Howard Taft, these insurgents ran their own Progressive Party candidate. Feeling “as strong as a bull moose,” former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt came out of retirement to accept the new party’s nomination. As the Bull Moose-Progressive Party candidate, Roosevelt advocated federal oversight of interstate corporations, nationwide presidential primaries, and the initiative, referendum, and recall at the state level to empower ordinary citizens. When the Democrats nominated their own Progressive, Woodrow Wilson, they eliminated the basic need for the Progressive Party. Typically, Roosevelt refused to withdraw. The Bull Moose-Progressive Party finished with the most impressive results of any third party in US history, defeating Taft 88 to 8 in the electoral college and 27.5 percent to 23 percent in the popular vote (Bibby and Maisel, 23). The 1912 election was also noteworthy for delivering Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs his best electoral result: six percent of the popular vote. Despite the victory over the GOP, Roosevelt split the Republican vote and handed the presidency to Wilson, even though the latter only received 42 percent of the popular vote. The results smashed Roosevelt’s hope of reviving the Populist dream of a party for farmers and laborers, and the Progressive wing of the GOP returned to the fold. In 1924, these Progressives would again break from the party, running Robert La Follette for the presidency. The Progressive Party finished third with 16.6 percent of the popular vote and 13 electoral votes (Bibby and Maisel, 23). Though the results were still impressive, the Republican Progressives’ declining fortunes prevented another attempt at the presidency. The faction again returned to the fold.

Despite the brief effort of Progressives from the Democratic Party under Henry A. Wallace and of Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrats” for the presidency in 1948, the two-party system remained quite stable into the 1960s. In 1968, the American electorate was facing a hard choice with regard to the presidency. Civil unrest had escalated to the point that demonstrations were turning into riots in the streets. An unpopular “police action” against Communists in Vietnam was seeing roughly one thousand American deaths per month, and racial tensions were high. On the national stage, then, three candidates entered seeking the office of President. By the time that the votes were tabulated, Richard M. Nixon had won over the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, and the nominee of third-party candidate from the American Independent Party, George Wallace. To date, Wallace is the last third-party candidate to carry the vote in any state—in fact, he won Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas—and with his victory through the Deep South, he marked the end of the “Dixiecrat” coalition of the southern states.


George Wallace in 1964. {{PD-US}}

Wallace’s success came largely from the old wounds of racism in American politics stemming all the way back to the Civil War. Throughout the South, Democratic voters who had become more and more disillusioned with their party’s platform on Civil Rights began to flock to the candidate who, during his inaugural address as governor of Alabama in 1963, stood upon the steps of the state capitol and declared “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Wallace’s policies were especially attractive to those poor, rural farmers who had a sense that the path that the United States was taking was one in which they could not follow, and hence, they were being left behind.

Studies conducted on the supporters of Wallace revealed a passionate minority who held extreme views with regard to race, civil unrest, and the war in Vietnam and who often fought with anti-Wallace protesters at campaign rallies. At the time of the polling, 40 percent of Wallace supporters favored racial segregation (compared to 10 percent among the electorate at large), 86 percent advocated for the maximum use of force available in quelling civil unrest in cities across the United States, and over half sought a “complete military victory” in Vietnam (Mazmanian, 17-18). For these voters, Wallace—who presented himself as the “Law and Order” candidate in a similar fashion to Nixon—was perceived to provide the strength that they thought was needed to end these conflicts at home and abroad, and the strength and courage of conviction that both Nixon and Humphrey appeared to lack.

While it is difficult to say that Wallace’s support tipped the scales in favor of Richard Nixon, it is quite easy to see that the lasting effect of Wallace’s campaign was to destroy Democratic support in the South and to cause a substantial realignment of white, Southern voters to the GOP that persists to this day. Nixon’s successful use of the “Southern Strategy” stemmed largely from his recognition of white, Southern voters’ consternation regarding issues of race and his subtle, yet easily understood, appeal to them in 1968 and in the years following that election. To this day, the electoral map has stayed mostly constant after the monumental realignment of Southern voters and the GOP, which occurred largely during the 1968 election.

Since the election of 1968, third parties have played a mostly forgettable role in American presidential elections—with the exception of the year 2000. The 2000 election between Democratic candidate Al Gore and Republican candidate George W. Bush was the most contested election in modern United States history. Many political analysts have asserted that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader played a major role in tipping the election in favor of Bush. This perception that Ralph Nader’s support siphoned votes away from Gore, thus costing him the election that was decided narrowly in Florida, persists today and is often used by Democrats and Republicans alike as a means to persuade potential third-party voters to fall in line and vote for the candidate of one of the two major parties.

Nader ran for the presidency in 1996 as an Independent but did not actively campaign because he did not receive the backing of the Green Party at the national level. As a result, he received only 0.7 percent of the vote. He returned with new vigor in 2000 and campaigned with hopes of garnering the five percent of votes required for a third party to receive federal funding for its next campaign. Nader failed, collecting only 2.7 percent of the overall vote (Bibby and Maisel, 46). However, it is widely thought that the votes Nader did receive in Florida, and a few other states in which the final tally was very close, allowed George W. Bush to win the electoral college, even though Gore won the popular vote. The winner-take-all nature of the electoral college—which ultimately decided Bush’s victory—means that many potential third-party voters fear even a small amount of deviation from the two-party system will swing the election toward one candidate over the other. Politicians from both major parties have successfully played on this fear to keep third-party votes to a minimum in the elections since 2000.

The two major parties in US politics have endured so long in part because they operate as large political tents. In the multi-party systems of Canada and especially of Europe, political parties often find themselves needing to form a coalition with other parties of similar ideological persuasion in order to form a government. In the United States, by contrast, politicians and party activists form those coalitions within parties. Thus, as we have seen, interest groups jockey for power within existing party structures, attempt to steer the party one way or the other, and demand that the party address their (sometimes conflicting) concerns. These large political tents are capable of absorbing the demands of protesting attempts at forming viable third parties, but they also open the dominant parties to factional insurgencies within them. In more recent memory, for instance, the Tea Party has become a strong faction within the GOP, while Bernie Sanders’s attempt at the nomination represents a leftwing insurgency in the Democratic Party. Since the late nineteenth century, and in a more accelerated way in the last thirty years, the Republican Party’s tent has become smaller. At the same time, the American electorate, and thus its interests, have become more diverse. In this way, the GOP has been slowly narrowing itself out of existence despite efforts to court a more diverse electorate, such as Marco Rubio’s unsuccessful bid for the party’s nomination. It remains to be seen whether a third party, such as the Libertarian Party, can convert enough of the GOP’s base to its cause or the Republican Party can shift its electoral appeal enough to recover for the next election cycle. We may well be on the precipice of a change to the two-party system not seen in 160 years.


Further Reading:

Bibby, John F. and L. Sandy Maisel, Two Parties or More?: The American Party System (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2003).

Hesseltine, William B. The Rise and Fall of Third Parties: From Anti-Masonry to Wallace (Washington D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1948).

Mazmanian, Daniel A. Third Parties in Presidential Elections (Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 1974).

Sifry, Micah L. Spoiling for A Fight: Third-Party Politics in America (New York: Routledge, 2002).

One thought on “American Duopoly: A History of Third-Party Challenges to the Two-Party System

  1. Pingback: A History of Populism in Colorado from the Colorado Encyclopedia Project | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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