Third parties in contemporary American politics are often met with humor and derision. Although there are two “Independent” members of the Senate currently serving, both caucus with and mostly vote with the Democrats, and no third-party members currently serve in the House. Perhaps the most consequential recent third party run for president was Ralph Nader’s Green Party run, which many Democrats blamed for Al Gore’s electoral vote loss in 2000. The Green Party remains insubstantial, having never elected anyone to the federal level and its influence as a party is minimal, serving at best as a spoiler for Democrats. Third parties that are effective in the United States tend to be splinter movements away from one of the two major parties, and when one of the parties satisfies them sufficiently on their issues, their members merge into that party.
Although many third parties have existed in the United States and even won seats in federal elections, I will go over the most consequential ones.
The first third party formed in U.S. history had Freemasonry as its bête noire. Its members believed that the secretive organization was involved in the 1826 disappearance of one of its critics and former members, William Morgan, who was about to write an expose on them and thus violate his oath of secrecy. Although they were originally a one-issue party dedicated to destroying Freemasonry and secret societies, after their growth in the 1828 election, they started adopting positions on other issues. They also favored a national bank, internal improvements, and tariffs. These policies would become planks of the Whig Party platform.
Numerous politicians who had gotten their start in the Anti-Masonic Party would become major political players, including Millard Fillmore, Thaddeus Stevens, William H. Seward, and Thurlow Weed. In 1832, the party ran former Attorney General William Wirt, a former Freemason, for president. Wirt had been a Freemason and was not critical of them. The ticket only won the state of Vermont, and the party folded within three years. Its followers migrated to both the Democratic and Whig Parties.
Free Soil Party
The Republican Party was not the first distinctly anti-slavery party. That honor goes to the Free Soil Party. Founded in 1848 to oppose the expansion of slavery into western territories, the party ran presidential candidates in two elections. This party formed after the Democratic Party convention did not endorse the anti-slavery Wilmot Proviso. However, the Free Soil Party fell short of endorsing abolition of slavery. Their slogan was “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men”. Some notable politicians who associated or came out of the Free Soil Party were former President Martin Van Buren, its 1848 candidate, and Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Van Buren’s 1848 run ultimately netted no states, but the party had members serving in the House and Senate. By 1854, the party was folding as its remaining membership was moving to the newly formed Republican Party.
The American Party
Although the American (“Know Nothing”) Party’s existence lasted from 1844 to 1860, it had a brief period of significance. The American Party gained followers after the collapse of the Whig Party in 1854, including a number of future Republicans. The party stoked fears of Catholicism, claiming a “Romanist” conspiracy existed to subvert civil and religious freedom in the US. They sought to limit immigration to stop this “conspiracy”. For a time, they had significant representation in Congress, with one of their members, Nathaniel Banks, serving briefly as Speaker of the House as part of an opposition coalition. In 1856, they nominated Millard Fillmore for president without his consent, and he only won Maryland. After the Dred Scott decision, most of the Northern Know Nothings bolted for the Republican Party, while the Southern members would largely vote for the Constitutional Union ticket in the 1860 election.
The Greenback Party
The Greenback Party, which ran candidates for president in the 1876, 1880, and 1884 elections, stood for a continuation from the Civil War of paper currency unbacked by gold. This was as opposed to a return to hard, bullion-based money, favored by the Republican and Democratic parties. They also stood for a number of policies that would be associated with the progressives, including an 8-hour day and support for unions.
The Populist Party
The Populist Party constituted one of the greatest threats to the two-party system we know and don’t love today. In 1891, in response to discontent by farmers, the Populist Party was founded for the purposes of expanding the government’s role, particularly for aiding farmers discontented with the status quo. They also stood for limiting immigration, for women’s suffrage, and for nationalizations of numerous industries. They were a substantial challenge to Republicans in the Midwest and Democrats in the South. In 1892, they nominated former Greenback Party Congressman James B. Weaver for the presidency, with his running mate being James G. Field, former Attorney General of Virginia and a Confederate veteran. The Populist ticket won a number of Midwestern states, including the traditionally Republican Kansas.
The Populist Party was also able to win seats in the House and Senate during their relatively brief period of existence, electing people from states such as Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Alabama. In 1896, they concurred with the Democratic Party’s nomination of the populistic William Jennings Bryan. This was a partial success for the Populist Party as they had influenced the Democrats enough to nominate a candidate who represented them, but in the process the party lost members who migrated to the Democrats. The Populists had disappeared from Congress by 1903, and the party folded in 1908. The Populists had succeeded in influencing the Democratic Party agenda in the long run, but had failed to maintain a permanent presence.
The Progressive Party’s Three Incarnations
First Incarnation: Theodore Roosevelt’s Split with the GOP
After serving two terms, Theodore Roosevelt decided to follow the Washington tradition and not serve more than two terms, naming William Howard Taft as his successor. Unfortunately, Taft proved to be not even close to as popular or as fit for the role as Roosevelt, and people had begun to tire of the conservatism that characterized the Republican Congress, which Taft closely worked with. Particularly irritating to progressives was Taft’s acceptance of a tariff reduction bill that only reduced them by 5% overall and his Secretary of the Interior Ballinger’s feud with conservationist Gifford Pinchot. Roosevelt decided to break tradition and run for a third term in 1912, but after failing to win the GOP nomination, he formed the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party, which called for such policies as restricting campaign contributions, reducing tariffs, a social insurance system (what we now know as Social Security), an eight-hour workday, and women’s suffrage. His running mate was Governor Hiram Johnson of California.
Roosevelt’s bid split the Republican Party and resulted in Taft winning only Utah and Vermont in his reelection bid. Roosevelt won more states and more of the popular vote, making this the only occasion in which a third party candidate in the two-party system outperformed a candidate of one of the major two parties. The Bull Moose Party retained a presence in the House and Senate until 1916, when the party decided to shut down and join Roosevelt in support of Charles Evans Hughes, with many of its members returning to the Republican Party. This version was undoubtedly the least radical of the three incarnations, with some of its members eventually becoming conservatives, such as Hiram Johnson.
Second Incarnation: Robert La Follette’s Split with the GOP
Senator Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) was one of the greatest boat-rockers in the history of the Senate. At one time a man who was loyal enough to GOP orthodoxy to be considered for leadership, his views had grown more progressive, and by the time he had been elected to the Senate, he was easily the most left-wing Republican in the chamber. His level of staunch progressivism was too much for Theodore Roosevelt, who preferred cooperative approaches as opposed to political battling. La Follette, however, retained quite a following in his home state. He notably opposed the Federal Reserve because he thought it gave private banks too much power, opposed American entry into World War I, opposed restrictions of civil liberties during wartime, and supported nationalizing certain industries.
By 1924, the conservatives of the GOP were riding high in the party with Calvin Coolidge but La Follette was riding high in his home state: with the exception of moderate Republican Sen. Irvine Lenroot and Socialist Rep. Victor Berger, all federal elected officeholders from Wisconsin were now progressive Republicans. Unable to stomach Coolidge and the private-sector oriented policies the GOP was pushing, he launched his own White House bid. His candidacy not only attracted progressive Republicans, but also progressive Democrats who were dissatisfied with their party’s choice of corporate attorney John W. Davis, who identified with the party’s conservative wing. His running mate was fellow Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, a progressive Democrat. Although La Follette only won his home state of Wisconsin, he won a significant number of rural midwestern counties, exposing dissatisfaction with the Administration’s agricultural policies. The run tired out the aging La Follette, and he died the following year. However, his son, La Follette Jr., would carry on the torch and lead many Republicans in the state out of the party when it opposed the New Deal. The Progressive Party became briefly dominant in the state, electing its own members of Congress from Wisconsin and even one in California. They supported most of the New Deal but were staunch non-interventionists. However, after the 1938 midterm elections, conservative Republicans made a comeback, and by 1946 the Progressive Party shut its doors, with La Follette defeated for the Republican nomination by none other than Joseph McCarthy. The La Follette brand of Republicanism had come to an end.
Third Incarnation: Henry Wallace’s Split with the Democrats Turned Communist Subversion
Unlike the previous two Progressive Parties, this version did not come from a split in the Republican Party. Henry A. Wallace Jr., who had been Agriculture Secretary, Vice President, and Secretary of Commerce, had been fired by President Harry S. Truman for publicly opposing his anti-communist foreign policy in 1946. He decided to run on a platform that called for such policies as conciliation with the USSR, nationalization of the energy industry, national health insurance, civil rights, and expansion of unemployment benefits and welfare. His running mate was the ultra-leftist Sen. Glen Taylor (D-Idaho).
Wallace not only refused to expel communists working on his campaign, but the CPUSA endorsed him and the campaign was in fact controlled by communist leaders William Z. Foster and Eugene Dennis, who staffed the campaign with their loyalists (Dodd, 205). Even worse, the CPUSA was under the direct control of the Kremlin. Wallace had been completely and utterly duped by communists, and although the ticket won no states and got only 2.4% of the vote, it was the closest the USSR ever came to electing a president. Wallace would eventually quit the Progressive Party after condemning North Korea for its aggression in the Korean War and would become anti-communist.
The States’ Rights Democratic Party (1948 run)
As Senator, Harry S. Truman had voted for civil rights legislation but had never been passionate about it, doing so only to win the black vote in Missouri. However, his attitudes changed after becoming President. He was horrified to learn of black veterans being shot for attempting to vote in the South, and resolved to support a civil rights plank. His order for desegregation of the Armed Forces ticked off Southern Democrats as did his support of a Fair Employment Practices Committee, anti-lynching legislation, and abolition of the poll tax. Southern dissatisfaction with Truman was channeled through South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, who gained the nomination of the States’ Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrat) in 1948. His running mate was Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi. This ticket was explicitly segregationist and had no intention of winning the election, rather serving as a kingmaker for whichever party could make the best deal for their votes. The ticket won the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Thurmond would go on to have one of the longest Senate careers in history, being elected to the body as a Democrat in 1954, switch to the Republican Party in 1964, and serve until 2003.
The American Independent Party (1968)
Governor George Wallace of Alabama became the face of segregationist resistance to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, notoriously declaring in his 1963 inaugural address that he stood for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Urban riots, the Vietnam War, and the counter-cultural movements that characterized the 1960s attracted people outside of the South to Wallace, and he realized an opportunity. He ran as a populist who capitalized on racial resentment, dissatisfaction with American foreign policy, and opposition to the hippie and anti-war movements. Wallace’s running mate was Curtis LeMay, who was prone to be cavalier about the use of nuclear weapons, which didn’t help the campaign. Ultimately, the ticket won the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Wallace would try again in 1972, but was shot and paralyzed by attempted assassin Arthur Bremer. He tried for the Democratic nomination unsuccessfully in 1976. By this point he had disavowed segregation. Wallace continued to be elected Governor of Alabama until his retirement in 1987. The AIP ran ultra-conservative Congressman John G. Schmitz in 1972, former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox in 1976, and ultra-conservative former Congressman John Rarick in 1980.
Dodd, B. (1954). School of darkness. New York, NY: The Devin-Adair Company.
Mai-Duc, C. (17 April 2016). The ‘angry man’s candidate’: George Wallace and the roots of the American Independent Party. Los Angeles Times.
Retrieved from http://static.latimes.com/american-independent-history/
Political Party Platforms – American Independent Party Platform of 1968
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Vaughn, W.P. (2015). The Anti-Masonic Party in the United States: 1826-1843. The University Press of Kentucky.