Although the United States has a firmly established two-party system, independent parties play an important role in U.S. politics. Democrats and Republicans win the vast majority of federal, state, and local elections, but independent candidates often reflect popular attitudes and concerns. Most independent parties—also known as third parties—begin in response to a specific issue, candidate, or political philosophy.
The current two-party system of Democrats and Republicans evolved during the mid– nineteenth century. Before that, the Democrats squared off against the Whigs, led by Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. The Whig Party was founded around 1834 to oppose the populist policies of Democratic president Andrew Jackson. Its members objected to Jackson's views on banking and the designation of federal funds, among other things.
Although Whig presidential candidates were successful in 1840 (William Henry Harrison) and 1848 (Zachary Taylor), the party survived for less than 40 years. In the 1850s, the Republicans entered the political scene as independents. After Republican Abraham Lincoln's victory in the 1860 U.S. presidential race, the Republican Party replaced the Whig party as the main party opposing the Democrats. Many northern Whigs joined the Republicans, whereas southern Whigs became aligned with the Democrats.
The platforms and purposes of independent parties, both past and present, vary tremendously. Some independent parties, such as the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the Libertarian Party, were formed to promote their political world views rather than a single issue or a charismatic leader. The Socialist Party, founded in 1901, has been relatively successful and long-lasting. Its heyday was around 1912, when its candidate eugene v. debs received about six percent of the popular vote in the presidential election. That same year, more than 1,000 Socialists held elected positions throughout the United States.
Other independent parties were founded by dissident progressives from one or both of the major parties. In 1912, progressives in the Republican Party broke off and formed the Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, naming former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt as its presidential candidate. Roosevelt lost to Democratic nominee woodrow wilson in the general election.
In 1924, another progressive party, called the League for Progressive Political Action, was launched. This party backed Senator robert m. la follette, of Wisconsin, who received 16 percent of the popular vote while losing to Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge.
Other offshoots of the two major parties include the Locofocos, or Equal Rights Party, and the Mugwumps. The Locofocos emerged from the Democratic Party in the early nineteenth century. They supported stricter bank regulation and antitrust laws. The Mugwumps broke from the Republican Party in the 1884 presidential campaign and supported the Democratic nominee grover cleveland. Their name was derived from the Algonquian word for big chief. The Mugwumps' defection contributed to the Democrats' victory.
Some independent candidates transcend their party affiliation. Billionaire H. Ross Perot caught the public's imagination during the 1992 presidential election, which was won by Democrat bill clinton. Of the 19 million U.S. citizens who voted for Perot, few, if any, cast their ballot in support of his independent party. People voted for Perot, the person, as an alternative to Clinton and the Republican incumbent george h.w. bush. Perot ran again as an independent in 1996.An independent candidate and a specific issue are often inextricably linked. This was the case in 1968, with Alabama governor george wallace and his American Independent Party. Wallace was a vocal opponent of Civil Rights. His position on Segregation and States' Rights and his bold personality were the sum total of the party.
Other important social issues have spawned independent parties. The Prohibition Party was formed in 1869 by temperance activists who wanted to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol. Before the Civil War, the Liberty Party was created by abolitionists to outlaw Slavery. Similarly, the Free-Soil Party—which later became part of the Republican Party—was started in 1848 to prevent the extension of slavery into new U.S. territories and states.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum were the Dixiecrats. Led by strom thurmond, these were a group of southern Democrats who were opposed to President Truman's civil rights policies. The Dixiecrats splintered from the main party in 1948.
Bigotry was the driving force behind the Know-Nothing Party—also called the American Party—formed in 1849 to pursue discrimination against immigrants and Roman Catholics. The name referred to the secrecy surrounding the group: Members were instructed to say, "I don't know," if asked about the party.
The effect of an independent party on a presidential race varies. In 1912, independent candidate Theodore Roosevelt, of the Bull Moose party, won more votes than Republican nominee William Howard Taft, and in effect delivered the election to Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson. In other presidential elections, independents made barely a ripple. For example, in 1872 the Prohibition party candidate received a mere 5,600 votes.
In the remarkable presidential election of 2000, independent candidates played prominent and controversial roles. On the political right, author and media commentator patrick buchanan ran on the Reform Party ticket, espousing a mixture of social conservatism, labor support, and international isolationism. On the left, progressive activist and consumer advocate Ralph Nader received the Green Party nomination. Declaring the two main parties to be almost identical, Nader appealed to liberals and youth with his idealistic speeches on corporate influence and the erosion of democracy.
Although neither third party candidate was invited to the official presidential debates between Democrat al gore and Republican george w. bush, no one foresaw their ultimate impact upon the election. After the bitter deadlock in Florida between Gore and Bush produced ballot disputes, recounts, and lawsuits, the totals in that critical state revealed that Nader had taken enough votes there and elsewhere to tip the decision to Bush. Furthermore, Buchanan also scored heavily in a Gore stronghold, leading the conservative candidate to explain that the votes were probably due to poorly designed ballots.
In terms of sheer votes, both Nader and Buchanan fared poorly. Nader captured only three percent of the vote, and Buchanan less than one percent. As a result, neither of their parties qualified for federal matching funds for the 2004 elections, a fate surely likely to hamper their effectiveness at a time when money is of major significance in running political campaigns.
Nader in particular earned the enmity of many Democrats who viewed him as a spoiler. Even his former allies took to the pages of The Nation and other liberal publications to denounce him for self-aggrandizingly under-mining Gore's chances. Nader was unrepentant. In his 2002 book, Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President,Nader defended his candidacy as an intellectually and morally superior choice to what he deemed the corruption of the Democrats and Republicans.
If the contemporary appeal of independent parties has proven underwhelming, their ability to influence close races is one argument for their significance. This impact is felt even more sharply in an age of vast voter apathy. For all of the hubbub that was generated by the 2000 election controversy, only 51 percent of voters bothered to vote that year. Independent parties may find that their ability to control slight percentage points in elections translates into broader political power to shape debate and even to nudge the mainstream parties toward their positions.
Some citizens are reluctant to vote for an independent candidate, believing that such a gesture is futile. Indeed, the odds of winning either the popular or electoral vote are slim. Still, the political dialogue generated by independent candidates is a meaningful contribution to the democratic process. Even when independent candidates lose the election, the public is treated to ideas and perspectives that are seldom broached by the mainstream parties.
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Douglas, William. 2000 "Unapologetic Nader Faces Anger Over His Fla. Role." Newsday (November 9): A48.
Engelhardt, Joel and McCabe, Scott. 2001. "Over-Votes Cost Gore the Election in Florida: A Palm Beach Post Analysis of 19,125 Ballots That Were Punched More Than Once." The Palm Beach Post (March 11): 1A.
"Reform Party Eyes Survival Challenge: Conference Hopes to Revive Fortunes." 2001. The Washington Times (July 26).
Wilson, James Q. 1992. American Government: Institutions and Policies. Lexington, Mass.: Heath.