Third Alternatives: A Brief History Of Third Party Candidacies

Read in your language:

Gentlemen, I’m putting the two of you on the hot seat with me. I want that third alternative!
—Captain James T. Kirk, USS Enterprise, Stardate 3289.8

by Michael Liss at 3QuarksDaily: Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Ron DeSantis and Biden. Trump and Kamala Harris. DeSantis and Amy Klobuchar. Ron Scott and Elizabeth Warren. Greg Abbott and Pete Buttigieg. Ted Cruz and Liz Cheney (wait, what?).

Tired of the same old headlines, the same ideas, the same enmities? Looking for something better? Captain Kirk’s Hobson’s Choice merely involved the lives of several million. We have a hundred times as many.

Don’t we all want that third alternative? Pew Research released a poll on August 9, which, among other things, tested that assumption, and the answer is a qualified maybe—“a sizable minority of Americans are supportive of the idea of having a greater choice of parties.” When you get closer to the numbers you find the greatest support comes from Independents (roughly half) and the least (21%) from Republicans (also, not surprisingly). But what you also see is a generational divide. Those in the younger age cohorts are twice as likely to want a third party than those over 65.

I’ll ask again: Do you want that Third Alternative? Andrew Yang (age 47), David Jolley (49), and Christine Todd Whitman (75) think you do. They have founded a new political party called “Forward,” which, presumably, is interested in moving forward.

Can they be successful? Let’s hedge our bets and say it depends on your metrics. Third parties emerge for several reasons. The first is simply decay-related—some just die off. Our earliest organized political party, the Federalists, elected John Adams in 1796, but never won another Presidential election thereafter.

The second relates to some political parties’ internal dynamics. By 1824, Jefferson’s then-dominant Democratic-Republican Party, which had won the prior six Presidential elections, could no longer hold the ambitions of its leading lights nor manage increasingly potent regional issues. Four credentialed candidates emerged: John Quincy Adams, the war hero Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and William Crawford of Georgia, who had been a Senator, Secretary of War and of the Treasury, and Ambassador to France. The result was incoherent—Jackson got the most popular and Electoral votes, but all four men performed credibly enough, and the election went to the House of Representatives. There, after some possibly corrupt wheeling and dealing, Adams emerged as President, Henry Clay as Secretary of State, and Andrew Jackson (and his followers) as very angry men. That blew apart the Democratic-Republicans, with the (minority, pro-Adams) wing becoming, for a time, the “National Republican Party” (later the Whigs) and the majority the “Jacksonian Democrats,” the antecedent of today’s Democratic Party.

The third has elements of the first two: Parties that run out of ideas and are riven by internal disputes. The Whigs divorced themselves from Jacksonian Democrats, but carried over into the new party the virus of North-South disagreements. They elected two Presidents in the 1840s, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, but neither lived out their terms. Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, was so “un-Whig” (presumably, the first “WINO”) that they nominated Henry Clay, by then a Whig, in 1844—he lost, again. Millard Filmore, who served out the balance of Taylor’s term, successfully managed the intricate negotiations over the Compromise of 1850, and was rewarded by his party by…their nominating Winfield Scott in 1852. Apparently, the supply of viable Whig ideas on the most critical issues before the country was less than the number of Whig Generals as potential candidates. The party dissolved after Scott’s convincing defeat and difficult and angry debates over the Missouri Compromise. Some displaced Whigs became Free-Soilers; some became Know-Nothings; and, in the most important movement, much of the best of their talent became newly minted Republicans.

Having three major parties blow up in the years between 1796 and 1854 gives you a sense that our American Experiment was still a little experimental. In fact, if you look at elections between 1824 and 1864, what you see is a far larger number of distinguished candidates than places to put them. America had talent. More here.