Strangely, there has been a great deal of interest in the most exotic of American political organizations – the Third Party, lately.
Notably, I have heard both progressives and conservatives publicly wishing their parties could go the way of the Whigs. To explain, the Whigs were one of three major American political parties to go extinct. The others were the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans (original Republicans) in the 1820s.
For example, Chapo Trap House podcaster Matt Christman told Useful Idiots’ Katie Halper and Matt Taibbi that he hopes the Democrats will go the way of the Whigs in a few years.I heard failed Republican presidential candidate Joe Walsh (R-Illinois) make a similar remark about the Grand Old Party earlier in 2020.
Who Were the Whigs?
They formed the Whigs as a conservative alternative to President Andrew Jackson’s (D-Tennessee) populist Democratic Party, or Democracy. The Whigs collapsed because their leaders refused to address the nation’s greatest problem: slavery.
Whig leaders either tried to ignore slavery or restrict it to the Old South. Those efforts failed because radical slave owners worked to expand slavery beyond the South.
Ignoring slavery did not work because the Slave Power (Southern Establishment) became richer, more powerful, and more influential. In particular, the South’s principal crop, cotton was the most lucrative commodity in the 19th Century. Cotton was as important to the 19th Century economy as oil was to the 20th Century and Data is to the 21st Century.
The Slave Power was a tiny elite of wealthy slave owners and their corporate allies who had the wealth to buy Congress. Many Northern politicians, both Whig and Democrat, bowed to the Slave Power because they wanted its money.
Restricting slavery only angered Southerners and drove them into the Democratic Party, which wanted to expand slavery. Efforts to expand slavery provoked two radical reactions in the North.
First, the Free Soilers wanted to ban the expansion of Slavery into new areas. In particular, the Free Soilers wanted slavery kept out of the territories the United States conquered in the Mexican War (1847-1848).
Second, the Abolitionists wanted America to follow the example of the British Empire and abolish slavery completely. Both movements gained prominence in the North.
Who Killed the Whigs?
However, Whigs such as US Senator Daniel Webster (W-Massachusetts) refused to acknowledge those movements. Instead, Webster pretended nothing had changed after the Mexican War.
When Southerners became angry because Congress admitted California to the Union as a free state. Webster tried to placate the South with the Fugitive Slave Act.
The Fugitive Slave Act required Northern governments to return all escaped slaves to the South. Many Northerners saw the Act as an effort to expand Slavery nationwide.
Instead of ending the crisis, Webster made it worse and became one of the most hated men in Massachusetts. Webster wrote the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and died shortly after.
The most interesting thing about the Whigs is the speed at which they collapsed. In 1852, the Whigs were one of two national political parties with an impressive presidential candidate General Winfield Scott (W-Virginia), America’s top solider and greatest war hero. By 1856, the Whigs were dead; they did not even nominate a presidential candidate that year.
Instead, anti-slavery Whigs and Free Soil Democrats formed a new party: the Republicans. Ironically, the first Republican Presidential candidate was US Senator John C. Fremont (R-California). Fremont, a famous explorer, was a Southerner and the son of a slave owner.
In 1860, the Republicans won with the election with former Whig Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) as their candidate. Interestingly, one candidate Lincoln beat was Bell who was running on a reconstituted Whig ticket the so-called Constitutional Unionist John Bell of Kentucky.
Chrisman’s hope is that the Democrats will disappear because many of their leaders refuse to discuss or acknowledge America’s greatest problem growing income inequality. Instead of tackling income inequality, many Democrats try to distract the voters with mindless culture war politics. For example, the Defund the Police nonsense.
Some Republicans offer a similar critique of their party’s leaders.
The Role Third Parties play in American politics
Theoretically, third parties inject new blood and new ideas into American politics.
Additionally, third parties address issues the major parties refuse to discuss. For example, the Free Soil Party of 1848 injected the Free Soil issue (keeping slavery out of new territories) into political discourse. The Free Soil Candidate former President Martin Van Buren (D-New York) took enough votes from Democrat Lewis Cass (D-Michigan) to put General Zachary Taylor (W-Louisiana) in the White House.
Notably, Taylor tried to attract Free Soil votes by bringing California, New Mexico, and other captured Mexican territories into the Union as free states. One reason Taylor; ironically a slave-owning Southerner, adopted the Free Soil issue was that it took votes away from Democrats. Van Buren showed that Free Soil was a viable political issue with his 1848 third-party run.
History proved Taylor’s political instincts correct. A few years later, Free Soil Democrats joined with former Whigs to form the successful Republican Party.
Similarly, the radical Liberty Party made abolition a potent and disruptive political issue with several presidential challenges before 1860. The major parties did not adopt abolition, but they had to acknowledge its existence because of the Liberty Party.
How Third Parties Disrupt American Politics
History shows third parties can disrupt American politics in two ways. First by forcing established parties to change their platforms to cope with new ideas. Second, by supplanting a major party that refuses to change with the times.
During the 1850s, the Republicans replaced the Whigs because the GOP was willing to discuss the problem of slavery. The Republicans put the Democrats in a difficult position because the party’s leadership was Pro Slavery.
However, many rank-and-file Democrats in the North were Free Soilers. Racism and economics played a role because many white working class Democrats viewed African American slaves as a threat to their livelihoods.
Until the 1850s, Democrats avoided the slave question by refusing to discuss it. However, the presence of Republicans on the ballot made slavery the only political question.
Thus the Republicans forced Northern Democratic leaders to take a stand on slavery. Taking such a stand split the party, because the Free Soil stance needed to attract Northern voters drove Southerners away.
Consequently, in 1860 the Democrats split into Northern and Southern factions. Each of those factions nominated its own presidential candidate.
The Southerners nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge (D-Kentucky) who favored slavery expansion. The Northerners nominated slavery expansionist turned Free Soiler US Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D-Illinois). The Democratic crack-up allowed Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois), who was not on the ballot in many Southern states, to win the election.
Historically, third parties have forced major parties to change their agendas. Generally, major party politicians adopt politicians adopt a third-party idea because it attracts votes.
For example, President Taylor’s blatant theft of the Free Soil Party agenda in 1849 and 1850. Similarly, both Democrats and Republicans stole popular ideas from successful third parties during the chaotic Progressive Age of the early 20th Century.
For instance, the Republicans adopted Prohibition (a national ban on alcohol) from the Prohibitionist Party. Similarly, both Democrats and Republicans stole the Socialist Party’s popular plank of radical reform of the US Senate.
To explain, the 1912 Socialist Party platform called for the abolition of the US Senate. The major parties countered by backing the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed for the popular election of US Senators.
Thus Third Parties can disrupt American politics. However, third parties can only produce results in America when their members will fight.