As optimism has diminished surrounding this year’s election, I’ve seen the following meme shared over and over:
This meme is wrong. In 1860, the Republicans were not a third party; they were the other major party next to the Democrats, a party that had existed since the days of Andrew Jackson in the 1820s. In fact, the Republicans were the farthest thing from a third party in 1860:
In 1860, the closest thing to a third party would actually have been John Bell’s Constitutional Union Party, which won the more moderate middle-South states, and in the process took votes away from the two other major party candidates.
Lincoln wasn’t even the first Republican presidential candidate. If the Republicans could ever be considered a third party, it could instead be in the previous election of 1856. But even here, they were already established as the alternative to the long-standing Jacksonian Democrats.
The point? Facebook memes don’t actually help with our political discussions. Now on to the main point:
A THIRD-PARTY VOTE IS NOT A WASTED VOTE!
Wait, what? The Lincoln story up there 👆🏽sort of suggests that third party candidates only take votes from the “real” candidates. Well, yes, that’s what they do in the short term, though usually it’s not enough to actually sway a national election.
Instead of looking at the Lincoln meme, let’s look at a later example of third party politics that shows how important their role can really be. In 1912, people were mad. Politicians were mad. The Progressive Movement was in full swing. From 1901 to 1909, Theodore Roosevelt’s administration passed a number of significant laws protecting workers, consumers, and business owners. He is responsible for putting ingredient labels on food and drug products. He also passed widespread legislation that placed national parks and other natural areas under federal protection for the first time, and created the National Forest Service. I’m particularly fond of him for that reason alone.
When his successor, William Howard Taft, started to dismantle these policies during his 1909-1913 term, Roosevelt angrily came back into the national spotlight with his Progressive Party and aggressively campaigned against Taft. Awkward, considering that until recently they had both been Republicans, and best friends. Roosevelt took the progressive Republicans with him when this new party popped up. Uncomfortable with Roosevelt’s activism, the more conservative Republicans stayed loyal to Taft, and the classic third-party problem emerged:
Except, this wasn’t the classic third-party problem. Combining the Republican votes wouldn’t even come close to Wilson’s total, so it’s probably not accurate to say that Roosevelt stole the election for Wilson. Even if we accept that the Republican discord pushed away states that may otherwise have voted red, that’s a pretty large gap to overcome.
The more important information comes from the popular vote totals via The American Presidency Project:
Wilson: 6,294,327 / 41.8% Roosevelt: 4,120,207 / 27.4%
Taft: 3,486,343 / 23.2% Debs: 900,370 / 6%
Wait. Who’s that fourth guy? There’s only three candidates on the electoral map.
Eugene V. Debs was a candidate from the Socialist Party, who did not win any states, and therefore does not show up on the electoral map. However, 900,370 people, representing six percent of the total votes cast, voted for him. That’s a lot. Especially in 1912, when the total population of the country was only about 92 million. And his support wasn’t isolated to a handful of states, either. Debs garnered a percent of the poplar vote in each of the forty-eight states, with support reaching double digits in some of the western agricultural states.
Here are some highlights of the Socialist Platform of 1912, as announced at the Indianapolis Convention of 1912:
- The immediate government relief of the unemployed by the extension of all useful public works.
- …forbidding the employment of children under sixteen years of age.
- …establishing minimum wage scales.
- The adoption of a graduated income tax…
- Unrestricted and equal suffrage for men and women
- The separation of the present Bureau of Labor from the Department of Commerce and Labor and its elevation to the rank of a department.
- The enactment of further measures for the conservation of health. The creation of an independent bureau of health…
In 1916, with America’s entry into the Great War approaching, the Socialist platform, with a few amendments, repeated that of 1912, and the candidate received around half a million votes, representing about three precent of the vote.
What’s the point? IS HE ADVOCATING SOCIALISM?! 😱
Of course not. That’s a bad word in this country. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones that gets a check in the mail every month.
(As an aside, if you firmly believe that all forms of socialism are evil, I applaud your convictions. I’ll just be applauding from across the street while you inform the fire department of your philosophy as you go grab your bucket to put out your house.)
Anyway, even though Debs did not make any sort of dent on the election outcome in 1912, over 900,000 people voted for him; 1916 was more or less the same outcome: not enough to alter the election, but a pretty large number of people voting for an alternative party.
Since it didn’t affect the election, why does it matter?
It matters because, with the exception of some of the more radical planks, most of the Socialist platforms of 1912 and 1916 have become part of the modern government, whether as components of the two major parties’ platforms, or as new departments within the government framework itself.
- We now have Cabinet-level departments of Labor, Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Education.
- We now have a graduated income tax, perhaps an inconvenience in modern society, but actually quite a progressive development when ratified in 1913.
- Though inhibited by gerrymandering and other archaic forms of disenfranchisement that still persist, we now have legally protected voting rights for all Americans over the age of eighteen.
- We have welfare and unemployment services for those in need.
- We have labor laws that protect the rights and safety of workers and consumers.
There have been a few cases in the recent past in which third parties had a noticeable affect on a presidential election. In 1948, the Dixiecrat party ran on an anti-civil rights platform and took thirty-nine electoral votes away from Democrat Harry Truman, but in this case, since his support was entirely from sparsely-populated southern states, Strom Thurmond only collected about two and a half percent of the popular vote. With the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, the Dixiecrats, along with their narrow-minded platform, disappeared. In 1968, George Wallace ran on an anti-Vietnam, anti-civil rights platform, collecting 45 exclusively-southern electoral votes along the way. Wallace’s is the only third party campaign to reach into the double digits of the popular vote (and 66% in Alabama!), but the election of Nixon, the end of the Vietnam conflict, and the assassination attempt on Wallace ended the threat to the two major parties.
More recently, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader made somewhat respectable showings at the polls; Perot gained about eight percent of the popular vote in 1996, but Nader only grabbed about three percent in 2000. Neither made a dent in the electoral vote count. In the elections hence, there has been no notable third party presence that took any of the popular vote. Perhaps a percent or two divided between different candidates.
No third party candidate has made a noticeable mark in a presidential election since 2000. In the elections following those of 1912 and 1916, people were upset, angry and scared, and willing to try something new. Perhaps it was just an effort to get reelected, but the parties listened. In 1933, Dr. Francis Townhend, a vocal critic of Franklin Roosevelt, published a letter criticizing the New Deal’s lack of provisions for the elderly, and proposed his own revolving pension plan. Since election season was approaching, Roosevelt in 1935 proposed his Social Security Act. Kind of shady, but hey, the nation benefitted from it.
The point is this: if Americans can get out of this “one election at a time” mentality, perhaps real change can be implemented in our electoral system. When the Socialists ran two relatively successful candidates in two succeeding elections, the parties listened and eventually adjusted their platforms to incorporate pieces of the popular Socialist platform from previous years. It’s easy to share memes on Instagram and get in political arguments on Facebook, but unless Americans are willing to actually walk the walk and not just complain, nothing will change. Large numbers of Americans got up and voted third party in 1912 and made a long-term impact on the nation.
It is safe to say that Americans have never been more disillusioned with the electoral process than they are in 2016. The lesser-of-two-evils sentiment with the two major party candidates should be a call to arms for all Americans to send a message that they won’t stand for subpar presidential candidates any longer, and the parties will probably listen, just as they did after 1912.
The Pew Research Center estimates there to be over 275,000,000 registered voters in the 2016 election.Can you imagine the message it would send if six percent of them voted for a third party candidate? That’s sixteen and a half million voters. Even if no electoral votes are won from these voters, the major parties would surely notice such a large number of potential voters they could grab,
There is no such thing as a wasted vote, except that not cast. At the very least, you can rest better at night knowing that you voted your conscience and not for one who is just slightly less bad than the other.