Will this be a four-party US election?

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Ted Widmer

THIRD parties in the United States don’t fit cleanly into the simple political narrative most of us have in our heads of red versus blue, and two parties battling it out, Super Bowl-style. Yet for much of our history, outsiders have pushed their way onto the playing field, disrupting the narrative of the Big Game.
In the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party are holding steady with 9 per cent and 3 per cent, according to a recent CNN poll of polls. It is never an exact science to assess the impact of third-party votes — there are libertarians at both the right and left ends of the spectrum — and third-party types are notoriously fickle. But there is a rising possibility that these votes will affect the outcome in close states.
A survey of our chaotic past suggests that third parties have done considerable damage to the major parties. Certainly that is the feeling among Democrats, whose memories of Ralph Nader’s turn in 2000 remain raw. But third-party runs have also opened windows that might have remained shut. A proliferation of parties in 1860 helped elect Abraham Lincoln, and in 1912 Woodrow Wilson was another beneficiary of a four-party contest.
It would be tempting to cite stern warnings from the founders against this potential threat to the political establishment. But they were so hostile to the idea of parties writ large that they do not provide much help. In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison warned against the spirit of “faction,” and George Washington amplified these fears in his farewell address of 1796. Four years later, the barn door was wide open, and the horses were running free. It was as if no one had heard him at all.
In the 19th century, messy elections persistently undermined the claim of Americans to have invented a system of politics worthy of global emulation. In 1806, a prominent Virginian, John Randolph, was trying to organise a new party that was neither Federalist nor Republican (Jefferson’s claim that all Americans were united convinced no one). Randolph called it a “tertium quid,” or a “third something.”
Third Somethings continued to bubble forth like a lava that never quite cooled from one electoral eruption to the next. The Era of Good Feelings collapsed in 1825, after a four-candidate scrum resulted in an election that was thrown into the House of Representatives, where the speaker, Henry Clay, smoothly channelled support to John Quincy Adams, to the enduring fury of Andrew Jackson and his easily enraged supporters.
Four years later, Jackson defeated Adams to win sweet revenge, but Third Somethings continued to play a disruptive role in presidential elections. In 1844, a small but determined vote for the anti-slavery Liberty Party in New York might have helped tip that crucial state from a Whig (Henry Clay) to a Democrat (James K. Polk) — and thus the abolitionists at the heart of the Liberty Party managed to elect the candidate most sympathetic to slavery. In 1848, Martin Van Buren, the former president and the architect of the modern Democratic Party, showed once again how topsy-turvy our politics could be when he ran as a third-party candidate, this time as a Free Soiler. He lost, but his campaign helped, paradoxically, to plant the seeds for the Republican Party.
When the Republican Party emerged in the 1850s, it was not even a Third Something at first, but simply a scattering of small farmers and mechanics, largely opposed to slavery, sprinkled with other kinds of reformers — temperance advocates, labour activists, table-rapping spiritualists, vegetarians, hydro-therapists, Utopian Socialists and women’s rights supporters — derided by critics as “long-haired men and short-haired women.” Soon it was the strongest party of them all, and the dominant force in American politics for the next 72 years, from Lincoln’s election to the New Deal.
But that story is too neat, for politicians outside the mainstream continually pecked at the Republican hegemony, including in 1892, when the Populist Party’s surge claimed 8.5 per cent of the vote, and in 1912, when another former president, Theodore Roosevelt, ran against his old party. He easily defeated his hand-picked Republican successor, William Howard Taft, with 27 per cent of the vote, but Woodrow Wilson won the election. Eugene V. Debs, running as a Socialist, also ran well that year, earning 6 per cent of the vote, including 16 per cent in Oklahoma.
In the modern era, party bosses tried to clamp down on third parties, but with mixed results. In 1948, despite a powerful national organisation, the Democrats, led by Harry S. Truman, barely eked out a victory after defections to both the left (Henry A. Wallace) and the right (Strom Thurmond). Since then, other movements have risen on the right, for reasons ranging from resistance to federal policies to the ambitions of billionaires.
In 1968, George Wallace, by defending segregation and the Vietnam War, won 13.5 per cent of the vote, and five Southern states. In 1992, Ross Perot garnered nearly 20 million votes (19 per cent), despite dropping out of the race for several weeks and then re-entering.
At their best, minor parties have invigorated the major parties with new ideas, quietly co-opted. Democrats benefited from the Populist winds blowing off the prairie, and Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign freshened Republican thinking with progressive themes. But third parties have also dragged the majors into the mud. After 1968, Richard Nixon embraced some of George Wallace’s proposals to slow the impact of busing, and the Republican ‘Southern strategy’ owed much to the lessons of Wallace and other third-party tinkerers, including Thurmond.
This year, we won’t know the impact of the Libertarian or Green parties until the day after the election. But for good or ill, we can safely predict that these quixotic candidates are not going away soon. As Madison warned us, “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.”

—Courtesy: Gulf News