Derailing Third Parties: Today And Yesterday

by Mark Lause


November 1, 2004   


(Swans - November 1, 2004)   The Republicans seemed to have a stranglehold upon power, although recent scandals had shaken much of public confidence in the party of Lincoln. Much of the country referred to the previous presidential race as "the Stolen Election," in which the GOP had seized power in spite of its loss at the polls. Many blamed both parties for the corruption, the arrogance of corporate monopoly, and the systematic betrayal of the interests of African-Americans, women, and working people.

In response to these concerns, a broad third party formed and nominated a candidate long and loudly praised by leaders of both parties for his incorruptibility, his honesty, and his straightforward dedication to representative government and social change. As a result, the media was rather entertained. A third-party candidate added spice to the story they were covering. Although various third parties had done extremely well in local elections, nobody actually expected this to translate into serious support in a presidential year.

Based on this assumption, commentators on the campaign saw every indication of third party strength as a sign that it was not really a third party.

Such assumptions fueled the fears of Democrats, eager to retake the White House. They fretted that the third-party movement might deny them just enough votes to keep the Republicans in power. From their perspective, the independent effort objectively aided the Republicans and they began leaking information to the press that it was, in fact, funded directly by the Republicans and run in the interests of the Republicans. The fact is that, for many years, both Democrats and Republicans had each benefited at times from the presence of a third party, and had maneuvered for the best position with no interest in or cooperation from that third party. The leaders of both parties knew this, of course, and charges that the other was engaged in duplicitous maneuvers became part of the campaign.

If examined, the particulars of the case ranged from irrelevant to implausible to impossible, but the constant parade of factoids seemed to make proof superfluous. Yet, each of these stories ranged from implausible to impossible. They asserted Republican involvement in efforts to assist in the election of the third-party presidential electors, the exchange of implausibly vast amounts of money without anyone having sufficient documentation to demonstrate anything.

The media asked absolutely no questions and repeated such charges, citing each other's publications, if anything. The accusations certainly provided a cheap and simple way to cover a third-party campaign while actually ignoring the substantive issues the campaign itself sought to raise. It also provided an implicit excuse to stop covering the independent campaign, as being important only in relation to the rivalry of the major parties.

Another function of the accusations was to provide a convenient excuse for those who had been previously identified with the third party movement. Leaders of some of the largest and oldest organizations now had an explanation for their willingness to make their peace with the two-party system. They bitterly denounced those who resisted the pressures to conform as egotistical and dangerous.

Some years ago, I began researching, documenting and writing about these events in The Civil War's Last Campaign.* At the time, I suspected that James B. Weaver's 1880 presidential bid might offer some lessons worth considering for the present. Others may have thought so as well, since it did not see print until 2001. Frankly, I had no illusions that my academic peers shared these concerns. In fact, when I presented some of my findings in November 2000 at the "Conference on Eugene V. Debs and the Politics of Dissent in Modern America" at Terre Haute, I already found myself nearly alone among other participants in not supporting Al Gore. Yet, I doubt that anyone could have anticipated some of the peculiar turns of the 2004 presidential campaign.

The party that nominated Weaver convened at Chicago's Exposition Hall (on the site of the present Art Institute). It brought together one of the broadest, most united radical electoral movement in history. Socialists, woman suffragists, and even a few pioneering environmentalists turned up, as did a number of black delegates urging the third party to take up the cause of serious Reconstruction. Unlike his predecessors, Weaver promised the convention to go directly to the people and ask for their votes. There would be no gentleman's front porch campaign for a people's candidate.

However, the campaign hit several snags almost immediately. The large Union Greenback clubs, expected to line up behind an independent effort favored "fusion" slates in which Greenbackers and Democrats would vote together for a common slate of presidential electors. Weaver opposed this: "We have in this country two organized parties: first, the Greenbackers; second, the hard money party, which is really divided into the Republican and Democratic party. This last party should really be called the Demo-Republican party." He insisted upon, "an open, straight fight against the Democratic and Republican wings of the Money Power, and have no choice between them. If you have, take your choice and go where you belong." Over time, the club leaders did just that, quietly drifting off piecemeal to the more "realistic" and lucrative Democratic campaign.

What was worse, Weaver opened his campaign by going south where state elections were being held early and where he saw the Republican abandonment of the former slaves to the Democratic former slaveholders seemed to offer a clear opening. Stumping his way across Alabama, he was horrified with the stories of black disenfranchisement. Indeed, when Democratic thugs attacked a racially mixed opposition meeting at Mobile, Weaver postponed his plans for leaving the state until he could personally attend a rally there.

As Weaver continued on his campaign tour, he began making the abandonment of Reconstruction and the demand for a free and fair ballot a key issue in the campaign. He bitterly denounced the Democrats in the South for an attempt to deprive the freed people of their rights and the Republicans for failing to use the Federal authority to prevent it. He rightly warned that the denial of voting rights to any citizens made a mockery of the idea of republicanism among all.

Suddenly, the established press couldn't treat Weaver as just an interesting oddity any more. When he entered the Midwest states, an Alabama editor, W. M. Edwardy published a stunning expose in the stridently white supremacist Cincinnati Enquirer (which had been so hostile to the Union cause during the war that it had been periodically suspended by the army). Edwardy charged that the Republican campaign was secretly funding Weaver to draw off votes from the Democrats, and that Weaver was only running to hurt the Democrats. Edwardy claimed to blow the lid off the secret Republican funding of the third-party campaign.

The numbers, the payments, the scenarios ranged from implausible to impossible, and Weavers much-lauded reputation before the campaign mattered for naught. Democratic papers across the country reprinted each others articles and ignored anything more about the Greenback-Labor campaign, some saying that they were only going to cover one Republican presidential campaign.

Inspired by the reception of this story, other exposes followed, each less plausible than its predecessor, but circulated no less eagerly without investigation. All of this was a godsend to those in the third-party movement who preferred stomping self-righteously back to a major party, rather than skulking. Meanwhile, the Republicans were horrified that Weaver had the audacity to attack them for betrayal of Reconstruction, so their papers were quite happy to drop coverage of the Greenback-Labor party as well.

This is not to say that "history repeats itself." "History" doesn't do such things. However, people who insist on repeating the same mistakes will get some generally similar outcomes. The class-based two-party system in the United States has evolved mechanisms for dealing with those who challenge it. These have not changed since the days when former slaveholders and their hired servants simply libeled and slandered their critics -- or murdered them in cold blood.

What we have been privileged to see in 2004 is a similar response by people and institutions that resent any challenge to their power and wealth. Now, too, those persons and parties that function by corruption, dishonesty, and double-dealing level eager to avoid debate simply level charges of corruption, dishonesty and double-dealing. That such charges do not stand up to investigation means nothing.

The media is simplistically and mindlessly following a path of least resistance, repeating what it is being told, because doing so costs nothing and makes no powerful enemies. Institutionally, it is no more likely to question what it's told on the elections than it did the president's assertions about Weapons of Mass Destruction or Iraqi links with Al Qaeda.

If it seems discouraging, remember that this is being done in order to avoid any discussion of the substantive issues we have tried to raise for so long. The best response is to keep hammering away on those very points over which they want to silence us -- the war, the class nature of the bipartisan economic policies, health care, the environment, constitutionalism, civil liberties and civil rights.

After all, while only national electoral effort to keep the issues of Reconstruction before the American electorate was virtually written out of our history, the 1880 campaign established a precedent in language and approach for third-party movements for a generation. And we did, eventually, have a "Second Reconstruction" that addressed some of these issues. Indeed, unlike the Democrats or Republicans, what we are doing in 2004 is not about November, but about where the political discourse goes in 2005 and thereafter.

And, on that point, the campaigns of Messrs. Kerry and Bush are unwinnable and those voting for them are simply throwing their ballots away. Assertions that the American way of life is non-negotiable create no more oil. The bipartisan nature of their insistence that Iraq become a model republic fosters illusions no less destructive than those over Vietnam. If those willing to restrict their options to lesser evils held sway, we'd still be part of the British Empire or trying to figure out how to get rid of slavery.

What is really decisive will be what happens in the wake of this election. From this perspective, the Nader-Camejo campaign is anything but unwinnable.

*  The Civil War's Last Campaign: James B. Weaver, the National Greenback-Labor Party & the Politics of Race and Section. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001.  (back)

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Mark Lause is an associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and the author of the forthcoming Young America: Land, Labor & the Republican Community to be released by the University of Illinois Press at the end of this year.

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Published November 1, 2004
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