Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Get This Party Started: Part IV

History of American Political Parties: I - II - III - IV - V - Future

One Roosevelt, Red Roosevelt

Before we get to the next big switch, at little aside about a failed attempt to shift the two-party system: Teddy Roosevelt and his Progressive party. Having ascended to the presidency due to William McKinley's assassination, and then having won the 1904 election, he felt the honorable thing to do (and TR considered himself to be a paragon of honor) was to count that as his two terms and, as was tradition (but not, at the time, law), follow in Washington's footsteps by not seeking a third term. William Howard Taft took the nomination, and was easily elected.

But then the trouble started. Roosevelt found Taft to be unacceptable in office, and pressed for the party nomination in 1912. But he was rebuked by Taft's supporters; humiliated and unwilling to compromise, Roosevelt and his supporters walked out, and formed their own party, the Progressive or Bull Moose party. The new party seemed to survive solely by Roosevelt's force of personality, and had little if any appeal for staunch Democrats, and none for any Taft-supporting Republicans. At this point, Republicans were enjoying a rather solid and comfortable 55/45 or better advantage in Presidential elections; but the Progressives split the party almost completely down the middle. The final popular vote totals were 27.4% for Roosevelt and 23.2% for Taft; a total of more than 50%, but individually, both lost to the Democrats and Woodrow Wilson's 41.8%, and by an absolute landslide in the electoral college: 88 for Roosevelt, to 8 for Taft, to 435 for Wilson.

Roosevelt apparently learned his lesson though; in 1916, when the Progressive party nominated him again, he declined, and endorsed the Republican candidate; Wilson won reelection, but only narrowly. But Roosevelt's contrition placated his party well enough that he was the front runner for the 1920 nomination; cut short only by a quick but fatal illness.

The lesson from this aside should be obvious: if all you do is split your party, you'll both lose. Neither the Republicans nor the Progressives got any appreciable support from Democratic voters. To succeed, a third party needs to divide, and then build from the pieces, a coalition from both (or as we saw in part I, the only) existing major parties. And it's not enough to build "in the middle", as Roosevelt tried; you have to be completely outside the axis of partisan identification.

Two Roosevelt, Blue Roosevelt

On to today's transition, from the fourth party system to the fifth. Economic recessions had helped usher in the previous realignment, by instigating the Populist party and the silver faction of the Democrats. And economics would play in a big way for this one as well. Yes, we're talking about the Great Depression. But there's not a whole lot to say. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Herbert Hoover insisted that he and the Republicans had it under control; but three years later, not many believed him. Instead, the put their trust in Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Teddy's 5th cousin.)

So, there's that option: hope that unbelievable economic devastation will be wrought upon the nation, and that you'll be there to pick up the pieces. Not a particularly uplifting or proactive strategy (at least I hope no one would try to cause such a thing), but one that we've seen can work.

It's also important to note that this shift didn't involve the rise of any new party (not even an analog to the aborted Populist party), only a drastic shift in support from one major party (which had dominated national politics for decades) to the other. Third parties did enjoy a startling increase in support after the crash, but not enough to even act as spoilers. Was it because of the homogenizing effect of modern communications, making what would have been strong regional third-party movements into a more diffuse national movement? Was it FDR himself, something about him that drew would-be third-party supporters to the Democrats? Or perhaps we had simply become more savvy about the inevitability of a two-party system under our spoiler-prone voting system?

Whatever it was, like the voters Bryan had brought (and driven from) the Democrats at the turn of the century, the voters FDR brought also stuck around; the New Deal Coalition, were reliable not just for FDR, but for Democrats in many elections to follow, up until the late 1960s; which may (or may not have, depending which historians you ask) have represented another realignment of the party system. But we'll discuss that next time.

Part V...


  1. Unless I'm mistaken, it was in the 30's that ballot access restrictions began to be widely written into law. This must also have played some part in the development here.

  2. That's also a good point; I should add that to the list of reasons why 3rd parties didn't seem to have as big an impact in this transition.

  3. I agree with his analysis also. I doubt the following was an actual news story but checked some of the facts and there is enough here to make me say, What the Hell is going on in Arkansas?

    Arkansas Us Senate 2010 Analysis
    -DC Monthly Political View -August 20, 2009 - Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele’s instructions today to the State GOP about strategies on how deal with independent US Senate office seeker Trevor Drown have many local republicans unhappy. Steele, in Little Rock today, met with Doyle Webb and other members of party leadership. First item on the agenda: secure the US Senate seat held by democrat Blanche Lincoln. Polls show Lincoln, who is running for her third term has little to no support across all groups. Normally this would provide the GOP the ability to pick up a senate seat. But there are problems. There is also concern the state party is in the red, and may be in financial trouble with a net loss of $108,000 in the last 12 months
    Another key player in this election will be the Green Party. The past three Federal elections, Greens have done something Republican’s have not done. Provide a candidate to run against the incumbent. This continues to be a problem statewide as republicans fail to recruit anyone at various state level and higher offices to run including taking on the very popular Governor Beebe. Failure to provide someone this time could result in the Republican Party downgraded to a minor party. This will result in the loss of an automatic position on the 2012 ballot for all republicans and the will have to gather 2,000 to 10,000 signatures to even get on the ballot.
    Speaking of signatures, according to inside sources present at the meeting, Michael Steele named former Green Beret Trevor Drown, the number one threat to the Republican Party. He has the looks, brains, leadership style and the support of the people in Arkansas. A grassroots movement, already underway has worried many GOP leaders since it is expected he will easily get the required 10,000 signatures by May 2010. When it was discovered members of party leadership had tried to recruit Drown and he turned him down, heads were shaking and many at the meeting heard Steele mumble that was “bad, very bad.” Things got a little heated when it was mentioned once he had turned them down; members of the party attempted to discredit Drown. These two also hold statewide offices and combined their efforts with a local blogger to discredit Drown.
    One staffer from the GOP D.C. office was heard to say, this is what is wrong with you people. You still think this is the 19th century. You need to ignore, him, never mention his name never acknowledge him. If you recognize his existence you elevate him to our level. The need to take him out will happen only if he gets the signatures next May.
    There were a few moderate republicans unhappy with how the state party has handled the Drown affair. Targeting a veteran of the Global War on terror did not sit well with them. Internally, party support is already waning and infighting is increases daily due to the GOP’s silent nod of approval already given to Curtis Coleman.
    The greatest cause for concern was the sudden interest in Drown from the left. Down with Tyranny, a renowned west coast blogger on liberal values has interviewed and written four articles in the last week, praising Drown’s credentials, open mind and honest talk. The ties between Down with Tyranny and ActBlue, the online clearing house for Democrat Action, are well known. This next election could be the start of a rising force in this country, the Independent. Arkansas will be one of the battleground states. When one looks at the numbers and realizes only 55,000 registered voters are democrats, 45,000 republicans and the remaining 1.6 million are registered as optional or independents, political strategists know it is time to worry. The political winds are changing in Arkansas. Consequently, we are predicting that Trevor Drown looks like the strongest contender at this point.

  4. An actual principled conservative party in the Robert Taft-Goldwater mold might kill off the thoroughly discredited and dysfunctional GOP in some states. This just might pave the way for sending the GOP the way of the Whigs on a national level. I don't think the current Constitution Party is a good option because it has many of the aspects of a religious cult.

    I tend to think the best way to accomplish this would be to elect ONE house of the state legislature by open-list party-list PR with easy ballot access. This would create the conditions for the development of grass roots leadership that could eventually be elected to Congress or Governerships.

    Of course, you need an actual campaign to do this(none now exists) and you have to get past the entrenched D and R leadership. States that have initiative and referendum might be the best prospects. In theory it should be an easy sell since one house would represent localities while the other house would represent the various constituencies within the state as a whole.

  5. I'm not personally a fan of party-list style PR; but that might be more aesthetics on my part than practicality. Having any kind of PR would certainly help, at least marginally.

  6. One could say that FPTP puts a premium on strong intra-party discipline (aka the Democratic Party machine) and when such fails, it opens up opportunities for shifts in power between the two major parties.