Friday, May 7, 2010

Lies My Blogger Told Me; Or:The Republicans Were Never A Third Party

I've read this on a several small blogs and in many comments over the last few months: this misguided belief that the Republican party was, at one time, a third party; like the Constitutionist or the Libertarians or the Greens or the Socialist of today.

It's not true. The Republicans were never anything like any of the third parties we have now, because the Republicans were never on the outside looking in at the two-party system. Instead, one of the existing two major parties—the Whigs—collapsed due to an internal schism over the issue of slavery. Then, one of the factions met up and re-named themselves the Republicans. But the people involved were the same people, the same politicians! And a lot of them went straight from being elected Whigs to being elected Republicans!

(Although some of them, fed up with the squabbling, left a few years before the dramatic collapse, and had to be coaxed back later.)

That's completely different then any group of out-of-power citizens trying to build an organization up from the ground floor to challenge the two near-indomitable incumbents. Remember, it is a two-party system. The only road to success for a third party (other than a fundamental voting system change such as approval voting or score voting) is for one of the two major parties to collapse; which has only ever happened in American history because of internal disagreements, never because of an assault from the outside.

So good luck.


  1. Looks to me like in 1854 both Whigs and Republicans were running -- and that Republicans displaced the Whigs, taking in a lot of their leaders.That's likely how a third party would break through in the modern era, so I don't get your point.

  2. My point is that the politicians who ran as Republicans in 1854 were predominantly the same politicians who ran as Whigs in 1852 (the ones who continued to run as Whigs were predominantly in the south, as the Republicans were a decidedly northern party). My second point is that that isn't the approach that any modern third party is taking, so it's silly (and probably counter-productive) to estimate their prospects using the Republican party as a template.

    ...which admittedly, doesn't come across in the graph. Let me see if I can find a better representation, and come back to this.

    (Compare with how in general the only successful "independent" candidates for elected office are ones who were formerly elected on the banner of the Republican or Democratic parties.)

  3. What does the y-axis on the graph represent? Is it number of members in congress or something else? Also, although I knew that most Republicans were western Whigs that had left the party because of its refusal to say anything about slavery, what jumps out at me from the graph is that the 1854 election seems to have seen a bunch of Democrats switch to the Know-Nothing (American) party.

  4. It's suppose to be the number of members in the house. Although, I got the numbers from Wikipedia, and recently I've been comparing them to the house clerk's numbers, and they don't match up.

    What I want to do is mine the biographic data from the clerk to 1.) get correct party counts (this should be fairly easy) 2.) mine the biographic data to find the exact number of congressmen elected as Whigs who were later involved with the Republicans, and Republicans previously involved with the Whigs, where "involved" includes political activity other than congressional wins (like governor or other state and local offices.) That will be a bit more difficult, and I just haven't found the time for it yet.

  5. Well done,

    This is why I focus on local third parties to make the current two major parties get reincarnated...