It is 2015 and with several presidential candidates for the 2016 campaign announcing their intentions already in April, it is time to begin my irregular series of short articles this election season to outline moments in the 19th and 20th century when the United States was rocked by third party and independent candidates. This is to show people that the modern view of politics in the United States, where two parties dominate the system and independent action cannot have any measurable impact, is inaccurate. Third party political organizations have dominated local elections and been a presence with force in national politics repeatedly in United States history. Furthermore history is replete with oddballs, independents, and mavericks that successfully tweaked the system. My main goal in writing this irregular series is to provide a counter point to the idea that often circulates in social media that “a viable third party is needed but impossible to create/vote for/support because Awful Horrible Thing will happen instead.” My only point in response to that is your predecessors in the past faced the same problem, often in worse political systems, and yet still managed to kick back.
Meet James Weaver, third party Presidential Candidate in the 1892 election and nominated by the People’s Party. The People’s Party was a progressive leftist political party that appeared in the late 1880s from an alliance of southern farmers with midwestern farmers who combined around the idea that gold-backed currency was bad, big business even worse, and tariff protection for industry the devil’s work. They also rallied behind some other wacky ideas, like: progressive income tax, the eight hour work day, the direct election of United States Senators, civil service reform, as well as nationalizing the telegraph industry and the railroads, and breaking up large banks.
Some of these crazy ideas you might recognize as now being the law of the land, and others as being concepts being bandied around today by modern leftist progressives. (Although the idea of nationalizing the transportation industries appears to have fallen in favor in the 21st century, probably due in part to how cheap shipping of goods and personal travel are these days compared to the past.) Weaver ended up doing surprisingly well in the election, capturing 8.5% of the popular vote, 22 electoral votes, and carrying five states in the election. He was stomped by the other candidates solidly, but his turnout showed a strong sentiment against the viewpoints of the Democrats who gained an unexpected win in this election cycle.
In 1896 and 1900 the Democrats quietly began to absorb some of the platform goals of the People’s Party which, in turn, backed the nomination of William Jennings Bryan for President in 1896. (Pictured above looking sexy mid-speech at 36 years of age.)
The People’s Party faded after the 1896 election but managed to place Representatives into national office successfully until 1902. A total of 39 Representatives, 6 Senators, and 11 governors during its period of power served under the banner of the People’s Party.