As the 2016 election cycle for the United States gets solidly underway the left is currently charmed with a Socialist-Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders, a long-serving Senator and solidly left/progress candidate running for the Democratic nomination for President. Many argue Sanders is not really a viable candidate, but it seems an excellent time to remind the nation of the great “unifying candidate for the Socialists” of the early 20th century, Eugene V. Debs.
Eugene V. Debs began his political career with a short term in 1894 with a successful run as a Democrat for the Indiana State Legislature, but he grew disillusioned with politics under the conventional parties and slowly shifted towards support of Socialism as both a political ideal and a political party to support. Debs had been on the radical side of politics for his entire life, as a founding organizer for various labor groups, a major leader in the Pullman Strike of 1894, and by 1900 a candidate for President running with the newly fledgling Socialist Party of the United States.
Debs lost, of course, getting only around 89,000 votes or 0.6% of the total popular vote. Debs ran again in 1904, 1908, 1912, and his last Presidential run was in 1920. The number of popular votes he gained during that period rose, by 1912 he topped out at over 900,000 votes, winning approximately 5.99% of the total popular vote. Debs all time high vote count was in 1920, when he again topped over 900,000 votes, an impressive vote total considering his entire campaign was run while he was serving a ten year sentence in federal prison for violating the Espionage and Sedition Act of 1918.
Debs overall was an unsuccessful candidate and was released from prison in 1921 by the winner of the 1920 election, Warren G. Harding. Debs though throughout his campaigns was known as a fiery orator, a passionate believer in the cause of social equality, and with the Socialists Debs was able to put significant pressure upon both the Republican and Democratic parties to embrace reform in several key areas including:
- Voting rights for women
- Child labor laws
- Workers right to organize unions
Overall Debs, and the Socialists, successfully performed the role of gadfly for the elections of 1912 and 1920, pushing both parties slightly more towards the left than they otherwise might have moved, and in the 1912 election taking part in one of the most complicated elections in modern United States presidential history.
I’d like to close though by focusing your attention on the 1912 and 1920 elections – in which Debs got over 5% of the total popular vote. According to the regulations of the current Federal Election Commission:
Minor party candidates and new party candidates may qualify for partial general election funding, based on their party’s electoral performance. Minor party candidates (nominees of parties whose Presidential candidates received between 5 and 25 percent of the vote in the preceding election) may receive public funds based on the ratio of their party’s vote in the preceding Presidential election to the average of the two major party candidates in that election. New party candidates (nominees of parties that are neither major parties nor minor parties) may receive public funds after the election if they receive 5 percent or more of the vote. The amount is based on the ratio of the new party candidate’s vote to the average vote of the two major party candidates in that election.
If Debs had run as successful a campaign today as he had run in 1912 and 1920, a period when his vote gains were based solely on public rallies, whistle-stop tours, and newsletters the Socialist party would have fun public support, and media access, under current rules. Furthermore the Socialist Party was denied access to the mass media super-star of the day, radio, and still managed to gain enough votes with a progressive sharp-left platform to be noticed on a national level.
The moral of this entry – and the moral each entry in this series will return to – minor parties can make a difference, and more critically, can have a real impact in United States politics.