Crashing the Parties

The extreme right hasn't had a politically viable champion since George Wallace. But the time could soon be ripe

We tend to think of U.S. political history as a tale of two parties — one leaning right, one leaning left, but both predominantly moderate and mainstream. Third parties have occasionally made a significant impact, however, and arguably the two most influential in American history ran on ultra-right-wing platforms that would send shivers up the spines of Ralph Nader voters.

Now, with loyalty to the major parties sagging and the average recent vote for third-party candidates at its highest level since the 1930s, some political experts are predicting a third-party renaissance.

The Intelligence Report talked with David Gillespie, vice president of Presbyterian College in South Carolina and author of Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two-Party America, about the rich history — and future — of right-wing third parties.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: The Know-Nothing Party, which began as an anti-immigrant secret society in the 1840s, is often considered the most successful third party in American history. What stimulated its rise?

DAVID GILLESPIE: The Know-Nothings were quite a flash in the pan, a majority party in several states during the 1850s. In many ways, they represented the 19th-century version of anti-globalism — a "Fortress America" idea, coupled with anti-Catholicism.

What primarily motivated it was a huge influx of Catholic immigrants into the North, which brought back the old specter of a "Papist" conspiracy to take over the world. The Know-Nothings were sort of a precursor to the conservative, Pat Buchanan wing of the anti-globalism movement today.

IR: How did a serious party get such a ridiculous name?

GILLESPIE: Their official name was the American Party. Horace Greeley, the crusading New York editor, gave them the "Know-Nothing" nickname because the members refused to divulge anything about the party's secret rituals or say who was in it. Know-Nothing candidates often ran on the major party's tickets.

Partly because of the disreputable character of their nativist and anti-Catholic positions, they probably wanted to be sub rosa and say, "I know nothing," like Colonel Klink on "Hogan's Heroes."

Because of that secrecy, we still don't know how many members of Congress were Know-Nothings when the party was at its height from 1855 to 1857 — but it was somewhere between 18 and 30%.

IR: Clearly, the Know-Nothings did not represent the best American tradition of tolerance. They've even been cited as a precursor to the Ku Klux Klan. What issues did they champion?

GILLESPIE: One of their proposals was to create a 21-year naturalization period before an immigrant could become an American citizen. They also pushed for an immigration ban on "foreign paupers, criminals, idiots, lunatics, insane and blind persons."

They railed about the Papist conspiracy, of course, and their propaganda included stereotypical pictures of "foreign devils" with big noses and the like.

IR: After its fast start, what happened to the party?

GILLESPIE: The Know-Nothings rose so quickly because there was a vacuum in our politics at the time. We'd already established a pattern of two-party competition in America, and now the Whig Party was dying out and the Democrats needed a competitor. By 1860, that vacuum was filled by the more noble cause of anti-slavery with another new party, the Republicans.

The Know-Nothings split over slavery; some went to the Republican Party and some went to the Democrats. The anti-immigration focus was a temporary move away from slavery and sectional disputes, which took precedence before and after.

People don't remember this, but we had a very split election in 1860. Abraham Lincoln won with less than 40% of the popular vote. There was a strong candidate with the Constitutional Union party, which was short-lived, and the Democrats ran different Northern and Southern candidates. That was the year of the first big walkout from a Democratic convention.

The second one led to Strom Thurmond's third-party campaign in 1948.

IR: As a "Dixiecrat," right?

GILLESPIE: Right. The official name was the States' Rights Party. Thurmond won a few Deep South states, but he never thought he was going to become president. He and other Southern segregationists walked out of the Democratic convention after the party adopted the first modern civil-rights plank on its platform.

The Dixiecrats' idea was to use the electoral route to chasten the Democrats to move away from those evil ideas about civil rights, and to punish Harry Truman for embracing those ideas by denying him the presidency.

What Truman faced that year makes what John Kerry faces this year with Ralph Nader look minor. On the left, the Progressive Party ran [President Franklin] Roosevelt's former vice-president, Henry Wallace. On the right of Truman was the Dixiecrat movement.

Which backfired, of course. Truman managed to win, and the election ended up galvanizing a new coalition for the Democratic Party. Not until Roosevelt had blacks voted in significant numbers for the Democrats, but after 1948 they became reliable voters for the party.