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Crashing the Parties

David Gillespie, author and historian, discusses the rich history — and future — of right-wing third parties in the U.S.

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.

IR: Was Thurmond's campaign as viciously racist as we imagine?

GILLESPIE: It actually was not a hell-raising, demagogic kind of thing. Thurmond was campaigning for segregation and states' rights, but he did not engage in the kind of race-baiting you saw in so many state and local elections in the Deep South at that time.

Strom was an interesting guy. He later became the first Southern senator to fully integrate his staff, and voted in 1984 for the extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1964. He didn't have a lot to gain by that vote, either, being a Republican.

But he'd changed a lot, and the way the South has gone is a macrocosmic reflection of the way Strom went. He started as a Democrat, flirted with the third-party effort, then became a Republican in 1964.

In 1968 he preserved most of the South for Richard Nixon when George Wallace was running on his own third-party ticket.

IR: Was Wallace's 1968 campaign more important historically than Thurmond's presidential bid?

GILLESPIE: Definitely. Wallace's American Independent Party ultimately transformed the two major parties. Wallace forced the Republican Party to adopt its "southern strategy," to endorse what [Republican nominee] Barry Goldwater had talked about in 1964 — "a choice, not an echo."

Because Wallace represented a serious threat in a close election year, especially in the South, the Republicans had to pick up on his issues. Wallace took them to the right. And whereas the GOP had chased the Democrats' liberalism ever since the Great Depression, the Democrats then began to chase the Republicans' conservatism.

One clear example, of course, was Bill Clinton moving the party to welfare reform. But you saw it again at the Democratic convention this summer. John Kerry's soldierly salute was another example of how the Democrats are chasing the Republicans still.

IR: Wallace won four states, 46 electoral votes, and more than 13% of the vote in 1968. How did he manage such a strong showing?

GILLESPIE: The context for Wallace's campaign was the storm and stress of the 1960s. Layered over that was the resistance to moving toward racial justice and integration. But he was a strong labor candidate, which we often forget. He wasn't just a Southern candidate, either: Wallace appealed to hard hats in the North, partly with his fighting against the Vietnam protesters.

He was also preaching law and order, as opposed to the hymn of the student movement, "The Times They Are A-Changing."

In some ways, Wallace represented a more genuine populism than the power-to-the-people populism of the left. The Wallace movement was a part of the general revolution of the 1960s — and maybe one of the most successful parts.

We don't tend to think of it that way, but it was fueled by the populism involved in challenging established power. And it attracted a lot of new voters who helped make the South solidly Republican.

IR: Did Wallace teach the Republicans how to code their appeals to racism and nativism?

GILLESPIE: There's no doubt they learned that at Wallace's knee. There was an example this summer of that old coded appeal, when George W. Bush would not go to speak to the NAACP. He then spoke to the Urban League, as though he were some brave president appearing at a hostile outpost of power.

This is much more respectable than Wallace at his worst. But it is saying, "We're a party of white people, and if black people want to take us on our own terms, that's fine. But if they can't, so be it. We'll be the party of white people in this country."

IR: How coded — or overt — was Wallace's racial message?

GILLESPIE: A lot of it was couched in what he said about protesters, and about law and order. He would talk about how Washington, D.C. — which everybody knew had a large black population — would be made safe by President Wallace, even if he had to "station troops every 20 feet."

His platform condemned the "so-called civil rights acts," railed against "minority group rebellions," and it talked about a "frightening increase in the crime rate" and in the welfare rolls. It was that kind of thing, clearly designed to appeal to the Archie Bunkers of America. He was careful not to make it more overt.

IR: What else did the Republicans learn from Wallace?

GILLESPIE: The ongoing culture war can also be traced back to Wallace's Southern fundamentalism: He was the first to run on issues like homosexuality and school prayer.

Wallace definitely had winnable ideas. Nixon borrowed his law-and-order theme, hook, line and sinker. Wallace was running against the war protesters, and Nixon also appropriated that aspect. Wallace was running against the Supreme Court, too, so Nixon promised to put strict Southern constructionists [constitutional conservatives] on the Supreme Court.

IR: Did Wallace have a real chance to win in '68?

GILLESPIE: No. Probably since the Know-Nothings, there has not been a genuine chance of winning the presidency as a third-party candidate. The only race in our time where that might have been conceivable was Perot in 1992, when he was actually ahead of the major party candidates in the polls early on.

IR: That first Perot campaign was amazingly successful, garnering 19% of the vote — even more than Wallace. What was his party offering that the Democrats and Republicans weren't?

GILLESPIE: The Reform Party represented what I think of as the "militant center." In its original being, the party had Perot's natural instincts that the American people wanted a synthesis of social liberalism and economic conservatism.

The Reform Party ceased to be that vessel when it nominated Pat Buchanan in 2000 — and again in 2004, now that it's endorsed Ralph Nader. The party has lost its ideological soul. As has Nader, apparently.

Perot was a nutcase in some ways. But I could understand his politics intellectually. It was based on a Jeffersonian idea: God forbid we go 20 years without a revolution. We gotta shake up the bums on a regular basis, because power corrupts. Ideologically, Perot was not a radical.

The Reform Party did represent a radical perspective in its anti-globalism, though. Neither major party makes room for anti-globalism. Rightly or wrongly, that's a major perspective in our society that's being left out of politics.

IR: An undeniably radical third party, the Constitution Party, speaks strongly on anti-globalist and anti-immigration issues (see God's Own Spoilers). What would it take for the Constitutionalists to make a genuine dent in American politics?

GILLESPIE: It's going to take a presidential candidate with name recognition, Nader-style. It's not going to come with people like Howard Phillips and Michael Peroutka [the party's presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004].

IR: The Constitution Party courted Roy Moore, the former Alabama chief justice, to run for president this year (see Honoring the Confederacy). [Editor's note: Alabama's judicial ethics panel ejected Moore from his job in 2003 after he defied a federal court order to remove his Ten Commandments monument from the Supreme Court building.] Could he have revived the Wallace movement?

GILLESPIE: I think he certainly would have made a dent. Moore would have injected the culture war into the campaign, and he's become something of a celebrity on the hard right. He could've made an appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment, too — perhaps making immigrants the equivalent of homosexuals.

IR: What could the Constitution Party, or another right-wing effort, accomplish with a strong candidate?

GILLESPIE: Plenty, I think. There's a greater window of opportunity for third parties than at any time since the Great Depression. For one thing, the structural barriers are loosening — though they're still maddening.

It's absolutely disgraceful that the world's leading democracy has so precluded anybody other than Republicans and Democrats from the debate stage, and from ballot access. Culturally, we don't have as much worship of the two-party system as we used to.

Something like 40% of young people now register as independents, and we're seeing more independent and third-party candidates win local elections around the country.

There's also the economy to think about. Objectively, economic conditions are such that we may well start to see the kinds of political conditions we saw during the Depression. The conventional wisdom about third parties is that they thrive in catastrophic economic conditions.

The largest vote the Communist Party ever got, for example, was in 1932. The 1930s also saw the Farmer Labor Party, which was straight down the line socialist, become the governing party of Minnesota. But right-wing third parties can also rise in hard times; it's tougher then for Archie Bunker to accept things like affirmative action and welfare.

IR: Some historians are predicting that American politics will swing back to the left in the next couple of decades. How might that shake up our party system?

GILLESPIE: It probably would force the Republicans a little bit left. There might then be a viable third party that grows up on the right.

IR: Some folks might be frightened of what it would mean to have the extreme right genuinely included in political debates.

GILLESPIE: They need to remember that there is an allure to forbidden fruit. When you have the two major parties declaring something to be out of the range of legitimate discussion, then it tends to attract people to extreme points of view on that issue.

If the light of day were put upon, say, the issue of English as the medium of instruction in public schools, people could testify on both sides, point out the pros and cons. If those kinds of questions became part of the public discourse in a way they're not now, I think it would probably tend to moderate things, ironically enough.