The Others: They Almost Always Get There First

Dave Gillespie —

Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, her nomination is undeniably a milestone in history. Clinton is the first woman ever to win the presidential nomination of a major party.  But it’s been 144 years since the first female took the honor of a presidential nomination. That was in 1872.

Her name was Victoria Woodhull. The Equal Rights Party chose her. Feminist scholar Jo Freeman has described Woodhull as a “clairvoyant healer, stockbroker, newspaper publisher,” and outspoken advocate of free love.  She really must have been something!

Equal Rights selected another woman, Belva Lockwood, in 1884. Lockwood was a lawyer when very few other women were. She went on to become the first woman ever credentialed to argue cases before the Supreme Court.

Neither Woodhull nor Lockwood could vote for herself. No other woman could either. The women’s suffrage 19th Amendment didn’t go into the Constitution until 1920. Some states did give women the vote for president before then, but none by 1884.

But as early as 1869 women were taking seats as voting delegates at third-party conventions. Eight years before ratification of the 19th amendment, a California woman gave Bull Moose Progressive Teddy Roosevelt the first electoral vote a female ever cast.

By 1916, the year Republicans and Democrats finally put women’s suffrage in their platforms, a half dozen minor parties had endorsed and gone to work on winning the vote for women. One of them, Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party, became the suffrage movement’s militant activist wing.  It proved vital in the final push for the 19th Amendment.

An array of minor parties over the last century nominated women for the nation’s highest office. The female choices they offered voters came in white, black, and brown. In 2008, the year Hillary Clinton lost but left “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling,” the Green Party nominated women for both president and vice-president. One of them was black, the other Afro-Hispanic.

They were remarkable, these female precursors of Clinton and her 2016  presidential bid.  But theirs is a single chapter, one of many, in a much broader story. It is the story of America’s minor parties. Third parties matter. They have mattered almost from the beginning of this nation’s history.

It’s a simple fact: whatever “there” is, third parties (sometimes more than one) get there first. Minor parties have been among the first advocates, long before the major parties, for most of the great reforms that have made America a better, freer, more just place.

The emancipation of slaves? The Liberty Party, then Free Soil, and finally the Republicans, who began as a third party before joining the ranks of major parties. Universal health care? That call began with Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Progressives.

And so it goes. A merit-based civil service. Child labor legislation. Popular election of U.S. Senators. The (never-passed) Equal Rights Amendment. Social Security. Employment and infrastructure advances through large-scale public works. Many more.

It is now conceded that had it not been for Ross Perot, his presidential campaigns in the 1990s, and candidate Perot’s war on deficit spending, President Bill Clinton and the congressional Republicans would never have succumbed to pressure to come up with the balanced budgets they produced for several years in Clinton’s second term.

And consider Bernie Sanders, who has spent most of his political career in third parties or as an independent. In this election round he joined the Democratic Party but built something like a third-party movement inside it. Although Sanders didn’t win the Democratic nomination, important planks in the 2016 Democratic platform carry Sanders’s policy ideas.

About third parties, the late historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that they “are like bees.  Once they sting, they die.” Some minor parties die for the same reason that they matter. When a third party becomes popular enough to threaten the Republicans and Democrats, one or both of those parties will “coopt” (steal) the ideas fueling that popularity. Work then starts in earnest toward getting those ideas enacted and the minor party, losing its reason to exist, withers away.

There may have been a time when in American hearts the two-party system carried the sanctity of flag and Constitution. If so, that time is past. Results of a just-released Gallup poll show that 57 percent think that two parties are too few to represent the American people, that a third major party would be a good and desirable thing. Opinion polls also reveal that this year’s Republican and Democratic presidential nominees are uniquely unpopular.

But this country has never been kind to minor parties, and structurally their situation is worse today than a century ago. Particularly daunting, every bit of it erected of and by the major parties for their mutual self-protection, are the diverse and sometimes exceedingly difficult state-by-state ballot access requirements and the virtually impregnable barriers to third-party participation in the fall presidential debates.

Partisan duopoly is what we’ve become. A party state in which the arteries have hardened on free electoral competition. Republicans and Democrats appropriate to themselves some of the privileges and protections monopolized by a single party in a one-party state.  That’s an undemocratic shame.

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