Know-Nothing

In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, 31% of Americans favor having a viable third political party.  The poll also went on to conclude that nearly 80% of Americans think the dominant two-party system is broken…while 15% think that it works fairly well.   Now, if you’ve ever managed to scroll down past the first two names (and thus the two dominant parties) on the ballot, you will have noticed that there are several other candidates running for office from several other parties (i.e. The Green Party, The Libertarian Party, etc.).  But none of these other parties usually post a lot of votes and the candidates don’t get elected.  That’s why the key word in that poll is the word “viable”… a party that can have candidates that at least have a chance to win elections.

There have been viable third parties in our own political history.  One must look back only to the Reform Party that was created by Ross Perot after his unsuccessful run for President as an Independent in 1992.  Perot had good poll numbers throughout that election year that he was even included in the televised Presidential debates.  He actually received nearly 19% of the popular vote (though he won no electoral votes).  After that run, he formed the Reform Party and ran again… though he didn’t do as well the second time around in 1996.  We can even go back to the Dixiecrats, which was a breakaway from the Democratic Party in 1948 basically by Southern Democrats over the issue of segregation.  They actually won the electoral votes of four states, but would end up dissolving in the same year and their candidates/politicians would join the Republican Party.  A Republican hero, Teddy Roosevelt, even formed his own third party… the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party… in 1912 after the Republican Party had shunned him as their candidate for President over the reelection of the current sitting Republican President (and Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor) William Howard Taft, despite the fact that Roosevelt had beaten Taft in most of the primaries they entered.  When the “party bosses” went with Taft over the will of the people, Roosevelt decided to go his own way… which isn’t unusual considering this was Teddy Roosevelt.  In the 1912 election, Roosevelt (with the Progressive Party) came in 2nd behind Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Republican William Howard Taft finishing a distant third.   So it is possible to have a viable third party in this country… it’s just a matter of getting one to stick like the two dominant ones have.

But let’s go back to something else from even earlier.  And this actually has a lot to do with the forming of the Republican Party itself.  The Whig party came about as a counter to the Democratic Party (mostly formed by Martin Van Buren for President Andrew Jackson).  But before the Whig Party could eventually form the Republican Party, there was another “secret” party that was an offshoot.  It was called the Know-Nothing Party.  It was founded in 1845 and lasted until 1860 (and the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln).  The main issue of this secret society was immigration.  But not the same immigration that we think of today.  The Know-Nothings were concerned over the immigration of German and Irish Catholics.  So who made up this Know-Nothing Party?  It was largely middle-class Protestants who thought the Catholics would bring down the nation (stemming from years of European tensions between Protestants and Catholics).  They were actually wanting to make it to where these new German and Irish Catholic immigrants couldn’t vote and couldn’t hold office…and have a harder time becoming actual citizens (if they weren’t just denied outright).  Could you even imagine something like that today?   The Know-Nothing Party would win several local and state elections (at one point even controlling the state of Massachusetts) but would split North and South (as most things did in that day) over the issue of slavery.  When the party split, most of those who voted for the Know-Nothing Party would take their vote to the newly created Republican Party.

Again…does this sound any bit familiar to anyone yet?  If not, let me connect some dots after that extensive history lesson.  Some people believe (while most are deeply concerned) that this new Tea Party movement might try to become a third political party.  And, personally, I don’t think that is likely to happen.  The Tea Party movement is too much like the Know-Nothing Party… it’s almost like a secret offshoot of the Republican Party like the Know-Nothings were of the Whig Party.  And yet again, it’s made up of mostly middle-class individuals (and most of them are Caucasian, as well).  The rhetoric that Tea-Partiers spew about makes it seem like they want to take the country back to the 1950s… or possibly the 1850s if they could.  And with all things in the political realm that are offshoots, this, too, will dissolve into obscurity just as fast as came about and be nothing but a mere footnote in the history of American politics.  I’m all for voting for third parties and even independents… though don’t get me wrong, you won’t catch me voting for any Tea-Party candidates.  Most of them are Republican wanna-be’s that the “party” bosses ignored, so they probably won’t act differently than the rest of the Republican Party once they get your vote and get elected.

In my personal opinion, this nation does need a viable third party.  Though it could bog things down in Washington even more than they already are, it could also bring about the insurgence of new and different ideas into bills since a coalition would be needed to pass such legislation.  There could be a new-found sense of cooperation… and the days of the super-majority would be long gone.  So what should this new party be?  Something that would probably piss-off the Tea Partiers of today.  Something a bit more “progressive”, if I may borrow the term from Teddy Roosevelt.  Something that can spend tax dollars wisely but not be afraid to take a chance or risk on things (such as renewable energy, high-speed rail [since our cities are fairly spaced out and airfare keeps going up], etc.).  It must be a party that isn’t afraid of new and interesting ideas.  Even if they don’t all pan out, we must not be afraid of them.  Maybe we need to reinvent a 21st century version of the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party.  It actually sounds better than anything we’ve got out there today.

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