Emblematic of major party discontent throughout the country was last week’s election for Judge of the 5th Division of the 56th Ward in Philadelphia, which was won by Robert Bucholz, who is not a Democrat, not a Republican, but a Whig – the first Whig to win in the City of Brotherly Love in 157 years. Bucholz is a Modern Whig, to be exact – that is one of countless small political parties in America that most people do not even know exist, let alone are familiar with their platforms.
Bucholz’ victory, however low-profile the office, is an important step toward transforming the two-party oligarchy that dominates American politics. As it stands, the Democrats and the Republicans maintain a virtual stranglehold on the process, making an alternative challenge virtually untenable.
Ironically, American voters consistently reject both major parties, as evidenced by Congress’ approval ratings, which typically hover below 20%. Over 99% of Congress is comprised of Democrats and Republicans, yet those two parties continue to capture the overwhelming majority of votes by the same 80% of Americans who disapprove of the way Congress is performing.
There is an old joke about the politician who said he could win the election by changing his name to “Other,” because when asked for whom they would like to vote, poll respondents often choose “other,” rather than a specific candidate from the list.
Why, then, do nonmajor party politicians have such a hard time getting elected? Two reasons: 1) because the voters rarely know who they are; and 2) because the voters think those candidates have no chance of winning, and so they prefer to vote for the lesser of two evils (the Democrat or Republican, depending on one’s vantage point) rather than the candidate whom they actually support the most.
To the first reason, the small party candidates don’t have nearly enough money to win. That money is even important in getting elected is a sad consequence of political apathy. In other words, if the voters were better-informed, anyone could win an election without spending a dime! The only reason money matters is that far too many Americans get their “news” from 30-second commercials in between episodes of American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, Desperate Housewives, or their favorite soap opera or sporting event. The two major parties know that political junkies aside, the vast majority of Americans will not bother to seek out the candidates, and so they bring the candidates to them – right in their living rooms, when there’s a quick time out on the field, or when Chloe is about to tell Morgan that the baby is really Logan’s, because she and Logan had an affair while Morgan was held captive by the World Domination Consortium on the secret Domino Island, undetectable by human radar. You know, important stuff like that.
In those situations, third party candidates don’t have the necessary coffers to get a word in edgewise.
Some do, like billionaire Ross Perot, who captured an astonishing 19% of the vote in the 1992 presidential election, finishing third behind Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George H.W. Bush. Of course, most Bushies blamed Perot for their candidate’s loss, although a closer look reveals that Perot actually took more votes away from Clinton than from Bush; in a two-man race, Clinton probably would have beaten Bush by a near landslide.
The more important component of Perot’s election, however, is the impact he made on American policy and government, even by finishing third. Perot introduced certain words into the nation’s political lexicon – debt, deficit, and balanced budget – that had been absent from the conversation. Many Americans for the first time realized that our national economy is one big credit account and that we are overusing our card. When Perot emerged from obscurity to gain nearly one out of every five votes, Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich took careful note of what the American people wanted. And they sat down, and balanced the budget. Of course, subsequent presidents and Congresses managed to mess things up again, begging the question: when will the next Perot emerge to rescue us?
Perot was not the first nonmajor party candidate to lose an election yet shape the future of American policy as a result, however. Two other very notable instances are the candidacies of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, and earlier than that, John C. Fremont in 1856. Roosevelt had been a spectacularly popular Republican who retired from the presidency in 1908. Coaxed back into presidential politics four years earlier, he found that his own party refused to oust incumbent President William Taft just because Roosevelt decided to make a comeback, and so Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose/Progressive Party. He did better than Taft, finishing a strong second behind the winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt strongly campaigned for women’s guaranteed right to vote, and before Wilson’s presidency had concluded, that dream turned into law.
In 1856, Fremont was the first Republican presidential candidate, also finishing a strong second to Democrat James Buchanan. The Whig candidate, former President Millard Fillmore, finished third. The Republican Party had only been formed two years earlier, founded as an alternative to the Democrats and Whigs, primarily in order to abolish slavery. Fremont lost, but the anti-slavery movement gained traction. The Republicans elected Abraham Lincoln four years later, in 1860, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The original Whigs in this country had been founded as an alternative to the two major parties of the time. Fillmore, who lost the 1856 race, and who had left the White House in early 1853, is the last Whig President. One hundred sixty years later, the Whigs have elected Bucholz as a judge in Philadelphia. There is good reason, after all, why the phrase “history repeats itself” repeats itself.
L-R: The Reform Party’s Andre Barnett, the Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode, the Modern Whig Party’s T.J. O’Hara, and Independent Buddy Roemer all ran for president in 2012. Do you know who they are? If not, that’s what the Democrats and Republicans like to hear.