Chatter is ramping up again about a possible serious third party bid on the left in the 2020 presidential elections. This time the talk focuses not on the Greens, who hovered on the fringes of American politics for almost two decades expecting to explode into a serious contender. Their two-time nominee Dr. Jill Stein seems to have had as many Russian contacts and been hyped by Putin bots and trolls in an effort to splinter the Democrats and left that their brand has been perhaps permanently tarnished.
No, this time the talk centers on a Democratic Socialist or at least progressive party inspired and perhaps led into the elections by Senator Bernie Sanders, who will be 79 years old on the day of the election. The so-called Berniebots are so consumed with seething rage at Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, and any everyone who supported her that reconciliation seems impossible. They often lash out in ways that make it seem that they believe the Democrats are worse than Donald Trump.
Currently they are manufacturing all sorts of scenarios in which a Sanders led party can win the Presidency, although none of these show any evidence of taking more than a fraction of Congressional and Senate seats. All depend upon a shattered Republican Party with three or more factions tearing themselves to pieces—Trump or a Trumpist avenger cloaked in neo-fascist populism, conventional conservatives and/or religious right theocrats, and libertarian Ayn Rand worshipers. It also posits an utterly supine Democratic Party with the weakest possible nominiee.
Some of this is marginally imaginable if Sanders himself is the nominee. But at his age his health may well prevent that. And there is no heir apparent. Many of the obvious choices like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren have already been savaged for minor deviations from the line or for simply supporting the Democratic ticket in 2017. Indeed no figure could satisfy the purity tests demanded by hard-core Sanderites. Any nominee for a new third party other than Sanders would limp out of their convention with factions of the movement having already stomped out and setting up rumps.
There are no exact parallels in history but there are some lessons to be learned. Take, for instance, those post-Civil War Greenbacks.
|The Greenback Party logo was rather charming.|
On November 25, 1874 a new political party was born at a convention held in Indianapolis, Indiana. They called themselves the Independent Party. In some states they would first appear on the ballot as the National Party. But within months the new party was widely known as the Greenbacks as they grew at an astonishing rate challenging the entrenched Republican and Democratic Parties.
The Party was formed out of frustration with both major parties as major eastern banking interests demanded that the Federal Government stop issuing paper money and return the issuance of currency to the banks. Federal paper money, popularly known as greenbacks, had been first issued under Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to help finance the Civil War. Inflation had been an inevitable result.
The banks and conservative hard money politicians in both parties, wanted not only to stop the government printing presses, they wanted to require that bills be redeemed in specie—gold. This would create instant deflation. But farmers and others who took out loans in inflated dollars would be required to repay the full face value of the loan plus interest in the much more expensive new currency or gold. This alone would wipe out many farmers and small businesses. It was also a blow at western mining interests by demonetizing silver coinage. Silver coins would continue to circulate, but notes—printed currency—would have to be paid in gold.
The banks got their way with the passage of the Coinage Act of 1873. Facing ruin, borrowers and their soft money supporters in both parties, organized to challenge the banking oligarchs of the Gilded Age.
Within months the new party was established and running under different names in most states. Although its greatest strength was in the Mid-West and West, it also found support among small farmers in the South, and Northeast. In fact, with Democrats and Republicans fracturing mainly along the lines of the Civil War, it looked for a time like the Greenbacks were the only truly national party.
The Species Payment Restoration Act of 1875 completed what the Coinage Act had begun. It limited remaining Greenbacks in circulation to $300 million and The Secretary of the Treasury was directed to “redeem, in coin” legal-tender notes presented for redemption by January 1, 1879.
|A poster for the 1876 candidate Peter Cooper|
In 1876 the new party nominated the distinguished, but eccentric 85 year old Peter Cooper as its candidate for President. Cooper was an industrialist who had built the first practical locomotive in the U.S.; a philanthropist who had founded the Cooper Union, a college open to students of all economic, religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds; and a leading liberal voice in New York City politics. The party knew it had no chance to win the presidency, but the prestige of Cooper led to success in getting on the ballot in most states and helping elect local office holders.
The Greenbacks crested in the off-presidential year of 1876 when they elected 13 members of Congress. Thomas Ewing, Jr. of Ohio a pre-war Kansas Free Soil leader and post-war soft money Democrat, was the leading spokesman for the party in Congress and the most widely known and influential public figure.
In 1880 the party broadened its base and attracted new support from industrial workers in the Northeast, especially the politically savvy Irish, by adopting a staunchly pro-labor platform advocating a progressive income tax and the eight hour day. It also made a bid for the support of middle class reformers, previously primarily Republican, by endorsing women’s suffrage. The rise of the Grange Movement mirrored Greenback popularity among its original farmer base.
|Iowa Congressman James B. Weaver got the 1880 nomination.|
The 1880 Presidential Candidate was Iowa’s James B. Weaver. He received 305,997 popular votes, 3.3% of the total and the high water mark of the Greenbacks in Presidential elections.
Despite the continued popularity of their core demand—the return to a system of government issued currency detached from gold—in some areas, the party began a decline. Those middle class reformers never did abandon the Republicans in any significant degree. Southern Democrats gained in popularity as Reconstruction ended and they seized state governments from Black Republicans and fusion or pro-union whites leading to the Jim Crow Era.
|The conservative press of both major parties savagely attacked the Greenbacks as wild eyed radicals in 180.|
Meanwhile the Knights of Labor largely collapsed following the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the rising craft union movement was both conservative and actually hostile to mass industrial workers greatly weakening their political power and influence. The Irish returned to the traditional Democratic loyalties in most big cities.
Back in Indianapolis the 1884 Party convention nominated Benjamin F. Butler for President. Butler had also received the nomination of an even smaller Anti-Monopoly Party. The sitting Governor of Massachusetts, Butler was a polarizing figure in American politics. A pre-war Democrat, Butler was a political general famous for his occupation command of New Orleans and the order to treat “disrespectful” ladies as “women of the streets plying their trade.” He had a later command of the Department of Virginia where he refused to return runaway slaves that reached his lines to their owners, declaring the “contraband of war.” He was also widely suspected of corruption. Elected to Congress after the war he became a leading Radical Republican and one of the managers of the President Andrew Johnson’s unsuccessful impeachment prosecution before the Senate. Back in his home state of Massachusetts he ran three times for Governor, finally winning in 1882 on a Democrat-Greenback fusion ticket.
|The nomination of controvercial former Civil War Union general and Massechusett Governor Benjamin Buttler killed the remaining support of the Greenbacks in the South.|
Butler’s presence on the ticket, despite a Mississippi running mate, virtually killed the Greenbacks in the South. As head of the ticket he won only 177,096 popular votes, just 1.7% of the total. The party was also reduced to just two seats in Congress, one of them taken by former Presidential candidate Weaver.
By 1888 local party apparatus around the country had collapsed. Only 8 delegates showed up for a nominating convention. They gave up and went home. The party was essentially dead. But not its ideas.
In the 1890’s the new Populist Party took up most of its core platform. The Populists’ first Presidential Candidate in 1892 was the last Greenback in Congress—James B. Weaver. In 1896 fiery Nebraska orator William Jennings Bryan got the nomination of both the Populists and Democrats, campaigning on the old Greenback demand of the free coinage of silver and end to the de-facto gold standard.