The Populist Party and the Democrats, 1896

William Peffer. US Senator from Kansas. Populist Party 1890
William Peffer. US Senator. Populist Party 1890

A major third party fractures on whether to stay independent and radical or merge with the Democrats and try to push them to the left.

No, this wasn’t factions in the Green Party in 1996-2004, but the Populist Party in 1896. Well then, this particular debate has been going on for quite some time, hasn’t it? Let’s see what happened to the Populists.

Two main factions had appeared. One, the fusion Populists, sought to merge with the Democrats, using the threat of independent organization to force changes in the major party’s platform. The Populist organization in Kansas had already “fused”–over the bitter protest of those who considered this a sell-out. Fusionists argued that the regionally based third party could never hold national power; the best strategy was to influence a major party that could.

The second faction, called “mid-roaders,” suspected (with good reason) that Democratic leaders wanted to destroy the third-party threat; fusion, they argued, would play into this plot. These Populists advocated staying “in the middle of the road,” between the two larger parties, and not merging with either. In practice, these Populists were not “in the middle,” but more sweeping in their political goals than either of the major parties, while fusionists were more willing to compromise in hopes of winning powerful Democratic allies.

In the end, the fusionists won. Then betrayals, dirty tricks, and an insistence on a silver-backed currency sank the ticket.

But while the Populist Party came to an end, many of their planks later became law, with Teddy Roosevelt regulating corporations and FDR instituting aid to farmers and public works.

As for Third Parties trying to make nice with the Democrats, thinking they might help, Peter Camejo had quite a lot to say about that in his landmark 2004 Avocado Declaration.

When social justice, peace or civil rights movements become massive in scale, and threaten to become uncontrollable and begin to win over large numbers of people, the Democratic Party begins to shift and presents itself as a supposed ally. Its goal is always to co-opt the movement, demobilize its forces and block its development into an alternative, independent political force.

[The Democratic Party acts] as a “broker” negotiating and selling influence among broad layers of the people to support the objectives of corporate rule. The Democratic Party’s core group of elected officials is rooted in careerists seeking self-promotion by offering to the corporate rulers their ability to control and deliver mass support. And to the people they offer some concessions, modifications on the platform of the Republican Party. One important value of the Democratic Party to the corporate world is that it makes the Republican Party possible through the maintenance of the stability that is essential for “business as usual.” It does this by preventing a genuine mass opposition from developing.

They happened the Populist Party as well as the Green Party. But it doesn’t have to happen again.