The political conventions are at an end and some voters, as usual, are wondering just what choices they really have. They'd like to see more than just democrats and republicans in the running for the White House. YNN's Bill Carey says American history is filled with efforts at forming a viable third party. And so far, they have all failed.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The Founding Fathers considered parties "factions" and hoped their countrymen were above such divisions. They expected them to send the best minds to Washington to decide the big issues.
“And they would make decisions for the general good of the country and they would rise above sectional interests or personal interests to do that,” said James Sharp, Syracuse University historian.
That approach lasted just over a decade. By 1800, some very familiar divisions appeared. The Federalists, who thought the government should do more. And Thomas Jefferson's group, opposed to big government. That group, the Democratic Republicans, would eventually become the Democratic Party.
Sharp said, “We were pretty close to a civil war in that election.”
The Electoral College deadlocked on the choice between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, throwing the race to the House of Representatives. After 36 ballots, Burr lost to Jefferson. Burr's career collapsed. He blamed Alexander Hamilton for his demise and found a permanent way to settle the score.
As the 19th century unfolded, the democrats and the so-called Whig Party became the major combatants.
Third party efforts came and went. The Anti-Masonic Party, born in Upstate New York. Its candidate, William Wirt, lost.
The American Party, better known by its nickname, the Know Nothings, an offshoot of the Whigs, featured a candidate born in the small New York town of Moravia, Millard Fillmore.
“They had a relatively receptive audience. People who were frightened by the seeming influx of immigrants and what this meant, particularly Catholic immigrants, and what this meant to the United States,” Sharp said.
But after receiving 20 percent of the vote in 1856, the Know Nothings were forgotten. The Whigs eventually disintegrated in the battle over slavery, giving birth to the last successful Third Party, the Republicans, who eventually gained major party status, thanks to a man named Lincoln.
In the 20th Century, third party efforts sputtered. Progressives on the democrat side. Progressives on the republican side, led by Teddy Roosevelt. Socialists. All failed to take hold.
By mid-century, segregation gave birth to movements like the post-war Dixiecrats and the American Party of Alabama's George Wallace.
Howie Hawkins thinks Third Parties still have a chance. Hawkins vote total in the 2010 New York governor's race has given his Green Party a regular spot on the ballot. He says if Greens can win enough offices to become part of the political landscape, it is just a question of time before the right issue allows their support to explode.
Hawkins said, “All the tinder is there and what the spark will be, it's just like, one of these times I think it'll catch fire and we'll have a shift.”
Coke or Pepsi. Burger King or McDonalds. Like it or not, when we Americans are given a broad selection, we tend to narrow things down to two main choices. Tough for a third option to break through. Don't believe it? Ask Wendy's or Dr. Pepper.