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Cameron De Jong
Elon University

The study of third parties in America appears to be related mainly to party movements in the later parts of the 20th century. Scholarly work has focused on movements such as the Reform Party in the 1990s and on Ralph Nader's Green Party during the same time period. There were major platform changes for both the Republican and Democratic Parties in the early 20th century. In comparing these two major parties' platforms to the platform of the Socialist Party one may ask if there was an absorption of the Socialist Party platform into those platforms of the Republican and Democratic Parties. To suggest "absorption" may be too much of a generalization. It can be said that many of the proposals set forth in the Socialist Party platforms, ranging from 1900-1956, were accepted by the major parties. It is found that there is a relation between the number of Socialist Party proposals accepted and the Socialist Party having a strong Presidential candidate. It is further found that the Great Depression era was where the majority of eleven studied platform issues were accepted by the Democratic and Republican Parties.


The study of third parties may be important if the study shows that third parties do in fact have influence on policy in the United States. In studying the Socialist Party and comparing the platform of the party to those of the Democratic and Republican Parties during the time period of 1900-1956, one can look into many potential correlations that could have influenced any Socialist ideals being accepted by the major parties. To best research this topic one should pose a question that may be difficult to accept an answer for. In using this mindset, the following question arose: At what point and to what extent was the Socialist Party platform absorbed into the major party platforms?

This study is important in several ways. If the answer to the question was to reveal that there was no "absorption" or "acceptance" of Socialist ideas, it may lead way to less credibility given to the ideas of third parties. On the converse, if there was evidence of "absorption" or "acceptance" of Socialist ideas, there may well be more credibility given to the study of third parties in the future.

Review of Literature
In order to successfully move forward with this study, it was essential to have a firm background of literature dealing with third parties, party platforms, and movements that took place in the early 20th century. It was difficult to find any scholarly journal articles that dealt with the comparison or contrast of any third party platforms. Much information was obtained from edited texts.

Most studies that have been performed involving third parties in the American political system are studies that compare those movements with the Democratic and Republican Parties. None of the studies found have looked into the comparison of platforms and systematically shown patterns of third party demise that relate to popularity of the issues they bring forth. Some volumes have been written that reveal flaws and changes in the major parties, but attribute none of these flaws and changes to the ideas or movements of third parties. Editors such as Charles Mayo attribute new ideas in the major parties to be solely the product of popular support amongst voters. There is no attribution to third party or independent movements, although the fact remains that his writings came before the John Anderson independent revolution in 1980 or that of Ross Perot in 1992.

While the number of journals and edited texts dealing with the integration of third party platforms may be limited, there are a number of studies and books on third parties. Steven Rosenstone is an editor that attributes the rise of third parties to the failure of the major parties to address the needs of the citizens. Rosenstone writes that most scholars study only one third party movement at a time and none have "given a general theory of third party voting that can be applied across instances or can be used to predict when the two-party system is likely to deteriorate and third parties flourish."

Rosenstone breaks down the various constraints that are placed upon third parties including that of single member plurality in governing systems and the fact that third party candidates historically do not have the financial backing of the major parties. In his looking at the financial figures of the Socialist Party, Rosenstone reveals that the demise of the Socialist movement in the late 1920's was partially in regard to the fundraising ability of the Progressive movement.

In comparing the third parties of the 19th century to those of the 20th century, Steven Rosenstone suggests that the 19th century third parties closely modeled the major parties of the time while the third parties of the 20th century were starkly different and did not resemble the major parties of the time. He further implies that the movements of the 20th century be given a blanket term of "Independent."

In reaching conclusions about third parties and their candidates, Rosenstone reveals that the major parties will always have a need to keep the third party candidates involved in the system. He says that as long as there are third parties, compromise can come from both sides to benefit both the third parties and the major parties at the same time. He goes on to suggest that the third party movement should continue to pick up steam and that with changes in technology and the political environment, they have a new means of which to use to reach voters. His most concrete conclusion suggested that third party voting will again reach levels seen in 1912 (Progressive candidate Roosevelt obtained 27% of the vote).
It would be revealed to be true that a candidate would reach high numbers as an Independent as Ross Perot did so in 1992. Given that Rosenstone published his work in 1984, his theory of a third party candidate reaching previously seen levels would be one holding truth.

Everett Ladd edited a book that focused on the major parties, but included third party influence over the major parties. He, like previous authors, believes that third parties are created as a result of major party deficiencies. He does not go all the way to suggesting that third parties end because of the major parties absorbing their platforms.

Like Rosenstone, Ladd attributes the failure of third parties to their inability to raise money and to obtain a substantial percentage of the support of voters. Ladd takes a hard shot at the national Socialists party that existed in the United States. He suggested, "The small socialist parties that did contest nationally…were forced to curiously adulterate their ideology."
Ladd defined socialism very specifically as "the common control of the instruments of production." Given this definition, Ladd believes that the platforms of the Socialist Party of the early 20th century make for "strange reading." In an example, Ladd used that of social reform suggesting that the Socialists had so little support and that the political climate was so unsympathetic to them at the time that they had to become "social reformers" instead of true "socialists."

Ladd believes that the ultimate support gained by the Socialist Party was because of the weak dosage of actual socialism in the party's platforms. The demise therefore of the Socialist Party came when the party began to take more of a trend true to its definition.

Economist Milton Friedman makes the most compelling case for the fact that there was indeed an absorption of the Socialist Party platforms in the early 20th centuries into those of the Democratic and Republican Parties. He does so in his text, Free to Choose.

Milton Friedman, speaking on behalf of he and his wife Rose, stated that they believed there was a great deal of influence from the Socialist Party.

In our opinion the Socialist party was the most influential political party in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century. Because it had no hope of electoral success on a national level, it could afford to be a party of principle. The Democrats and Republicans could not. They had to be parties of expediency and compromise, in order to hold together widely disparate factions and interests.

It would be Milton Friedman who would be the first to suggest truth to the hypothesis that the Democrats and Republicans began to adopt the platform issues of the Socialist Party. Friedman said that despite the fact that no Socialist Presidential candidate received more than six percent of the vote, "almost every economic plank in its 1928 presidential platform has by now been enacted into law."

It is because of this suggestion by Milton Friedman that the study on the platform issues of the Socialist Party will be spread out by using the 1928 platform - going backward to 1900 and forward to 1956. In the appendix of Free to Choose, Friedman gives fourteen different Socialist Party planks from 1928 and reveals specifically how they were implemented into law since that time.

As fore mentioned, many authors and editors do not give much notice to third party movements as a reason for demise or lack of support in the major parties. In James Sundquist's Dynamics of the Party System, the suggestion is made that changes that take part in the party system relate directly between actions of the two major parties.

Instead of attributing any contributions to third parties, Sundquist gives credit to individuals and groups such as farmers in the early 1900s. While many farmers were aligned with the Progressives and in some cases with the Socialist Parties of the time, they were considered to be an "independent" force that influenced the politics of the major parties. In fact, mention of the word "Socialist" comes as only to mention the party as a sort of afterthought throughout the text. In his one half page spent on third parties in the 20th century, no mention of the name "Socialist" or "Progressive" is given. Sundquist uses the term Greenbackers in reference to a third party movement of the late 19th century, but gets into no detail of the Socialists of the 20th century.

With the diversity of attention paid to the third party movements throughout the early 20th century, one can assume that there are many areas that remain to be studied. Close detail should be provided to what real influence the third parties in America have had on their major party counterparts. In the countless books edited on the works of third parties in relation to major parties, finding one that focuses on political economy to be one to suggest integration of Socialist platforms is interesting at best. One can hope that further research into the matter can provide a more concrete link to the Socialist party's issues integration or acceptance into the Republican and Democratic Parties. Not only should we stop with the integration as it may have been, but we should also go further down the road of finding out what attributed to this integration. Milton Friedman offers no answer as to why the Democrats and Republicans adopted what he says is the "entire economic plank of the 1928 Socialist Party."
The study at hand will take his work many steps forward and will make honest the research of many scientists who have decided to overlook what may be a significant study on the effectiveness of third parties in the United States.

In Fred Haynes' Third Party Movements Since the Civil War, the conclusion is clear. "Third parties at the very least keep the major party system accountable to the people; they keep them honest. The study of these movements is essential to our study of our Democracy."

Study of the Platforms
The dependent variable being studied in this project is the absorption of the Socialist Party platform. In order to study this variable, the platforms of the Socialist, Republican, and Democratic Parties from 1900-1956 were obtained. The 1928 Socialist Party platform was arbitrarily used to obtain major issues, as it was the median of the given date range. This date was also that of the closest time period prior to the beginning of the Great Depression. The most accurate method of choosing platform issues from 1928 was to use the headings of the platform planks.

The Socialist Party of 1928 had eleven main objectives that included the support of labor unions, the creation of unemployment relief, public ownership of natural resources, withdrawal of military from foreign countries, relief for farmers, and the nationalization of the banking system. Using all eleven issues supported in the 1928 platform, a chart was created for every Presidential election year and the issues were coded and placed beside the respective party if they included it in that year's platform. (See Appendix A)

Important Elements
In this study there were many key elements that contributed to the creation of hypotheses and further to the results that were attained. In looking at important campaign issues during the given Presidential election years, information on similarities in platforms was looked at based on popular support for the Socialist Party. This goes along with looking at election results in a general sense. Would there be a correlation in the absorption of Socialist platform ideals and Presidential election figures? A third important variable is the Great Depression. It is noted by scholars that the platforms of both the Democratic and Republican Parties changed somewhat dramatically in an attempt to solve the economic dooms that were brought forth by the Great Depression. Would any of these changes in platform come from earlier Socialist Party platforms?

The Socialist New Deal Hypothesis
This first hypothesis suggests that the Republican and Democratic Parties absorbed issues of the Socialist Party in creating Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. To study this hypothesis the platforms of the three parties from 1900-1956 as well as edited texts that give detailed accounts of major political events taking place during the Depression era. Starting with the 1928 Socialist platform as the middle ground, the platforms of all three parties involved in the study were mapped from 1900-1924 and 1932-1956 in comparison to the 1928 platform.

Observations in Regard to Socialist New Deal Hypothesis
The acceptance of issues from the Socialist Platform into the Republican and Democratic Platforms peaked in 1932 and continued through 1940. The eleven issues studied were all accepted by the Democratic Party, while the Republicans met even with the Democratic Party before and after the Great Depression. (See Appendix B)

In attempting to reach a conclusion, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the issues in the Socialist Party were absorbed by the Democratic and Republican Parties. Because the platforms did change over time it is more accurate to suggest that the platform of the Socialist Party became more accepted by the Democratic and Republican Parties, especially during the Great Depression era. Because of losses in the stock market that caused much grief for our country, the Social Security system was put into place. This was presented in Socialist Platforms as early as 1900 in their calling for retirement accounts for all citizens. This was not taken into account by either of the major parties until the stock market crash. The early Socialist Party platforms further called for unemployment insurance. These programs began to be promoted by the major parties during the Depression era as well.

Socialist Popularity Hypothesis
The "Socialist Popularity Hypothesis" suggests that The Republican and Democratic Parties absorbed issues of the Socialist Party when the level of support for the party reached the margin of electoral difference between the two major parties. Using Presidential election data to show the peak of the Socialist Party's popular support, we can compare the platforms of all three parties in the study to potentially show correlation between a rise and fall in support of the Socialist Party and the implementation of its platform issues into those platforms of the Republican and Democratic Parties.
Observations With the Socialist Popularity Hypothesis
In 1916, the margin of difference between the Democratic and Republican Presidential candidate was 3.13%. The Socialist candidate received 3.17% of the vote. In comparing the chart showing the acceptance of the Socialist platform by the Democrats and Republicans (Appendix B), there appears to be a correlation between the election of 1916 and an increase in the pace of platform acceptance.

With there being only one Presidential election year where the Socialist candidate obtained enough votes to be a "spoiler" it is difficult to reach any firm conclusions. It would be inappropriate to assume a direct correlation despite the strong evidence as suggested by Appendices B & C.

Project Conclusions and Thoughts
It is most definitely of great interest to study third parties in America, especially when one is able to find correlations that offer that third parties have a great deal of influence in the policy of the Democratic and Republican Parties. In looking back at the original question, it must again be said that the Socialist platform was not directly absorbed into either the Democratic or Republican platforms. While many issues were most definitely accepted by the two major parties, absorption would likely show consistent use by the Democratic and Republican Parties.
One of the key lacking elements in the study was any polling data that could show and compare off year and Presidential year support for third parties, specifically the Socialist Party.

Potential future studies could involve more recent political parties and how the Democrats and Republicans may have accepted their platforms and ideas. Given the high level support of the Ross Perot Reform Party, such a study could potentially be very valuable to the field of Political Science.