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Party Like It’s 1896

Today's GOP defectors don't measure up to the principled third-party candidates of yore.

The threat by second-generation neoconservative philosopher-tweeters, grotesque offspring of the John McCain-Lindsey Graham dyad, and extremely unctuous lobbyists to stomp out of the Republican convention and run a candidate of their own if the GOP nominates a bombastic critic of the Iraq War has me in a tizzy. (A state I have never before confessed to experiencing.)

On the one hand, the would-be bolters are the intellectual detritus of a rotting empire. But on the other, I’m all in favor of disrupting conventions, of walkouts and quixotism and vainglorious campaigns against insuperable odds. Born in the cradle of Anti-Masonry and just up the road from the birthplace of the anarcho-abolitionist Liberty Party, I’ve voted third party in every presidential election since my first in 1980, and I see no reason to stop now.

Past Republican defectors made their lonely runs as a matter of principle—mostly. Teddy Roosevelt was motivated by pique in 1912, but nobler were the courageous “Fighting Bob” La Follette in 1924; the renegade IRS commissioner T. Coleman Andrews—the most radical inductee of the Accounting Hall of Fame—who challenged Ike on the Independent States Rights ticket in 1956; the philosopher John Hospers, my wife’s mentor, the first Libertarian nominee, who when he told a USC colleague in 1972 that he was running for president was met with “President of the Faculty Council?”; and, of course, the cofounder of this magazine, for whom I cheerfully cast a ballot in 2000.

Though I didn’t actually cast it. When our daughter was young I’d bring her into the booth to pull the levers for me. (Those reliable and fraud-proof old mechanical lever machines, first employed in Lockport, New York, in 1892, were scrapped thanks to one of George W. Bush’s many crimes against federalism: the Help America Vote Act. Now we vote like dispirited children filling in circles on optical-scan sheets that call to mind the overhead projectors of junior high.)

Anyway, on Election Day 2000 a friend of our daughter’s, child of a Mexican farmworker, walked home from school with us. (I’ve no idea if the family is here legally and I don’t care.) I let the first-grader cast my vote for Pat Buchanan, just as our daughter pulled the lever for Harry Browne in 1996 and Ralph Nader in 2004. The peace candidates.

Petulant Romneyites unfurling the banner of War & Wall Street as they break from a Trump-led party would be in neither the romantic Old Right Buchanan nor the principled ideologue La Follette-Andrews-Hospers tradition.

There are superficial parallels, however, with the National Democrats (often called the Gold Democrats) of 1896, who could not abide the nomination of the Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan. Advocates of sound money and classical liberalism—except when it came to busting the heads of strikers—they were, at their best, Grover Cleveland Democrats. At their worst… well, Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson was among their number.

The breakaway Democrats included genuinely distinguished figures such as Nation editor E.L. Godkin, Oswald Garrison Villard, and Charles Francis Adams Jr.: the antitheses of the Murdoch hirelings, Beltway Trotskyites, and dull trulls of Fox News who would serve as the press agents for whichever cadaver fronts the K Street Republicans.

In early September 1896 the rump Democrats nominated 79-year-old Illinois Senator John C. Palmer. Such a late convention was possible because access to the ballot had not yet been obstructed by the impermeable web of election laws and petition requirements soon to be woven by the American duopoly.

The National Democrats, who were mockingly dubbed the “McKinley Aid Society,” received funding from Republican sources hopeful that the genteel insurgents might pull enough Democratic votes from Bryan to tip marginal states to the GOP. Bryan urged the splinter party to adopt the owl as its emblem, for “It looks wise and does its work in the dark.”

Tthisarticleappearshe Mugwump media, fearful of Bryan’s agrarian radicalism and disdainful of McKinley’s protectionism, applauded the National Democrats. The Nation lauded them for being “in favor of giving the individual citizen the widest freedom to earn his living unhampered by a paternal government.” They were, as historians David and Linda Royster Beito note, the last gasp of the night-watchman state democracy.

Senator Palmer drew just shy of 1 percent of the vote nationally (133,357), with New Hampshire (4.2 percent) his best state. Democrats dissatisfied with Bryan voted for McKinley, not Palmer.

Romney-Ryan redux this November surely would outpoll the National Democrats of 1896 and might even match the breakaway liberal Republican John Anderson’s 7 percent tally in 1980. Perhaps they’d tilt the election to Hillary. If she—like McKinley—sheds the blood of foreigners and plants Old Glory in distant sands, they’ll call it a victory.

Bill Kauffman is the author of 10 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America.



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