The Real History of Third Parties
A transcript of the Lew Rockwell Show episode 245 with Charles A. Burris
Previously by Charles A. Burris: The English Civil War as Current Events
A transcript of the Lew Rockwell Show episode 245 with Charles Burris.
ROCKWELL: Well, good morning. This is the Lew Rockwell Show. And how great to have as our guest this morning Mr. Charles Burris. Charles is a teacher of American history in a high school in Oklahoma. And I must say he’s the kind of history teacher that all of us wish we had. Very few of us get to have a teacher like this who, if the kids aren’t aware of real American history before they enter his classes, they certainly are afterwards.
And I would imagine, Charles, you’ve changed a lot of lives. Just your blogs on LRC are just electric and they’re so interesting and so documented. I’m just, of course, thrilled to have you as part of the site.
But I know this morning you wanted to talk about something extremely interesting, the history of third parties in America, how they’ve been demonized, marginalized, written out of the history books; and maybe the future of third parties as well as the past of third parties.
BURRIS: Well, thank you, Lew. It’s a pleasure to be with you again.
ROCKWELL: Tell us about the history of third parties in America.
BURRIS: Well, I’ve always found the subject fascinating. I can remember when I was back in college, studying history and political science and such, that I actually sat down and read the history and actual platforms of every third party from America’s first third party, the Anti-Masonic Party, which I think came around in about 1828.
ROCKWELL: Yes, I love the Anti-Masonic Party (laughing).
BURRIS: Yes. And all the way up to – I think it was the 1972 platforms. That was when the Libertarian Party first came into being.
But it was fascinating just to see the evolution of both the major and minor parties over the years, how they would – have change and nuances on their programs and their proposals. Particularly around the turn of the century and around 1900, looking at the Republican and Democratic Parties, how they approached something, say, like a Nicaraguan canal, which later became the Panama Canal, but how that would change almost from each election cycle and depending on what major special interests were pushing for that. And to look back at what the Democrats stood for, say, from the time of the Civil War up to 1900, and what the Republicans stood for. And then the rise of the parties like the Greenback Party and so on. It was just a fascinating way to approach history at that time.
ROCKWELL: Well, when these parties get successful, the two major parties, the ones Butler Shaffer calls the two wings of the same bird of prey, that when they get concerned, what do they do about a third party? Obviously, they just don’t try to out-compete them ideologically.
BURRIS: No. They were fully eliminated. And that’s where the draconian ballot laws that many states still have in force come about.
And I’d like just to speak to one particular state that I’m most familiar with, being a history teacher here in Oklahoma, because many of your listeners probably don’t know a lot of the background history of Oklahoma. Oklahoma became a state in 1907, right at the beginning of the Progressive Era. Teddy Roosevelt was president. There had been a move before statehood actually to create two states, the state of Sequoia, which was going to be an all-Indian state in the eastern part of Oklahoma, and then the state of Oklahoma, the western part of Oklahoma. But because the state of Sequoia was primarily Democratic oriented, the Roosevelt people said no way, and they only accepted the proposals to create a unified state called Oklahoma.
And when Oklahoma became a state in 1907 – as I said, it was right in the middle of the Progressive Era – it brought in all the – (laughing) – all the ridiculous Progressive legislation that LRC readers are well acquainted with. The Oklahoma Constitution was 10 times longer than the U.S. Constitution. It had all kinds of provisions for all kinds of economic regulations, from creating a corporation commission, the first state department of public welfare, and on and on and on and on. And once it was in place, all this Progressivism and the legacy of populism was just, well, put in the force of law. And the first law that they put, in fact, in Oklahoma was a segregation law followed by prohibition. So like I said, the worst aspects of Progressivism came in.
But I want to talk about just briefly the election of 1912. This is a crucial election. Many people remember it as where the Republican Party split between the Taft forces and the Roosevelt forces. Teddy Roosevelt didn’t get the nomination, so he went off and he formed the Progressive Party, the Bull Moose Party. And you had what most people remember as a three-way race with Roosevelt and the Progressives, Taft and the Republicans, and Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats. But they forget that there was a fourth party at that time, the Socialist Party, who had a candidate, Eugene V. Debs. Very, very popular.
Well, here in Oklahoma, the Roosevelt/Progressives couldn’t make the ballot, so it was a three-way race between Wilson, Taft and Debs. And Oklahoma, conservative Oklahoma, probably the reddest of the red states today, had the largest Socialist vote in 1912 for Eugene Debs. And the Socialists followed up on that. They were masterful organizers. They followed up on that in 1914 by having a whole host of state legislators, a state senator, mayors all throughout the state, county officials, city officials. It was just a phenomenally organized effort on the part of the Socialists.
Now how did they do all this? Well, there’s a great book called Agrarian Socialism in America, by Jim Bissett. The subtitle says it all: Marx, Jefferson and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904 to 1920. What the Socialists did was they took sort of the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian idea of appealing to the common man; took the Marxist class struggle, and put it in terms that the Oklahoma farmers, the tenant farmers and sharecroppers are part of this proletariat, and couched it in evangelical Protestant language. And they just had a tremendous base of support.
ROCKWELL: (laughing) That’s fascinating. I mean, what are we talking about in terms of – I mean, were they really threatening to the Republicans and the Democrats?
BURRIS: Yes. Yes. In fact, the Democrats really saw these people as their opposition because, in many parts of the state, the Socialists outnumbered the Republicans, which – (laughing) – if you know anything about contemporary Oklahoma politics –
– you have to look under – you know, you have to look under a cabbage patch to find a Democrat anywhere because, like I said, it’s the reddest of the red states. That’s why this is so anachronistic.
But, you know, the Socialists were building on that support from 1914, the time of the First World War, up until Woodrow Wilson was threatening to intervene in the war in Europe. And a lot of these organizers in groups like the Working Class Union and – not so much formally the Socialist Party itself but some of these other labor organizations saw that as a tremendous threat. They said it was going to be a rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight. And so they organized poor whites, blacks and Native Americans in opposition to this. In fact, out of all this came something known as the Green Corn Rebellion, down in the southern part of Oklahoma with the area called Little Dixie. They said that, hey, Big Slick – their name for Woodrow Wilson – I guess, sort of an ancestor to Slick Willie in Arkansas.
They said Big Slick is going to have this rich man’s war, poor man’s fight, and we need to do something about it. So like Coxey’s Army before, during the Great Depression during the Cleveland years, they were going to organize all together and gather strength from other farmers and laborers and workers and all, and march on Washington, eating the green – they were going to march from Oklahoma, along the way to D.C., eating the green corn as it ripened, and that’s how they would sort of feed themselves. Well, nevertheless, plans for all this got out. There were some minor fracases down in that area. Some county sheriff’s and their deputies and some people, well, really on both sides, they called out the National Guard; put down this thing. And some of these guys were imprisoned.
Well, the nation’s press – and you can go back and dig all this stuff in the archives – they were outraged. What’s all this sedition and this hot bed down in Oklahoma of all this treasonous talk?
And the state government, the Democrats, under their governor, responded back by super patriotism and setting up the Governor’s Council of Defense all throughout the state where there were just horrendous things such as – well, the city of Korn, Oklahoma, founded by German immigrants – and Korn was spelled K-O-R-N – had to change their name because they were too Germanic. And here in Tulsa, a waiter overheard somebody in a downtown restaurant say something he thought was unpatriotic to the war and shot the guy right there in the restaurant; pulled out a gun and shot the guy right in the restaurant. And the local jury ruled that it was justified homicide.
ROCKWELL: In Nebraska, there were German teachers in the schools who were lynched for the crime of being a German teacher.
BURRIS: Yes. There was, over in Cordell, Oklahoma, which is about an hour outside of Oklahoma City, west, it was largely a Mennonite community. People had the Mennonite churches. They had signs posted on their churches, “God only understands the English language.” Ministers throughout the state –
– were tarred and feathered. And I mean, I could go on and on and on.
Well, anyway, there was a huge backlash against the Socialists, who were also blamed for this anti-war feeling because, unlike most of the Socialist Parties in the world, the Socialist Party here in America was very anti-war. Eugene Debs, of course, went to prison for his anti-war views, anti-draft views. And the Socialists were blamed for that. So the Democrats passed these horrible draconian election laws that really outlawed third parties in Oklahoma, from that time up until I think 1968 with George Wallace’s American Independent Party. There was never another third party on the ballot in Oklahoma. And after that, it was just hugely, almost next to impossible to get on the ballot.
ROCKWELL: Still is very difficult.
BURRIS: Very difficult. And this is a story really with the draconian ballot laws that can be played from state to state to state. And it’s like in one of my articles on LRC, I talked about people urging Ron Paul to run third party or run Independent, and people have no idea. Most people have no idea just the organizational task it is to run a ballot drive like that, 50 states, different election laws, all the different ballot qualifications. I was the national ballot drive coordinator back in 1984 for the Libertarians; had to deal with this on a day-by-day basis. And as Ron said many times, you put all your money into ballot drive access, you put all your money into funding legal litigation about all this, and it’s just not what most people think that you can just magically go in there and put your name in a hat and appear on the ballot. It’s not like that at all.
ROCKWELL: No, no. And I can tell you, in his ’88 L.P. presidential campaign, ballot access was the key thing we were always worried about. I mean, that was what we – that’s what we had to focus on rather than getting his message out, so.
BURRIS: And you’re frozen out of the debates. I mean, look at poor Gary Johnson. He’s now considering being the Libertarian candidate. Well, sort of – (laughing) – in my article about all this, I refer to the Democrats and the Republicans are like the Coke and the Pepsi. If Ron Paul ran a third-party campaign, he would be like Dr. Pepper and Gary Johnson would be Mr. Pibb Lite, you know.
So we’ll just have to see how all that plays out.
But third parties are just fascinating because many ideas from third parties eventually drift into the lexicon and the platforms of the two major parties.
ROCKWELL: Who have been the most successful third-party candidates?
BURRIS: Well, I would think probably, in many ways, Teddy Roosevelt, back in that 1912 election, because he was treated as a legitimate candidate. A lot of Debs’ and Norman Thomas’ ideas in the Socialist Party eventually made their way into the platform of the Democrats.
ROCKWELL: Not their anti-war ideas, of course.
BURRIS: Yes, not their anti-war ideas, which was really a shame because both Debs and Norman Thomas were just tremendous in that regard. And then I would think also just the sort of ground-swell support that people like George Wallace and Ross Perot got also influenced the national debate, too.
ROCKWELL: I’ll never forget – I’m ashamed to say at this point in my life I subscribe to the New Republic. So I’ve never forgotten, just as Ross Perot was starting to make progress, they had a cover story on him comparing him to Hitler. And I thought, well, there we go. Here we go (laughing). Here it comes. And such things as, “He’s uncontrolled.” I mean, he’s not connected to any particular interests. And, “He’s a demigod.” And, of course, it was all just baloney. But I thought the fact that they’re willing to call him Hitler, Hitler II or Hitler Jr. or whatever, but just how vicious the opposition is to anybody who challenges the two-party system.
BURRIS: Well, of course, and the establishment media has a different take on third parties. Particularly when they ask Ron Paul, are you going to run as an Independent or a third party, it’s an effort to marginalize, just like the effort to say – always throw out about, well, would you be willing to support whoever the nominee is after the convention. And they never bring up – (laughing) –
ROCKWELL: They never ask other people if they’re going to support Ron Paul.
BURRIS: Yes. Yes, they never ask, say, Mitt Romney, would you be willing to support Ron Paul.
BURRIS: Your father did not support Barry Goldwater in 1964. Or ask Newt Gingrich, who at that time was a Rockefeller Republican. Now we know – (laughing) – he was a Rockefeller Republican not only in his ideological beliefs but also in his personal infidelity (laughing).
ROCKWELL: He was the southern chairman for Students for Rockefeller. I mean, he was –
ROCKWELL: He was definitely a Rockefeller guy.
BURRIS: And Nelson Rockefeller, once again, did not endorse Barry Goldwater. So I think it’s a fair question to ask Newt or Mitt or Michelle Bachmann, would you be willing to endorse Ron Paul when he becomes the nominee. Of course, like I said, that’s one of their ways to sort of trivialize, marginalize his whole campaign. Which they’re doing that right now with the whole effort about the lack of importance of the Iowa caucuses. That’s because Ron is number one in Iowa and number one is New Hampshire. He’s the game changer. We’re in a whole new ballgame.
And one of the things I think is so fascinating not only from getting feedback from some of my articles on Ron Paul or just on anything on LRC that I write, but just talking to people here in general in the Ron Paul circles or even just people in the electorate, people are reading the Federalist Papers. They’re reading American history. They’re learning about the origins of the Fed and about our foreign policy, finding out about blowback, all these things. You know, Ron Paul has been – (laughing) – probably one of the greatest educational forces in America in the last 40 years. And the chickens are sort of coming home to roost right now, at a very persistent time.
ROCKWELL: It’s true that one of the ways in which he’s unique is he’s always seen public office as a platform, not as a way to enrich himself or enrich his pals or whatever in the typical fashion, but as just a platform to explain what the Fed was doing, why it was bad, what it did and, of course, why there should be questions of war and peace, questions of regulation, of government spending, taxes, civil liberties, all the various things. And he’s done it to really just an extraordinary degree as a back-bencher congressman who was long prevented – I mean, he should have been chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which is the banking committee, if they went by seniority. But, of course, they blocked him because they knew he wasn’t owned by the banks and owned by the Fed. Despite all that, he reached the hearts of the American people.
Is it something unique? I mean, it seems to me unique in American history that he’s been able to do this. Even aside from the quality and the importance and the truthfulness of his ideas, just he’s – if you’ll forgive me saying this – he’s a great politician. I mean, he loves campaigning. He loves persuading. He loves especially talking to young people. He always has, all his electoral life. And he’s so good at it. He’s so good at building coalitions. He’s so good explaining that freedom brings us together and everybody doesn’t have to agree with everybody else on everything. You just come together. We realize that the problem is the government and what the government is doing to us, and so he gets Democrats and Independents and apolitical people and as well as Republicans in vast numbers backing him. Quite something.
BURRIS: I think that shines through in every speech that he gives, every interview. And Teddy Roosevelt talked about using the presidency as a bully pulpit. Well, that succeeded in the sense of creating this executive state that we’re still – (laughing) – suffering from.
But I could imagine just the uses that Ron Paul as president would use his persuasive skills to change America in a – well, basically to restore America to what America should be and what’s it has always been talked about in the history books. As a history teacher, that’s one of the biggest things that I’d find.
I would say there’s probably two obstacles that I find with my students. And really, you can even expand that to sort of the general population. With my students, the idea of presentism. Kids are always just in the present. They can’t imagine a time other than where they are right now and just imagine, say, the time of John Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, never mind going back to the Renaissance. It’s just with our instant communications and cell phones and texting and microwave ovens and fast food, it’s just to get out of the present mindset is extremely difficult for a history teacher to really get your students to think about.
And the other thing is Gore Vidal said, “We’re the United States of Amnesia.”
Most people, they don’t remember the run up to the different wars that we’ve been involved in and how presidents lied in the War of 1812, lied in the Mexican War, lied in the Civil War, lied in the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and on and on and on, all the way to Iraq, and now the lead up to the war in Iran. And it’s the same thing with every four years when we go through these election cycles, all the lies and fabrications about frontrunners and being number one in the polls.
Just go back to 1972 and look at the election coverage. Ed Muskie – oh, he’s a forgone conclusion. It’s going to be Ed Muskie. Everybody needs to go home. And then the Canuck letter appears in The Union Leader and Ed Muskie’s out. And ’84 – oh, Gary Hart, he’s going to be the foregone conclusion, you know? Or 1980, John Connelly – oh, he’s got so much money, he’s going to be the foregone conclusion, you know? (laughing) 2008, Rudy Giuliani, he’s got it hands down. And it’s just like there’s – (laughing) – this vacuum in memory every four years. It’s like people forgot. Wait a minute, wait a minute, don’t sell me this bill of goods. Let me just think for myself. Let me just judge each candidate on their own, and without the different spin masters from the media, the bloggers and everybody trying to make up my mind for me.
ROCKWELL: Well, you know, on the presentism question, it seems to me the power elite likes to use this. It’s considered unfair and really quite outrageous for Ron Paul, for example, to bring up the fact that the U.S. has been viciously and monstrously intervening in Iran at least since 1953, overthrowing governments, installing dictators, training the secret police, making sure that they were a vicious regime. Maybe people in Iran would resent that. And, of course, pointing out that, if, say, China were occupying Texas, people in Texas might not like that.
ROCKWELL: Because we never put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes because, of course, we’re God’s chosen country and everybody else is dirt under our feet.
BURRIS: Well, if you can remember back during the hostage crisis, Jimmy Carter famously dismissed all that talk as ancient history.
So it’s something that’s rather inconvenient to bring up.
ROCKWELL: Yes, I was going to mention, too, on the Gary Hart question, several historians have pointed this out that his main campaign plank, at least in foreign policy, was to dismantle and totally re-do the CIA. I mean, to change it radically. So then, all of a sudden, this picture of him on the – what was it, “The Monkey Business”? Was that the boat?
BURRIS: “The Money Business.”
ROCKWELL: And with this girl, was sent simultaneously to the editorial rooms of every single big newspaper in the country. Now, was that done by a political opponent? Or maybe was that done by somebody connected to the CIA? I don’t know. But they definitely wanted Hart out and, of course, they got him out.
BURRIS: Well, you know, once again, I’ve pointed this out on several blogs, on LRC, people should, if they haven’t already, Google CIA and the Media by Carl Bernstein, the famous Washington Post investigative reporter, who, along with Bob Woodward, helped to cover a lot of the early stories about Watergate. That really just lays out at that point in time just how infused the establishment media was with the intelligence establishment, going back to the early 1950s, all the way up to post-Watergate. And things haven’t changed, I don’t believe. I still think that there’s different agendas that are put out that, as you say, that seems one thing and they’re actually something very, very different.
ROCKWELL: And, of course, as you know, Kennedy famously said that he was going to tear up the CIA like a piece of paper and scatter it to the winds over what they had done to him, he felt, over the Bay of Pigs and other things. And, of course, Kennedy was the one that got ended up – who ended up being torn up and scattered to the winds.
BURRIS: Yes, my students just have been focusing on that in the last month, leading up to the end of the semester. We studied about all the different – in my government classes and my political parties class – studying all about the different presidential regimes. And then we went back and focused on a couple, specific, just to show the nuances in their leadership style, and focusing on John Kennedy, both the good side of John Kennedy and the bad side. And I did that by showing two ABC News documentaries with Peter Jennings. One, JFK Remembered, which was the good JFK, the JFK of the Camelot myth. And then a couple of years later, ABC did another documentary, Dangerous World: The Kennedy Years, which was the bad JFK of connections to Sam Giancana and all his mistresses and drugs and the real story behind the Cuban Missile Crisis. And then we focus on the fascination of JFK and some of the factors that usually aren’t talked about in textbook history.
And they were just fascinated because here was somebody that we actually treated as a real human being, with their good side and their flaws and attributes; and looked at some of the evidence that there was a coup d’etat, that it was the top tier of the national security establishment that, for various reasons going back to the time of the Bay of Pigs, that they saw John Kennedy as a national security threat. And, of course, all this has been talked about and laid out in books, such as JFK and the Unspeakable, and others, that’s I think prompting a new revisionist interpretation of that area of history.
ROCKWELL: Well, Charles Burris, as everybody can tell who’s listening to you this morning, your students are very lucky. And I might add – (laughing) – very unusual to have a teacher like you. And thanks for teaching so many more of us through your articles and your blogs on LRC. And all I can say is keep it up.
BURRIS: Well, thank you, Lew. It’s a pleasure.
ROCKWELL: Bye-bye, Charles.
Well, thanks so much for listening to the LEW ROCKWELL SHOW today. Take a look at all the podcasts. There have been hundreds of them. There’s a link on the upper right-hand corner of the LRC front page. Thank you.
September 21, 2012
Charles A. Burris [send him mail] teaches history in the Murray N. Rothbard Room at Memorial High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Copyright © 2012 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.