Third Party


W.E.B. Du Bois


February 1, 1929

The pressing political problem in the United States is that of establishing the principle of a Third Party movement. It does not matter how logical and convincing an appeal is launched by any group, unless they can effectively place this before the voters of the nation, their work is in vain. For many years we have seen in the United States the rise of Third Party movements which have come to naught. They have failed, not because they did not have a good program and a right to persist and grow, but because they could not get the proper political hearing.

The difficulty of making the appeal of the Third Party effective, arises in part from our indirect method of electing presidents, but the greater reason is the so-called Solid South. This is a difficulty which for years no gentleman was permitted to discuss. Anyone who dared to attack or arraign the astonishing political machine which dominates twelve states of the United States and is in almost absolute control of 124 out of 531 electoral votes, is supposed to be reactionary, opposed to national unity and a fanatic on the race problem. Hiding back of these excuses, there has been built up in the South a political machine before which Tammany pales into insignificance. It is a machine which dictates the presidency, declares war, fosters imperialism, maintains a protective tariff, bolsters plutocracy, and above all, makes the chances of any Third Party movement impossible.

Yet, strange to say, every recent Third Party movement that we have had, has begun its career by appealing to this machine for liberal support! Even the Socialists, before the War, cast longing eyes in this direction. The Populists staked their all upon it. The Progressives, led by Theodore Roosevelt, made their chief appeal to this Southern machine, and _ the Farmer-Labor Party, while it did not actually appeal to the South, refused in any way, even by implication, to. attack Southern political methods.

The Socialists in the last campaign attacked the Solid South. Their attack was not given prominence or developed as its importance demanded, but, nevertheless, the platform did demand the “reduction of the representation in Congress of those states where large sections of the citizens are disfranchised by force or fraud.” And the “Open Letter to American Liberals and Progressives” was even more explicit.

The very backbone of the Democratic Party, the old, reactionary bourbons of the South are still engaged in the shameful policy of making it all but impossible for great numbers of the Negro population to vote; a Southern bourbon class which, with the industrialization of the South, is now pressing its claims for high tariffs and for the private exploitation of the water powers not already bequeathed by the nation to private monopoly.

Even here the main result was not sufficiently stressed, and that result is that of the 531 electoral votes, a Third Party today can only appeal to 407. Even if the party gained a majority of the popular votes back of these 407 electoral votes, nevertheless, with the help of the Solid South, the Democratic Party could be triumphantly elected. What happens then, continually, (it happened in 1912, in 1924 and in 1928), is that the practical voter has to choose between the Democratic ticket, backed by the Solid South, and a Republican ticket; and if after several years of Republican government, being convinced that nothing could be worse, he tries Democracy it is with disastrous results. The political power of the South, built on the forced disfranchisement of two million Negroes and the voluntary disfranchisement of more than two million whites, concentrates in the hands of a ruthless gang, more political power than any machine in the United States ever wielded before. It must be attacked and attacked frankly and openly, and the smoke screen of the “Negro problem” must not divert the attack.

The results of the election of 1928 illustrate the situation:

Eleven Southern states cast, in 1924, 2,865,747 votes. In 1928, they cast 3,632,292. Thus, of more than four million disfranchised voters, one million came to the polls, and the Democrats consequently lost 5 states with 60 electoral votes.

But was this a real triumph of democracy, and a “breaking” of the Solid South? Nothing of the sort. While they voted against the machine, these voters did so for no modern reasons. They voted because of religious prejudice, hatred of the party domination of New York, fear of the Negro, and prohibition. Of the modern problems presented, for instance, by Socialists, they knew nothing and cared nothing. They had no intelligence of nor intelligent answers to the problems of protecting labor, curbing monopoly and privilege, preserving natural resources, equitable taxation of incomes, and preventing crime. The million new electors who came into the field were densely ignorant and prejudiced. For the most part they continued to assert their party “regularity,” i.e. their voluntary disfranchisement so far as national questions go, and they reasserted their determination to enforce the 18th amendment, to nullify the 14th and 15th, and to ignore the 19th.

In future elections, as in the past, these 124 electoral votes can be appealed to by no Third Party and can be depended on to keep reaction and Plutocracy in power. To make assurance doubly sure, Work is backing the “Lily White” faction of the Southern Republicans whose program is not simply to disfranchise Negroes at the polls, but also in the party councils.

Here, then, is the first point of attack for any Third Party that is worth its salt or hopes ever to win.


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1929. “Third Party.” The Crisis 36 (2): 58.