Engines of reform :third parties in the progressive era
During the Progressive Era, between 1890 and 1920, a host of political parties emerged to challenge the Republican-Democratic regime and to push a more progressive policy agenda. Most notable among these challengers were the People's (or Populist) Party, the Socialist Party, and the Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party.
In the context of the United States' two-party political system, third party candidates are often seen as "spoilers" or "wasted votes." After all, no third party candidate has been elected to the Presidency since Lincoln ran under the Republican label in 1860, usurping the formerly dominant Whigs. Third parties of the Progressive Era fared no better. None was able to take the Presidency, nor did they come close to a majority in Congress. Yet by 1920, much of the challenger parties' policy agenda had been implemented, including the direct election of senators, the eight-hour work day, child labor restrictions, and the graduated income tax.
This paper will explore the opportunities available to Progressive Era third parties and what role they played in influencing the policy positions of the dominant Republicans and Democrats. Through a historical analysis of late 19th and early 20th century political dynamics, we will show that third parties, in fact, played a critical role in setting the policy agenda and pressuring the major parties to adopt progressive reforms.