The Populists lasted only a few years as an independent entity, but their success clearly got the attention of the mainstream parties. Most important, it had a lasting impact on policy, even beyond the issues pushed by the farmers. Many of the Populists’ demands became law by the 1920s—including the direct election of U. S. senators, the development of a progressive federal income tax and the availability of short-term credit in rural areas.
Latinos in the United States are now confronting a dilemma similar to the one faced by the farmers. A recent Gallup poll indicates that the number of Latinos ranking immigration as a top issue doubled since the first half of this year. Yet Latinos have been forced to endure bitter disappointment from a Democratic president who has broken many immigration promises, in no small measure because the Republican-led House of Representatives refuses to act on immigration reform in Congress. The president’s decision to defer deportation of newly arrived children—a decision announced just five months before the 2012 presidential election—increased enthusiasm for Obama among Latinos; 71 percent of the record 11.2 million Latinos who turned out to vote cast their ballot for Obama.
Many of them are now deeply disappointed. The president—who had campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to reform the immigration system—again promised to make the issue an early and top priority during his second term. Congress stymied those efforts, so Obama pledged to take executive action—only to delay it until after the midterms. No wonder a new Pew Research Center poll shows that a majority of Latino voters think the Democratic Party is doing a poor job on immigration, and a different recent survey indicates substantially dampened enthusiasm for Obama and the Democrats among Latino voters because of inaction on immigration reform. Even as the president tried to smooth over differences this week at an appearance before the Congressional Hispanic Caucus annual gala, some frustrated Latino activists are contemplating deliberately sitting out the midterm election to make Democrats pay a price at the polls.
But are these the only alternatives—stay home and sulk, or accept the better of two bad options? Could it be time for Latinos to follow the path forged by the disgruntled farmers? Or follow the model in Europe, where third parties are fairly common?
In Europe, minorities and special interests often form their own parties when they feel their issues are not being championed by larger parties. This is most easily done in countries with proportional representation, which allows more than one representative for each district and—unlike winner-take-all systems like most of the United States—allocate seats based on the percentage of votes garnered by each contender. In such a system, minor parties are often able to gain enough support to win seats in legislatures. Examples include Basque nationalists in Spain, as well as Green and far-right parties across Europe. In places like Britain that have majoritarian systems with single-member districts, geographically concentrated parties like the Scottish National Party are able to win seats in Parliament. Even here in the United States, the occasional small party or independent can win a seat, including in the U.S. Senate. (One example: Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who caucuses with Democrats.)
As relative newcomers, immigrants often don’t have the money or other resources needed to start a new party. Far-right party leaders, on the other hand, tend to come from existing parties and have a built-in support network.
By and large, majoritarian electoral rules like ours produce two-party systems. There is no hope in the foreseeable future that those rules will change and that means that small parties, like the Populist Party, inevitably disappear or, like the Libertarian and Green Parties, remain on the fringes of a system dominated by the two major parties.
Still, there are some reasons—42 million of them, to start with—to think that a Latino party could be different. Various ethnic groups have historically wielded a great deal of influence within political parties, particularly at the local and state levels. The German-American Alliance, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (“the oldest and largest Irish Catholic organization in the United States”) and the Immigrant’s Protection League all mobilized against the restriction of immigration in the early 20th century. Latinos also have an important advantage which supports the idea of starting a separate party: They still tend to be geographically concentrated in such states as California, Florida and Texas which allows them to focus their efforts, like the Populist party did in the 1890s.
Another relevant historical example is the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Fifty years ago Fannie Lou Hamer appealed to the conscience of the Democratic Party, asking for the Democratic National Committee’s credential committee to recognize their delegation in place of the all-white Democratic delegation from the state. The leadership came to a compromise and agreed to seat two members of the delegation, but the white delegation walked off and wouldn’t accept the compromise. Nevertheless, the example set by the MFDP would have a clear impact on the Democratic Party in the South going forward. Despite the prospect of losing white support in the South, the Democratic Party supported civil rights legislation and gained the support of a majority of black voters.
An ethnic party did arise in the United States in the late 1960s as the Chicano Movement organized and called for a third party to focus on self-determination for Mexican-Americans. The main focus of organizers was in Texas, where La Raza Unida party won seats on city councils, school boards, and even ran a candidate for governor in 1972 and 1978. However, the party’s support declined as party activism slowed in the late 1970s.
Hispanic Americans are in a better political position today than either the MFDP was five decades ago or even La Raza Unida was in the ‘70s. In terms of representation, there is the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the 113th Congress has a record number of Latino elected officials, with 35 representatives and three senators. Most of these representatives are Democrats, and the immigration issue has been a high priority, as evidenced by the scathing criticism recently lobbed at the president by Representatives Raul Grijalva (Ariz.) and Luis Gutierrez (Ill.). Organizations like the National Council of La Raza, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and a variety of pro-immigration organizations have lobbied for immigration reform and deportation relief. How long will it be before such groups grow exasperated with the Democrats’ failure to move these issues forward?
A Latino party might even help solve the biggest obstacle to greater political clout—boosting turnout. At the time of the last midterm election, data from the Pew Research Center shows, Latinos chalked up a sharp increase in the number of eligible voters, while the number of actual voters is increasing more slowly. Also, as Pew notes, “even among eligible voters, Latino participation rates have lagged behind that of other groups in recent elections.” For example, 31.2 percent of Latino eligible voters said they voted in 2010, compared with nearly half of white eligible voters and 44 percent of black eligible voters. An independent Latino Party or a cohesive Latino bloc within an existing party that focused on the issues most important to Latinos could spur increased participation—and thus more political clout.
The smartest approach in the short run might be for Latinos to work within the existing party system, even as they continue to organize and swell their ranks within the electorate. In the long-term—especially if Democrats and Republicans continue to disappoint—they will need to assess their potential for working together as a voting bloc and whether this could lead to support for a party. Is this a long shot? Yes, but it’s better than sitting on the sidelines or waiting for others to act. How long will it be before Hispanic-Americans’ patience runs out?