If one were to reimagine the American political system as a high school cafeteria, the Republicans and Democrats would crowd the popular kids' tables, and the better-known third parties -- Libertarian, Green and Constitution -- might sit nearby, recognized for their plucky individualism but belonging to lower social strata nonetheless. Then, populating the outlying seats would be the lesser-known and downright quirky third parties that generally don't manage to get on many state ballots. Among those motley crews, one might easily identify groups such as the goth Vampyres Witches Pagans Party, the hippie-garbed Pot Party and the freewheeling Pansexual Peace Party, all of which have existed on the outskirts of U.S. politics [source: Bogart].
Whenever a presidential election rolls around, third parties often have a moment in the limelight, like unlikely candidates for homecoming court. Leading up to the 2012 election, for instance, a majority of adults in Gallup polls said they would welcome a third-party candidate to shake up the Republican and Democrat status quo [source: Jones]. In fact, a new third party called Americans Elect earned more than $35 million in donations and attracted significant mainstream media coverage, which led some to wonder whether it might be the solution to the bipartisan dilemma. By May 2012, however, Americans Elect had yet to turn up any viable presidential nominees, forcing it to fold operations and classing it with countless third parties past that couldn't muster enough popular patronage to compete against the political in-crowds [source: Leighton].
But while third parties haven't produced a presidential win since the 19th century, they've certainly left behind a colorful legacy, as evidenced by this snapshot of the strangest political parties in recent electoral history.
When Tom Stevens started the Objectivist Party on Feb. 2, 2008, he didn't pick the date at random. On that day in 1905, the Russian-American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was born. Best known for "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead," Rand's literary imprint has also bled into the political realm since much of her work focuses on themes of defending self-interest and freedom from government intervention [source: Rand]. The Objectivist Party skews toward the conservative end of the spectrum and bases its guiding principles on Rand's zealous support of laissez-faire capitalism and the function of government as a protector rather than a provider [source: Objectivist Party]. Rand, however, would likely loathe being associated with conservative politics, preferring to summarize her philosophy as "radical objectivism," hence the party name [source: Ayn Rand Lexicon].
In 2008 and 2012, Objectivist Party founder Tom Stevens was selected to represent the Rand acolytes as their presidential candidate.
Not to be confused with the Tea Party movement now in Congress or the 18th-century protest against British taxes, the Boston Tea Party was a political offshoot of the Libertarian Party that emerged in 2006 and features the snappy tagline: "Time to party like it's 1773!" [source: The Boston Tea Party]. Taking the Libertarian ideals of limited government a few steps further, the Boston Tea Party rallied for legalized marijuana, withdrawal from worldwide military outposts and ending legalized government surveillance [source: Byrnes]. During its May 2012 convention, the party broadened its stance against government tinkering with all domestic affairs whatsoever, calling for an end to what it termed the "war on poverty" and "war on civil liberties." Such extensive changes would probably be enacted through the Boston Tea Party's intent to dissolve a majority of the federal budget, as well as the federal government's property and assets.
Also in 2012, the political outlier ran into some internal troubles within its own ranks, initially nominating a presidential candidate, then later revoking the vote. In fact, that may have been the group's death knell, considering that it publicly disbanded soon afterward on July 22, 2012 [source: The Boston Tea Party].
The Pirate Party isn't interested in actual looting or pillaging, although some might assume that those are members' virtual intentions. The United States Pirate Party is affiliated with the Pirate Parties International, which bands together Pirate Party operations in more than 20 nations around the world [source: Pirate Parties International]. Although agendas may shift on a country-by-country basis, the major crux of the Pirate Party mission is defending online privacy, which includes allowing people to freely share files across the Internet and preventing online censorship. As of 2012, the United States Pirate Party exists in only seven states, but its designated captains and first mates that head up statewide organizations are working to broaden the pro-Internet freedom agenda.
To grow its numbers, American Pirate affiliates might be wise to look at how the party has penetrated traditional government structures in Germany. In 2012, the Web-savvy German cohorts won four parliamentary seats and wooed enough followers, reportedly weary of old-school politics, to potentially make it the nation's third-largest party [source: Kettmann].
It turns out that the mid-1940s were the salad days of sorts for vegetarianism due to meat shortages brought on by World War II [source: Iacobbo and Iacobbo]. As a result, Symon Gould, editor of American Vegetarian magazine and leader of New York's Vegetarian Society, decided to capitalize on the moment and transform the dietary and lifestyle choice into a political cause. In 1947, Gould and a group of naturopathic doctors, who relied on nutrition and fasting rather than medicine to treat ailments, organized the American Vegetarian Party. The group selected as their presidential candidate 84-year-old vegetarian restaurateur John Maxwell, who told TIME magazine he had "tasted no meat for 45 years" [source: TIME].
Maxwell didn't just run on an anti-meat platform, however. The American Vegetarian Party also eschewed alcohol, tobacco and medicine [source: Pearson]. Although the veggie-loving group didn't stick around long enough to make a dent in politics, the American Vegetarian Party did achieve its initial goal of spreading the word about living the meat-free life.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the 1940 Surprise Party was its almost instant success. Long before comedian Stephen Colbert would launch his faux run for president, comic Gracie Allen announced her intention to become America's first female president on her radio show "The Burns and Allen Show," which she co-hosted with George Burns. The bit was merely a gimmick to drum up press for the comedy duo, but listeners took her announcement seriously and were overwhelmingly supportive of Allen's Surprise Party ticket. In response, Allen embarked on a railroad tour from Los Angeles to Omaha, delivering stump speeches to impressive crowds along the way [source: NPR]. Even after she bowed out of the race, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt easily won his third term, Allen still received thousands of write-in votes.
The powers wielded by the U.S. president have waxed and waned over the years. Learn about executive powers in this article at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 5 Strangest Political Parties
In modern American politics, third parties often get the runaround from the public, it seems. Fed up with "politics as usual," people plead for a non-establishment option at the polls, but as Election Day approaches, voters tend to cast their ballot for a major party. My armchair theory for why third parties have such a difficult time converting voters is because of the mentality that they have no chance of winning, and therefore a third party vote is a throwaway. Moreover, the more bizarre and extremist parties that have cropped up throughout American electoral history have somewhat sullied the third party name. But you still have to hand it to these unconventional political groups for rallying for a specific cause -- save those like the American Nazi Party that are patently racist -- and bucking the majority, even though their chances of victory are slim to none.
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- Ayn Rand Lexicon. "Politics." Ayn Rand Institute. (July 19, 2012) http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/politics.html
- Bogart, Rachel. "Top 10 Weirdest Political Parties in the U.S." YahooVoices. Nov. 04, 2007. (July 19, 2012) http://voices.yahoo.com/top-10-weirdest-political-parties-us-638586.html?cat=9
- The Boston Tea Party. "Platform of the Boston Tea Party." (July 19, 2012) http://bostontea.us/platform
- Byrnes, Sholto. "Bizarre political parties: The Boston Tea Party." New Statesman. Oct. 23, 2006. (July 19, 2012) http://www.newstatesman.com/node/154627
- Federal Election Commission. "Key to Abbreviations of Party Names and Identifying Labels." ProCon.org. 2008. (July 19, 2012) http://2012election.procon.org/sourcefiles/2008party_lables.pdf
- Iacobbo, Karen and Iacobbo, Michael. "Vegetarian America: A History." Greenwood Publishing Group. April 30, 2004. (July 19, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=0AiAz62C_jcC&dq=american+vegetarian+symon+gould&source=gbs_navlinks_s
- Jones, Jeffrey M. "Little Support for Third-Party Candidates in 2012 Election." Gallup. July 06, 2012. (July 19, 2012) http://www.gallup.com/poll/155537/little-support-third-party-candidates-2012-election.aspx
- Kettmann, Steve. "New Politics, Ahoy!" The New York Times. May 01, 2012. (July 19, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/02/opinion/the-pirate-party-logs-a-new-politics.html?_r=2
- Leighton, Kyle. "Why Americans Elect Crashed and Burned." Talking Points Memo. May 21, 2012. (July 19, 2012) http://2012.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/05/american-elect-third-party.php
- NPR. "Remembering Gracie Allen's White House Run." Radio Diaries. Nov. 04, 2008. (July 19, 2012) http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=96588557
- Objectivist Party. "Statement of Principles." (July 19, 2012) http://www.objectivistparty.us/6401.html
- Pearson, Will. "Will the American Vegetarian Party return with sex appeal?" Mental Floss. April 28, 2006. (July 19, 2012) http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/100
- Pirate Parties International. "About the PPI." (July 19, 2012) http://www.pp-international.net/about
- Rand, Ayn. "Introducing Objectivism." Ayn Rand Institute. (July 19, 2012) http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_intro
- Santillano, Vicki. "Politics as Unusual: Six Strange U.S. Political Parties." Divine Caroline. November 2010. (July 19, 2012) http://www.divinecaroline.com/22354/106379-politics-unusual-six-strange-u-s
- TIME. "Political Notes: No Meat, No Drink." Aug. 11, 1947. (July 19, 2012) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,887497,00.html