Howard Schultz, the former chief executive of Starbucks, cannot win the presidency as an independent candidate. But is there someone who could? Is there any chance a third-party candidate could contest the presidency and win?

The short answer is no. As long as the United States has an Electoral College and winner-take-all process for presidential elections, third-party and independent candidates will have a hard time finding any traction.

There have been times in American history, though, when third-party candidates have upended the political landscape, winning entire regions of the country, although never the presidency. But unlike Schultz, those candidates weren’t self-proclaimed “independents” railing against “divisiveness” from the center; they were polarizers who built support by cultivating personal followings and sharpening ideological, cultural and geographic divides.

Formed in early 1892 in an effort to make the farmer’s cooperative movement a national political crusade, the Populist Party hoped to, in the words of one leader, “march to the ballot box and take possession of the government, restore it to the principles of our fathers, and run it in the interest of the people.” That summer, delegates at a nominating convention in Omaha chose James Weaver, a former Union Army general, for president and a Confederate veteran, James Field, for vice president, a bisectional ticket meant to unify farmers in the North and South.

Weaver’s campaign pamphlet, “A Call to Arms,” provides a taste of the candidate’s rhetoric in the presidential campaign. “Capitalists have entrenched themselves within the governments of the world and wield the machinery of state as the policeman does the baton and the revolver — to inspire fear, control the refractory and suppress revolt,” Weaver wrote. He called on the nation’s farmers and laborers to “make the year 1892 memorable for all time to come as the period when the great battle for industrial emancipation was fought and won in the United States.” This was the language of division and conflict, of class warfare and unambiguous opposition to a well-defined political enemy. And it helped the Populist Party win 8.5 percent of ballots cast, four Western states and 22 electoral votes overall — an unusually strong showing for a third party in American presidential politics.

Theodore Roosevelt had an even stronger showing in the 1912 election, running against the Democrat Woodrow Wilson and the Republican incumbent William Howard Taft as the Progressive Party’s nominee. Roosevelt, who had served nearly two terms as president, pushed a platform drawn from his 1910 “New Nationalism” address, in which he called for leadership that “puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage” and is “impatient” of “the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock.”

All of these examples share key elements. The most successful third-party candidacies relied on a pre-existing mass constituency, whether a movement or a charismatic following or a distinct minority with shared political and cultural interests. To mobilize those constituencies, candidates threw themselves into polarizing the electorate from novel positions — not the center — sharpening differences and working to reorganize the electoral playing field around their concerns. And they played on divisions in the major parties themselves, capitalizing on shifting attitudes within each coalition. The Populists exploited agrarian discontent within the Democratic Party; the Dixiecrats did the same for white Southern opposition to racial liberalism.

To believe, as Howard Schultz does, that “a formidable third choice for president also has a chance to succeed for the first time since George Washington,” one also has to believe that the structure of American politics has suddenly changed, with a large and distinct constituency of voters just waiting to be tapped by an enterprising candidate. Neither is true. One must also ignore the virtues of our particular system, especially in its modern, polarized form. By pushing varied interests and communities into one of two sides, it clarifies the stakes, helps ordinary people make otherwise complicated political decisions and produces governing coalitions with points of real consensus.

Let’s say Schultz is right. Should we want an “independent” president? Would it benefit American democracy? If you see partisanship and traditional political parties as major obstacles to representative government, the answer is yes. But if you see them as an essential part of our democracy, necessary tools for taming conflict, balancing discordant values, ordering democratic deliberation and organizing democratic action, you might recoil when someone like an unaccountable billionaire suggests we’d be better off without them.

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