Thoughts on the Left at the End of an Election Cycle

Scott has provided the fundamental case for Obama’s reelection, no matter how disappointed with him you might be. I want to build on that a bit by summarizing a few thoughts I’ve had about the left during the election cycle. Frankly, I’m a bit disappointed in many of those who consider themselves to be on the left. We have created some self-mythology that we are the reality-based community, the ones who have an understanding of history and government, and who take policy seriously and learn from the past and present.

This is obviously not true.

Within left politics in 2012, the big story has not been Occupy or any other social movement. It hasn’t been building on the Wisconsin protests to create long-lasting change. It’s been a discussion of this question: Has Obama been so horrible that we can’t vote for him?

I’m really disappointed in the left in this conversation.

I would like to think that we on the left actually do understand history. We do not. There is a clear path to change. Conservatives understand this. You take over the party structure. That’s what they did in the 1950s and 1960s when they were disgusted by the moderate Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower, Earl Warren, and Nelson Rockefeller. They took over party structures and local offices and turned them into bastions of energized conservatism. Note that conservatives basically don’t run 3rd party campaigns. Libertarians might talk about doing this–but they almost all vote Republican in the end because they know that they are moving their agenda forward by doing so.

Any reading of history shows that change within the American political system does not come through third party campaigns. It comes through the hard work of organizing our communities to demand change. Eventually legal and political changes are necessary–but only after people are organized to demand them. Look at the major movements in the last century. The labor movement, African-American civil rights, the women’s movement, gay rights movement. Each of these movements spent decades (or a century) organizing for change. For each of them, there was a moment when it all came together and they could demand transformations of federal and state law, which for gay rights is happening right now.

Note that not a single one of these transformational social movements used a third party mechanism as an important strategy.

At times, a 3rd party could theoretically make sense. The last one that made any difference was the Populists. But there are two caveats to using that as an argument in favor of a 3rd party today. First, as historian Jeffrey Ostler has shown, in reality Populists thrived primarily in 1-party states after the Civil War. For reasons of regional identity coming from the Civil War, corruption, and political violence, many states had only one functioning political party. That meant that there was no way for the Populists to get their voices heard. They were really operating as a 2nd party. In states that were legitimately contested by both parties such as Iowa, the Populists had a very hard time gaining traction. Second, the Populists came out of nearly 20 years of organizing among angry farmers. It was the voices of millions of bankrupt farmers coming up through the system. Unable to see the changes they wanted on a local or state level, they eventually went national.

There has not been a single 3rd party campaign since World War II that has come out of grassroots organizing. Every one of them has been about a nationally known figure (or a rich self-funder) deciding to make a point and through a 3rd party presidential run. That’s true whether we are talking about Henry Wallace, Ross Perot, or Ralph Nader. The only possible counterexamples to this are the segregationist runs of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace, but that’s obviously such a different phenomenon as to be irrelevant to this conversation.

Those who are calling for a 3rd party run today have no interest in party building, just as Nader didn’t in 2000. They are angry at Obama and want to shove it in the Democrats’ faces by throwing the election to Romney. That shows a massive ignorance of how change works in this society, as well as a hyperactive fetishized individualism coming out of our consumer capitalist society that privileges these sorts of positions and stands over organizing.

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