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Third Parties: Not a Solution for the Left

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Scott has said much of what needs to be said about Jennifer Roesch’s Jacobin article calling for the “radical left” to break with the Democratic Party. The problems with this article are numerous, for it blithely avoids providing useful historical context or examples of how third parties work in the United States, what the constituency for a left third party would look like, how such a third party would actually succeed (or indeed, what the goals would be other than punishing Democrats), or really, an understanding of the incredibly complex society of the United States in 2014.

The third party has long has been how the American left has sought to punish Democrats for their various crimes. From Henry Wallace to Ralph Nader to really great lesser known activists like former Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers executive and so-called “Rachel Carson of the Workplace” Tony Mazziocchi, when activists get frustrated with the corporate domination of the Democratic Party, they have sought to create a left alternative. It never goes anywhere. When your benchmark of success in the modern Green Party, you know this is a strategy to irrelevance. Putting together political parties takes a huge amount of work, labor better spent actually helping people live better lives. The problem all of these people have also faced is that, frankly, most Americans don’t like their policy ideas. Whether that’s because they are racist or have false consciousness or are tools of capitalist media propaganda or whatever, it doesn’t much matter here. The point is that the organizing on the ground hasn’t happened to make a third party viable. For people who talk so much about bottom-up change and organizing the masses, it’s quite interesting that the solution they fall to for their lack of success is presidential third party runs, as if one daddy from the top will finally bring success.

To be fair, Roesch doesn’t quite come out and call for a leftist third party candidate in 2016, although I strongly doubt she would opposed it. Instead, she mostly focuses on local races. Where can “third parties” work? There are situations where something outside of the Democratic/Republican box can develop. Roesch mentions two, but in fact, they aren’t very useful for her project. The labor ticket in Lorain County, Ohio was a local insurgency against a terrible Democratic Party that used unions for their money and GOTV efforts while pursuing politics actively hostile to them. Nationally, labor doesn’t have the power to fight back against this reality. In Lorain County, it does and it did and it should have. If organized labor was strong enough in this country to challenge and defeat bad Democrats without electing Republicans, I would support that 100%. It is not and it knows it.

Sawant’s victory in Seattle was not a third party victory. It was a second party in a one-party district. In situations where one party is so completely dominant that the primary is all that matters for a victory, then insurgent challengers that present voters with a real option can make sense. Such was this Seattle city council seat. But that’s hugely different than a national campaign. Another Nader or whoever building a national political party of the left might present voters with more choices, but the effect of those choices is going to be electing Republicans, overturning Roe v. Wade, repressing black voting, Sam Alito-style Supreme Court judges, eviscerating environmental and workplace safety restrictions, etc., etc. Those calling for a national third party cannot ignore this. They have to take responsibility for what such the implications of such a party would be on the nation. The only exception is if the leftist party can actually win elections, which would only happen by essentially replacing the Democratic Party in our two-party system. And good luck with that.

It is a situation like Sawant’s victory that explains the closest thing we’ve ever had in this nation to a third party success story, which is the Populists. Rural anger over capitalist exploitation (not that most farmers were anti-capitalist, but they were increasingly opposed to the system of Gilded Age capitalism that openly took advantage of them and doomed them to poverty) led to a number of rural organizations becoming the Farmers Alliance in the 1880s and running a presidential candidate as the People’s Party in 1892. The Democrats co-opted part of their platform in 1896 after nominating William Jennings Bryan and the Populists disappeared. But even here, as the historian Jeffrey Ostler discovered in his book on state-level Populism, the success of this so-called third party depended on whether there was a functioning second party. In states like Iowa where an already functioning two-party system existed, the Populists could not gain ground because farmers found a responsive political outlet in one of the parties. It was only in states like Texas without a Republican Party or like Kansas without a Democratic Party that the Populists succeeded as a state-wide organization. In other words, they were filling the role of the second party.

More problematic is Roesch’s seeming contempt for how politics actually operate, whether in the U.S. or anywhere:

In most cases, independent campaigns are unlikely to actually win. Therefore, in the majority of situations, the primary goals are to raise the need for a political break with the Democrats, to amplify and strengthen existing movements and to engage a wider audience in left-wing ideas. Even in cases where independent candidates are able to win, like in Seattle, success can’t be measured on the usual terms of bourgeois politics, such as making deals to pass legislation or building alliances with other legislators.

The usual terms of bourgeois politics, such as making deals to pass legislation. You mean, how change actually happens? There is not a single social movement in American history that has not needed the usual terms of bourgeois politics to win change. Not one. The labor movement required the National Labor Relations Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, and much additional legislation. The environmental movement needed the Wilderness Act, various Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, etc. The civil rights movement needed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The gay rights movement is succeeding because of its brilliant legal strategy. I guess this is all just bourgeois politics since deals had to be made and legislation was weakened through those deals that allowed them to get the necessary votes to codify change. All of this isn’t the pure politics of working class solidarity (which is disconnected from most of the actual American working class but what does that matter to ideology) and, well, what exactly? What the goal of such a party is if not to pass legislation goes totally unmentioned It’s just purity and punishment.

And then there’s this:

Once in office, left-wing activists who try to carry on their struggle while representing the Democratic Party ultimately end up having to choose between making deals with and accommodations to the existing power structure, or becoming marginalized and unable to accomplish their goals.

I’m sorry, has there ever been a state with functioning democratic structures, capitalist or socialist, where making deals with existing power structures has not happened? No. This is called governance. If socialists do get elected and they can’t govern because they refuse to, they will be quickly and rightfully swept from office.

So where does this lead us? Rosech identifies places where left alternatives to Democrats make sense and I don’t disagree with most of them. It’s possible that a socialist run against Andrew Cuomo could be a good idea. Certainly a left candidate for mayor of Oakland has logic behind it. Rhode Island in 2014 is a state, like Texas or Kansas in the late 19th century, that is an effective one-party state where the only thing tying the party’s elected officials together is the need to be in the party to have personal power. Without a functioning Republican Party, Rhode Island could be an interesting place to experiment with a state level left alternative to the Democrats. But ultimately, this again would just be filling the role of the 2nd party. And whatever form it takes, it will have to make compromises and won’t pass anyone’s purity tests. Because that’s the real world.

But a national third party alternative is a disastrous idea that would a) elect Republicans nationwide and b) take up so much energy and resources that leftists would have to ignore actual community organizing in order to focus on this. Is this is the best use of left energy? I’d argue not. Instead, I’d look to our past to see how people on the streets moved political parties through protest, lobbying, and organizing.

Instead, like how radical conservatives took over the Republican Party from within beginning in the 1950s, leftists would have much better success turning the Democratic Party into a more left-leaning organization. I don’t think this necessarily should be the focus of left organizing efforts, but people who want to put the energy into creating a third party would find it much better spent here. I mean, they’d have to deal with the Laborers union willing to sell out potential allies for years over a few jobs, business owners, anti-abortion Irish Catholics who vote Democratic for economic issues, and all the other complexities of modern America. But the United States is not a nation of people who go to socialist meetings. It’s a nation of people who watch football. The American kind of football. No left political movement can succeed without recognizing the complexity of the American populace and make compromises with those groups with which they are uncomfortable. Otherwise, they will win nothing.

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