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A New Third Second Party?

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Adam Kotsko offers as a “thought experiment” a heighten-the-contradictions scenario that would result in the “liquidation of the Democrats.” And as with all such scenarios, there are several missing links in the causal chain — which goes, roughly, from “electing a few social democratic members of Congress” immediately to “a viable social democratic second party” with no intervening step (except the Democrats losing a lot of elections) being explained. The problems here are obvious:

  • It’s nice, at least, that he proposes to start the liquidation at the congressional level rather than the presidential level, which will at least avoid the Nader problem of electing the most reactionary president since Harding if not McKinley in return for no benefits whatsoever. However, it’s unclear what exactly this will actually accomplish. The few House districts and even fewer Senate seats that could plausibly elect a social democrat are already represented by…very liberal Democrats. If Jim McDermott becomes the leader of SDPUSA and is joined by a few more colleagues, the effect of this would be…nothing. Their up-or-down votes can’t change, since they already take the left-most position on almost every vote. They will have virtually no power affect the content of legislation brought to the floor. Indeed, in the House, a rump party will have no power at all, and even if a couple of SDPUSA Senators are added to Bernie Sanders they couldn’t use their amendment power to do anything but obstruct progressive legislation that isn’t progressive enough.
  • The most recent implosion of a party over a century ago had an obvious cause: the slavery issue combined with demographic trends made a bisectional northern-based party unsustainable. What is going to cause the Democrats to be replaced by an entirely different coalition is unclear, and if Kotsko knows he isn’t saying.
  • Which brings us to the bigger problem: where exactly is this second party getting votes? What evidence is there than “social democracy” is going to be anywhere near the median voter nationally, let alone in a majority of House and Senate districts? How is this going to happen? If the answer is that a winning political coalition can be well to the left of the median voter, this is exceptionally implausible; indeed, a variety of factors (most importantly the malapportionment of the Senate and the laissez-faire campaign finance regime protected by a Supreme Court majority that will be bulletproof for the foreseeable future) skew electoral outcomes to the right of median opinion, not the left. It’s especially unclear why a rump party could effect such a massive change in American political culture when the very liberal Democrats already representing the winnable districts cannot.
  • Under these circumstances, even if a social democratic second party emerged, exactly what it would accomplish, other than to ensure perpetual filibuster-proof Senate majorites for the GOP, is unclear. I leave the last word to Michael Berube, with “SDPUSA” replacing the “Democrats”: “…“divergence” in and of itself is not a value; it needs to be supplemented by the possibility that the newly divergent Democrats will actually beat their opponents. What’s the point of fostering “divergence” if the result is a feral Tom DeLay GOP that controls the entire country and a feeble liberal-progressive Democratic party that controls a few cities and college towns? “Ah, yes, we’re completely powerless, except for that tough new recycling law in Madison, Wisconsin,” the Curtisses will say in 2012 when the parties have diverged a little more to their liking, “but at least we know now that our opposition is truly oppositional.” I’ll pass, thanks.
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