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American Third Party Politics Isn’t Politics At All


One of the many odd things about Jennifer Roesch’s discussion of strategies for creating an “independent political alternative” at the national level is that is simply takes the desirability of dividing the leftmost party coalition for granted. Because the argument is question-begging all the way down, it certainly doesn’t consider salient examples. The most relevant one is Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign, which peeled off enough votes to throw the election to the Republican Party. (And while I know full well that this won’t stop several people from making it, let me preemptively say the argument that if a factor is necessary but not sufficient it therefore can’t be said to have had any impact at all is egregiously stupid.) What was the impact of this? Well, my opinion is that the Democratic Party has shifted modestly to the left, but this is not plausibly the result of Nader’s spoiler campaign; there was no serious third party threat in 2008. Rather, it’s mostly related to realignment producing a less southern and hence more liberal Democratic congressional caucus. But what does Roesch think has happened?

Nearly six years into Obama’s neoliberal presidency, there are growing signs of discontent within the Democrats’ traditional voting base. While both of Obama’s electoral wins can be attributed to the turnout of young, female, black, Latino/a, and working-class voters, these are precisely the groups that have most suffered from the economic crisis and his administration’s commitment to austerity.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether such policies as a massive expansion of the American single-payer health care system for the poor and a large (albeit not large enough) stimulus package represent a commitment to neoliberal austerity. If Roesch is right, a consequential third-party campaign that lead to all of the horrifying consequences of the most reactionary administration since at least Coolidge produced no positive effects at all. And this isn’t surprising, because in the current partisan alignment a left third party that got any traction at all would give the Republican Party a hammerlock on the electoral college. So why would it be good idea to pursue progressive change through a third party rather than emulating the conservative example and pushing the Democratic Party as far to the left as is possible? What good can come out of third party politics in a first-past-the-post system, let alone benefits that could justify the massive downside risks?

But what’s striking is that it’s not that Roesch’s answers to these questions are bad. She just doesn’t think the questions even need to be asked. There’s no strategic thinking, or indeed really any political thinking, going on here. It’s just 1. Mainstream Democrats are to my right. 2. Third Party 3. ???? 4. ???? 5. ???? 6. Things will get better in some unspecified way!

Which, in its own way, makes sense. Erik noted recently that third party politics is to progressive change as thrifting is to combating sweatshops; it’s not a strategy for change at all, it’s just a way of trying to convince yourself that you have clean hands. Only thrifting as political action is ineffectual but harmless, whereas ill-considered third-party campaigns can lead to stuff like “hundreds of thousands of people dead all over the world” and “Samuel Alito with a lifetime appointment on the country’s highest court” in exchange for no benefits whatsoever. Ralph Nader’s campaign — which had no signature issue, no coherent strategic plan, no meaningful content whatsoever except “isn’t the awesome purity of St. Ralph Nader awesome” — was all too representative of this anti-political thinking.  In the wake of 2000, it’s bizarre that anyone could think that this hand-waving would be persuasive.

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