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The Erroneous Premises of Third Party Curiosity

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byrd_courtThose Were the Days!

Tomasky has a good Nation piece laying out the straightforward point that in the current partisan context the electoral choice for virtually any segment of the left is straightforward — pull the Democratic lever.  This is boring, but this doesn’t make it less true.  As always, Tomasky is especially good on of elites advocating heighten-the-contradictions strategies that are notably unpopular with the people upon whom the contradictions will be most heightened.

Max Sawicky has a response that, as always with Max, is worth reading.  But, as always with attempts to argue that third party politics have the potential to solve problems, his response is also highly unpersuasive.  The fatal false premise comes early:

 We can stipulate from the outset that these days, most any Democrat for president will be less evil than most any Republican…It follows that whatever legion of minions the Democrat would bring with her into the executive branch will be comparatively superior as well. This is not really controversial, nor is it really on point.A different issue is the political dynamic of the right-drifting center. As the center drifts right, so do the Democrats.

This was also the core argument of Adolph Reed’s recent Harper’s piece. And the main problem remains that it is transparently wrong. The idea that the Democratic Party of O’Neill/Byrd/Carter is more progressive than Democratic Party of Pelosi/Reid/Obama…I have absolutely no idea how this premise could be defended.

Sawicky continues:

They may be less evil, but they are more evil than in previous periods. Mondale and Dukakis took up bankrupt deficit reduction mania. Bill Clinton destroyed Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Both Clinton and Obama came close to cutting Social Security. With sanctions, Clinton greased the skids for a second war with Iraq.

As it happens, this was the other most crucial failing of Reed’s version of the argument: most of the evidence cited to buttress the claim that the Democratic Party has shifted inexorably to the right comes from stuff Democrats did 20 or 30 years ago (and most of that from periods in which the Republican Party controlled Congress.) There’s also the problem that the many flaws of Democrats from preceding periods are airbrushed out of the story. To the parade of Democrats who endorsed “bankrupt deficit reduction mania” we should probably add…Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who actually implemented austerity policies with disastrous consequences. (When reflecting on this Golden Age of the Democratic Party, we should perhaps also recall such matters as the white supremacy that tainted even the achievements of the New Deal, the segregationists nominated to the Supreme Court, the people sent to concentration camps on the basis of their race, inter alia.)

On the other hand, the tendentious case against Obama consists solely of the fact that he “came close to cutting Social Security.” This is not in fact true — there was never any chance that Republicans would accept Chained CPI in exchange for what Obama was demanding in return — but the Chained CPI deal was still a bad deal and the criticism of Obama for offering it (at least before his re-election, when he apparently thought it might fly) is merited. But if arguing that the Democratic Party is always shifting to the right, you can’t just look at things that didn’t happen; you have to look at things that did happen, and once you consider the most important expansion of the progressive state since the Johnson administration along with ARRA, Dodd-Frank, the Obama administration’s use of regulations to combat climate change and the repeal of DADT, the claim that the Democratic Party is to the right of where it was 40 years ago has no content at all.

Change in the American political system doesn’t come from third parties; it comes from social movements and primaries. The shift of the Democratic Party since the 90s is an illustration of this, not a counter-example.

On final point, on Max’s response to Tomasky’s point about how most Naderites were exempt from the dismal consequences of Naderist theories of electoral politics:

Tomasky suggests that protest votes are easy for bourgeois elitists who will not suffer from the machinations of retrograde Republican governance. This is a little rich. Of course, votes for the Democrats are not costly for elites either. It’s good to be the king, as long as your feet stay dry.

Well, yes, elites will do fine either way; some Nader supporters have lower tax bills thanks to Nader’s vanity campaign, but I don’t think that motivated anybody. But that’s not the issue. The question is what effect vote-splitting has on the most vulnerable people in society, and the answer is that throwing elections to Republicans has very bad effects on them in the current partisan context. If this is what we’re risking, there had better be some important benefit being gained in return. At this point, the fact third-party politics at the federal level has no actual upside becomes highly relevant.

…Max responds, you should read.

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