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Can We Overturn the Two Party System? No. And What Good Would It Do for Progressive Causes Anyway?

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Henry_Wallace

Last weekend was the Organization of American Historians meeting in Providence and I was lucky enough to be asked to be on a roundtable titled “New Directions in American Socialism.” My colleagues on the panel all had good things to say. The audience primarily wanted to talk about Bernie, which is fine, although as I pointed out, this whole situation does beg the question of what socialism actually means today. In any case, toward the end of the conversation, one person said something along the lines of “The two-party system oppresses workers and we can’t achieve socialism with it. How do we overturn the two-party system so a real workers’ party can achieve gains?”

My answer was that you can’t. The two-party system is never going away. There is 225 years of history now behind my assertion. There simply have not been viable third-parties at any point in American history. The strongest case for a third party is the Populists, but they are the exception that proves the rule. First, as Jeffery Ostler pointed out many years ago, the Populists only had strength in states that lacked a functional second party. In other words, on the state level, the Populists served as a second party in one-party state. Second, the Populists were completely co-opted in 1896 and it totally destroyed them immediately. Since then, look at what you have. Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party campaigns did attract some popular support but certainly never came anywhere close to electoral relevance outside of a few cities. There’s Roosevelt’s 1912 Bull Moosers, which was a “party” based around a single man’s ego. There’s the Progressive Party in 1924 that collapsed immediately. Then there’s Wallace in 1948, which is a good cautionary tale for leftist political parties. There’s a few protest third party candidates, mostly southern anti-civil rights types like Thurmond and Wallace. There’s whatever John Anderson (still living!) was about. There’s Perot’s Reform Party, which again, as a party didn’t stand for anything and couldn’t build on his momentum. And then there’s Nader and the Green Party, which did nothing to affect American politics except elect George W. Bush to the presidency. As Scott says, losing does not move the Democratic Party to the left.

That’s it. At this point, if you want a legitimate third party option on the left, or on the right for that matter, the evidence is on you to show me how this can happen. Because it can’t. At best, you might see one of the two political parties collapse and then out of its ruins, a third party develops. But in this case, it’s most likely to look something like the Republicans, which means most of the collapsed party plus some others attracted by the decline of the old order to the new positions. The American political system simply will not allow a third party to develop in any meaningful.

Moreover, third parties are a tremendous waste of organizing energy. Green Party organizers spend (or spent back in 2000 and 2004) a fantastic amount of time on party-building. They achieved nothing. Imagine if that energy had been spent on organizing around issue-based politics. So much could have been achieved. This is one the way forward for the socialist left. Given that the two-party system is entrenched and is not going anywhere, socialist energy should be split between organizing to move the Democratic Party to the left and making it more of a socialist party and organizing outside of the political parities on economic and social issues, ranging from the minimum wage to racist police violence. That organizing can then affect the political system, as we are seeing with the recent push to raise the minimum wage.

After I made these points, my colleague Peter Cole also made the valid point that nations with multi-party systems are not exactly socialist paradises. This is another burden of evidence that’s upon those who want third parties. What good will they actually do? How will multi-party democracies lead to greater socialism than two-party states? Where is that socialism in Britain or France or Italy or Germany? Seems to me that many of the same problems affecting the United States’ working class are also impacting those nations, although they were starting at places with greater rights for workers due to a variety of historical circumstances (traditionally less employer resistance to unions than the U.S., more homogeneous populations, the remaking of society and popular demand for socialism of some kind after World War II, etc).

I know that for most readers of this site, these points are well-known. But they remain powerful on the left, including with the Bernie or Busters. Most of those people will probably just sit out the presidential election and they wouldn’t have voted anyway if Bernie or maybe Warren wasn’t the nominee. But they have powerful stories to tell about the perfidy of the two parties and we need to fight back with strong political analysis.

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