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Third Parties: Local, State, National



My consistent position on third parties is that they are a counterproductive waste of time because a) there is no room in the American system for third parties, b) we have 200 years of political history to demonstrate point A), c) that they are more likely to hand elections to right-wing candidates than pull the Democratic Party left, and d) the enormous amount of time and effort it takes to build a party is all time and effort taken from issue-based organizing that is almost always for effective. So when I read this Kshama Sawant piece calling for the need for a new national third party “of the 99 percent,” I at first engaged in my usual eye-rolling, even outside of the conspiracy-curious talk about the New York primary. The idea that Bernie supporters should leave the Democratic Party and vote for some left-leaning third party is ridiculous and would be disastrous for the very causes about which they care. Of course, those who are most likely to actually do that would not vote for the Democratic Party anyway except under very specific circumstances, i.e., an actual socialist tops the ticket, so they can be discounted from a political strategy perspective. The fear would be dragging actual Democrats to Jill Stein, as Sawant hopes. And Sawant’s call to build a real third party also just wouldn’t amount to anything. Sawant makes the critical error of blaming Sanders for running as a Democrat, then noting how successful he was running as a left-wing Democrat, then assuming that his viability would be equal or greater as a left-wing non-Democrat, which is of course ridiculous. Sanders has done so well precisely because he is running as a Democrat.

So let all that go, if you can. The essay is unconvincing and dangerous and the politics make no sense to build toward anything. But maybe there’s something here of value.

I provide this caveat because Sawant is serving a very useful role as a Socialist official in Seattle. Her call for a national third party makes sense for her revolutionary program, but not for left policies. But candidates like her running at the local and state level absolutely does make sense in the vast numbers of cities, county, and state legislature seats that effectively are one-party seats. Being here in Rhode Island where the fundamental definition of “Democratic legislator” is “I want access to power,” we could use a bunch of Sawant’s to organize and run left-wing campaigns against some of our terrible state legislators (there are some very good people as well and that’s the real divide in the statehouse, not Republican-Democratic). If she and her Socialist Alternative people want to start a third party on the ground floor and work to take over city council positions and challenge terrible Democrats in various state legislatures, or even Congress in some cases, then I think that’s great. Providing an actual second party challenge from the left is something that has a lot of value. The dividing point between useful and terrible is the possibility of electing a Republican. That is almost always a disaster. That’s why her call for a national third party and for Sanders supporters to vote for Jill Stein needs to be rejected. But her running in Seattle? Sure, great. Bring some of your people to Providence!

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