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Third Parties Don't Work: Why and How Egalitarians Should Transform the Democratic Party
This document first explains why third parties cannot work in the United States. Then it explains how and why it would now be possible to transform the Democratic Party into a nationwide liberal-labor-left coalition, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which forced the southern white racists who previously controlled the party into the Republican Party.
To understand how the electoral rules shape the number of parties, consider this brief example from a different country in a different century:
In the late nineteenth century, Belgium elected its parliament from geographical districts and had two stable political parties, with the Catholic Party usually defeating the Liberal Party. But in the 1890s a Socialist Party came on strong, and the Liberal Party was in danger of extinction. The Catholic Party quickly changed the electoral system because it did not want to end up in a one-on-one battle with the socialists. The system it chose, proportional representation, gives parties seats in the parliament roughly in proportion to their overall vote in the country as a whole. The Liberal Party was saved and Belgium operated with three political parties for many decades thereafter.
As this historical example suggests, electoral rules can play a big role in determining the number of parties. This possibility is confirmed by systematic studies comparing various kinds of electoral systems over the space of many decades. Electoral systems like the one Belgium used first, which are now designated by an overly long term, single-member district plurality systems, almost always have just two parties. The few third parties that hang on are usually regional or ethnic in nature. However, they are sometimes based on blue-collar workers and the few remaining radical small farmers.
In contrast to a system based on districts and pluralities, countries with systems of proportional representation usually have four or more parties, and would have even more if there wasn't a minimum vote that has to be reached to receive any seats at all. Although the centrist parties soak up most of the votes, these countries are often governed by a coalition of two or more parties. Roughly speaking, there are left-of-center, center-left, center-right, and right-of-center coalitions. In this kind of system, everyone's vote counts, and voter turnout is therefore very high.
When it comes to electoral systems, the United States is the most extreme of the countries with a single-member district plurality system, meaning that its third parties have been very small and ephemeral. They rarely win more than a percent or two of the vote, and rarely last more than one or two elections when they do receive more than a few percent. This striking difference also is one key reason why so few socialists were elected to Congress in the 20th century. In a study of the percentage of Socialist or Social Democratic party members in national legislatures across the world, only South Africa had less -- zero -- than the two who made it to the House of Representatives a few times in the first quarter of the twentieth century. More leftists were elected to Congress in the 1930s and early 1940s as Democrats -- from California, Washington, Montana, Minnesota, and New York -- than were ever elected earlier as socialists. They weren't fully open about their socialism, or their sympathy for the Communist Party, but their views were well known to everyone involved in politics at the time.
The election of a president from the nation as a whole accounts for the even greater rigidity of the American two-party system. In a parliamentary system with single-member districts, there is at least a little room for the creation of post-election coalitions between two parties, which is why new labor or socialist parties were able to grow quickly in England and Northern Europe at the beginning of the last century.
At this point the thought might occur that it would be possible to change the electoral system, as was done in Belgium and other countries due to the rise of labor and socialist parties. But the changes in Belgium and elsewhere were made by the dominant parties, not the insurgents, so such a change seems far less likely in the United States than making major alterations in the economic system. Even if the great majority of citizens wanted a system of proportional representation for the election of Congress as a whole, Article V of the Constitution says that "no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate," which means the small states could block any such change for the Senate. As far as the House, it is not going to happen there either because the citizens and politicians in the least populated states would lose a tremendous amount of political power. Even liberal little Vermont, with a population of around 600,000, surely would line up with highly conservative states in the Great Plains because it would lose the only House seat it now has. Face it, the United States is tied to geographical units for choosing its Congress. That's because of the nature of the original colonization patterns, the Constitution, the nature of the expansion of the country westward, the huge size of the country, historical sentiment, and on and on. Nor would it be possible to abolish the presidency and have a parliamentary system.
Now, it might be possible to convince the general public to go for a relatively simple change in the ballot that would allow for majority rule and more political parties. Under that plan, it would take a majority of the votes to win the office, and people would rank each candidate in order of preference. Then, if no candidate won a majority, the second choices of those who voted for the least successful candidate would be tallied, and so on until one candidate had a majority. It's called Instant Runoff Voting and it is being tried, as you might guess, in San Francisco, thanks to a coalition including Common Cause, the National Organization of Women, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, the Democratic Party, and the Green Party. With Instant Runoff Voting in 2000, Nader supporters could have put Gore second and Patrick Buchanan supporters could have put Bush second, and Gore would have won by roughly 51% to 49%.
But right now it is Republicans and Democrats who control state legislatures and Congress, and it will be very difficult to convince them to risk their current power by adopting Instant Runoff Voting for state and national elections. There's also the fact that people tend to treat the political system as far more sacred and unchangeable than the economic system. So if egalitarians are going to win any time soon, they are going to have to do so within the context of the current rules by taking over the Democratic Party and making changes in the economic system. They aren't the best rules for insurgents, but they are the hand that has been dealt. If activists can make progress with Instant Runoff Voting, then more power to them, but it would take many years, and maybe decades, for them to get past the city, county, and state levels.
When some of the egalitarians of the past took a look at this frustrating situation, they decided the only way to alter it was to have a preliminary election for each party, which came to be called a primary. This system in effect allows leftists and liberals to duke it in out in one set of primaries, and moderate conservatives and ultraconservatives to go at it in the other set. Primaries were first instituted by reformers in Wisconsin in 1903, and then spread to the prairie states, where the northern European immigrants with socialist and radical farmer roots thought they were receiving a raw deal from corporations and big farmers. Primaries also came to be used in the South along about the same time by very different people for very different reasons -- they were a way to exclude African-Americans from power. These "white primaries," often operated under the fiction that they were merely a party function, were the final step in the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the late nineteenth century. They were not banned by the Supreme Court until 1944.
Either way, the primary system slowly spread and gained legitimacy, and by the 1970s it had almost completely replaced party conventions as a way of selecting delegates to the national conventions. Primaries were used as early as 1952 to challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination by a maverick Senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver, who opposed segregation in the South and the role of the Mafia in many Democratic machines in Northern cities. He therefore was anathema to both groups, who backed an urbane corporate lawyer, Adlai Stevenson, in order to beat him at the party convention. Starting with the 1964 presidential candidacy of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, right-wing Republicans began using primaries at all levels to increase their leverage within their party.
If cross-national comparisons and historical studies provide such a strong case against third parties, and if there are good structural reasons for making egalitarian challenges within the Democratic Party primaries, why is this approach so strongly, even vociferously, resisted by so many egalitarians, including the nation's most visible leftist scholars, many of whom enthusiastically endorsed Nader in 2000? Here my comments begin to take on a sharper edge.
Based on my reading and discussions with members of leftist third parties, I think there are several factors that explain the amazing persistence of a useless enterprise. The importance of each factor probably varies from person to person, but the net result is still the same, a small group of people who are determined that this time a leftist third party will work because they will do it right. At the most general level, this distaste for transforming the Democratic Party is a historical legacy of a time -- pre-1970 -- when there were relatively few primaries and the party was controlled by Northern urban bosses and racist Southern white court house gangs. Except for liberal areas in a few Northern states, there was no way egalitarians were going to go anywhere in the Democratic Party. The machine bosses in places like Chicago, Jersey City, and Kansas City probably would have had their Mafia friends rough up or run out of town any leftists foolhardy enough to challenge them. Entering Southern white primaries in the face of the violence of the Jim Crow era also was out of the question.
Until as recently as the 1980s, then, the Democrats were first and foremost the party of the Southern rich, who started it as a way to ensure that their plantation system and slavery would survive in the face of the growth of manufacturing in the North. At first they found their allies among the landed rich of the rural North, such as on the vast estates of upstate New York, and later among the well-to-do Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants who made their money in real estate and related businesses in large Northern cities. The Northern rich, of course, had their own party, which was first the Federalists, then the Whigs, and then the Republicans since the 1850s.
Given the structural constraints on third parties, this arrangement meant there was no independent space for the Northern-based liberal-labor coalition when it developed in the context of the New Deal. Despite its confinement within the Democratic Party, however, this coalition did manage to elect about 100 Democrats to the House starting in the 1930s, where they joined with roughly 100 Southern Democrats and 50 machine Democrats to form a strong Democratic majority in all but a few sessions of Congress from 1934 to 1994. They were even able to pass some liberal spending legislation when they could convince the Southern Democrats to join them.
But the picture was more negative when it came to issues concerning class interests. As early as 1938, the Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans formed a conservative voting bloc that stopped the liberal Democrats from passing legislation concerning union rights, civil rights, and the regulation of business, even when they could convince some machine Democrats to support them. These are precisely the issues that define class conflict in the United States. Civil rights fits that generalization because in the past such legislation really concerned keeping the African-American workforce in the South from having any political power. The only way the liberal-labor coalition could pass measures like the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 was to give the Southern Democrats what they wanted, namely, the exclusion of agricultural, seasonal, and domestic labor from its protections.
It might seem that the liberals would have found natural allies among the 50 machine Democrats from big urban areas like New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia, but more often than not they presented a liberal face to the public and then quietly sided with Southern Democrats in private. They had impressive liberal voting records on legislation that made it to the floor, but they helped the Southerners to gut such legislation behind the scenes and in committee. Most critically, the machine Democrats upheld the tradition of seniority and voted with the Southerners in the party caucus, which meant that the Southern Democrats controlled the Congress thanks to the votes of 50 machine Democrats and the presence of the 100 liberal Democrats who made the party a majority.
This remarkable bargain between the machines and the South at the expense of liberals and the urban working class was in part due to their similar backroom political styles, but they also shared a common interest in government spending to subsidize the enterprises of their backers. The basic deal was agricultural subsidies for Southern plantation owners in exchange for housing and urban development subsidies in big cities. In addition -- and this part of the bargain could not be spoken about publicly -- they both shared an interest in keeping African-Americans from voting. This desire to exclude blacks may sound surprising in the case of the Northern machines, but in fact they feared that black voters would eventually replace them with black representatives, which turned out to be the case by the 1980s. Given this sordid pact at the heart of the Democratic Party, it is small wonder that older egalitarians with long memories have no hope of transforming the party and warn new egalitarians away from having anything to do with it.
Thus, the fact that Democrats dominated Congress for the several decades between 1934 and 1994 was mostly irrelevant for those seeking egalitarian social change. Until the 1990s, the Southerners could call the shots on class-oriented legislation through the conservative voting bloc with Republicans and control the Democratic Party through their alliance with the machine types. This is why it is a great mistake for liberal commentators and historians to talk about the "progressive" history of the party, meaning a few pieces of legislation in the mid-1930s and mid-1960s when egalitarian movements were generating serious social disruption.
But all this slowly began to change after 1965 thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, a fact that is often overlooked by most of the egalitarians who continue to rail against the Democratic Party. It began to change because that movement not only brought rights and dignity to African-Americans in the South, but it undercut the disproportionate national power of the Southern rich, which was based on dominating the Democratic Party by denying voting rights to African-Americans as well as many low-income whites. Once African-Americans won the right to vote in the South through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they were able to help force out the worst racists by voting against them in Democratic Party primaries. At that point the Southern rich started to move over to the Republican Party, where they now felt more at home in any case due to the increasing industrialization of the South -- agricultural subsidies were no longer an issue. Using appeals to racial resentment, religious fundamentalism, and social conservatism, they were able to take a majority of other whites along with them. Rich Southern whites clearly know how to construct and demonize an out-group in order to take the focus off class conflict.
However, this switchover was only gradual because the elected Southern Democrats still had great power in Congress due to the seniority system for picking committee chairs. These old bulls hung on for as long as they could, only to be replaced by Republicans when they died or retired. At a certain point, though, when control of Congress seemed possible for the Republicans, some of these conservative Democrats suddenly switched parties while they were in office. The stage was thereby set for the Republican takeover in Congress in 1994.
The most immediate result of the Republicanization of the South was the break-up of the New Deal coalition at the presidential level, which relied upon Southern involvement far more than liberal commentators like to remember. This break-up meant the election of Republican presidents from 1968 to 1976 and from 1980 to 1992. Even when the Democrats made their presidential comeback in 1992, it was through the efforts of a Southern-based leadership group, the Democratic Leadership Council. In order to win, the rest of the Democrats accepted the Council's two Southern moderates, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, as their ticket because they knew they could not triumph without winning a few Southern states. Clinton and Gore then hit all the right notes on religion, guns, and the death penalty to attract Southern whites, and especially Southern white males. They were better than Republicans on racial, feminist, and environmental issues, but not much else.
In the longer run, however, the Civil Rights Movement had a much bigger impact on the structure of American politics. It freed the Democratic Party from inevitable control by conservatives. For the first time in American history, it became possible to create a nationwide liberal/
For this left-of-center coalition to prevail, it has to win a majority in the House, 60 seats in the Senate (to cut off a filibuster), and place a moderate in the White House. This is a daunting challenge, of course. To succeed, it would have to do the difficult grassroots work of creating liberal black-white voting coalitions in the states of the Old South, which now have about 30 percent of Congressional seats and 30 percent of the electoral votes. In other words, the same South that has always held the nation back due to its slave and Jim Crow past remains the biggest problem for egalitarians today. Think Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Bill Frist, Tom DeLay, and George W. Bush, for example.
The transformation of the Democratic Party into an expression of a wide-ranging coalition pulled together by egalitarian activists also could decrease the importance of campaign finance in American politics. In the past, campaign donations have been critical to candidates in both primary and regular elections because of the need for name recognition and a unique image, thereby giving free-spending members of the capitalist class North and South a critical role in determining which candidates are likely to be successful. Money is not the only ingredient in a winning campaign, as the long list of well-financed losers demonstrates, but a certain large minimum usually is necessary to have much of a chance. This state of affairs has led many clean-money reformers to argue that limiting large donations is essential before liberal and left candidates can have a fair chance.
Short of a nationwide system of public financing for candidates, which seems highly unlikely in a Congress where Republicans from low-population states have a strong veto power in the Senate and great leverage in the House, it seems likely that wealthy fat cats will find one way or another to finance the candidates of their choice. Thus, the wiser course would be to concentrate on developing a strong and clear image for the Democratic Party so that it could rely upon a core of loyalists who would vote for the party, not simply individual candidates. If the voters knew what the party consistently stood for, then the names, personalities, and images of individual candidates would be less important, and money would count for a whole lot less.
Since the Democratic Party has now shed its Southern racist wing, and machine Democrats are mostly a thing of the past, it cannot be just historical memories that keep egalitarians from seeing the golden opportunity provided by party primaries. So something else must be going on as well. I think that the something else is based in the strong moral sense that characterizes most egalitarian activists. Indeed, a moral outrage over the issues highlighted in egalitarian social movements is the most important thing they all share in common. It is an essential source of their energy and courage in facing great danger, but it also can be a hindrance because they cannot tolerate much compromise on the issues of concern to them, especially if they think people have failed to stand up for their beliefs. As speeches, articles, and letters-to-the-editor by third-party advocates make abundantly clear, they see the Democrats as compromised, corrupt, and spineless. In this sense, egalitarians are "purists," and usually proud of it.
This moral zeal creates a strong inclination to separate from the everyday world and create an alternative set of standards and institutions. It generates a desire for a distinctive social identity and a space to call one's own, such as a third party. In addition, strong moral outrage creates a sense of immediacy that reinforces the preference for a third party as a way to express exasperation with compromise. As a result, egalitarians often become very annoyed with the liberal politicians who share most of their values and programs. As egalitarians say again and again, they want to be able to vote their "conscience," not the "lesser of two evils." The tensions that therefore arise between egalitarians and liberals within the electoral arena then become a hindrance to a general movement for egalitarian social change.
Moral indignation contributes to a preference for a third party in still another way. When changes do not come quickly, the activists' sense of frustration grows, especially when many of the low-income and average-income who are most exploited are slow to join the movement. The thought then arises that it takes strong medicine to "wake people up," to make them "realize" how badly they are being treated. What often follows is the conclusion that something drastic is necessary to shake people up, like a depression or a conservative Republican administration, so they can summon the energy to act in what egalitarians are sure are the best interests of the mistreated or downtrodden people they are trying to help. In short, they end up with a new theory: "the worse things are, the better the chances for egalitarian social change." Call it "the-worse-the-better" theory.
The-worse-the-better theory combines with moral purism to create a preference for leftist third parties that supposedly will heighten the tensions by forcing people to face life under the harshest representatives of the capitalist class, the Republicans. In the context of a conflicted, cautious and declining Democratic Party, it is thought that people will turn to the new third party as they grow weary of Republican rule. Contrary to this belief, egalitarians in the United States have done far better when moderates are in charge of the government because there is a greater possibility that social movements can have a positive effect on the political system. This was first seen very dramatically during the New Deal, when union organizers were able to take advantage of mildly liberal labor legislation to create many new unions and pressure for the improved labor law that created the National Labor Relations Board in 1935. It is also shown by the fact that progressives did not prosper in the long winter of Reagan-Bush rule from 1981 to 1993.
And if any further proof were needed, look at the disastrous situation in which everyone from the center to the far left found themselves with the second Bush Administration in charge. This is the best evidence against the worse-the-better theory that could be imagined. But the past evidence against the theory was soon forgotten, and there is always the danger that it will be forgotten again in the future unless left activists have a perspective that takes the structure of the electoral system seriously. Right now many of them still don't. Just take a look at the Green Party, still talking about moving beyond the local level. Or listen to Medea Benjamin and Kevin Danaher at Global Exchange in San Francisco, who remain strong advocates of a third party, building for the long run, as Danaher explained to me.
The moral outrage that leads in the direction of third parties is understandable and admirable in the face of huge inequalities and unnecessary suffering, but there are better ways to express it and at the same time be more effective in the political arena. The first need is to make a distinction between activists and liberal politicians, and to see that they have different but complementary roles in bringing about egalitarian social change. Second, it is necessary to create a distinctive social identity and organizational space within the Democratic Party, not outside it.
Activists, to be effective, have to be uncompromising moralists who stand up for their principles. They are exemplars who break unjust laws when need be, and here of course the premier American examples are Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders of the early Civil Rights Movement. Although Ralph Nader in his activist days did not break unjust laws and go to jail, saying he preferred "to be a plaintiff rather than a defendant," he was in fact a moral exemplar. He sacrificed his everyday life to the civic causes he worked on every hour of the day, using the money he made from books and speeches to build new organizations that have had a measurable impact on the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans. As an activist, he was heroic. As a politician, he was a destructive, head-strong fool.
From their stance as movement activists, Nader and other egalitarians constantly criticize mere "politicians," who supposedly lack courage and shrink from taking principled stands. Activists therefore do not fully appreciate the role of elected officials as go-betweens, as tension reducers, as masters of timing and symbolism, and as people who want everyday life to go on once a particular election or argument is over. Of course they want to stay elected, and they deserve that bit of egoism, because they have glad-handed many thousands of people and listened to an earful to get where they are. Winning an elected office is not the kind of close-in emotional labor that very many people can tolerate unless they enjoy small talk, back patting and endless arguments with people they hardly know, or don't know at all.
Although most egalitarians think liberal politicians should just stand up for what they believe in, and take the consequences, they are better thought of as the egalitarian activists' negotiators and diplomats within a democratic system. Yes, they should have strong liberal principles, but they also have to know when to do battle and when not to, and when it is time to cut a deal. Their goal is to win the best they think possible for their side at any given moment, and to be back for the next round. The crucial point for egalitarians is this: the liberals among politicians can only prosper when the egalitarian moral activists and their social movements have made better deals possible, either by causing the election of more liberals or by forcing the moderates and conservatives to accept a deal they don't like in order to avoid losing the next election.
This interaction and mutual reinforcement between egalitarian activists and liberal politicians is the key to a new egalitarian movement. Progressive social change depends greatly on social movement organizations and strategic nonviolent actions outside the electoral area, but it requires an electoral dimension as well. Respecting the electoral dimension also requires that activists resist any temptation to take the hard-won democratic gains of the past for granted, or even treat them with contempt. Egalitarians might like liberal politicians better if they thought of them as the defenders of the gains that have been made by egalitarians in the past. It was egalitarians in the nineteenth-century Populist Party, for example, who helped force the direct election of Senators.
Perhaps needless to say, then, there are few moral activists who are also good politicians. The most striking exception is John Lewis, one of the truly great leaders of the early Civil Rights Movement, who stood for principled nonviolence and therefore was ousted as the leader of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee by Black Power advocates in 1965 when they ran out of patience with cautious white liberals and flawed trade unionists. Lewis recovered from that rejection and spent several years helping to register African-American voters throughout the South. Then he won a seat on the Atlanta city council in 1981 and an uphill battle for Congress in 1986. It is the few people like Lewis who can bridge the gap between social movements and politics.
So what should egalitarian activists do in terms of future elections if and when the issues, circumstances, and candidates seem right? First, they should form Egalitarian Democratic Clubs. That gives them an organizational base as well as a distinctive new social identity within the structural pathway to government that is labeled "the Democratic Party." Forming such clubs makes it possible for activists to maintain their sense of separatism and purity while at the same time allowing them to compete within the Democratic Party. There are numerous precedents for such clubs within the party, including liberal and reform clubs in the past, and the conservative Democratic Leadership Council at the present time.
This strategy of forging a separate social identity is also followed by members of the right wing within the Republican Party. By joining organizations like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, they can define themselves as Christians who have to work out of necessity within the debased confines of the Republican Party. That is, they think of themselves as Christians first and Republicans second, and that is what egalitarians should do: identify themselves primarily as egalitarians and only secondarily as Democrats.
After forming Egalitarian Democrat Clubs, egalitarian activists should find people to run in selected Democratic primaries from precinct to president. They should not simply support eager candidates who come to them with the hope of turning them into campaign workers. They have to create candidates of their own who already are committed to the egalitarian movement and to its alternative economic vision of planning through the market. The candidates have to be responsible to the clubs, or else the candidates naturally will look out for their own self interest and careers. They should focus on winning on the basis of the program, and make no personal criticisms of their Democratic rivals. Personal attacks on mainstream politicians are a mistake, a self-made trap, for egalitarian insurgents.
In talking about the program, the candidates actually do much more than explain what egalitarians stand for. By discussing such issues as increasing inequality and the abandonment of fairness, and then placing the blame for these conditions on the corporate-conservative coalition and the Republican Party, they help to explain to fellow members of the movement who is "us" and who is "them." They help to create a sense of "we-ness," a new collective identity. As candidates who present a positive program and attack those who oppose it, they are serving as "entrepreneurs of identity," an important part of the job description for any spokesperson in a new social movement.
Since egalitarians are not likely to have the resources to run at all levels in all places, what are the best places to start when a good opportunity arises? One possibility is in Republican-dominated districts where it might be easy to take over moribund Democratic Party structures that do not try to put forward serious candidates. There are now many such House districts that might be ripe for the picking. Winning in Democratic primaries and then facing seemingly invincible Republican incumbents in the regular election may be more useful than it might seem at first glance. For example, when a progressive group in Michigan launched such a grassroots campaign in a Republican district in 1986, with the goal of sending the incumbent a message about his support for Reagan's militaristic foreign policy, their Democratic candidate received 41 percent of the vote, 10 percent higher than the previous Democratic challenger. Such a large vote on the first try would be a wonderful starting point if it could be achieved in the same election year in a number of districts and states where the regular Democrats already had conceded the election to the Republicans.
It also makes sense to run candidates at the congressional level in a few highly Democratic districts, where an egalitarian might have a real chance of winning the regular election if he or she could win the primary. These opportunities might arise when incumbent Democrats leave their seats for one reason for another in districts where grassroots activists have established a strong record through their non-electoral efforts. They would be entering primaries in which there would likely be several candidates splitting the moderate vote. Since the turnout is often low in primaries, a highly organized egalitarian campaign that fully mobilized all of its potential supporters would have some solid possibilities.
As for the presidential level, a focus on one well-known activist with good egalitarian credentials might be worthwhile if the campaign was used to develop Egalitarian Democratic Clubs and other party-transforming activities. Absent such a person, different candidates could be fielded on the same platform in different regions of the country, or in selected states such as New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, and California. That way, the effort could be made without having to raise huge amounts of money.
For example, a John Lewis or some other prominent liberal African-American leader with political experience as an elected official might be able to win the Super Tuesday primaries across the Southern states, thereby heightening the visibility and strengthening the role of African-Americans in the egalitarian wing of the party. It is often overlooked that Jesse Jackson won the most votes overall in this string of same-day primaries when they were first held in 1988, thanks for the most part to the African-American vote. And if enough different presidential candidates were able to win delegates in a range of states, then it might be possible for egalitarian Democrats to have a role in the Democratic National Convention, which has been reduced in recent decades to a ceremonial occasion and media extravaganza. Perhaps the delegates could even play a part in choosing the vice presidential candidate.
Egalitarian candidates invariably will be asked if they are out to win, or if they expect to win, and the answer should be "Yes, but only on our own terms," which means that winning is only worthwhile if voters are endorsing the egalitarian platform and expressing a sense of identification with the egalitarian movement. Thus, there can be no thought of trimming on one or another part of the agreed-upon platform with the hope of squeaking by. Otherwise, the whole political effort loses it sense of collectivity, and turns back into an individualistic contest based on name recognition and personality.
However, once a highly principled campaign has been waged and the egalitarian challengers lose, as most of them surely would the first few times out, then they should congratulate the winners and announce their support for them in the regular election. Then they should return to work in the social movement of their choice. How they vote in the privacy of the polling booth is their own business, of course, but their public stance should be resolutely pro-Democrat.
If the insurgents are likely to lose, what is the purpose of the exercise? I am sure you know the answers to that question by now, so I only need to list them fairly quickly:
Thanks to a highly detailed post-election book that Nader wrote to chronicle and justify his 2000 presidential campaign as a candidate of the Green Party, it is possible to show how the critique in this document applies to this most recent incarnation of the egalitarians' quest for their own third party. Although Nader is now irrelevant as far as future elections, his mentality and rationalizations live on in all those leftists who insist on building a third party despite what Nader wrought in the 2000 elections.
Nader's main claim is that the two parties are increasingly the same, and thus there is a need for a new third party that offers voters a real choice. This claim has two dimensions to it. First, the Democrats are far worse than their liberal supporters imagine. They have been collapsing on major issues since the 1970s, forsaking their "progressive" past, and matters only got worse in the Clinton-Gore years. Nader delivers a detailed indictment of these Democratic failures, including all the rejections of his own efforts by Gore and even the Progressive Caucus in the House.
Second, and even more importantly in terms of justifying a third party, Nader argues that the Republicans are not as dangerous as the liberal Democrats claim. Bush is not exactly "Genghis Khan," he notes at one point, and then lists the various ways Bush moved to the center in his first year in office. This point was of course laughable by 2005, which is another reason why it is worth reminding everyone of how Nader justified his campaign.
Nader's lack of concern when contemplating a Republican presidency is very different from the usual egalitarian view of Republicans as their main opponents. It can be appreciated more fully when it is contrasted with right-wing views of the Democrats. Due to their abhorrence of "big government," labor unions, and/or liberal social values, right wingers generally avoid third parties at all costs because they genuinely fear the Democrats as the worst of all out-groups. A Clinton or a Gore looks tame to left-wing third-party advocates, but not to right wingers, who believe that the Democratic coalition, with Clinton and Gore representing its moderate wing, spells trouble for their worldview. Gore is Genghis Khan to conservatives, but Bush is not Genghis Khan to most left activists, including Nader, and therein lies an important part of the political equation in America. The energy of zealous right-wing activists is used on behalf of the Republicans, thereby uniting all those who are right of center when they step into the political arena, but the great energies and moral fervor of the egalitarians are often used in attacking Democrats as sell-outs, leaving those who are left of center divided among themselves and often demoralized.
But it is not only that the two parties are about the same according to Nader. He also claims that it is useful for the Democrats to lose if activist groups are to be energized enough to realize their goals through nonviolent direct action and lobbying pressure. Democrats take activist groups for granted once the activists endorse them, and the activists tend to sit back when Democrats are in office. The result, says Nader, is disastrous. The Democrats put activists to sleep; they "anesthetize" activists. Thus, he argues that activist groups often do better when the Democrats are not in power.
Furthermore, he continues, it may be good for the Democrats to lose once in a while so that they don't take the citizen groups and social movements for granted. This is necessary because "The only message politicians understand is losing an election." This comes fairly close to saying that it was time to sink Gore, especially when read in the context of the many extremely negative things he has to say about Gore on a wide variety of issues, and most pointedly environmental issues. Here Nader's reasoning is based on the-worse-the-better theory.
The likelihood that Nader wanted to cost Gore the election also can be seen in the fact that he chose to go to Miami to campaign the Saturday before the election. He says that's because he hadn't spent much time in Florida, but he did so knowing the race was very close there, and despite the fact that some of his political scientist and sociologist supporters wanted him to draw back in Oregon, Wisconsin, and Florida to assure a Gore victory in those crucial states.
Although Nader never publicly said that punishing Gore was his motive, that's the impression one disillusioned supporter received when he talked to a leader in the campaign about withdrawing from swing states like Florida, or asking Nader supporters in such states to hold their noses and vote for Gore in exchange for Nader votes by Democrats in safe states. The idea was that such a move would help defeat Bush while increasing the Nader vote in safe states. This would also vividly demonstrate the importance of Nader and his constituency to a Gore Administration and Democrats everywhere, or so some of his supporters reasoned. In response to this suggestion, one of Nader's top aides abruptly said "We are not going to do that." When the surprised supporter asked why not, the aide replied, "Because we want to punish the Democrats, we want to hurt them, wound them."
Thus far, few analysts have closely examined Nader's motives, but a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer also reported that Nader wanted to punish Gore and the Democrats. After meeting with Nader in the Spring of 200l, he wrote: "He (Nader) is not coy about his motives. Just as he ran for president to punish Gore and the Democrats for allegedly betraying their progressive traditions and currying favor with global corporate power, now he wants to knock off congressional Democrats who have committed the same sins." The journalist is referring to Nader's plan to run 60 or so Greens in the congressional elections in 2002, which failed completely.
Nader also claims there are virtues to third parties. They introduce new issues and they bring out new voters, some of whom vote for Democrats in races where the third party does not have candidates. He claims there were a million new voters in 2000 thanks to his campaign, and takes credit for the victory of Democratic senatorial candidate Maria Cantwell in the state of Washington, where she won by 2,300 votes over the incumbent Republican. He also draws on the relative successes of the third-party presidential campaigns by John Anderson in 1980 and H. Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 to support his brief for third parties.
Nader's specific arguments about the Democrats and Republicans do not address the structural problem that he understands, but discusses as a mere "obstacle" to be overcome in the slow process of building a movement and a third party. He does not admit that the everyday, short-run interests of the supporters of the Democratic Party, such as low-income workers, women who work outside the home, disadvantaged people of color, and religious liberals, are likely to be ignored as more and more Republicans assume office while the third party is being built. The slant of the Bush tax cuts to favor the top few percent is the most brutal evidence of how shortsighted Nader was on this point.
Nader reduces the argument over third parties to questions about being a "spoiler" in relation to the Democratic candidate, when the real issue is that there is no way to build a third party without damaging the interests of the everyday people who vote for the Democratic Party as a way of trying to make small gains or just stay even while living their normal lives. Nader earned his deserved reputation fighting for small victories that make people's lives better, but he opts for sacrificing their everyday interests when he turns to the electoral arena. Bush may not be Genghis Khan, but he and his fellow Republicans will resist matters like union rights, abortion rights, clean energy, affirmative action, global warming, workplace safety and health, protections for gays and lesbians, habitat preservation, and increases in the minimum wage far more vigorously than Democrats would during the many years it would take, by Nader's own account, to build this new third party. They therefore deserve to be taken far more seriously as the main political arm of the corporate-conservative coalition that opposes an egalitarian movement.
Even if the Republicans eventually over-reach in their reactionary efforts on taxes, social security, and the environment, leading to the citizen outcry that Nader believes will restrain them, it won't do much good now. There would not be enough moderates and liberals in Congress to accomplish significant reforms. Even if economic downturns and corporate scandals provide opportunities for liberals and moderates to act, they may not be able to muster the energy to try for reforms because Bush is sitting there with a veto, and with the ability to appeal to patriotism and white pride if he feels threatened. The progressive "backlash" that Nader hopes for won't happen without more liberal and moderate Democrats in office, and his third-party strategy works against Democrats winning elections.
In addition, it is not accurate to assert that the two parties are becoming more and more similar. They actually have become increasingly different over the past 35 years. Nader romanticizes the "progressive" past of the Democrats by ignoring something he well knows from his own uphill battles in Washington, that the party was controlled until the 1970s by white Southern conservatives and their friends in many large Northern cities. It was not the party of liberals and labor, who had to take a back seat except when the union movement of the 1930s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s gave them some temporary leverage. Nor does he emphasize that the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 actually changed the two-party system dramatically by making it possible for Southern black voters to push Southern white conservatives into the Republican Party. There are now very few Democrats who are as conservative as the most "liberal" of Republicans, unlike the situation as late as the 1980s. True, the political spectrum has moved to the right on many economic issues, but the parties themselves never have been more different. At the voter and Congressional levels, the Democrats are now the party of those who believe in fairness and equality whatever their own social backgrounds, or who have been marginalized or treated badly in some way.
Nader refers to the support received by Anderson in 1980 and Perot in 1992 and 1996 as evidence for the possibilities of third parties, but their candidacies are irrelevant from an egalitarian point of view because they came from the center, not the left or right, and therefore were not greeted by Democrats and Republicans with the same anxiety and anger as a party like Nader's. Nader tries to counter this kind of argument by saying that he also drew votes from centrists and Republicans, but that argument is not at all convincing or reassuring to the Democrats when they look at the politics of the activists, academics, and celebrities who supported Nader. It is as certain as such things can be that a left third party takes more votes from Democrats than Republicans, and therefore helps Republicans.
Nader claims third parties are the way new ideas come into the political arena, but most of his examples are from the 19th century, before reformers gradually created primaries, which in fact have been the main source of new programs since World War I. His main 20th century example is the claim by Ted Koppel on Nightline that Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas introduced the idea of Social Security during the 1928 campaign. That inaccurate claim only shows that Koppel knows nothing about the origins of the Social Security Act, which was fashioned in the early 1930s by moderate conservatives from companies like Standard Oil of New Jersey, General Electric, and Eastman Kodak, with the help of hired experts paid by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his foundations, and then promoted by centrists and liberals in the Democratic Party.
Nader sees nonvoters as a prime target for a new third party, but solid studies of nonvoters suggest that they are not much different in their views from voters, even though they tend to have somewhat lower incomes or less education. They are not any sort of natural leftists or progressives due to their social standing, and are probably as likely to vote their skin color, their religion, or their ethnicity as any other voters. Contrary to Nader, the trick is to start with the most involved egalitarians, the left activists and liberal Democrats, and then reach out to moderates and nonvoters, but that can't be done through a third party because it immediately divides the leftists and the liberals against each other.
Like other egalitarians, Nader constantly denigrates politicians in very strong moral terms, with special venom for the liberals and moderates. By showing little respect for the politician's craft, and thereby ignoring the need for both activists and politicians, Nader inadvertently strays from his democratic starting point, and ends up with an elitist electoral stance contrary to his values. In a word, he thinks he knows better than the great mass of people who voted their short-run interests through the politicians of the Democratic Party. This is somewhat ironic, of course, because his most notable successes as an activist involved small gains that benefited a great many people. He has evolved into a closet elitist.
In fact, in reaction to the many egalitarian critics of his campaign, he boasts about most of these small victories at one point or another, using them as evidence that the feminists, civil rights leaders, environmentalists, and labor leaders who attacked him vehemently should have supported him because he has a better record on their issues than Gore. When it comes to elections, though, most people do not believe they should sacrifice their everyday lives for a cause that they don't think has a chance in the world to succeed. Most Americans intuitively understand the structural argument against third parties of the left or right, and that is why they won't have anything to do with them, even though most of these people respect and appreciate what Nader did as an activist from the 1960s through the early 1980s, when he began to turn sour in the face of being shut out by Reagan and Bush, and then by Clinton and Gore.
Contrary to the highly positive assessment Nader makes of his 2000 campaign, it is more likely that it will go down in history as the biggest electoral setback for leftists, radicals, socialists, progressives, environmentalists, and other egalitarian insurgents since the Wallace defeat of 1948. It expended an enormous amount of activist time and energy to put Nader on the ballot in 43 states, only to end up with 2.7 percent of the vote, less than half of the 6-7 percent he anticipated. It also created a legacy of bitter liberal elected officials who will do everything they can to isolate him and the Green Party even further. He also has alienated many liberal environmentalists, feminists, and civil rights leaders. Whether he likes it or not, his effort will be remembered as the first leftist campaign that ever affected the outcome of a presidential election.
If Nader and his energetic forces had been Green or egalitarian Democrats in 2000, running openly on their "ten key values," which include a commitment to strategic nonviolence, they would have gained some of the legitimacy needed to take advantage of the economic disasters visited upon millions of people by the collapse of the dot.com bubble and the Enron scandal. Instead, Nader and his supporters ignored the structural realities of the electoral system and opted for a strategy that was bound to hurt and anger liberal Democrats, taking the chance that such a strategy might re-energize grassroots groups and force Democratic candidates to take egalitarian issues more seriously.
It is not easy to have all the pieces in place for a chance at establishing an egalitarian toehold in the electoral system. There has to be the right combination of issues, momentum, and candidates. The Nader campaign inspired hope among many activists precisely because of his strong egalitarian credentials and high visibility, and he had a number of good issues due to growing corporate domination, the increasing concentration of the wealth and income distributions, and the poor record of mainstream politicians on the environment. That is why the failed campaign was such a waste. It squandered political and moral capital that is very hard for egalitarians to accumulate. His refusal to take the results of social science and historical studies seriously destroyed his credibility as a thoughtful person. He left many of his followers confused or disillusioned, while at the same time hardening the moralistic sense of superiority of the handful who remain loyal to his causes.
As the analysis in this document shows, both through the cross-national and historical evidence on how electoral systems function, and the frank critique of the Nader campaign of 2000, now all too readily forgotten by the hundreds of leading left scholars who backed him, there is a clear and direct strategy that could be followed in the electoral arena. It involves transforming the Democratic Party through the formation of Egalitarian Democratic Clubs and then making carefully selected entries into the party's primaries, all the while backing liberals as a far better choice in the regular election than any Green or Republican.
But does this electoral strategy leave any room for social movements? And what are the underlying principles of an economic program that could be presented by egalitarian Democrats in party primaries?
Next: Social Movements and Strategic Nonviolence
There is a good literature on comparative studies of electoral systems. For the most comprehensive studies, see Maurice Duverger, Political Parties. Second English Edition, New York: Wiley and Sons, 1959; Douglas W. Rae, The political consequences of electoral laws, revised edition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971; and Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It didn't happen here: Why socialism failed in the United States, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000, Chapter 2. The change in the party system in Belgium is discussed in Duverger, Political Parties, op. cit., pp. 213, 220-221, & 243-245.
For the best account of third parties in the United States, see Steven J. Rosenstone, Roy L. Behr, and Edward H. Lazarus, Third parties in America: Citizen response to major party failure, 2nd edition, revised and expanded, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
For the meager representation of leftists in the Untied States Congress as compared to their representation in parliaments around the world, see Christopher Hewitt, "The effect of political democracy and social democracy on equality in industrial societies: A cross-national comparison," American Sociological Review, 42, no. 3, 1977, pp. 450-464. Two members of the Socialist Party were elected to Congress. Victor Berger was elected from the Milwaukee area in 1910, 1918, and from 1922 through 1928; he died in office in 1929. Meyer London was elected from the lower east side of Manhattan in 1914, 1916, and from 1920 through 1924. For details on the considerable success of the old Socialist Party in electoral politics at the local and state levels, see James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America: 1912-1925, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968.
According to historian Harvey Klehr in The heyday of American communism: The depression decade, New York: Basic Books, 1984, pp. 289-293, the following leftists in or close to the Communist Party were elected to the House in either 1936 or 1938: Jerry O'Connell of Montana; John Bernard of Minnesota; and Vito Marcantonio of New York. Two members from California also may have been close to the party. These leftists were one small part of a progressive block of about 40 House members, most of them swept into office in 1936. However, over half of these progressives were gone after the 1938 elections -- 22 lost their seats, 3 left on their own accord, and 4 failed in bids for the Senate. Marcantonio was elected in 1934 and from 1938 through 1950. In the early 1940s, Hugh DeLacy, a member of the Communist Party, was elected to Congress for one term from the state of Washington as a member of the Commonwealth Federation, A club within the Democratic Party of the kind suggested in this document. Since 1990, socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been elected to the House as an Independent. For a discussion of Instant Runoff Voting, see Jim Hightower, "Let's go IRV," The Nation, May 27, 2002, page 8. Its advocates have a web site at www.fairvote.org.
For the origins of primaries, see Allen F. Lovejoy, La Follette and the establishment of the direct primary in Wisconsin, 1890-1904, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1941. For white primaries, see V. O. Key, Southern politics in state and nation, New York, A.A. Knopf, 1949. For an account of how a few socialists and the state's farmers took advantage of the primary system in North Dakota shortly before World War I, see the amazing history by Robert L. Morlan, Political prairie fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915-1922, (with a new introduction by Larry Remele), St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985.
For an account of the insurgent campaign in the Democratic primaries by Kefauver, see Charles L. Fontenay, Estes Kefauver: A biography, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1980. For the impact a little-known senator from Wisconsin had by running in the 1968 Democratic primaries as an anti-war candidate, see George Rising, Clean for Gene: Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign, Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.
For a history of the Democratic Party from a power perspective, see my The power elite and the state: How policy is made in America, New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1990, Chapter 9. For the story of the reconstitution of the Democratic party after the Civil War, see C. Vann Woodward, Reunion and reaction: The compromise of 1877 and the end of reconstruction, Boston, Little, Brown, 1966. For conservative control of the party in recent years, see Kenneth S. Baer, Reinventing democrats: The politics of liberalism from Reagan to Clinton, Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000.
For Southern dominance of the party in the twentieth century and the role of the conservative voting bloc, see James T. Patterson, Congressional conservatism and the New Deal: The growth of the conservative coalition in Congress, 1933-1939, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981; David M. Potter, The South and the concurrent majority, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972; Mack C. Shelley II, The permanent majority: The conservative coalition in the United States Congress, University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1983; and Lee J. Alston, Joseph P. Ferrie, Southern paternalism and the American welfare state: Economics, politics, and institutions in the South, 1865-1965, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
On the origins of the National Labor Relations Board in a bargain between the liberal-labor coalition and the Southern Democrats, a bargain which greatly upset the Northern corporate elites of the time, see my The power elite and the state, op. cit., Chapter 4. For an understanding of the old machine Democrats, I drew upon Norman C. Miller, "The Machine Democrats," Washington Monthly, June, 1970; Richard Bolling, Power in the house, New York: Dutton, 1968; and Martin and Susan Tolchin, To the victor..., New York: Random House, 1971.
For the trade-offs involved in the pro-spending alliance between the Northern and Southern Democrats, see Aage R. Clausen, How Congressmen decide, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1973, and Michael K. Brown, Race, money, and the American welfare state, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. For the changes in the Southern political economy that made the Civil Rights Movement possible, see Jack M. Bloom, Class, race, and the civil rights movement, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987. For an analysis of how the New Deal coalition came apart, see Edward G. Carmines and James A. Stimson, Issue evolution: Race and the transformation of American politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989; and my The Power Elite and The State, op. cit., chapter 10.
Ralph Nader, Crashing the party, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002, page 221, for Nader's remark that "I always prefer to be a plaintiff rather than a defendant." John Lewis, Walking with the Wind: A memoir of the movement, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998, tells the moving story of his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement and of his dramatic uphill battle for a seat in Congress.
For the phrase "entrepreneurs of identity," see Bernd Simon and Bert Klandermans, "Politicized collective identity," American Psychologist, 56, April, 2001, page 326. For the story of the 1986 campaign by insurgents in Michigan, see Dean Baker, "Left challenge on issues brings grassroots campaign gains," In These Times, Dec. 17-23, 1986, page 12. For the idea to run in a few very liberal districts, see James Weinstein, The Long Detour, Boulder: Westview Press, 2003.
For the specifics on Jackson's vote totals in the South in 1988, see Frank Clemente and Frank Watkins, Eds., Keep hope alive: Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign. Boston: South End Press, 1989, page 233ff.
Nader, Crashing the party, op. cit., page 280 for the remark about Genghis Khan. Nader, op. cit., page 13, for the comment on the "liberal's arch-reactionary." Nader, op. cit., pp. 246 & 307 for the claim that Democrats "anesthetize" activists. For the idea that the Democrats take activists for granted, see page 144. Nader, op. cit., page 204 for the claim that defeat is the only message that politicians understand. For the story about the Nader aide who said the goal was to punish Gore, I relied upon the first-person account by Harry Levine, an outstanding sociologist. See his extended documentation that Nader was out to sink Gore at http://www.hereinstead.com/. The citation on the newspaper interview with Nader in Spring, 2001, is Dick Polman, "An unrepentant Nader sticks to his plan," Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 2001, National Section, page A1. Nader, op. cit., pp. 207-208, for the claim that he was responsible for Maria Cantwell's senatorial victory in Washington.
For the growing differences between the two parties, see Poole and Rosenthal, A political-economic history of roll call voting, op. cit. For more recent information showing that the trend continues, see Richard E. Cohen, "A congress divided," National Journal, February 5, 2000, pp. 382-404. For the best study of the current voting coalitions, see Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks, Social cleavages and political change: Voter alignments and U.S. party coalitions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. This book shows that race, religion, and gender are better predictors of voting than social class as of the 1996 election. White men and women with less than a college education, who are the majority in the blue-collar working class, now vote in a majority for the Republicans.
For an analysis of votes for Perot in 1992, see Warren E. Miller and J. Merrill Shanks, The new American voter, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. For the origins of the Social Security Act of 1935, see my State autonomy or class dominance? Case studies on policy making in America, New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1996, Chapter 5.
Nader, Crashing the party, op. cit., pp. 197-198, for the importance he gives to nonvoters. For evidence that nonvoters do not differ much in their political views from voters, see first Raymond E. Wolfinger and Steven J. Rosenstone, Who votes? New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980. For a study showing the same thing for the 1980s by holding race, income, education, and age constant in voting statistics, see Ruy Teixeira, "What if we held an election and everybody came?" American Enterprise, 3, 1992, pp. 50-60. For more recent findings, see Ruy Teixeira, "Fool's gold of the left," Dissent, 47, 2000, pp. 45-49.
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