What's the alternative to the two parties?

There isn’t a significant left-wing alternative on Election Day this year. Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, explains what it will take to get there.

What's the alternative to the two-party system? (Eric Ruder)

EVERY PRESIDENTIAL election year, we're told that this is the "most important election of our lifetime"--and that there are huge differences between the Democratic and Republican candidates.

But this year, one of the most remarkable things has been the narrowness on which the Democrats and Republicans have campaigned for support. Not only is the focus on seven to nine "swing states"--essentially ignoring roughly four out of every five people in the voting-age population--but the issues being contested are also so narrowly conceived.

Huge questions--from an ongoing global economic crisis to climate change to the stunning growth of inequality--face working people. Yet it's hard to find much real discussion of these fundamental problems in U.S. electoral campaigns.

Even mainstream commentators have noted how many important issues didn't even come up in the presidential debates. Tim Price, a blogger at Next New Deal, counted 37 mentions of the federal deficit during the first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney--versus zero references to climate change, immigration or labor rights, and only four mentions of women, with two of them being about the candidates' wives.

On this score, the third and final Romney-Obama debate probably marked an even lower point. There, the entire discussion of U.S. foreign policy revolved around the "war on terror," Israel, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and relations with China. Completely absent was any acknowledgement of the European economic crisis or any substantive discussion at all about Latin America.

Despite a few poll-tested shades of difference in their rhetoric and well-practiced rhetorical "zingers," Obama and Romney offered no differences of substance on any of the foreign policy issues they "debated." When debate moderator Bob Schieffer asked Romney to comment on Obama's use of unmanned "drones" to fight an undeclared war in Pakistan, Romney answered:

Well, I believe we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world. And it's widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that and entirely, and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology, and believe that we should continue to use it, to continue to go after the people that represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.

So there you have it: Mitt Romney pledging to serve Obama's second term.

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SOCIALISTWORKER.ORG readers can no doubt make a list of critical issues that have been almost entirely ignored in the 2012 electoral circus: the massive expansion of attacks on civil liberties and the means of repression under Obama; Obama's assertion of the right to assassinate U.S. citizens; the prison-industrial complex, the failed drug war; and increasing privatization of U.S. education, to name a few. These issues are ignored for a reason. Both major parties have essentially the same positions on them.

But even on the issue that Election 2012 ostensibly turns--the economy in the aftermath of the Great Recession--the mainstream debate is far removed from the concerns of the majority of the U.S. population. Instead of a discussion about rising income inequality and the continuing crises of jobs and housing, the two candidates and their parties have once again elevated the deficit into the most crucial problem facing the country.

Even Obama's campaign for moderate tax increases on the rich, which sounds like a response to rising income inequality, is actually more about his plans for a "grand bargain" to lower the federal deficit. The other side of that grand bargain--accounting for at least twice as much deficit reduction as additional revenues--is massive spending cuts, including in Medicare and Social Security, with devastating consequences for millions.

No matter how many times the opinion polls show that concerns about the deficit pale in comparison to concerns about jobs and inequality, the mainstream debate always seems to revolve around the deficit anyway. Romney openly talks about sacrificing the social safety net to "balancing the budget." But Obama's plans for a "grand bargain" does the same. As the liberal economist Robert Kuttner wrote on Huffington Post:

So what is our president doing to shore up his support by reassuring voters that things will pick up in the next four years? More public investment, more jobs, more overhaul of the financial system, more relief for the mortgage mess, right?

Well, not exactly. While he gives lip service to these goals, Obama is preparing to do a major deal for deficit reduction, which will only add to the drag on the recovery. His administration has bought into the argument that the business elite and the money markets expect deficit reduction, and that it will also play well with the voters.

So when Socialist Worker asks: "Who will be the next President of the United States of Austerity?" we know that "Romney" and "Obama" are both correct answers.

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GIVEN THIS bipartisan conspiracy against the interests of working people, the question is: Where does the alternative to a grim future of austerity, war and inequality lie.

To answer that question, it's necessary to look away from the multibillion-dollar electoral extravaganza to examples of politics away from the ballot box--like the uprising in Wisconsin in early 2011, last fall's Occupy Wall Street movement or this fall's Chicago teachers' strike.

Each of these struggles, in its own way, represented an attempt to provide some response from working people and their organizations to the bipartisan assault on their living standards.

The Wisconsin mobilization against right-wing Gov. Scott Walker's attacks on the poor and on public-sector workers featured a sickout of the state's teachers and the weeks-long occupation of the state Capitol building. Although the Wisconsin uprising ultimately did not succeed in stopping Walker's assault, it marked the first major outpouring of a working-class response in an economic crisis that has devastated millions.

In many ways, the Occupy movement picked up on Wisconsin's inspiration and set many thousands more people into motion in protest against a political economy rigged on behalf of the "1 percent"--the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, whose wealth and power increased during the Great Recession. Occupy likewise didn't produce needed change, but its emergence did more in a few weeks to inject the issues of economic inequality and political corruption into the national consciousness than years of blather by the politicians.

A Pew Center poll taken in the wake of the Occupy upsurge last year found that two-thirds of Americans named conflict between the rich and the poor as the most important divide in society. In 2009, the same poll reported that most Americans saw the chief conflict in society as being between immigrants and citizens.

This was one illustration of how Occupy helped to crystallize class anger, while giving thousands of youth and working people a sense that they could take action on behalf of the 99 percent.

It's instructive to look at how the Democrats, the supposed "party of the people," reacted to the Wisconsin uprising and to Occupy. In Wisconsin, the Democrats and their liberal satellites in leading unions ultimately succeeded in channeling the upsurge of energy and working-class protest into a series of elections aimed at recalling right-wing state senators and Walker himself. That strategy failed miserably.

In relation to Occupy, Democratic-led city governments, with coordination coming from Obama's Department of Homeland Security, organized military-style raids to push activists out of the public spaces they had occupied. This happened around the time that Obama, launching his reelection campaign, started to describe himself as a "warrior for the middle class." As in Wisconsin, the Democrats were happy to appeal to the sentiment that Occupy represented, while making sure that no independent movement challenging the bipartisan consensus continued.

Today, national politics has moved away from the "big picture" issues that motivated Wisconsin and Occupy and back to the small-bore conflicts over candidate gaffes and focus group-tested appeals to specific slivers of swing-state voters. Unions and civil rights organizations, which could be mobilizing their memberships to press for more far-reaching change, are absorbed into the multibillion-dollar election machinery as appendages of one of the two parties of corporate America.

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MILLIONS OF people rightly fear that a Romney/Ryan administration would attack the "99 percent" on behalf of the "1 percent." Whatever they really hope for, they see the reelection of Obama as a "lesser evil" to the disaster they anticipate from Romney/Ryan. The Democrats are happy to play to this sentiment, without having to offer anything positive for their core supporters to vote for.

For those who, in the words of Eugene Debs, want to vote for what they want, even if they won't get it, can they find a real alternative on a ballot?

There are referenda and initiatives, where voters can make some positive change (by supporting equal marriage measures in Maryland, Washington and Maine) or at least stop measures that would take us backwards (such as harsh restrictions on labor's political voice under California's Proposition 32).

But when it comes to elections for political office, the U.S. electoral system provides very few means for working people to vote for an alternative to austerity and war.

For those looking to register their protest against the two-party duopoly on Election Day, there are candidates on various state or local ballots to consider.

On the national level, the Green Party presidential ticket of Dr. Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala provides an alternative for those who want to vote for full employment, single-payer health care, breaking up Wall Street banks and cutting the military budget in half. In California and other states, voters can make a similar statement with a vote for the Peace and Freedom Party candidacy of actor Roseanne Barr and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan.

But we have to understand that these campaigns are shoestring efforts--certainly without the movement backing that recent campaigns of Ralph Nader had, especially his 2000 Green Party candidacy. Back then, Nader captured the imagination of thousands of activists across the country--many of them newly radicalized by the global justice movement. Nader and the Greens posted the highest left-of-center third-party vote since 1948.

No similar left-wing electoral alternative exists today--not on the national level, nor the state or local. So we need to spend our time building on the lessons of the upsurge of struggle of the last two years--from the Wisconsin uprising to Occupy Wall Street to last spring's anti-racist protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin. Although confined mainly to one city, the recent Chicago teachers strike provided another example of how working people and their allies can mobilize and win against the bipartisan austerity and corporate education "reform" agenda.

Above all, our side will need to figure out how to confront the austerity and oppression that will continue to come our way, no matter who wins in November.