Why are they so afraid of third parties?

October 28, 2014

In all but a handful of elections, there is no left-wing alternative to the candidates of the two parties of the status quo. Why not? Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, looks back at the history of efforts to build third parties for some answers.

EACH ELECTION Day seems to confront Americans with a choice that's really not much of a choice: one pro-business party that pretends to represent the interests of working people (the Democrats) and another pro-business party that doesn't even bother to pretend (the Republicans). Is it any wonder that the U.S. regularly leads among advanced Western countries in rates of voter abstention?

There are a handful of left-wing independent candidates running in the elections coming up on November 4--SocialistWorker.org readers may be most familiar with the New York Green Party campaign for governor and lieutenant governor, featuring two contributors and collaborators with this website: Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones. Still they are very much the exception.

Though much is made of the differences between them, the Democrats and Republicans actually share more in common. Because they've worked so hard to protect their duopoly, America's elites can thus rest assured that whichever party wins a given election, their interests will dictate government policy.

Eugene V. Debs, Ralph Nader and Howie Hawkins
Eugene V. Debs, Ralph Nader and Howie Hawkins

Because Democrats and Republicans collude to design the most arcane regulations for gaining ballot access, third parties face all manner of obstacles just to qualify.

For example, to qualify in New York for an election for a statewide office, candidates must collect 15,000 valid signatures, including 100 signatures from each of half of the state's congressional districts. An individual voter's signature cannot count for more than one statewide candidate per election, and signatures can be invalidated if the voter reports his or her city or town incorrectly. Finally, all this must be done in a period of 38 days.

Rules like this prompted the Illinois Supreme Court, in a 1979 ruling involving the Socialist Workers Party's attempt to get on the ballot, to conclude, "By limiting the choices available to voters, the State impairs the voters' ability to express their political preferences."

THE U.S. ruling class has proven very adept at squashing attempts to forge mass labor or social democratic parties like those that once existed in nearly every other advanced industrial society. Still, a review of U.S. history finds many attempts to build such alternatives to the left of the Democratic Party.

In 1886, the Central Labor Union of New York formed an Independent Labor Party (ILP) and ran Henry George for mayor in a challenge to the corrupt Tammany Hall Democrats. Officially, George won 68,000 votes, around a third of the total--though there were many reports of fraud by local Democrats, including statements that "containers holding votes for Henry George were cast into the East River."

The idea that U.S. workers have been too enamored with capitalism to support left-wing parties isn't based on historical fact.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, socialist candidates won hundreds of thousands of votes nationally and were elected as mayors, city council members and state legislators. In 1912, the Socialist Party's candidate for president, Eugene V. Debs, won 6 percent of the vote, and 1,200 SP members held elected office in 340 municipalities.

But the Democratic Party has been able to emerge dominant after each attempt to forge a lasting break to its left. Often, Democrats have been able to absorb dissenting movements within their folds, ever since the challenge of the Populist movement in the 1890s.

For example, amid the great working-class radicalization of the 1930s--during which time the main industrial unions were formed--United Auto Workers delegates voted in 1936 to endorse the formation of a national farmer-labor party. But union leaders, under pressure from the Democratic White House that wanted labor support in the 1936 election, forced the delegates to reverse themselves.

This was part of a campaign that led the new industrial unions into an alliance with the Democratic Party. That alliance ensured Roosevelt's landslide re-election, and also the extinguishing of any genuine move toward independent politics.

And for those unionists who couldn't stomach voting for the corrupt urban machines like New York's Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party had another trick up its sleeve: the formation of the American Labor Party (ALP) in 1936.

New York trade union leaders launched the ALP with the aim of providing a ballot line for workers who were used to voting for the Socialist Party, so they could now cast a ballot for the New Deal Democrats. The ALP was a "labor party" in name only--its strategy continues to have echoes today with the Working Families Party in New York.

THROUGHOUT THE 1960s and early 1970s, millions of people were swept into political activity. By the end of the '60s, thousands of radicals had joined new organizations of the revolutionary left.

But the New Left's political weaknesses accounted for the fact that the upsurge produced no lasting third-party organizations of significant size or influence. On the contrary, many of the "generation of '68" campaign today for Democratic candidates, however conservative their platforms.

The New Left represented an amalgam of all sorts of political perspectives--liberal, anarchist and various stripes of socialism. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the main New Left organization, which claimed as many as 100,000 members by 1968, was founded as an offshoot of the liberal League for Industrial Democracy (LID) in 1960.

Initially, SDS held to the LID's liberal politics. In 1964, this translated into support for the Democratic campaign of President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Southern Dixiecrat and the person most responsible for escalating the Vietnam War.

Johnson's opponent that year was the reactionary Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Johnson campaigned as the "peace candidate" against "extremist" Goldwater. When Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the midst of the campaign in August 1964, Johnson promised, "We seek no wider war." In reality, the resolution provided Johnson the blank check he sought to escalate the Vietnam War.

Johnson had actually prepared the resolution long before the Tonkin Gulf incident and had waited for an opportune time to use it. Johnson signaled his intentions in late 1963, when he told a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war."

The threat of a Goldwater victory frightened SDS, which adopted the slogan "Half the Way with LBJ." This slogan meant support for Johnson against Goldwater--predominantly on the strength of his liberal "Great Society" domestic programs--without a wholesale endorsement of the Democrats. Many SDS activists flocked to Johnson's campaign, registering voters and getting out the vote on Election Day. Johnson won in a landslide, taking 61 percent of the popular vote.

Within months of his inauguration, Johnson showed his cards. In 1965, the Pentagon dispatched Marines to install a pro-U.S. government in the Dominican Republic. In March 1965, Johnson asked Congress for a massive escalation of the Vietnam War effort. By the decade's end, more than 550,000 troops would be sent to fight in Vietnam. More than 58,000 thousand Americans and 2 million Vietnamese would die in the Vietnam War.

Because the war effort impinged on the government's ability to spend on the "War on Poverty," even the promise of liberal reform at home was undercut. The U.S. socialist Hal Draper explained the lessons of the 1964 election:

In 1964, you know all the people who convinced themselves that Lyndon Johnson was the lesser evil as against Goldwater...Many of them have realized that the spiked shoe was on the other foot; and they lacerate themselves with the thought that the man they voted for "actually carried out Goldwater's policy"...Who was really the Lesser Evil in 1964? The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups in which the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.

Fuelled by the escalation of the Vietnam War, the student and antiwar movements shifted rapidly to the left in reaction to Johnson's betrayals. By 1968, much of the radical movement identified the Democratic Party as "the enemy."

For those radicals who rejected electoralism altogether, 1968 is remembered for the Chicago police riot against the young radicals who picketed the Democratic convention held there. Unfortunately, the revolutionary left was unable to offer a strong alternative for those radicals who rejected the Democratic Party.

Those revolutionaries who had viewed Mao's China as a model of a new society and a leader of anti-imperialist fights were disoriented when, in 1972, Mao himself made peace with Nixon, the world's chief imperialist leader. Revolutionary organizations built on the basis of Maoism found their energies sapped.

By the mid-1970s movement struggle had declined. Significant revolutionary organizations, unable to readjust to the changed circumstances, simply dissolved. Many embittered ex-members rejected as "sectarian" attempts to build explicitly revolutionary organizations and drifted into Democratic electoral campaigns.

A handful of ex-radicals, like former Chicago Eight defendant Tom Hayden, found new careers as Democratic Party politicians. But many others from the "generation of '68" became foot soldiers in Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, working to sign up voters for the Democratic Party they had once condemned as the party of Southern segregation and of the Vietnam War.

IN THE wake of the collapse of Stalinism by the early 1990s and the establishment of a U.S.-led, globalized, neoliberal capitalism as the dominant political-economic model, radical and socialist projects appeared to recede and disappear.

In the U.S., these macro-trends had the effect of strengthening the two corporate parties--and weakening what was left of a labor movement still caught in the grip of a long decline from its peak of influence in the 1940s.

The project of building a working-class political alternative to the two corporate parties could count on far weaker forces than it had possessed throughout the 20th century, while on the key questions of the day, the political programs and social visions of the Republicans and Democrats coincided more and more.

Yet the convergence of the two neoliberal parties created a vacuum on the left side of the political spectrum, into which an independent movement could flow.

The Green Party presidential campaign of consumer advocate Ralph Nader in 2000 illustrated this possibility. In an otherwise dismal election year, Nader's anti-corporate, pro-worker Green Party campaign provided the only genuine excitement.

Packing professional sports arenas for "super rallies" and inspiring crowds across the country, Nader offered an alternative to the Tweedledee-Tweedledum choices for president--he described the two-party duopoly as "giant corporate party with two heads" on top of a political system that was "spoiled to the core," Nader's was the first mass presidential campaign in a generation to attract the support of millions to an openly left-of-center platform.

He drew particularly well among young people, and his campaign energized activists in the global justice movement born from the 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization.

Nader ultimately won 2.7 percent of the vote, exceeding the 2.5 percent won Henry Wallace's 1948 Progressive Party presidential campaign. In fact Nader's vote was the highest for an independent progressive candidate since Robert LaFollette's third-party run in 1924.

NADER'S CAMPAIGN showed the possibilities for a politically independent alternative, but it didn't sustain a breakthrough. Four years later, leaders of the Green Party threw away whatever potential Nader had shown in 2000 by refusing to mount a serious challenge to the Democrats.

In the interim between the two elections, the political climate in the U.S. took a sharp turn to the right in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda. The emboldened Bush administration seized the initiative to push through a raft of repressive policies, along with starting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Although congressional Democrats had supported--or at least refused to oppose--the vast majority of these policies, by 2004, much of the U.S. left had lined up to support whatever Democratic candidate for president the party would pick. Global Exchange leader and Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin, who in 2000 had run for U.S. Senate from California on the Green Party ticket, put it this way:

The world is watching and waiting with bated breath to see if the U.S. people will reject the Bush agenda. When I was last in Iraq, Ghazwan Al-Mukhtar, an Iraqi engineer, said, "Saddam Hussein was a bastard, but this was not a democracy, and we didn't elect him. So his evil deeds were not done in our name. Can you say the same thing for George Bush?"

We owe it to ourselves and to the global community to make sure that Bush is no longer allowed to speak in our name.

Benjamin concluded that the only way to accomplish this was to elect John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who won the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. In "An Open Letter to Progressives,"

Benjamin, actor Peter Coyote, antiwar activist Daniel Ellsberg and other prominent figures made the case that "the only candidate who can win instead of Bush in November is John Kerry"--and urged a vote for Kerry in "swing states," where small numbers of popular votes could tip the state's Electoral College votes to Bush or Kerry.

The Green Party itself accepted this "safe states" logic and rejected Nader's request for an endorsement of his 2004 independent campaign. Instead, the Greens nominated the unknown David Cobb, another supporter of "safe states."

The impact of the strategy was illustrated most absurdly when Cobb's running mate, Pat LaMarche, a Maine native, said in an interview that she might even vote against herself if the election looked close in Maine: "If Bush has got 11 percent of the vote in Maine come November 2, I can vote for whoever I want. If the race is close, I'll vote for Kerry."

By succumbing to this pressure, the Green Party surrendered its potential to challenge both Democrats and Republicans on the many issues where they largely agreed, like continuing the war and occupation in Iraq or shredding civil liberties under the USA PATRIOT Act. By pledging not to campaign, the Green ticket declared its own irrelevance to the national debate.

Nader and his running mate, the late Peter Camejo, formerly the Green Party candidate for California governor in the 2003 recall election and a longtime socialist, mounted an underfunded and understaffed independent campaign to offer a left alternative for people who wanted to vote against the war and occupation, against the USA PATRIOT Act, and for gay marriage and national health care.

Despite vicious baiting from people on the left and a full-court press by Democrats determined to keep Nader off ballots around the country, the Nader-Camejo ticket won 465,150 votes nationwide, compared to 119,856 for Cobb-LaMarche. Even the far-right Constitutional Party outpolled Cobb-Lamarche.

Because of Cobb's non-campaign, the Greens lost their ballot status, including recognition as a political party, in at least seven states. Only four years after the Nader had given the Green Party an opening to millions of people, the organization's viability as an independent political force was put under question.

Yet again, it appeared, another attempt to build an alternative to the two-party duopoly had succumbed to the siren call of supporting "the lesser of two evils". Surveying the damage, Green Party veteran--and Nader supporter in 2004--Howie Hawkins concluded:

Popular Front, fusion, inside-outside, and safe states are all species of the same genus of lesser evilism. By relying on the liberal wing of the corporate power structure to defend us from its right wing, the left surrenders its own voice and very identity as an alternative to corporate domination. And history shows, when push comes to shove, that the corporate liberals ally with their conservative counterparts against the people.

SO IS there hope for political independence from the twin parties of big business in the U.S.?

Of course. History has provided us with many such examples of an attempt to build a vehicle for independent political action. Each of these efforts stalled for its own particular reason, rooted in its own particular time. But one constant throughout has been the role--either direct or indirect--of the Democratic Party in attempting to head off, disorganize and even destroy any political alternative to its left.

Those who want to build a genuine left-wing third party alternative must deal with the reality that the Democrats have perfected many subtle--and not so subtle--ways to prevent their voting base from gaining political independence from big business. Confronting these is the first step to building an independent political alternative.

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