3rd party musings -- a whole new ballgame
Haven’t been writing as much lately. Since Massachusetts, I’ve been doing a lot of looking and listening, trying to get a handle on this clearly transforming moment. In my dialogue with you good folks at Corrente. I was pressed on the merits of the Full Court Press criteria for primarying a congressperson, compared to the principles of the Justice Party. My quick reply was that the 5 points are to tactically determine whether a Democrat is a worthy primary target, while the Justice Party principles serve as general principles for an entire party, which the FCP is not.
That said, it started me thinking. I’ve been over the 3rd party arguments pro-and-con for years, many of them dragging along unchanged since 1976. But then I realized that some of the people I’ve been talking with are progressive Democrats and some are independents and some are both. Yet we are all saying remarkably similar things. I’m not regarded as a sellout for pushing Democratic primaries, and they are not wild-eyed radicals. There is a new realism among independents, including at least respect for the Full Court Press, and Democrats are no longer all saying my party right or wrong, remember how bad the Republicans are.
A New Look
I think the times they are a’changing, and 3rd party politics needs a new look. Three changes:
(1) having spent years in the wilderness, Democrats have elected a Democratic president and Congress, and it has turned to ashes in their mouths;
(2) self-declared independents, amorphous, once marginal and still largely unorganized, have become the largest single bloc among American voters;
(3) the teabagger movement has shaken us, both because they pose a real fascist threat, and because we sense that many of them are our sisters and brothers and would be with us now, if only we could have controlled our laughter at their silly signs and seen the valid fear and rage behind them at a government out of control.
The critical alliance is between independent progressives, and the left wing of the Democratic Party.
I think there is a rough balance between them, but it is by no means symmetrical. Independents themselves have a left, right and center, and are not highly organized qua independents. You can’t say, “the independent position on healthcare is ...” Left Democrats have more structural levers, including ballot status, primaries and delegated conventions, but at the price of being more enmeshed in the system, hooked on the conveyor belt that goes from angry radical to dedicated party worker to candidate to office holder to successful player.
I do not think a pure 3rd party such as the Greens or Nader will make any kind of significant showing (Working Families Party in NY is a different case). I strongly believe that, if a viable 3rd party comes into being, it will have to include a major breakaway from the Democratic Party. This is an old argument. The subtext is that I’m a Democrat and I’ll stay a Democrat, but when there is some radical breakaway, I’ll be there, I promise, oh yes indeedy! Yet I believe it true on the face of it. The question is whether Democratic Independents (which is how I characterize myself) can do something to make that break rather than waiting around for it to happen someday, just like some radicals wait around for the general strike to happen someday.
Something has changed. Independents now exert a gravitational pull through their mass that makes such a breakaway viable. It wasn’t that long ago that independents were invisible. Polls listed Democrat and Republicans. Period. Independent votes were not reported, and in many cases not even counted. Well, for better or worse, Massachusetts independents were not invisible.
So let me speculate on a scenario that contains poetic truth if lacking Nostradamus-like precision.
2012 primary is the engine
I believe the driving engine for a 3rd party in the foreseeable future will be the 2012 primary challenge to Obama (I take its happening as a given). I won’t guess what the issues will be, probably the likely suspects (war, jobs, abortion, healthcare). But he will be the focus of national anger at the pagan spectacle in the Beltway.
There is also the possibility of some big name running as an independent, like Jane Hamsher (I don’t want to argue particulars here, but you get my drift). But the Democratic primaries will be where the action is. Candidate(s)? Maybe someone like Kucinich, Feingold (as examples, I’m not interested in guessing names right now)? It will be a “good liberal,” not a radical, advocating positions that are reasonable but declared “unrealistic.” (“You’ll throw the race to the Republicans, we can’t have that!”) The basis of the campaign will not be a sudden embrace of Bolshevism, but rather Obama’s embrace of Wall Street. It will be a mix of angry rank-and-file and disgruntled party machine.
The insurgent candidate will lose. The candidate will not call for a 3rd party, will support Obama after the primaries -- will make a concession speech that would shame the Moscow Show Trials. Many of her or his followers will follow suit. The candidate will not personally work to create an independent infrastructure within the Democratic Party. Obama will probably win, not because of his impressive performance but because the foaming-at-the-mouth Republicans will be splitting. After the election, the Democratic challenger will not lead a 3rd party.
But the challenge will have created an organized force and set it in motion, despite their worst intentions. The question is whether that force can be consolidated -- inside or outside -- after election day. Independent candidates have a gloomy history with this. Barry Commoner after the 1980 election wanted a lobby group he could sell to the Democrats (I was there). Ross Perot was hostile to building the Reform Party into a real party in 1996 even as it went through the motions (I was there). Lenora Fulani ended up as Bloomberg’s get-out-the-vote operation in the Black community in New York. Democratic primary presidential insurgents are usually brought back into the fold and given a job that is supposed to placate their followers, and I expect no change there.
The key is infrastructure
Central to the Full Court Press is building infrastructure. However, we have no pretensions to leading much of anything in a presidential primary, we are too small. That’s why we are focusing on congressional primaries only. But we do see ourselves as part of a broader movement. Our 5 points play a role in targeting politicians, of course, but they also play a role in defining ourselves. They can be put forward early in the primary process, maybe mid-2011, but I don’t think them ultimately viable at the presidential level for this round. We will get and support a good liberal (I speak only for myself here). If you feel indignant at such an admission, I only have one word to say to you: Obama Obama Obama.
As those who have followed my writing know, I have little patience for prolonged programmatic wrangling. If you want to play Spot-the-Trot or root out the Stalinist deviationists or further excoriate the renegade Kautsky, I say, get a room. But there has to be some defining unity other than candidate personality. Some way people can say, we fought not just for candidate Goodliberal, but for these principles, and whatever the party leadership does, we stand by those principles. (By the way, this is why I look askance at the “boots on the ground” argument that says, get out there, knock on doors, phone banks, do something, ANYTHING. Because in the absence of direction, it only feeds the machine.)
We have to be able to say, this is what an independent Democrat is. These lines will not be crossed.
As an aside, it would be important for independents to begin wrestling with what it means to be a mainstream independent (and when I say mainstream, I don’t mean moderate, you may have noticed the stream flowing a bit left). In Massachusetts, we have heard a lot of squabbling over what it all means, was it because voters moved left, because voters moved right, voters jumped up and down. Who the hell knows? We don’t have the level of organization among independents OR the rank-and-file Democrats to really know. That’s another thing infrastructure does, it gives you tools to make such analyses.
Then my crystal ball gets cloudy. What unity? Is there a way that independents can relate to this? Is there a protest vote to register AFTER the primary? Does something like the FCP principles -- too left for a presidential primary -- re-emerge as the basis for progressive Democrats and progressive independents to unite? Can independents build new infrastructure? Not necessarily on the existing independent parties, which I believe are organizationally calcified, but on a foundation of social motion? Will that social motion be there?
If we can build this, you will hear those principles and more in the next congressional elections and we will be strong in 2016. If we can’t, we’re fucked!
I don’t know where it’s all going. All I know is that it’s a whole new ballgame.