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3rd party musings -- a whole new ballgame

jeffroby's picture

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.

No votes yet


Submitted by hipparchia on

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!

that pretty much describes me. florida has closed primaries, and almost all of the races i vote in have only democrats and republicans to choose from, so registering as an independent or third party voter gets me... not much, in the election booth at primary time. so, being stuck with the democrats basically, i'm all for pushing/pulling them to the left.

i am a rabid enough feminist that i'd ditch that tiny voting advantage and join a third party that truly makes women's rights either a central part of their reason for being or their only reason for being [and i prefer the latter]. if the justice party even looks like it might get off the ground, i'll register as one of them.

as you say, independents are not a monolithic lot, and one of the things i like about this is that some critical mass of true independents [belonging to no party] in office might be the quickest and easiest way to dilute the stranglehold that the two legacy parties have on us now. even if there were only one or two more bernie sanders clones in the senate, i'd be thrilled.

Submitted by Lex on

Closed primaries make absolutely no sense to me, and they should be against federal law. You're trapped in a system where public funds pay for a private organizations (unless Florida makes the parties pick up the entire tab for holding primary elections, which i doubt).

But what a great deal for the legacy parties: being able to functionally control the system of elections without paying for it.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on


In the Beltway view of the world, the only reason someone would be an Independent or an Independent Democrat would be that s/he is on the fence between donkey and elephant.

Legitimizing the idea that many Democrats feel the party is too conservative for them is essential. There are such convenient and familiar narratives to explain away a few fringe weirdos (C'mon, who's so left-wing that the Marxist-Muslim president doesn't satisfy their extremist-whacko agendas? Haven't these people ever heard of Ralph Nader?)

All roads seem to lead to the Dems getting more and more conservative in response to any stimulus, including a primary or third-party challenge from the left.

At one level, that's a plus for a third party, the further dissing of real lefties by the Dems, but only if the third party isn't shy about positioning itself clearly to the left of the Democrats and only if people grow convinced to ignore all the mainstream rattling on about the virtues of moderation and the freakiness of lefty "splitters" (i.e., the common perception of parties like the Greens).

Tony Wikrent's picture
Submitted by Tony Wikrent on

Please let me propose an alternative course of action. It seems to me that where most of us are dismayed with the existing Democratic Party is when we find that it is largely beholden to the same corporate interests as the Republican Party. This is largely the result of an entire range of U.S. elites accepting the tenets of economic “neo-liberalism,” such as free trade, efficient market theory, and free markets being better at allocating resources than the public expressing its will through the government.

One of the things I learned in becoming involved in local Democratic organizations these past three election cycles, is that they function mostly as social clubs, with little or no actual consideration and discussion of national issues. In fact, I found that there is, let us say, impatience, with any attempt to bring up discussion of economics issues.

So, I am thinking what is needed is an organization to transform the Democratic Party from the inside, focusing mostly on economic issues. Its role would be similar to that of the Club for Growth in the Republican Party. There simply are some economic policies that should be entirely unacceptable to a progressive. One of these is free trade. Another is the regulatory and cognitive capture of government regulators by the financial markets. Another is the refusal to severely tax externalities such as carbon emissions (meaning an opposition to cap and trade). Another is a tax regime that rewards unearned income much more than wage income.

These are all rather complex economic issues, but if the members of local Democratic organizations were taught these issues, it would transform the Party. So, we need to develop something like a speakers bureau – like the progressive and populist movements did. That’s how they achieve direct election of U.S. Senators, for example.

The first goal is to get one or two hundred people around the United States trained to give a public presentation on what our platform is (uh, once we decide on our platform). This cadre would then be available to address the local Democratic organizations in their state or region. The next goal then is to get at least one member of local Democratic organization committed to pushing our platform through the local organizations, to the state level. In my area, for example, this means participating in the county Democratic Party convention which selects delegates to the state convention. This whole process will probably have to be repeated through three or four or even more election cycles until we reach a point where we can deliberately and credibly destroy any candidate for national office who does not agree with our platform.

Here’s a few of the platform items I can think of right now:

A Constitutional Amendment defining corporations as being subservient to human beings, and not having the same rights. Perhaps also mandating that all corporate charters must bne reviewed and renewed every 25 years or some other period of time.

The re-adoption of protectionist policies. As was argued in the 1800s, the ability to import is based on the ability to pay. And the ability to pay is based on the earning power of the population, Forcing the population to compete against the workforces of countries with no or substandard safeguards for the environment, workplace, and consumer, is not only unfair, but stupid.

Re-imposition of regulatory prohibitions on the con-joining of investment banking and commercial banking.

Complete prohibition of any financial instruments that do not contemplate and assist in the actual creation of new productive potential.

Aggressive enforcement of anti-trust laws.

Urban rail mass transit systems approaching the same density of service as New York City, to be built in the 40 or 50 largest urban centers of America.

National electricity demand met by 75% renewable energy by 2030, and 100% by 2040.

A national network of high speed passenger rail of at least 8,000 miles (or whatever number) built on dedicated track (i.e., not shared with freight rail) by 2035.

A manned Mars landing, with international cooperation, by 2025. This is to replicate the “science driver” aspects of the Apollo moon landing, the 1960s spinoffs of which are the actual foundation of almost all the electronic and medical technology we use today.

Working down of the entire $2.1 trillion backlog of infrastructure maintenance identified by the American Society of Civil Engineers within the next five years.

Nationalization of the Federal Reserve System as part of a restoration of sovereignty over the national currency.

International negotiations of replacements of the GATT and World Trade Organization. Economic growth is to be based on national development, not on export capacity.

International negotiations of a new regime of managed exchange rates, and the elimination of cross-border capital flows generated by currency speculation.

Federal financing of national campaigns for Congress and President, with provisions made for financing of third parties to break the two-party strangle-hold. (I.e, the funding legislation must work in such a way that we get more Bernie Sanders. Perhaps some petitioning requirement, like 10,000 signatures in a Congressional district gets equal funding with Democratic and Republican candidates).

Of course, feel free to add some platform items.

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

My local party isn't a social club -- it's a marketing division for whatever candidate wants to run as a Democrat (except in Congressional and Senate races, where it throws its money and official support behind the candidates recruited by the DNC). The point is to elect people who run as Democrats. Period. It doesn't matter what they believe, how they would vote, or anything else beyond their willingness to call themselves Democrats. This started in the early 80s and has accelerated since. There are enough people who believe that you shouldn't discuss issues, because people disagree on issues and you want everyone to agree to allow this to continue.

One of the first ploys was to run meetings so that resolutions are not considered (we always run out of time). When issues-oriented people began calling for all resolutions to be adopted in one quick vote, the ploy changed to having a resolutions committee that gutted the resolutions from the precincts in the name of clarifying them. For example, the health care resolution that called for single payer (HR676 to be precise) became a resolution for "affordable healthcare" (no more precision); later complaints to the county chair produced the explanation that the resolutions committee thought there were problems with HR676.

A number of corporate policy/economic resolutions were gutted in the same way, reduced from calls for specific reforms to general platitudes, which were supposedly designed to strengthen the resolutions by making them something everybody could support.

The issue is whether, as you suggest, the Democratic Party can be transformed from within, or whether it functions as the branch of the Money Party that siphons off and dissipates reform efforts. I've spent a lot of time and effort trying to get a push for better policies through the Democratic Party and at this point, I've lost the faith that it can be done.

john.halle's picture
Submitted by john.halle on

It's been my experience that those who are most committed to the strategy of "reforming" the DP from within are proposing this on purely theoretical grounds, which is to say that they've never actually tried to do it.

If they did they would encounter the kinds of obstacles nihil obstet very cogently describes here and many others as well.

It is also worth remembering Vast Left's analogy: The DP Roach Motel contains both the bait which attracts the pest and the poison.

In this case what functions as the bait is the illusion that the DP is, in fact, reformable-an illusion which liberal Dems such as Kucinich, Feingold et. al. play their role in cultivating.

Thus, many leftists go in to the hotel. But they don't come out.

jeffroby's picture
Submitted by jeffroby on


So personally, not to quibble too much, I prefer the comparison with the La Brea tar pits. The cries of a dying sloth bring hungry wolves and sabertooths, who get caught in the tar, and then come the vultures, who get caught, and so on.

DSA, Democratic Socialists of America. They set out to take over the Democratic Party from within. With this a priori commitment, they swore the oath. But where they ended up, beyond pushing their futile resolutions, was the organization most committed to dragging other leftists and progressives into the pits with them.

And worse, having created this cozy niche for themselves, they took on the task of attacking other progressives who challenged the party from the left in coalition after coalition. (See San Francisco rent control, 1979.)

The strategy is not innocuous.

jeffroby's picture
Submitted by jeffroby on

Your experience is standard.

By going into the congressional primaries, the Full Court Press seeks to build an alliance with the voters, not the party regulars. By hopefully going into 435 primaries in 2012, it shakes the party by the sheer number of challenges, no matter how small each one is. It lets them know that there are "crazies" who don't play by their unwritten rules of proper lady-and-gentleman-hood.

I think it will exert some pressure, but the real point is to build infrastructure.

At a higher level, as I argue above, building an alliance between party progressives and progressive independents does not require winning a majority of anything WITHIN the Democratic Party. The question to be determined is, how is that alliance concretized?

jeffroby's picture
Submitted by jeffroby on

What you propose is fine, but I think your expectations are frankly naive. What reformers face is not just a struggle for ideas, but a power struggle (as noted by some of the commenters below), and the hacks hold the high ground. They have the money, and in the short term, they can deliver more "goods and services" than the reformers.

To be able to initiate what you suggest, you first have to swear fealty to the party. I assume you would want more than programmatic unity around your principles. You would want Dem candidates to run on those principles. Then you go up against the argument of whether your principles are a boon or liability to winning any given race. Once you're engaged in that argument, they've got you.

Look at how they still howl about the McGovern race of 1972. Too radical, cost them the presidency. Too radical, hell. The party machine sandbagged him and threw the race to Nixon because control of the party was more important to them than control of the White House. IF you make inroads, you will be marching over scorched earth.

The Full Court Press swears no such oath. We wants what we wants and that's all that we wants. I could argue for this on practical grounds, but frankly, I don't give a damn.

The first goal is to get one or two hundred people around the United States trained to give a public presentation on what our platform is (uh, once we decide on our platform).

As I said, your plan is fine as long as it is not proposed as an alternative. To the extent it wins people over to progressive ideas, the better. But I pose to you what I pose to just about everyone who has good ideas. How are you going to get from here to there?

Are you hoping that someone reads your comment, and decides to pull together 200 people?

What process do you have in mind for formulating your platform? You say, "feel free to add some platform items." People will. Leftists love nothing more than working on platform, and working on platform, and working on platform. Hell, you could take the Democratic Party platform as it now is, and you could improve things if you'd just get the party to run on it. But they don't. It's the raw meat they throw to progressives while going about business-as-usual.

I'm not asking these questions as a put-down. You have good ideas. But people need to get better at making them work.

If I were to offer advice, it would be for you to prepare "to give a public presentation on what [y]our platform," and then find a venue where you can do it. And as you win people over, they become part of your speakers bureau. What you suggest takes a high level of commitment and it won't be easy. But setting up 200 people and a platform as a PRECONDITION for your campaign guarantees paralysis.

You have to be the one to get it off the dime.

Submitted by lambert on

You'll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn

* * *

In other words, there's no need for a single tactical doctrine. What I would like to see are common principles, with a range of policies. I think Violet's got the best principles; I think that Full Court Press has the best take on policies (considered rhetorically and tactically); and I think this speaker's bureau concept is a tremendous addition, since it gives the outsiders a way to speak to all.

Both/and, not either/or.