Just about everyone agrees that there wasn't much to choose from
in the recent presidential election. The dim bulb who spent more
money than any candidate in history beat whom Chicago Tribune
columnist Steve Chapman called the "most annoying person on the
planet." But that doesn't mean nothing was at stake. A Republican
in the White House, especially with a Republican Congress, is bad
news for the well-being of the American people, as George W. Bush's
cabinet appointments and announced priorities make clear. Fortunately,
the amount of damage that this president can do is seriously compromised
by his loss to Al Gore in the popular vote, the close division between
the two parties in Congress, and the blatantly partisan 5-to-4 Supreme
Court decision that ended the Florida recounts.
If the Democrats learn the right lessons from this election, they
could win clear control of both the House and Senate in 2002. Doing
so would greatly enhance the influence of the Progressive and Black
caucuses in the House, the two most important left presences in
mainstream politics. A Gore presidency without a Democratic House
would not have done so. The left can play a key role in winning
back Congress, but doing so will require two things: a profound
rethinking of the fiasco brought about last November by Ralph Nader
and his supporters, and some courage by Democrats who shared Nader's
policy views but failed to push Gore to advocate more progressive
First, let's look at Nader's aborted effort to influence the national
policy debate: To
begin with, despite his obviously decisive 100,000 votes in Florida,
Nader didn't throw the election to Bush. He did attack Gore more consistently
and more vituperatively than he did Bush; and he kept repeating that
only Gore could defeat Gore. This was certainly true, but Nader betrayed
a little too much glee at the prospect. Nader's campaign did increase
popular interest in the presidential contest. As the only candidate
who talked meaningfully about many of the issues that the Democrats'
social base--labor and ethnic minorities--cares about, he energized
many voters. His attacks on the Republicrat policies of the Democratic
Leadership Council stirred hundreds of thousands of university students
with a new spirit of reform and brought many new voters to the polls.
And once these voters were paying attention, many of them saw what
was at stake and switched to Gore. In states other than Florida--Oregon,
Wisconsin and Michigan, for example--this may well have given Gore
his margin of victory.
The politics that works:
Chicago's Harold Washington.
Nader's effect on the left, however, is another story. Instead
of building a constituency for his ideas, as he claimed to be doing,
Nader divided an already existing one and did a terrible disservice
to progressives. Clearly, the constituency for Nader's ideas is
much greater than his following. For every person who cast a vote
for Nader, there were at least 10 who shared his views on many issues
but voted Democratic. By dividing these progressives, Nader also
diminished the left's influence in mainstream politics. He claimed
that he was running to build a major movement in the electoral arena.
Instead, the illusions he created by running on the line of a party
cobbled together for the purpose of his transitory individualistic
campaign succeeded only in leading his forces up a blind alley,
where they may be lost for some time to come.
The lesser problem here is the Green
Party itself. This is not really a national party. In one form
or another and in one state or another, Green parties have been
around for more than 30 years, but they have little to show for
it. In that time they have developed no coherent worldview, nor
have they enjoyed any consistent organizational or political growth.
Most of the party's few electoral victories have been in local nonpartisan
contests--where party labels don't appear on the ballot--in white,
middle-class, countercultural communities, mostly in New Mexico
or Northern California. Nader himself is not even a Green Party
member. His relationship with the Greens simply has been as a user
of their ballot status.
The more important issue, however, is the impact of episodic third-party
efforts on the ability of the left to come in from the cold. Starkly
put, third parties have been dead ends in the United States for
almost a century. As I have argued before, despite the appeal of
providing us with a political home of our own--and of making us
feel righteous--third parties are not only a waste of time, effort
and resources, but a formula for perpetual marginality.
There are two reasons for this. First, a left third party is doomed
to divide progressive social forces into hostile camps. In fact,
Nader's campaign has already done so. Many who fought with Nader
on the frontlines for the environment, consumer rights and other
liberal causes now say he betrayed them by not withdrawing from
the presidential race in time to save Gore's candidacy. In an interview
with The Associated Press, Rep.
John Conyers (D-Michigan), a stalwart congressional progressive
who worked for many years with Nader on labor and regulatory issues,
asked, "Who's going to work with him now?"
Second, even if this does not happen, such campaigns would be counterproductive
because our political system is structured in a way that guarantees
their frustration and failure. The history of third parties bears
this out. With the exception of the Republican Party and the old Socialist
Party, no third party has run more than two consecutive presidential
campaigns. And except for the Republicans and again the Socialists,
second third-party campaigns invariably have been weaker than first
Barry Commoner's Citizen's
The Republicans, of course, elected Abraham Lincoln and became
the second major party on their second try. The Republicans succeeded
because they came along at a time when the Whigs, one of the two
major parties of its day, was fatally divided over the question
of slavery's extension into the territories--an issue of vital national
concern that split the nation in the 1850s. Only in such circumstances
can a third party win national office.
The Socialists ran five campaigns between 1900 and 1920 and were
an important voice in American life until their breakup three years
after the Russian Revolution. The Socialists, however, survived
in a very different and more complex set of circumstances than we
have now. And even they, a party with a solid national organization,
more than 300 newspapers and magazines--including one with 750,000
subscribers--more than a hundred state legislators and thousands
of elected municipal officials, could elect only two members of
In the 20th century, a few prominent left-leaning politicians did
run as third party candidates for president, but they did so as
individuals and to make short-term points. Former President Theodore
Roosevelt ran as a Progressive in 1912 because President Taft had
deviated from Roosevelt's path, but his party quickly dissolved
after the election. Sen. Robert La Follette ran as a Progressive
in 1924, but he had no intention of starting a third party. Indeed,
he explicitly forbade his followers from running candidates for
any other offices, and after the election he returned to the Republican
Party. Similarly, former Vice President Henry A. Wallace ran on
a peace platform as a Progressive in 1948, but that campaign only
facilitated the further isolation of the left. And finally, in 1980,
environmentalist Barry Commoner led an attempt to start a Citizens
Party. Ignored by the media and the public, his effort fizzled.
The structure of our political system is the main reason for the
limitations of such efforts. In a parliamentary system where the
members of parliament select the prime minister as head of government--especially
in countries with proportional representation--electing minor party
legislators makes sense. Countries that have one or both of these
systems frequently elect minor party members to parliament. And
when they represent the balance of power between two major parties,
they participate in ruling coalitions. The Greens have done this
in Germany, as have the Communists in France. But in a system like
ours, where the president is elected separately by nationwide votes
and members of Congress are elected in single-member districts,
only two parties can survive.
It is true that in the late 19th century, when Democratic and Republican
party bosses simply locked out reformers, third parties were often
the only path open to working people's reform movements. But when
they had a measure of success, as the Populists did in the early
1890s, their demands were adopted by one of the major parties. Thus,
in 1896, the Populists merged with the Democrats in support of William
Jennings Bryan. But even this form of third party became unnecessary
when progressive reformers pushed through direct primary laws in
the early 1900s.
Since then our political parties have no longer been inaccessible
to the public. In fact, as quasi-state institutions they are no
longer political parties in the European parliamentary sense. The
Republican and Democratic parties are legally regulated structures
with fixed times and places where anyone can register. Open to all,
they have no ideological requirements for membership. To become
a Republican or Democrat, you just register as such. In fact, these
are not really parties at all, but coalitions of more or less compatible
social forces in which various groups contest for influence under
a common banner. Of course, it is still difficult for any individual
or group to succeed in this process without lots of money. But organized
groups with clear programmatic ideas and a long-term commitment
can become forces within either party.
The left seems unable to understand this, but the Christian right
had no such trouble in the 1980s. A small minority, they entered
the Republican Party as an organized force and backed compatible
candidates, or ran their own, for local, state and national office.
They knew what they wanted, organized to get it, and gained great
influence during the Reagan and (papa) Bush years.
Something similar occurred on the left inside the Democratic Party
in Chicago when Harold Washington was elected mayor. Washington,
a lifelong Democrat, always talked about Chicago's two parties--but
he didn't mean the Democrats and the Republicans. To him, it was
his party versus little Richie Daley's. Unfortunately, his movement
had barely begun to cohere when he died early in his second term.
Or consider Jesse Jackson: Acting largely as an individual, he
ran twice in the Democratic presidential primaries. He participated
in all the televised debates, consistently outshone his rivals and,
in 1988, got 7 million votes. This success won him a prime-time
speaking slot at that year's Democratic National Convention, where
he made the meeting's most enthusiastically received speech. As
a result, Jackson's ideas gained wide public exposure, and the African-American
community greatly enhanced its national political visibility.
Like Nader, Jackson started at the top and was pretty much a one-man
show. And like Nader, Jackson did not devote himself to building
a movement after the election. Even so, Jackson, Washington and
the Christian Coalition validate the principle of working within
the existing institutional parameters of the American political
system. These examples--rather than 11th-hour third-party campaigns
that end up as moralistic exercises in futility--point the way to
a strategy that might allow us to become a recognized force in the
nation's political life.
Now that Gore lost, the usual vultures are already plucking at
his carcass. Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council,
has led the way in calling for Democrats to move even closer to
the center. Instead of following Clinton's example of advocating
smaller government, From claims, Gore made a fatal error by running
a populist campaign. But From has it backward. Gore did best when
posed as an advocate of working people--as he did at the Democratic
Convention--and worst when he failed to follow through with anything
of substance on major issues like campaign finance reform, universal
health care, a higher minimum wage and government support of public
education at all academic levels.
So how could the left could play a significant role in fighting
for these and other causes within mainstream institutions? First,
the left needs to champion a set of principles that has all but
disappeared from mainstream public life. Today, all but a tiny number
of public figures, liberal as well as conservative, and all commercial
media share the implicit premise that the public good is best served
by protecting and enhancing corporate profit. This deification of
a mythical free market, even when unspoken, reigns supreme in policy-making
circles and is rarely, if ever, challenged in the public arena.
We must build a national movement that puts working people's needs
first, explicitly as well as implicitly. Emphasis on particular
issues may vary widely, but the positions we take should be based
on the universal social principle of putting human need above corporate
profitability. This principle should always be claimed as the distinguishing
line between progressive and conservative policy.
Second, because it is based on universalizing principle, building
such a movement requires a commitment to electoral activity year-in
and year-out. Single-issue or interest movements--unions, environmentalists,
civil rights, public health--can and do function effectively as
lobbyists within the corporate ideological framework, but only rarely
can such interest groups win and hold public office based on their
particular issues or interests. But to learn how to unite people
across lines of parochial interest, it is necessary to run for public
office. That is the only way to bring and hold together a unified
constituency committed to universal principles.
Third, success or the possibility of success in the near future
is essential. That requires the careful selection of an arena appropriate
to one's forces and goals. In national politics, it seems clear
that the place to start is not the presidential level, but at the
congressional district level. There are several reasons for this.
Presidential politics is dormant for three out of every four years.
Engaging in campaigns like Nader's entails a start-and-stop politics
that leads only to wasted effort and disappointment. Both Commoner
in 1980 and Nader last year insisted that they were starting long-term
movements, but both efforts collapsed almost immediately after the
Part of the problem with this style of politics interruptus is
that starting at the top requires a focus on a nationally recognized
leader--someone like Jackson or Nader. In contrast, winning a congressional
primary simply requires sustained organization, a clear program
and a locally attractive candidate. In many cases a congressional
primary is the real election, and winning one requires only half
as many votes as the general election--because only 20 to 25 percent
of the electorate bothers to vote in primaries. Thus a concentrated
effort by a group of dedicated people working at the grassroots
level--in the manner of the Christian Coalition--can win a major-party
nomination for Congress relatively easily. Two or three such victories
by a such a group within the Democratic Party would put us on the
national political map and inspire others to follow suit.
Such a progressive coalition could and should espouse many causes.
Consider a few examples:
Campaign finance reform:
True democracy requires equal access to the electoral process and
to information about the principles and programs of the candidates
running for office. Although the airwaves belong to the public,
they are controlled by profit-making corporations and therefore
only accessible to the wealthy. The idea that the American people
own the airwaves and should control their use is easy to grasp.
And the advantage to democracy of a system in which broadcasters
were required, as a condition of their licenses, to provide free
chunks of time to all qualified candidates is obvious. Providing
substantial blocks of time would not only level the playing field
of politics, but it would force candidates to explain themselves
to the voters in some depth. Instead of using the 30-second sound
bites that now dominate the airwaves and confuse potential voters,
candidates would be able to have serious discussions. Such a reform
would go a long way toward reducing the gap in political power between
the wealthy and working people.
Health care: We should espouse
the universal right to high quality health care through a system
focused on patients' needs and doctors' decisions rather than insurance
company profits. The least bureaucratic system that meets this requirement
is the single-payer plan that now enjoys strong popular support
in Canada. Under a single-payer system, the money would come from
the federal government and be administered by the states, which
would pay doctors on a case-by-case basis. Corporate middlemen would
no longer have to approve treatment and the enormous waste involved
in HMO and insurance company bureaucracies would be eliminated.
Drugs: The United States
now has the highest per capita prison population in the world, and
half of those in prison are there for drug-related crimes. This
has taken a brutally heavy toll on African-American and Hispanic
youth. Yet after decades of the war on drugs, drug use has not been
reduced significantly. Several recent state referenda designed to
loosen the laws against marijuana use indicate that the public is
ready for a campaign to decriminalize drugs and to treat addiction
as a medical problem.
Education: We should
demand that all primary and secondary schools provide full programs
of extracurricular activities, which have been shown to improve
academic performance. Investment in education for this purpose would
also require equal per capita funding, as well as more teachers
and smaller class sizes. Such a program should also include equal
access to colleges and universities. The way to end hostility over
affirmative action is to guarantee access to all who want a higher
education. That, too, will require increased federal funding for
state college and university systems.
The military: The military
budget should be cut to reflect the level needed to defend the nation
against external threat, rather than the demands of military contractors
and arms merchants and their servants in Congress. Given the incredibly
high level of corruption caused by lobbyists for the military-industrial
complex, nationalization of the arms industry should also be considered.
If the government removed the profit motive from arms manufacturing,
the corruption of Congress by money from the armaments industry
would also end and money for social programs would become available
without incurring large deficits.
Free trade: Trade
pacts should require both sides to guarantee workers rights and
to protect the environment. Opposition to Clinton-style globalization
has already created one of the major social movements of recent
decades and is a key concern of environmentalists, labor and other
key constituencies who put human need above the profit-driven priorities
of international capital.
There are many other issues that could be added based on this universal
principle of putting human needs above corporate profits. These
include increased progressivity in the tax code, a substantial increase
in the minimum wage, and strengthening the right to organize unions.
But this is a start on what progressives might think about this
year and prepare to campaign on next year.
We will need to flesh out these ideas and translate them into specific
legislative proposals, but meanwhile we should be looking for six
or seven House seats in swing districts or districts with a conservative
Democrat who should be challenged in the primaries. Let's pick out
some districts and find a local trade unionist, public health care
leader, environmentalist or educator who has a following and take
the plunge. If we do this, we might be well on the road to creating
a meaningful left in our political culture.