Third Party Time ... Out

The quadrennial debate begins.

Joel BleifussApril 29, 2015

Ralph Nader ran for president as a third-party candidate five times. (Truthout.org / Flickr)

Like clock­work, every four years some progres­sives begin hav­ing third par­ty dreams. And every four years, an In These Times edi­to­r­i­al address­es such quixot­ic pursuits.

Electoral politics is not a space in which we beautiful souls should vote our con­sciences–it is a cynical game played on a tilted table.

This May, var­i­ous Green and Social­ist par­ties, along with pub­li­ca­tions like Jacobin and orga­ni­za­tions like the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, will gath­er in Chica­go, heed­ing a call to build a left polit­i­cal alliance in op­position to the two-par­ty sys­tem of cor­po­rate-cap­i­tal­ist rule.”

Yes, cor­po­rate cap­i­tal­ism – a sys­tem in which multi­na­tion­als, cap­tained by plu­to­crats and endowed with the rights of flesh-and-blood peo­ple, rule a glob­al king­dom – is the bane of human­i­ty. In 1976, In These Times was found­ed (in part) to present demo­cratic alter­na­tives to such a régime.

And yes, we in the Unit­ed States – unlike cit­i­zens of coun­tries with pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion – are sub­ject to a two-par­ty sys­tem. We elect can­di­dates for nation­al office in first-past-the-post elec­tions in which the can­di­date with a plu­ral­i­ty of votes usu­al­ly wins. This sys­tem ensures the dom­i­nance of two par­ties, because even the most respectable show­ing for a third par­ty gen­er­al­ly trans­lates into zero leg­isla­tive seats – the most demor­al­iz­ing pos­si­ble outcome.

This unfor­tu­nate arrange­ment is embed­ded in the polit­i­cal struc­ture of this coun­try. Wish­ful think­ing can­not make it otherwise.

With­out being cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly opposed to any third par­ty activism, past experi­ence should leave us deeply skep­ti­cal of such efforts. Yes, local suc­cess sto­ries are inspir­ing, such as the elec­tion in 2013 of Kshama Sawant, a mem­ber of the Social­ist Alter­na­tive par­ty, to an at-large Seat­tle city coun­cil seat. Yet while many have tried, no nation­al third-par­ty ef­fort has bro­ken the dom­i­nance of our two-par­ty sys­tem since 1854. That year the Repub­li­can Par­ty was born – out of the dis­so­lu­tion of the Whig Par­ty over the issue of slavery.

As hap­pened in 1854, a realign­ment of America’s two-par­ty elec­toral sys­tem occurs when a new sec­ond par­ty emerges from the ash­es of the old. These days, that is most like­ly to occur with the frac­ture of the Demo­cratic Par­ty – a par­ty that is cur­rent­ly expe­ri­enc­ing an inter­nal crisis.“There is a bat­tle for the heart and soul of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty,” is how Stephanie Tay­lor, co-founder of the Progres­sive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, described it in an interview.

On one side are the neolib­er­al Dem­ocrats, like Hillary Clin­ton, who doesn’t bat an eye rak­ing in hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars speak­ing at Gold­man Sachs soirées. On the oth­er side are those in the demo­c­ra­t­ic wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, like Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren, who say things like,“To any­one who is lis­ten­ing at Citi[group]: I agree with you. Dodd-Frank isn’t per­fect. It should have bro­ken you into pieces.”

Warren’s polit­i­cal dis­course is more alarm­ing to Wall Street titans than the slo­gans of any third par­ty cam­paign­er. Elec­toral pol­i­tics is not a space in which we beau­ti­ful souls should vote our con­sciences – it is a cyn­i­cal game played on a tilt­ed table. The ques­tion is not, as the purist Left seems to insist, whether these politi­cians are suf­fi­cient­ly pro­gressive – they will sure­ly fall short at times. The crit­i­cal ques­tion is: Are elect­ed offi­cials like War­ren mobi­liz­ing real-world con­stituen­cies around the fault lines in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party?

The answer: Yes, they are.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

Blei­fuss has worked at In These Times for 34 years, includ­ing as man­ag­ing edi­tor and senior edi­tor. He tack­les the state of nation­al and inter­na­tion­al events with a blend of crit­i­cal insight and humor, and over the years has devel­oped a niche for inves­tiga­tive reporting.

His report­ing on envi­ron­men­tal health issues, nation­al secu­ri­ty scan­dals and the Iran Con­tra affair has land­ed in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines around the coun­try, includ­ing the New York Times, the Utne Read­er, the Cap­i­tal Eye and many others.

He is the co-author of the book Was The 2004 Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion Stolen?,” with Steven F. Freeman.

Before join­ing In These Times, Blei­fuss was direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri, a fea­tures writer for the Ful­ton Sun in Ful­ton, Mis­souri, and a free­lance jour­nal­ist in Spain.

Blei­fuss cur­rent­ly serves on the advi­so­ry board of The Pub­lic Square, a pro­gram of the Illi­nois Human­i­ties Council.

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