A Voices on the Square Exclusive
This essay is prompted by an exchange between two commentators at Agent Orange, aka "The Great Orange Satan", a part of the Democratic party establishment that emerged from the online activism of the Bush Years to play its current role as volunteer activist campaign recruitment site and protective buffer against more radical policy advocates infecting the activist base of the safe "Veal Pen" of co-opted, "moderate progressive" organizations.
This exchange occurred at the Agent Orange cross post of a Voices on the Square essay by Cassiodorus, This is a conservative country.. In that essay (which you should click through and read in full if you have not done so already), Cassiodorus argues:
Now, external repression is of course not the fault of the Left ... At any rate, self-repression seems to emanate from a quirk of America's electoral political culture -- voting for the "lesser of two evils." Voters decide, for a number of reasons, that they are to select Party A over Party B because Party A is the "lesser of two evils" -- even though they don't really agree with what Party A is doing.
Now, I think America could have a Left in both word and deed if its real leftists decided to form a political party of their own, or to take over an existing political party such as the Green Party. Yes, I'm aware of the objections commonly recited at DailyKos.com as regards "third parties," and I know that Kos doesn't want any third party endorsements on his blog. However, a popular leftist third party in the United States would solve the "selling out to the two-party system" problem from the leftist perspective.
Clearly Cassiodorus composed part of that text looking ahead to the Agent Orange cross-post of the essay, and it provoked one of the expected responses from a Kossack named sidnora:
If you really want to make change,
and let me start this comment by assuring you that I do, going third-party is a very difficult method of getting there. As long as we have our current system of first-past-the-post elections, the structure of the government pretty much precludes simultaneously having three (or more) parties with any power.
So if you're going that way, it's an all-or-nothing bet: either your third party will grow powerful enough to supplant one of the two existing parties (in this case, obviously, the Democratic Party), or it remains outside meaningful political discourse, except for the occasional local election, cross-endorsement of major party candidates and positions, or playing the spoiler.
At the end of the day, though, you're going to end up with two parties again, though hopefully ones that are more representative of the true ideological spectrum of the country. That's why I prefer to try to take over the existing structure.
... The structural drivers I referred to have obtained since the earliest days of the country, and there has only been one nationally successful insurgent party in all that time: the Republican Party. It's been over 150 years since the rise of the GOP, and every subsequent insurgent party that has made a dent in our national politics has been personality-driven, and hence doomed.
This is the claim that I am looking at today. It is, This is a part of institutional analyses, to look at the folkviews that rationalize the rules of behavior that make up the current established system of institutions that give form and structure to a society. The claim is, I believe, false as history, but informative in terms of how is serves as a protective legitimization of the current status quo political institutions.
Viewing History through the Lens of the 1950's
Let's take ourselves back to the 1950's. There are two dominant political parties. The Democratic Party is the natural majority party of government holding what appears to be a dominant position in the House of Representatives. The Republicans rail about the difficulty of "running against Santa Claus". After a failed effort to retake the White House on a "hoped for wave of slash the bureacracy" post-war reaction, the Republicans finally take the White House after two full decades of Democratic incumbency with a Republican who won more on his personal history, appeal and character than on his Republican policies.
The left of the Democratic Party are the New Dealers and Liberals, fighting over the FDR legacy and for the backing of organized labor (and remember that is a fight which it was the Liberals who ended up winning). On the right is the Dixiecrat alliance of racists and social conservatives, many of whom are Democrats because it is the Democratic primary in their district or state that determines who will win the general election, some of whom are Democrats in part because they also espouse an anti-big-business populism.
For a fairly large number of people, this is "the Democratic Party" they think of as the "real" Democratic Party. And that is not just folkviews of traditional Democratic Party supporters: that is the Democratic Party that a very large number of Republican folkviews act to demonize: the New Deal in Republican demonology was not the set of economic policies that built the Great American Middle Class, it is a system of taking from "us" and giving to "them". And of course the Republican decision to court the racist vote follows from the fact that the divide between Democratic racists and Democratic race liberals is the divide with the largest number of votes on either side. Once the Liberals won that fight against the forces of "obstruction, revision and nullification" in their own party in the coming decade, the departure of the forces of obstruction, revision and nullification bound to the Republicans seems inevitable.
And on the fringes, having little noticeable impact on the great questions of the day, are various third parties, including right wing parties of those unwilling to accept the uneasy accommodation of the Republican Party establishment to many of the New Deal institutions, left wing parties of those who viewed the Republicans as the tool of big business and the Democrats as the party where progress went to get killed by the Dixiecrats, and breakaway racist parties rebelling against the policy victories of the New Deal and Liberal forces in the Democratic Party such as integration of the Armed Forces ~ who in the longer view are just a transition phase as the great bulk of their number end up being wedged away from the Democrats to join the Republicans.
Looking backward from the political alignment of the 1950's, it is easy to count party strength in terms of partisan affiliation in the Senate and House of Representatives and in terms of electoral votes won in Presidential elections. And looking at history through that lens, you get this image of a mostly two-party country, with one great transition in 1850 from the Democrats and the Whigs to the Democrats and the Republicans.
But that is using a lens taken from the time that the post-war establishment is ascendant. The view changes if we swap out our lens for the time before the Great Realignment of the 1930's took place.
Viewing History through the Lens of the 1920's
The post-WWII period offers us a lens that relies on a period in which the most notable successes were mediated through the system in place. But that is not the lens we need, because that is not the kind of possibilities that we need to understand.
Rather, for anybody who views the minimum that we must do as beyond the maximum that is possible to accomplish within the present status quo, there is a pragmatic imperative for dramatic institutional reform. The 1950's lens supports consideration of how to follow-up on an original breakthrough ... when what we need is support in thinking about how to achieve that original breakthrough in the first place.
So lets step back a few decades. to just before the New Deal breakthrough was achieved. Let's go to the 1920's.
The Republicans are the natural party of government, including big corporate interests and an industrial development tradition that harkened to before the founding of the Republican party to the thinking of Alexander Hamilton. Standing against them was an array of opponents. The natural leader of the opposition was the Democrats, a shaky alliance of the Solid South and Northeastern Big City political machines. But the opposition also included a loose coalition of a variety of movements that had arisen in the jaded pragmatism of the torn up by the Civil War, looking to make a life for themselves and their children, tired of fighting over visions of shining cities on their bloodsoaked hills. The most notable victories of this collection of movements, commonly called Progressivism as a catch-all phrase, occurred outside of arena of Federal partisan politics, including both movements like the Suffragettes, advocating for their position among politicians of all political stripes, and strong state-based parties which both elected state representatives but also influenced the choice between the Democrats and Republicans by granting, withholding, or swinging their support based upon the platforms offered up by the two political parties.
And by the 1920's, the fight between Democrats and Republicans over the Progressive Vote reached a turning point.
One of the Progressive movements that had arisen in the late 1800's was the Teetotalers. And the Teetotalers were a substantial reason why the Democrats could not simply merge with the Progressives, because both the Southern Democratic Party establishments and the Big City Machines ensured that the Democratic Party was a wet party. This lay behind the disruptive tactic of fusion balloting, in which a Major Party candidate that a third party could support would be nominated by the third party as well, and appear on the ballot two or more times, as the nominee of two or more parties.
That allowed a Teetotaler who could never vote for a "wet" party candidate to still vote for that person, as the Progressive Party (or Populist Party, or Labor, or Granger Party) candidate. Meanwhile in the next district over, the Democratic candidate who did not appeal to Progressives failed to get the Progressive Party nomination, and if the Progressive Party was strong enough in that district, they ran their own candidate ~ who, of course, depending on the state, might also be nominated by a Populist or Labor or Granger party.
This means that the conventional partisan landscape of the late 1800's, as viewed through a 1950's lens, can be mighty deceptive. Hidden underneath the surface of mostly (R) and (D) state legislatures, with a small smattering of (Prog), (Pop), (Lab) and (G) representatives, depending on the state, is a collection of hybrid D/Prog, D/Pop, D/Lab and D/G legislators, and (R) legislators who won their contest by being appealing on enough third party issues to persuade enough of the third parties to run their own candidate rather than fusion ticket with the Democrats.
And while the Republicans made their political lives easier by outlawing fusion balloting in most states, that did not destroy the movements that had been established and continued campaigning and advocating for their issue of choice.
And it is with that understanding that we need to look at the various Progressive and Populist victories of the early 1900's. After decades of movement building, there was an established, sustained, structure in place for political activity outside of the (D) and (R) party establishments, and the major Progressive and Populist party victories, for both good and ill, can be understood in light of the competition for the support of the voters who found those Progressive, Populist, Labor and Granger movements appealing.
So we see the Suffragettes winning the right to vote through putting on enough pressure to get the Amendment through the Congress, and then again putting enough pressure in place, state by state, to get it ratified. The same thing with an elected Senate, which was surely in the interest of neither Republican nor Democratic party establishments, but which was an issue on which a Democratic or Republican politician could sway Progressively inclined voters. We see Teddy Roosevelt advancing the Square Deal and starting the process of passing anti-trust legislation as a strategy for wooing the Progressive vote for Republican candidates ... and then after the revolt within his own party, attempt to win the White House as a candidate on the Progressive ticket.
And it is with the most disastrous "success" among all of the Progressive cluster of movements that the stage was set for the Great Realignment of the 1930's. That was the passage of Prohibition. Before the passage of Prohibition, the horrors of drunkenness and intoxication and all the evils that went with it was compared to the imagined benefits of not having any of those social ills. After the passage of Prohibition, the ills of the abuse of alcohol came to be increasingly compared to the ills of lining the pockets of those willing to break the law to meet the demand for alcohol.
A decade of Prohibition broke down the alliance between the Teetotalers and the other Progressive movements, as the pragmatic response to the evils of Prohibition was to decriminalize the sale and possession of alcoholic beverages.
Add the election of a Progressive Republican candidate in the form of Hoover, who believed the neoclassical economics of his day which taught that excessive government intervention would backfire with severe negative consequences if tried in the face of the financial system crisis of 1929 and the banking system collapses of 1930, 1931, and 1932. The political ground was now laid for the right Democrat to pull Progressive, Populist, Labor and Granger forces into the Democratic Party and completely remake the Democratic Party coalition. The New Deal Democratic party still included the Dixiecrats, and still included the Big City Machine politicians, but with the addition of Progressive, Populist, Labor and Granger politicians and activists to the party, they no longer dominated it as they once had done.
Lessons from the 1920's Lens
sidnora laid out the lessons of viewing today's politics from a 1950's lens. Investment of time and effort into building up political structures outside of the two main parties is futile.
However, sidnora did not actually answer Cassiodorus' claim that putting time and effort into working within one of the Major Parties is futile.
That is to say, the fact that one strategy faces long odds against does not in fact imply that a second strategy faces an easy path. It is quite possible that it is futile to invest time and effort into either strategy. It might be a 1 in 100 odds against a third party strategy yielding success, but compared to 1 in 500 offs against working inside the Democratic Party yielding success.
The odds against success are long whenever success involves achieving fundamental institutional change, because social systems are built out of self-reproducing subsystems. That includes the fact that the successful people in control of substantial resources who gained that position within the current status quo always have a strong incentive to protect that status quo. But its also the simple fact that we are social animals, and we are inclined to see the patterns in everyday behavior, internalize them as rules of behavior, and create legitimizing folkviews that "explain" why those rules are right and proper. As with the "third parties never had any significant influence from the 1860's through today", these folkviews are quite often false as history, but they feel true against the reality of our everyday experience. They feel, in Stephen Colbert's brilliant satire, "truthy".
My principle argument, however, is that one of the strongest folkviews working to support the present thoroughly corrupt US political system is the folkview that working to build third party and other external political movements, systems and structures and working for reform within one of the political system are purely rival strategies in a zero-sum game.
However, change appears next to impossible either way, so that inspires the question of political terrain would make change appear easier to achieve. Our long term change strategy would then be to focus on building that political terrain.
A strong collection of third party movements, parties and structures clearly offers reformers within the Democratic Party additional leverage, in the opportunity for their candidates to appeal to political support that is out of reach of the candidates of the Hedge Fund wing of the Democratic Party.
At the same time, a strong reform wing within the Democratic Party makes it easier to provoke Congressional reaction against authoritarian over-reach of executive power by the White House, which is likely to remain in enemy hands irrespective of the partisan labeling of the incumbent. The stronger the reformist wing of the Democratic party, the harder to repress the ability of third party activists to build their movements, parties and institutional structures.
Which points to a parallel track strategy, in which individuals work toward the particular long-shot strategy that they can stick with despite the long odds, and do not invest any substantial time and effort in left wing internecine fights with those who are pursuing an alternate long-shot strategy.